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An authentic cinematic voice of Tibet, the writer, translator, producer and director Pema Tseden passed away suddenly on May 8, aged 53. He’d made eight feature films since 2003, including Tharlo (2015) and Jinpa (2018), the latter a dreamlike and spiritual story that won an award in Venice, and he was in the middle of post-production on his new film Singpangtra.
Throughout his work, in written and filmed form, Pema Tseden always highlighted and questioned contemporary Tibetan culture in China, often – and sometimes even violently – in conflict with the central government, particularly when he was arrested in 2016.
His oeuvre gained attention in the West in 2009, in the context of the main competition in Locarno, where we screened his second feature The Search: a fascinating tale of a director in search of the ideal actors to embody the characters of a Tibetan opera. Said opera sets the stage for contrast, between a modern vision of cinema and tradition, that serves as a throughline for all of Pema Tseden’s works.
We selected his film after discovering it in Beijing, where we had met in secret. To protect his identity, all interactions used his Chinese name, Wanma Caidan. Only after arriving in Locarno was he finally allowed to use his Tibetan name.
Our most sincere condolences to his family and friends.