In and Out Front of You: An Interview with Tenzin Phuntsog

by A.E. Hunt

Whether I have the license to engage with the Philippines—where generations of my family, but not I, are from—once felt entirely dependent on how successfully I proved to myself that I was worthy of it. After fulfilling some self-imposed condition, it was I who would grant myself a license and define the extent of its jurisdiction. I mistook an increased national knowledge for an increased blood quantum, a measure, in authentic ounces, of how good my reason was to be there.

I reflected on my evolving relationship with my family’s place of origin while experiencing the work of artist Tenzin Phuntsog, which reflects over decades his connection with his own. But he contends with barriers both mental and physical to his homeland, Tibet. When he arrived there to shoot his 2010 feature film Four Rivers, he was denied entry at the border. This fissure yawned a decade later with the WeChat ban, one of the only streams of communication between his family in the US and Tibet, and one of the only ways to still see the landscape, the fauna, and the people from outside the country, albeit limited by surveilled digital text, sound, and image. For his exhibit at the Berlinale Forum Expanded, he has placed some of his family’s WeChat videos into screens inside of brass, jade, and wooden prayer boxes, inspired by gau, essentially portable altars. Dancing Boy comprises clips of a young Tibetan boy jamming out without reserve, Achala is his aunt’s one-take video message to his mother, and Summer Grass is a series of clips from the point of view of a yak herder, featuring a GIF of a blue Buddha. The lids of each prayer box provide a window, or are variably translucent, so that you can preview the video stowed inside from the outside, and above. Coupled with the prayer boxes are the video-looped two-channel 35mm works Pala Amala, and its single-channel sibling Dreams, both starring his parents. Missing from the Forum Expanded is Pure Land, a 15-minute film shot on 35mm that employs elements of the other pieces, and was exhibited alongside them at Microscope Gallery in March 2022.

This new work marks Phuntsog’s shift away from looking far off into Tibet, as he does in his early films Four Rivers, Film Poem I and II, and Rituals of Resistance, to finally considering what has always surrounded him: his parents, their California home, and the beach beside it in Pala Amala, and his family’s shared mattress, as recreated in Dreams. These works are also the first not to contain voice-over narration by Phuntsog himself. There’s a sense that, in finally admitting his immediate surroundings, he no longer wants to explain his and his family’s place in the Tibetan diaspora, but capture it as it is, which innately says something about what it once was and will be. 

As Phuntsog racks his focus inward after a decade, I am just starting to look out.

Pala Amala, Dreams, and the video boxes Achala, Dancing Boy, and Summer Grass are showing at the Berlinale Forum Expanded exhibit at Silent Green until March 5th.

Pure Land (Courtesy of Tenzin Phuntsog and Microscope Gallery, New York)

A.E. Hunt: Pure Land, which is the overarching project of the pieces showing at the Forum Expanded, is the only film I can think of that evokes the feeling of how incapable cameras are of capturing mountainous landscapes. You do that by first showing such landscapes on 35mm, then cutting to the small, digital, DSLR photos that reduce so much of the impact the landscape had on film.

Tenzin Phuntsog: You can say it’s a film about photography or the act of looking. The thread between all (or a lot of) the works is me trying to figure out my relationship to the landscape. I’m still working it out.

I’m trying to see what it looks like to have a Tibetan body in the mountains. What is driving me to ask that question? I realized through a lot of reflection that I have always had this desire instilled in me by my mother to be in Tibet, in that landscape. My mother was born in Tibet, she was a nomad, and she lived on the plateau. She had stories that she told me as a child—very moldable and impressionable—so I dreamed of being there. Growing up, there were different moments when I felt closer to and further from that landscape. Sometimes things would happen that would make me feel hopeful that I may return.

But as I grew up and grew older, that feeling became more discouraging and it started to feel hopeless that I would ever get to go back, because I tried to in 2009 when I tried to make Four Rivers. I was making a film about Tibetan landscapes, the origin of the four rivers of Tibet, and [my attempt] to get in. That was the first work I made that really triggered those emotions. I went to great lengths to try to get in, and when I was denied entry, it broke me, and I feel that I went through that alone. I went through it with my family, but I went through it alone as an artist. The one thing I admire about other Asian art scenes or art movements is that there has been a lot of art to look up to.

Like you, as an artist of Filipino origins, you can look up to Rox [Lee], and you can go back and see these points of reference. Growing up, I soon realized how much I didn’t have that. I really had to invent the world around me, do all the research and the reading, in trying to understand these feelings that—yes, are relatable to people—but are very specific to Tibet and my own background. It was the main question burning in me, and that really frustrated me as a young artist. Imagine going to grad school at 25 or 26 and I’m supposed to have some kind of answer at that age. Those lived experiences, even the failures, are the things you learn from. But if you don’t learn from them they can swallow you up and destroy you. 

So to get to Pure Land took a long time. I almost worked backward. From being denied at the border, to working in exile, it took me a while just to see what was in front of me, and that’s the hardest thing sometimes. How do you relay those emotions and thoughts in a way that other people can feel? I got tired of explaining. The reason I like my new body of work is that there’s almost no dialogue. You’re getting it without my having to say anything. 

What I tried to do with Pure Land was to make [what makes me] the most uncomfortable or insecure. People have all these ideas about Tibetans. If someone asks me where I’m from and I say, “San Francisco”, [they’ll say], “No, no where are you really from?” Okay, I guess I can say my parents were born in Tibet and I was born in India. But if it’s not a clear-cut story, people don’t get it. Or sometimes I just get lazy and say I’m Tibetan or Tibetan-American, and they’ll say, “Did you just come from Tibet?” 

I’m just trying to be me and say “this is what I go through” without needing to explain myself. And yes, there can be a Tibetan guy in Montana taking photographs and it can just be that.

After looking at her son’s landscape photos in Pure Land, your mother says that more than the place itself, what she misses are the people—her family. The prayer box videos evoke the inability to capture landscapes, or the inability to really feel present in that landscape from just a picture, but what were you thinking about in terms of digitally capturing your family?

I knew from many conversations with my mother that she missed the homeland, but I was surprised because she added that line, “I miss my family and my sisters even more.” The point I’m trying to make is that, depending on the day, you could miss the landscape more, and then the other day you miss your sister or your family. The reason why I love that line is that it’s not just me, my mother’s voice is in there too. 

In the video boxes, and even [in] Pure Land, Dreams, and Pala Amala, there are different degrees of distance being negotiated. Sometimes that happens photographically. If I place a body in a frame that resembles a Tibetan landscape, does that make the Tibetan body closer to Tibet or does it make it further? Some people have said, without knowing or reading about [Pure Land], “I thought you filmed this in Tibet!” 

That video made us feel closer to Tibet because my mother’s sister sent us home videos of everyday life. At the same time, when the WeChat ban happened, that window closed, and in a way [we felt] even further. It’s highs and lows. So there are multiple degrees of landscape and family running through the works.

Pure Land (Courtesy of Tenzin Phuntsog and Microscope Gallery, New York)

Did including your parents in the creative process provoke any change or catharsis that may not have occurred otherwise?

I think our relationship goes much deeper than one project or one film. It’s feelings that we have intimately explored as a family our entire lives. Wherever we moved—whether it was from India to the US, or for my parents, from Tibet to India, and then different parts of the US—we were often the only Tibetan family. Everything we’ve felt and gone through, we felt like we went through by ourselves. So it’s been a lifelong journey; we’re very close.

But of course, there were moments in the last decade when in my relationship with them, I had to put [in] more effort, because I was also very angry, frustrated, and lost in trying to figure things out on my own. I might have taken that out on my parents sometimes, so I think the work is more a reflection of where we are [now].

The Native American funeral inside of a teepee, inside of a hockey rink of a high school gymnasium, where a sign reads “Home of the Indians,” seems connected to the last line of the film, spoken by your mother—“It seems our lives will end here.” That line made me feel a certain way.

What way did it make you feel?

I know so many people who are living in places they don’t want to be, who actively talk about wanting to be somewhere else but are, for whatever reason or reality, conceding to living in the place that they are.

I think the power of that line comes from being a person, in this case my mother, who has lived so long in this uncertainty or precarity of “will i ever see my family again?” or “will I ever come home?” At some point you learn how to live by accepting the things you can control, and letting go of the things you can’t control. It’s not an acceptance of defeat or giving up. It’s not like running away. It’s preparing yourself for the truth. When you live with the truth, even when it’s hard, I think that’s better than pretending, or living under a false pretense. Full circle to what you’re saying—these people who don’t want to be here, it’s like they’re living a fake life.

Another word that comes to mind, and it’s so soul-searchy—it’s such a big word—is “presence”. Presence means you’re aware of your situation. There are certain truths that you have to learn to accept, and I think that shows where my mother is. Now that I’m speaking it, I think that might be another line that she added.

I first wrote Pure Land based on conversations that I’d had with my mother. And when she came back to [the script] she said, “I can’t say those things!” because her emotions had changed. Your feelings can evolve, you don’t have to be stuck in a rut. Maybe tomorrow her feelings will be different. 

One day she revealed that she had been talking with her sister in Tibet. We had not known this. She was essentially protecting her and keeping it private. When I saw what was sent [between them] I was really moved. In one of the prayer boxes called Achala, [the sister] says to specifically send photos or images. They understood it was the only safe way they could communicate because those lines are monitored. 

I wanted to find a way to make [the videos] safe, [inside of] something physical and sculptural. Everything made me think of these prayer boxes, gau, essentially a portable altar, like a cabinet, box, or amulet that you can carry around with you that contains a sacred image. You place that sacred image in front of you so that you can do your prayers when you’re not at home. Altars are a very important part of a Tibetan home. It’s where you get to continue that spiritual practice that you’ve established, and the only way to do that is with these portable prayer boxes called gau. 

The screen size is not the same size as a phone. It’s not as tall and it’s a bit more photographic. I didn’t like the extra long look of the iPhone and I wanted it to be closer to a photographic ratio. So I had to find all these different, sometimes custom, parts and get a fabricator to shave the metal brass inside for the electronics to fit. We actually milled a hole out of the back of the boxes so that there’s a power cable coming out. I really wanted this object to function as a modern gau box. Someone could take this box out in front of them, power it up with a USB battery, and use it as their portable altar. And that is essentially how it runs! So it actually works, it’s not just a concept.

Summer Grass at the Forum Expanded (Photo by Corinna Mehl)

Can you talk about Summer Grass, which stands out from the other prayer box videos?

Is sending a video of yaks grazing radical? In light of what I know about how difficult it is for information to come in and out of Tibet, the communication lines are not possible right now. So because of how rare and precious that was, perhaps it is radical to show these little clips, because they say “I’m alive; despite all these things, I am still a human being.”

We’re so devoid of information from Tibetans inside and outside of Tibet that it’s like tasting the nectar of some precious fruit from the gods. It wasn’t one long clip, there were multiple messages over the course of one summer to fall. The yak herder was sending clips whenever he could, so I compiled them together and called that Summer Grass. What I love about that little piece is that you can sense his pride in describing what he does. He’s sharing something very near and dear to him, almost like his trade secret. I think it gives you a sense of intimacy, how much he’s trying to connect with my mother despite her not seeing them for decades. I decided to throw in that little animated blue Buddha at the end—which is a Medicine Buddha—because that piece is a stream of messages, whereas the others are one direct message or a series of clips of one specific time. Dancing Boy is maybe two to three clips but all taken within five minutes, whereas Summer Grass was sent over the course of weeks. 

The clip of the blue Buddha is one of many different animated GIFs that were sent between relatives. This is not something unique to Tibetans inside of Tibet, but to Tibetans in exile and in general. They love sending these videos of Buddhas. Oftentimes they have soundtracks of mantras and prayers. You know how on Youtube, you can find a song that some guy uploaded for ten hours [on repeat]? It’s basically that; someone will make this blue Buddha animation [loop] for an hour, so people can have that animated mantra. Tibetans send these little prayers back and forth; especially during the pandemic, there were very specific animations of deities that Tibetans felt protected them.

They’re all very fun and rewatchable, in the way of the best viral videos. 

There were more clips that we had but that’s what I left it with. Some were so abstract and short, but these stood on their own. There are other clips with people’s faces, so I didn’t want to use them, out of respect and protection of their identities. That’s another reason I like yaks grazing—you don’t see the guy’s face. You’re just in the POV of the back of a yak. (laughs)

For a moment, through the immediate access of those clips, I felt I got closer to Tibet, but at the same time they actually made me feel further away. Those images are right in front of you and it can feel so close, yet so far. It’s like a temporary closeness, a temporary joy. 

Pala Amala (Courtesy of Tenzin Phuntsog and Microscope Gallery, New York)

Is that fluctuation of distance reflected in the constant push and pulling of the camera on a dolly in Pala Amala?

That’s the beautiful thing about fine artwork: not only do they stand alone, but sometimes when you have them hung up in a space they’re in dialogue with each other. The videos of my mother sending videos back and forth between her sister, that happened before I made Pala Amala. But the making of Pala Amala took maybe three to four years because we were having many difficult discussions about our family’s history. 

I needed to work out feelings of displacement. I was looking for a way of getting this feeling off my back because it was crushing me. If you look at Four Rivers up until this piece, I’ve essentially been trying to solve this riddle—what is my image if the images that I’m trying to make are synonymous with those that I can’t reach? 

In 2010 or 2011 with Four Rivers, I was going halfway around the world to a place I’ve never been to or seen. In 2020 or 2021, I shot Pala Amala right where we lived. It took me 10 years to work out how I could work without those limitations. My goal with making Pala Amala was not only to make art, but a creative practice that I could tap into, free from those limitations, grounded in something that no one could take away from me or say, “Hey, you can’t enter this place, so you can’t enter this film.”

I didn’t have any grant, any institution, or report. When I think about it now, no one would have funded that piece. What would the proposal be? “I’m making a portrait of my parents who are Tibetans and we’re talking about things that are super personal to us.” It doesn’t have any social justice issues, it doesn’t talk about climate change, it doesn’t touch on the hot topics, but I’m so glad I did it because I think people are moved. 

There were things I was seeing that I didn’t fully grasp the gravity of, for example, the image of my parents along the ocean. What’s baked into the image, which is the power of photography, is a truth [from which] you cannot escape. The truth this image touches on is the fact that these Tibetan bodies are no longer in mountains, where they have inhabited since the dawn of time; we are landlocked in a high plateau of mountains. They had never seen an ocean before, [yet] now there’s an image. So in a strange way, the image of my parents on the beach becomes a historical artifact. 

In contrast to Pala Amala being shot in your family’s home, Dreams is shot in a nondescript studio space, albeit using your family’s old mattress as a prop. 

I focused on recreating the mattress that we all slept on when we first came to the United States. That was my fondest memory as a child, so I was excited to recreate it. There’s a fondness and nostalgia, but when I look back at it now there’s a bit of melancholy. At the time we were all bright-eyed, but now I can see the precarity and uncertainty of our lives at that point. It could have gone so many different ways because all we had was that mattress and that blanket. We were living in subsidized graduate housing because my father was a Ph.D. student. There was a precarity to the fact that we could be anywhere.

Dreams (Courtesy of Tenzin Phuntsog and Microscope Gallery, New York)

Have you ever felt an external, material pressure to make personal work?

It’s almost like you’re asking what motivates me, because when I made those works there was no external validation. There was no waiting, there was no grant. I don’t think it’s healthy to work in a way that’s conditional.

That’s one thing I learned through rejection—you can’t wait on anyone’s permission. What I found when I made this work that had no grant, institution, or distributor attached to it is that the process was pure, I stayed excited, and my desire was never tarnished. Even now as I apply for grants and have received some funding for future projects, it feels strange to go back to writing a proposal. You’re constantly trying to spin your work to meet these mission statements, and you spend so much energy [doing so] that you almost fall in and out of love with your project. I don’t want to use the word “contaminates”, but it does have ripple effects on your psyche. 

The process of how this work originated and came to be is something that I enjoy. I can’t tell you how much happiness I get in the process of making, even though it’s hard. I don’t know how it is to make a big-budget Hollywood movie with lots of executive producers and people waiting to sign off and getting funders’ permission, but I would imagine it’s difficult. Working at a scale where I’m doing 95% of the work, I wouldn’t want to give up my freedom.

I’ve been thinking about whether we can really elude any influence of the source of capital backing our creative work. It is interesting to hear you say that even the application process may affect the work.

The thing about the application process is that you have no control over who even looks at these things. For example, it feels a little unholy to take something that’s sacred to you and to try to spin it up into something that sells you in fifty words. Art does get bought and sold, but I don’t think artists are salesmen. At least I’m not.

In The Accidental Outside, Genevieve Yue talks about how films today are rarely political about or take a stance against the organizations from which they come.

I could talk about that for hours. I’m at a big film festival, but the context of Forum Expanded, in this particular show, is art and exhibition. My works are in a gallery space for thirty days, so it’s not the typical screening format. And I like that. 

Dreams at the Forum Expanded (Photo by Corinna Mehl)

I don’t think of Pure Land, the one narrative film I made, as an experimental film. To me, it’s both an art project and a film. Film festivals always try to categorize you. “This film uses cinematic language in a way that is boundary-pushing, therefore it’s experimental or new.” No—cinema should always be boundary-pushing. Just because it doesn’t look like a rom-com or something you’ve seen before doesn’t mean it’s not a film. 

Is there anything else on your mind that you have not gotten to say yet?

When I first came to the US, I stopped speaking altogether for like half a year. You don’t want to use your mother tongue because no one’s using it—they’re all speaking English. Even the [school] counselor told my parents to just speak English at home. So in a strange way, I forgot my mother tongue and I created a mental block where I couldn’t hear the words anymore. It took me four attempts [across] my life to break through the mental barriers that I had built up since my childhood.

A name we all know, Dalai Lama, means “ocean of wisdom”. Even though Tibetans hadn’t seen an ocean, we had a word for ocean: gyatso. We often use the word to describe something that is vast or beyond comprehension. It ties into my interest in language, which is what the [upcoming] body of work Mother Tongue is about. 

I was able to establish a practice that is sustainable and that I can come back to. Visually, there are things I’ll continue to explore in my future works, all from a place of what’s right in front of me. It gives me hope that there are many more works yet to be discovered, because for so long I felt like the only way I could work is if I could go back into Tibet—that it’s the only way someone would understand me. 

I feel like people have not been very aware of what’s going on and are afraid to program anything Tibetan, but I’m quite proud of what I was able to do with these works because they touch into things that are universal, without having to explain my ideas behind them. There is so much politics when you’re dealing with any kind of marginalized people, but I’m focusing on the things that I can speak to. 

A.E. Hunt comes from a background in the camera department, is the V.P. of Dedza Films, and a freelance programmer, theatrical booker, and writer with words in Criterion, Film Comment, American Cinematographer, Sight & Sound, Rappler, GQ and others.

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