Essay: Yi Cui & Dara Culhane - From Our Eyes

Essay: Yi Cui & Dara Culhane - From Our Eyes

From Our Eyes program was curated by Yi Cui. Read her essay written with Dara Culhane below and learn more about the screenings and events here.

When discussing his documentary film Yak Dung, Tibetan herdsman Dhazey says:

With the temperature falling as low as minus 40ºC on the pasture, yak dung brings warmth to our family. As a non-polluting fuel, the yak dung burns at the fire-cleanse ceremony, and lights the lamp in the darkness. It is the material for building our homes, the natural fertilizer for the grassland, a cleanser to rid of dirt, and a medicine to heal maladies. Little children can make it into toys; artists can turn it into sculptures. The dung tells about the health of the pasture, and indicates any illness in the yaks. As a people on the plateau, we cannot live without it. However, a life without yak dung is coming closer to us. It will be a time when we are lost. Catastrophes will come into our lives and the nature will become our enemy. At that time, our compassion, kindness, and the Dharma will all leave us.

Dhazey made his film with the help of From Our Eyes, an organization that supports Indigenous audiovisual creation. This collaboration began in 2010, when Tashi Sange, a highly-respected monk, and naturalist, and a pivotal advocate for environmental conservation and cultural revitalization, asked From Our Eyes Program Director Lu Bin to teach a documentary workshop for a group of local Tibetans in Nyanpo Yuzee, a remote region on the Tibetan plateau. Lu Bin was pleasantly surprised and accepted Tashi Sange’s invitation. He still remembers his first encounter with the workshop participants: “It was as if I came to a battlefield, where the soldiers tried to be as armed as they could. From Hi8 to a camera no bigger than a razor blade—they brought all they could find to make video images. The equipment was simple, while everybody was so eager to learn.” Lu Bin’s recollections mark the beginning of what has turned out to be the first documentary training program in China initiated by members of an Indigenous community.

The collaboration between the residents in Nyanpo Yuzee and From Our Eyes exemplifies movements created by Indigenous peoples in recent decades. These movements are committed to subverting twentieth century ethnographical conventions, where filmmakers from other parts of the world position themselves as detached observers of Indigenous “others,” rendering them into passive objects. For decades, many films have been produced about Tibet by non-Tibetan filmmakers, but far fewer films have actually been made by Tibetan people themselves. The image of Tibetan people have typically has been romanticized, distorted, and even disgraced.

In the auto-ethnographic films produced by From Our Eyes, made by Tibetans about Tibetans, life unfolds as it is lived—simple, natural, and sincere. We see the quotidian details of ordinary existence in the production of milk, butter, and tea, as well as the mystery of wild animals in the high mountains. We witness the struggles brought by tourism and garbage disposal, while we also see gradual changes enacted in religious rituals. Behind the simple stories is a living culture that celebrates coexistence between humans and nature, as people move through their landscape following the seasons and herds, contending with forces both ancient and new.

The screen on which these films are projected is not simply a mirror, but also a transformative element that intervenes directly in community life. For the herdsmen and monks, the intended audience of their films is not national or international, but local. Their films are made to be shown to the other community members and to provoke thoughts and actions in response to changes around them.

When Tashi Sange was asked why he wanted to introduce documentary filmmaking to Nyanpo Yuzee, he said, “Our environment is changing so fast—sometimes too fast to keep those important things. The least we can do is to document the changes, and let people in the future see how it is now. We used to document with words and photographs. But I don’t trust words—so much of the written history about Tibet is not telling the truth.”

In The Disquiet of the Worshipers, monk Paltse directs his camera to a sacred lake where excessive offering of treasure has led to water pollution. Paltse shows his community that their prayers are causing damage. This film sparked a local movement that combined the efforts of living buddhas, monks, and herdsmen to clean up the pollution and help protect the lake. Paltse’s devotion to filmmaking is inseparable from his devotion to the land and his community.

The camera is not merely observing or recording—it is also participating in and extending the experience. It is this intrinsic link between film and life that engenders a unique aesthetic. Even without studying Brecht, Tibetan filmmakers often break the fourth wall and directly address the audience. In Sunshine on the Pilgrimage or My Himalayan Vulture, for example, the continuous space linking that which is in front of the camera with the filmmaker behind the camera embraces the warm and compassionate relationship between the filmmakers and their subjects. Without learning Brakhage or Deren, the filmmakers are already practicing a cine-dance that reverses the polarity between the eye and the camera. In Dhazey’s film when a yak turns and looks into the lens, we clearly feel the filmmaker’s tender gaze at his animal. Here, in the filmmaker’s hands, is a living camera that transcends the mechanics of a machine, and operates as a physical and emotional extension of the body holding it. As spectators, we are invited into the lived world of the filmmaker and we look at his world through his third organic eye.

Young filmmaker Lhape Lokar recalls his experience filming an old Mani stone carver:

It took me two years to finish the shoot. For the entire first year, I repeatedly visited the old man with my camera, but I didn’t film anything. I wanted to understand his life before turning on the camera. The project started with me wanting to make a film about Mani stone carving. As I spent time with the old man who lives by himself, though, I realized the question that my film had to ask is how one faces the loneliness that comes when life approaches its end. When I completed the shoot and was about to leave, the old man said to me, ‘Young man, you are my friend. Now your film is finished, but I hope you still come here like in the past two years, and we drink tea and chat.’

Lhape Lokar said that in that moment, he couldn’t hold back his tears. It became clear to him that the bond established between the pair was more precious than the film itself.

Watching these films and listening to the stories behind them, I cannot help but wonder where the boundary is between film and life. Time and again throughout film history, this boundary has been tested and challenged—from Medvedkin’s ambitious cine-train project across the vast expanses of the Soviet Union, to the American avant-garde’s courageous cine-dance intended to unite the body and the camera. Perhaps these humble films made on the Tibetan plateau can open a new dialogue with radicals and pioneers, dissolving the boundary between film and life through grassroots cinema. Anthropologist Guo Jing, a member of From Our Eyes, asks, “Where is the meeting point between the moving image and the Tibetan tradition? Can we see filmmaking as an extension of the buddhist practice through the camera eye? Can filming, debate, and screening be incorporated into a new ritual?”

These are fascinating questions, and I look forward to not only discovering the answers, but also the journey that leads to them.