Meet the Filmmaker: Tenzin Phuntsog – Rituals of Resistance
Tenzin Phuntsog is a filmmaker primarily working as a director and cinematographer. Tenzin’s films have explored the the exile experience for over a decade. Growing up between two worlds, American and Tibetan, his unique perspective offers a glimpse into understanding contemporary life through an examination of a spirituality and universal stories.
Rituals of Resistance is his debut feature documentary film.
Firstly, can you tell us a bit about the film?
It’s a film about three generations of resistance in exile and unpacking the untold stories that have shaped my life as well as a universal story about the struggle of displaced and stateless peoples.
What was your biggest inspiration to make this film/How did you get involved or attached to the project?
My partner and I, Joy Dietrich were first working on a film restoration project with the Film Foundation, restoring a rare 1966 film entitled Raid into Tibet. In the process we discovered the story of Tendar and was inspired to embark on telling the story of resistance across three generations. As a Tibetan I knew how rare and powerful having Tendar (the Tibetan Guerrilla Leader captured in the 1966 Film) would be in tandem with the visual evidence of the archival film. We have many stories from that first generation, but its very hard to find any with any documentation or moving images from that time. The archival film, opened up the possibility of bridging three generations together.
As a filmmaker there are many ups and downs in the process, what was your absolute favourite and/or funniest part of making/producing this film?
The funniest part of the shoot was when Joy had to film my re-enactments in the film. I would stand in, and she would direct me and sometimes we would be in the middle of now-where, like the Salt Flats of Utah, or a field in Montana on the border of Canada yelling directions at each other after a long day filming/searching for the right spot and chasing light for the best shot. It was intense because we had very ambitious goals but were working with an extremely tight budget and timeframe.
What does a film festival like Byron Bay Film Festival mean to you and your work?
Byron Bay is a place that has embraced me, I sent my first short film out of grad school when I was really starting out, and Byron Bay accepted my film and nominated it for “Best Cinematography.” At that time those little gestures were really reassuring and reminded me that the work I was doing was good and that gave me confidence. Happy to be back this time with my first feature documentary co-directed by myself and my partner Joy Dietrich!
Byron Bay Film Festival showcases an array of entertaining, inspiring and thought-provoking films. Do you feel that your film helps people ‘Dream With Their Eyes Open’? And if so how?
I think that Rituals of Resistance is an eye opening experience, it shows the story of three generations in exile, from a perspective that has not been told before. It’s also made from a Tibetan diaspora voice and filmmaker based in the United States. I realize that this film exists and was handled from a gaze that is not represented on screen and so for that I think it is like a dream, you are getting a vision into another world. Rituals, I hope is a film that will open up many more opportunities to dream and take risks, not only for myself and Joy but for other people who are displaced or feel like their voice does not matter. It’s took me year’s to develop my voice but if you don’t examine, embrace and accept yourself you can’t dream.
What is the best piece of advice you can give to future independent filmmakers?
Accept yourself, be socially conscious and ethical in your production methods. Its just an idea, but your place and relationship to an image/ representation/ and story that you are forever fusing a part of your soul to forever.
What was the most challenging part of the filmmaking process?
For this film it was funding and editing. The fundraising process took a lot of time away from the production, we were discouraged by all the rejections lack of support for what we thought was a timely film. When we got to the editing stage, we were in the middle of a job relocation, and moving, plus several years of being in production, the edit seemed so daunting, we did not realise how hard telling the story of three generations of Tibetan resistance in exile would be. There were so many layers, stories, histories and sensitive, emotional, and personal aspects of the project, it took a lot out of us to excavate and discover the themes that ran through the story that ultimately made it all come together. Amazingly it was there from the beginning, but we had to work really hard in the edit to find the pieces and assemble a narrative that did the story justice.
If some or all of the team is coming to the festival at Byron Bay. Who is coming and what are you looking forward to?
Joy Dietrich and myself (Tenzin Phuntsog) would like to come if there is a chance to cover travel costs. We would love to connect with the audience and Tibetan community in Australia. There is quite a few there… we are also a lover of films and look forward to soaking in the program selections.
Any upcoming projects for you, your team or key creatives involved in your film?
Tenzin Phuntsog is developing several new projects, a few personal hybrid films and a series of projects both in the states and abroad. There’s a project I pitched to Bero Beyer once in Amsterdam, its my first fiction feature project that I have been thinking about for some years now, a film about life in diaspora today, not from a romanticized or geographically limited perspective, something personal and current, a visual love letter, a way forward for people like me, a project called Siphu in Tibetan, which in English would mean Yellow Boy.
Joy Dietrich has a feature script she wrote that is really powerful, and based on a true story situated in South East Asia. She has also been working on a documentary film over the years called the Attachment Project.
What drives you as a filmmaker?
The desire to share experiences, emotions and ways of being: To connect on a humanistic level with my own experience and others.
Anything interesting or unique about the filmmaking process for this film, any hiccups along the way, any happy coincidences that changed the films direction?
Discovering Tendar’s story as mentioned above. Also the story of the Tibet Film Archive which I (Tenzin Phuntsog) founded and manage. But that is a longer story.
Is anything else you would like to share?
Looking forward to being part of this year’s BBFF – I also love VFX and am a VFX artist in my own right, I did the VFX on my final shot of our documentary with some friends from the industry, basically indie VFX! So cool that WETA will be there this year!