Anthropologist and Director Huatse Gyal Releases New Film Documentary "Khata" at Columbia

September 29, 2023

On Friday night, September 29, two dozen students, faculty, and community members braved flooding New York City streets and subway closures to attend the premiere screening of "Khata," an ethnographic documentary film directed by Professor Huatse Gyal.

Huatse Gyal, who serves as Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Rice University, is author of several peer-reviewed studies on migration, resettlement, and environmentalism on the Tibetan Plateau. His 45-minute film juxtaposes the sense of "purity" and good intentions behind the Tibetan tradition of offering long white scarves to religious teachers. The film follows the proliferation of the custom in contemporary society and how scarves are now offered or otherwise employed in a variety of contexts, and colors.

Interviews with historians and environmentalists alike reveal the early roots of the tradition as well as the contemporary impact of material waste in what has become a $30-40 million industry in China. At the same time, the khata-economy brings jobs to Tibetan and Han Chinese community members alike in the wider area of Chengdu City, as well as Gansu Province and elsewhere on the Tibetan plateau. Spectacular footage of factory scenes glide by as smoothly as the silk-like scarves being mass-produced. The boutique creation of hand-crafted wool khata, on the other hand, point to other social complexities, including gender-related issues.

The event was moderated by Barnard Professor of Film Studies, Meg McLagan, who is also director of the award-winning documentary Lioness and an early film Tibet in Exile, among others, and author of Sensible Politics. The discussion included questions by local Tibetan community members in attendance, such as one businessman who regularly orders khata for retail sale in Queens: "The film made me think. It should be shown for the Tibetan community in Queens."

Columbia Unviersity Tibetan Studies PhD candidate Yewong Dongchung, who attended the event in-person and researches material culture commented, "I was most struck by how generative Professor Huatse Gyal's film was. After the screening, we sat in the audience and collectively discussed how polyester-produced cheap khatas are now used to such an extent that there is a cultural concern about frivolity and an environmental concern about wastage
associated with it."

Columbia College student Steven Song, who was also in attendance, has written on the event in an article for the Columbia Spectator. Due to the weather conditions, an option for online viewing was also offered. The two-plus-hour screening and discussion closed well after 7pm, leaving the in-person attendees to navigate their ways home.

To learn more about the film or to arrange a screening, please contact Professor Huatse Gyal at [email protected].

For more information about the Modern Tibetan Studies Program and its public events, or to sign up for the mailing-list, contact: [email protected]

Professor Huatse Gyal (right) with Professor Meg McLagan (left)
Scene from Khata