Pema Tseden (1969-2023): Filmmaker Who Initiated Tibetan New Wave Cinema

Pema Tseden, a pioneer of the Tibetan New Wave cinema and an accomplished fiction writer, has died aged 53.

Qiyan Chen (M.A., 2023)
May 12, 2023

Born into a herder’s family in Amdo, the Tibetan region of the Qinghai province, in 1969, Pema Tseden studied Tibetan Language and Literature at Northwestern University for Nationalities in Lanzhou. Starting in the early 1990s, he published a wealth of short stories in both Tibetan and Chinese, which have started appearing in English translation in the recent years, most notably the collection Enticement: Stories of Tibet. After first working as a teacher and civil servant, Pema Tseden entered the Beijing Film Academy in 2002 to study filmmaking and made his directorial debut in 2005 with The Silent Holy Stones.

Pema Tseden was the first Tibetan filmmaker in China to make films entirely in the Tibetan language. His early works, also known as “The Tibetan Trilogy”: The Silent Holy Stones (2005), The Search (2009) and Old Dog (2012), captured the lived realities of contemporary Tibet from an insider’s perspective and formed a distinctive aesthetic style. His later works, such as Tharlo (2015), Jinpa (2018) and Balloon (2019) continued to explore the complexities of the Tibetan experience in a changing society while actively engaging in artistic experimentation. With his movies, Pema Tseden won awards at film festivals both domestically and internationally and is recognized as a leading figure in Tibetan New Wave cinema.

“Pema was this kind of artist who would keep you wondering what he’d make next – he grew in front of your eyes, calmly but dazzlingly. He had a freedom in him, a freedom to make space and connections, say a million of things with one image, a freedom to be quiet, persistent, sorrowful, a freedom to play and to love. He was such a leader in the Tibetan speaking cultural sphere, and I feel so sad that we lost him.”

– Professor Ying Qian, a scholar of cinema and media at Columbia University.

Not only has Pema Tseden contributed greatly to contemporary Tibetan cinema through his own filmmaking, but he also nurtured many new talents and inspired more Tibetans to engage in film production, especially his former cinematographer Sonthar Gyal, who has emerged as another significant figure in Tibetan New Wave cinema. Pema Tseden also produced Tibetan-language films for several Tibetan directors, such as Wangdrak’s Rain Boots (2018) for Lhapal Gyal, A Song for You (2019, in partnership with Jia Zhangke) for Dukar Tserang, and One and Four (2021) for his son and budding filmmaker Jigme Trinley. Pema Tseden’s forthcoming film, Snow Leopard, is in the postproduction stage and scheduled for release later in 2023. In March of this year, Pema Tseden wrapped up the film Singpangtra and during his final days was working on the shoot for his new movie, Have a Nice Trip.

Pema Tseden was born on December 3, 1969. He died on the morning of May 8, 2023, in Lhasa. Family and friends took his body on circumambulation around the Jokhang Temple before his return home to Amdo.

To learn more about his life and career, please see Tibetan scholar Dhondup T. Rekong's in-depth biography of Pema Tseden for the Treasury of Lives, made possible through support from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

In tribute to the influential and beloved filmmaker, the Museum of Modern Art will screen his 2005 film The Silent Holy Stones on Wednesday, July 12 at 7pm and Sunday, July 16 at 1:30pm. Tickets and information can be found HERE.

The Modern Tibetan Studies Program (MTSP) will co-organize with the C.V. Starr East Asian Library a series of film screenings starting in the 2023-24 school year in tribute to the director.

Pema Tseden and Columbia University

In 2010, the Weatherhead East Asian Institute invited Pema Tseden to Columbia University to present his two films "The Silent Holy Stones" (2005) and "The Search" (2009) in conjunction with the Maysles Institute and the Asia Society where the two films were screened. The events were organized by Dr. Robert Barnett, a scholar of Tibetan film and then director of the Modern Tibetan Studies Program. From 2014 to 2015, the filmmaker was also affiliated with Columbia University as part of a film research and training project.

Several films and works of fiction by Pema Tseden, including English translations in an anthology of his short stories, Enticement (SUNY Press, 2019), are held by the C.V. Starr East Asian Library and available to Columbia affiliates. 

On April 25, 2019, the Weatherhead East Asian Institute hosted a panel discussion “Tibetan Literature in Translation: Pema Tseden’s Stories of Tibet” to launch the anthology.

Pema Tseden (left) taking a picture of MTSP Director Lauran Hartley (right)
Lobsang Sumbha (Bibliographic Assistant, C.V. Starr East Asian Library) and Pema Tseden