Pema “Tintin” Tshering is the director of the short feature “In the Realm of Gods”, visual artist using traditional and modern graphic techniques, author of paintings and comic books. His works were shown at individual and collective exhibitions in Bhutan and abroad, including in Taiwan, Japan, Bangladesh, Thailand and the US.

On the occasion of  “In the Realm of Gods” screening at Five Flavours, we speak to him about his different capacities, the film, the movie/art scene of Bhutan and many other topics.

You deal with comics, design, animation, illustration, sculpture and painting, and now you are also shooting movies. Where do you find the time, and which one do you prefer doing? 

I do not have a preference. Depending on the idea, I choose which of the above suits it better. For example, I may feel that an idea of mine will make a good sculpture, so I just do a sculpture and the same applies to paintings, etc. I do not want the medium to restrict me in my creation, so I just do what I feel

Can you tell us a bit about VAST, and how it has shaped your career?

VAST is the only contemporary art center in Bhutan. During my time, there was no art curriculum in schools, so I was one of the starting students, one of the founding members, I joined when I was 13. I was already interested in sketching, but it was there where I had all the classes, met all the artists, and was guided. Whatever I am now is because of VAST

Do you plan to become a feature/full time director?

Yes, actually I have a script for an animation ready and I want to direct it, but I have some trouble with the funding. There is an animation studio that is ready to work on the film, but I did not have much time to put the concept together. I asked them to prepare a short clip, but they haven’t been able to do it, because they have to survive also and they have other projects, so they have to do it in their own time. So, I have to look for funding, because the script is ready and they are ready.

Can you tell me a bit about the Captain America painting?

Captain America is part of a series I did, that also included gangsters for example, that I drew through spirituality. In Buddhism, they have this saying that “Every human being has a Buddha inside them, you just need to awaken it”. So, I was trying to show the spiritual part of that concept and I really like Captain America, since I read a lot of comics and that is why I chose him. Actually, I read whatever I can get, because it is very difficult to get comics in Bhutan (laughs). So that is what I was trying to show, the spiritual side of Captain America

The fact that you are a family of artists (he is married to Dechen Roder, director of “Honeygiver Among the Gods“), do you think it helps you in your art?

Yes, it is definitely helpful, because she always encourages me and is very supportive and I try to do the same with her, I try to help her any way I can. I think that we are very good for each other; it is good to be married to another artist, who understands you and can share ideas.

Can you tell me a bit more about the concept of mask dancers? 

In every district in Bhutan, there is a festival and they have masked dancers in those festivals, who tell tales, stories for the living to understand death and after death. So all these stories are weaved into the dance, for people to watch and learn, and to enjoy.

Do they also narrate? 

No, but it is nice because the people know the stories and they are only interested in the dance. Some stories deal with the preparation for death and some are just tales about good things or bad things.

Is the main actor actually a dancer? 

No, he is an actor.

So, the dance at the end of the film is performed by somebody else? 

No, what happened is that for this role, Tshering Dorji (the protagonist) was so interested in the part that he actually learned the dance from a master, and in that way, he was very professional.

With the story in the film, was your purpose to show that tradition is being put behind with new things taking their place, since the master in the film cannot support his family anymore by performing? 

No, it was not that he could not do other things, instead he was such a great dancer and people praised him for that, they came to pay their respects and  I wanted to lean on that concept, and that is why the film is called “In the Realm of the Gods”. His character, when he puts on the mask, he becomes part of that realm, but that is why he is having so much trouble.

In general, do you feel that Bhutanese people retain their traditions? 

Yes, they are, but the trouble these old masters have, despite the fact that they are so skilled and talented, is that they don’t have formal education. So they do not get the kind of salary or position they should be getting due to their experience, and that is one aspect I wanted to show in the film.

Religion seems to be a very important part of Bhutan. Is that so, is religion actually a part of everyday life?

Yes, it is important, but not in-your-face important, it is just a part of life.

What does the dance in the end of the film signify?

I really did not focus on what kind of dance he has to perform, I just wanted for it not to be controversial. Because some dances are sacred, you cannot just perform them, they are only presented in festivals. So, I just wanted it to be a simple dance.

What is your opinion of the art scene in Bhutan at the moment? And what about the movie scene?  

Just now, because of VAST, that has a gallery, and holds art classes and offers scholarships for students who are interested and send them to colleges, there is actually a small community of artists that help each other. But in film, because there is no specific organization, most of them work independently and separately.

Is there any kind of support from the state?   

My teacher, Asha Karma, received a golden medal from the King for his contribution and the King and the Queen are actually paying the rent for the VAST studio. We are not getting any help from the government, but whatever we do, the government supports.

Which are your favorite filmmakers/movies?

I watch a lot of animation, Studio Ghibli’s animation like “Spirited Away” and I think Miyazaki is my favorite director.

So, do Studio Ghibli’s films screen in Bhutan?

 There is a Japanese Association in Bhutan, so sometimes they have a screening. But other than that, we have to look for films online, but it is difficult because we do not have credit cards in Bhutan. We are starting to have, but nobody knows how this thing is going work (laughs).

It is actually strange for me to listen to these things about Bhutan. Do you prefer it like that, not having credit cards for example?  

People seem to have so much trouble with debt because of credit cards, but sometimes, for useful things, I wish we could buy them.

Like Studio Ghibli films, for example? 

(Both Laugh) Yes, yes, because now sometimes the quality of the films is not good or you cannot get subtitles.

What are your plans for the future, in general, apart from the animation you mentioned? 

I want to have more solo exhibitions and VAST always has lots of programs.

The exhibitions take place in Thimpu? 

Yes, in VAST studio, but there are other places like museums and galleries, but only a few places. And about my animation movie, I am really trying to get it going, to find the time and the money to make it a full feature.

How much time did you spend shooting “In the Realms of Gods”?

It was a very organic film, because Dechen and I started a short film festival, and for the first edition, we were not sure if there were going to be enough films, so I shot “In the Realms of Gods” and Dechen  “An Original Photocopy of Happiness”. And actually, in my film, in the scene the dance master is walking in the street, I wanted this image to stay with my audience, because that is very unusual, you never see masters walking in the street. And you can actually see the reaction of people, turning their heads and wondering what is going on. This is actually the main street of Thimpu, and this just does not happen. I wanted to make a statement, having him dance in front of a theatre.

So, can you tell me a bit about the festival?    

The festival is called Beskop Tsechu and is focused on short films. We have organized it four times now, and the first time we did, was just a test to see how many films we could get. We had one screening room and about ten films, so it was quite good. The reason we started it is that the audience can easily watch feature films but do not have much experience and there is no platform for experimental films. So, the quality of the feature films is not so good, because the filmmakers cannot experiment with their films. Therefore, by giving a platform for short films, we give a chance to filmmakers, indirectly, to help them make better films. Another purpose is to educate the audience, because they mostly watch commercial films influenced from Bollywood, and they think there is nothing more.  

My name is Panos Kotzathanasis and I am Greek. Being a fan of Asian cinema and especially of Chinese kung fu and Japanese samurai movies since I was a little kid, I cultivated that love during my adolescence, to extend to the whole of SE Asia. Starting from my own blog in Greek, I then moved on to write for some of the major publications in Greece, and in a number of websites dealing with (Asian) cinema, such as Taste of Cinema, Hancinema, EasternKicks, Chinese Policy Institute, and of course, Asian Movie Pulse. in which I still continue to contribute. In the beginning of 2017, I launched my own website, Asian Film Vault, which I merged in 2018 with Asian Movie Pulse, creating the most complete website about the Asian movie industry, as it deals with almost every country from East and South Asia, and definitely all genres. You can follow me on Facebook and Twitter.