Tibet Revisited

Prayer and Gymnastics
In “Tibet Revisited” documentary filmmaker Manfred Neuwirth shows just how much the cultural conflict in the Himalayas has stepped up over the last few years. And in the process he succeeds again in producing unforgettable moments of cinema.

Moments in the cinema that are unforgettable seldom happen. But there are some. It was like that with “Tibetan Recollections”, a travel journal by Manfred Neuwirth made in the middle of the Nineties. Views of landscapes alternated with impressions of everyday life, including one scene where Chinese soldiers in combat kit disperse a demonstration. Then, right in the middle of the film a laughing extended family suddenly appears in the middle of enjoying a picnic.

“Tibet Revisited” the most recent work by the Austrian filmmaker that was premiered this spring at the Diagonale, is a loose successor to the work made ten years ago. The cultural conflict—the new film shows this clearly—has only got worse in the meantime. “Lhasa,” said Neuwirth in conversation, “is really completely Sino-cised, Tibetan are clearly in the minority.” Nonetheless, in almost every sequence the enormous presence of traditional spiritual life can be felt. One shows a few believers who, on their way home from work, prostrate themselves in front of the Dalai Lama’s former palace while on the street behind them there is a continuous flow of pedestrians and cyclists; mopeds and small cars.

Neuwirth, who is no mere formalist, nevertheless treats form in his films very consciously. “Tibet Revisited” consists of a series of tableaux vivants separated by black frames where each of the 28 takes is shot with a fixed camera and lasts exactly three minutes. There is no commentary. While television continuously uses up images and combines them randomly with sound in order to simultaneously deliver licence payers with an interpretation of the world, the filmmaker lets the images and sounds that he finds speak for themselves.
Whether they “pass the test” depends, finally, on the viewer. With a radicalness that is otherwise used by only the American avant-garde documentarian James Benning, Manfred Neuwirth commits himself to a “ contemplative montage”. Whoever engages with the film really learns to see in the cinema. That also marks the main difference with “Tibetan Recollections” that worked with certain very small shifts between image and sound. The effectively un-reworked sequences in “Tibet Revisited” have this inherently built in, as the continuous blare of severely damaged radio speakers in the marketplace or the ringing of a mobile telephone during prayers testify. “When so many different times and cultures collide there are naturally developments that are exciting both from the images as well as sound,” says Neuwirth. “For example, it gets louder and louder. That’s why the impressions from the area round Lhase are more strongly defined through the soundtrack because advertising and with it this „big city“ sound has clearly established itself.”
The diverse conflicts between traditionally influenced ways of life and a strongly impinging modernity is reworked into the order of the tableaux by the filmmaker in a way that is both sovereign and subtle. Praying in front of the palace is preceded by a scene in which employees of a Chinese concern perfunctorily go through their early-morning gymnastics. In the streets of Lhasa jeans, Coca-Cola and pop music bear witness to the progress of globalisation; in the country it is above all the new factories, surfaced roads and continuously increasing traffic.
Even stronger are those images which cannot be decoded quite so simply. One of them shows a monastery which is only recognisable as such by the chants of the monks coming from outside the image; another, completely hypnotic image, shows nothing more than a millstone turning regularly. One doesn’t need to know it is an archaic piece of equipment and has, in addition, immense cultural meaning (“it is grinding barley, the main staple food of Tibet,” says the filmmaker) in order for all the senses to be engaged by the rhythm of this droning movement. “Tibet Revisited”, like all of Manfred Neuwirth’s films, rejects artificial didacticism, his argumentation is one of form, of concentration, of poetry. He is not concerned with illustrating some theory or other nor to present himself as a globe-trotting adventurer. His work has only peripherally to do with the home-grown wave of documentary filmmakers and much more with cinema à la Benning or Romuald Karmakar.

With its last sequence, a travelling shot through the countryside, the film unexpectedly takes off. Foreign trucks thunder along a road lying bared to a glittering highland light while native traders unfalteringly chug along the edge of it with their archaic companions. An unforgettable moment.
Michael Omasta, Falter