You can’t be blamed for wanting to dodge the Oscar season this year – it is, on the whole, fairly tedious. Buried in the glitz, however, is a daring experimental documentary called Butter Lamp from the young director Hu Wei. It’s nominated for Best Live Action Short and deserves to be seen.
The film observes a number of nomadic Tibetan families as they pose for a stationary camera in front of different backdrops, the photo technology and global scenes inducing their astonishment. In one scene an elderly lady prostrates herself in reverence to a picture of the Buddhist Potala Palace, and she cannot be moved until the image is changed.
Scenes like this show how alien modernity is to some of these people, and with the contrastingly tacky backdrops we ask if this is a bad thing. It is this focus on the old and the new that Butter Lamp shares a great deal with Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez’s Manakamana, which is also concerned with the transition from a deeply spiritual, insular Buddhist culture to a new secular, globalised one. Both are also technically restrained and patient in the way that they allow the drama to unfold in front of a fixed camera.
But it is on the essential point of whether cultural change is always a force for good, that the two films diverge.
Change is circular, repetitive, inevitable and even benign in the ascending and descending cable car in Manakamana, but it is overwhelmingly oppressive and intrusive in Butter Lamp. A key scene sees a proud young Tibetan storming out of shot after refusing to substitute his traditional dress for a leather jacket. Wei wants us to feel the indignity that imposed change can create for people whose beliefs are embedded in tradition.
At its core this is a political film with a clear warning against the sprawling reach of globalisation and for the preservation of certain traditions. It intends to touch a nerve with the Chinese government’s continued insensitivity and brutality not only towards Tibetans, but also towards rural people as a whole in the pursuit of an economic growth predominantly benefitting the urban population.
By the end of the film the backdrops have come to represent not only fakery but the illusory nature of material gain, as Wei sees it. Garish beach scenes, Mao Zedong’s face and a photo of Disney characters seem unnecessary absurdities when the canvas is lifted to reveal the ageless beauty of the Tibetan Steppes – which were there all along.
Butter Lamp is on at selected cinemas in the UK.