ten years and counting, second and even third generation exiles have competed
in a beauty pageant to represent a country they have never lived in. That
nation is Tibet, still held captive by their Chinese Communist occupiers.
Obviously, this is no ordinary beauty contest. While their numbers are small,
their consciousness is high. Documentarian Norah Shapiro follows Tibetan-American
Tenzin Khecheo as she competes for the tenth annual Miss Tibet crown in Miss Tibet: Beauty in Exile (trailer here), which screens
during this year’s DOC NYC.
most people think of Tibet, their mind’s eye pictures monasteries, temples, and
snow-capped mountains—but glamor, no so much. Enterprising “impresario” Lobsang
Wangyal set out to change that with the Miss Tibet pageant, envisioning it as a
means of empowering young women and providing a focal point for national pride.
Despite his obvious slickness, the pageant seems to be taking hold, even though
there is often controversy surrounding the swimsuit competition.
of Exile explores that tension
between tradition and modernizing influences through Khecheo’s eyes. Initially
insecure about her rusty Tibetan, she dramatically reconnects with her cultural
heritage. One of the cool aspects of the Miss Tibet contest is the extent to
which Tibetan music, customs, and history are integrated into the program.
However, there are problems with the pageant that will come to light, adding a note
of unexpected ambivalence to the third act (but be assured, all of the
contestants are clearly a credit to Tibet).
contrast, there is no equivocating in Exile
when it comes to the realities of China’s occupation. Shapiro’s historical
context might come from an illustrated children’s book (quite an elegant one,
really), but it is still right on the money. In fact, part of the impetus for
the pageant in general and Khecheo’s personal participation is to raise
international awareness, since conventional protests have produced no results
to speak of. Let’s be honest, how much do you think Obama had to say about
Tibet during the APEC summit in China?
personal development arc and the cultural synthesis the pageant represents are
all strong stuff that easily sustain the relatively short (a hair under seventy
minutes) Exile. Yet, it raises issues
of double standards that could have been explored further. At one point, we
learn a previous Miss Tibet might have been allowed to compete in an
international pageant, but China insisted “Miss Tibet, China” must have been emblazoned
on her sash. She refused. You wonder how often that sort of thing happens. For
instance, if a fictitious country like “Palestine” is allowed to submit films
for best foreign language Oscar consideration, Tibet should have the same
right. Yet, if they put Pema Tseden’s latest film into contention, would the
Academy accept it or bow to Chinese pressure? How many other such instances
might there be?
does what it does quite well. It follows a highly engaging and likable POV
figure in Khecheo through a surprisingly dramatic journey. Perhaps most
valuably, it offers a fuller, more diverse picture of Tibetan identity, while
also providing a timely reminder of Tibet’s captive nation status. Highly
recommended, Miss Tibet: Beauty in Exile screens
this Sunday (11/16) and Monday (11/17) as part of DOC NYC 2014.
Labels: Beauty Pageant Movies, DOC NYC '14, Documentary, Miss Tibet, Tibet