Of the five live action shorts nominated for an Academy Award this year, Chinese filmmaker Hu Wei’s “Butter Lamp” (La Lampe au Beurre de Yak) is the most unconventional cinematic statement. Shot in a single location and with an entire cast of non-professional actors, the film captures a fictional moment in time in the fast-changing lives of a real community. The events are scripted; the individuals recreating them are truly part of this world.
Nameless people from all walks of life within a Tibetan community take advantage of the rare opportunity to get their picture taken against an array of backgrounds that range from holy sites to the busy city streets. Through the interactions between the traveling photographer and the Tibetan nomads, we learn about the subtle but irreversible clash between their traditional lifestyle and the ravaging hunger of the modern world. The latter is eager to eradicate all that is considered obsolete.
Cell phones, a motorbike, and Western-style clothing are all signs of this voracious transformation that has no boundaries. Homogenizing all aspects of human life, even in remote areas of the planet, is eradicating ancient practices that contribute to our rich diversity.
Subtly and with a unique format, the Academy Award-nominated filmmaker expresses his concern regarding this in his enthralling 15-minute short. Hu Wei is in Los Angeles partaking in all the Oscar-related events and met with us for a conversation about his unexpectedly successful work.
Aguilar: “Butter Lamp” feels like it exists in a place between documentary and fiction. Why did you opt for the latter? Was making it a non-fiction film a possibility you considered?
Hu Wei: Firs of all, there cannot be a documentary about these events or these stories because such practice of people taking photos against backgrounds like these doesn’t exist in Tibet. However, it’s very popular in Mainland China. Also, from the very beginning this film was always conceived as fiction. It cannot be a documentary. It has to be a narrative.
Aguilar: Was the entire cast made of non-professional actors?
Hu Wei: They were non-actors, but the scenes were rehearsed. This is my third short film and I’ve never worked with professional actors. I prefer to work with non-professionals because what I want to get across can only be express by these people.
Aguilar: Globalization seems to be changing the way these people live even if it’s subtle. Is this clash between tradition and modernity something that concerns you?
Hu Wei: What I wanted to express in the film is that there are already changes happening among the Tibetan people. You can see things like the motorbike or the cell phones that everyone uses. This is an ever-changing process in which people are changing by globalization and modernization happening around the world everyday. The Tibetan people are included in this process. Everyday is different than the one before, so what I wanted to do was to capture the current state, which might vanish very soon. I wanted to encompass all the changes that are happening right now in this 15-minute short film. That’s why I used the photographs as main element in the film.
Aguilar: How did you get involved with the Tibetan people and why did you feel photography had to be the central element in the film?
Hu Wei: For me a taking photograph is similar to how one preserves a mummy. Everything that happens in the film is vanishing, so maybe the things we see there, which existed when I was making the film, have already disappeared. What inspired me to create this film in the first place was my experience in university from 2004 to 2006. During these three years I visited Tibet three times, once each year.
When I was there the first time I visited this little village and there were about 20 Tibetan nomad families living there in this vast land. I lived there with one of these families, and I took photographs for them as well as for their neighbors and other families in the village. The following year when I returned to the same village there were only about 10 households left. I had brought back the photographs I took of them because I had promised to give them to them because they had never had their phonograph taken. Sadly, the family I had stayed with the first time was now gone as well as some of the other families. I was very upset.
Then, the third year when I went back to this village, there were only 3 households left. I was wondering were all those people went and I learned that they left because of a new Socialist countryside program, which offered free housing in new buildings for these nomad people to give up their traditional lifestyle. It was just like what happens in the film, when the chief of the village announces that there will be visitors in charge this new program. This is why these people are moving away from their villages and why these changes are taking place.
Aguilar: By getting their photographs taken are these people preserving their identity? Was this something you thought about while developing the film?
Hu Wei: After I finished university in China I went to France in 2008, and I was a foreign student there. During the years I lived in France I thought a lot about the issue of identity. Being there made me rethink this. I’m originally from China, but how much of my Chinese cultural tradition did I carry with me while I was there? I feel that when I was in France I was in an isolated island. I was neither French nor Chinese at that moment. This developed a certain anxiety regarding identity.
At the same time I thought about my experiences in Tibet. What these people feel is similar to what I was experiencing in France. While there, I went to an art exhibit in Paris and I saw a photograph from Michael Nash called Warsaw, 1946. I was really touched by it. What I studied in Paris was painting, installation art, and photography. Paintings and photographs are 2D mediums, and what I had studied in China was filmmaking, which is tridimensional. They are quite different mediums but I still found this photograph intriguing.
What really attracted me to this photograph was the attitude of this old lady, she is smiling, which reminded me of the optimistic people living in Tibet. Even if this woman just lost her home because of the war, she is taking a photograph against this artificial background. She is very optimistic.
Aguilar: In your film another interesting element is the clothing that the photographer puts on these people. Jackets, sunglasses, and other Western-style garments. But there is one young guy that refuses to take the photograph because he doesn’t want to change his clothes. Tell me about the significant of these elements.
Hu Wei: What this particular character was wearing is the traditional Tibetan clothing, but in fact many of the Tibetan youth don’t’ want to wear the traditional outfit anymore. They want to look like everyone else in the world. In the case of my character, his mother made the leather jacket he wears, and after she died he decided not to take it off, even if it’s pretty hot during that time.
Because other young people are no longer wearing traditional clothes, he is now the one who is different. At the end of the film he brings this butter lamp for the photographer to take to Potala Palace. It’s for the monks to burn in order to mourn his mother. But to me it’s not just about his mother, it’s also about mourning the culture and traditions that are dying and disappearing.
Aguilar: When the photographer is ready to leave, we see this unfinished bridge in the background. It’s a powerful image that shows us how rapidly the urban sprawl is advancing.
Hu Wei: This image is a metaphor. The bridge you see in the background wasn’t really there. It was done through VFX. The bridge we see is still in construction and it represents the road towards modernity. This town is on a plateau, which is about 5000 meters above sea level. The geographical location preserved their tradition for a long time, but today even a place as isolated as this is subjected to changes.
Aguilar: How did you get involved with the project Julien?
Julien Féret : We met in Paris when he was studying there. He told me he had this idea and I read the script. I thought it was a very particular project. It took us a long time to make it, although it didn't take us long to get the financing because we had the chance to be funded by the French National Center for Cinematography and a French TV Channel. It was very complicated to make it happen and to shoot out there in Tibet with the local people.
Aguilar: How was the process of finding the specific people you needed to tell such particular story?
Hu Wei:Before we started shooting we went to a lot of different locations and we met with many Tibetan nomads. We went around the households in the area asking people if they wanted to be part of the film. Of course, some did accept and others would say no. With the ones who were willing to participate we rehearsed for five days before shooting. Then we took one day off, and then we shot the film for five days.
Aguilar: Given that the film takes place in a single location why did you decide to shoot on location in Tibet? Could you have done it anywhere else?
Hu Wei:At the beginning Julien and other people suggested we should make the film in France. There are a lot of Tibetan people there who could make it happen, but the most important thing for me was the authenticity. I felt that I could only find people in this particular state of mind or situation in the actual place: Tibet. These are people who had never had their photograph taken, much less being filmed, and they have a unique attitude towards things. They were all really excited.
Aguilar: The Academy Award nomination might be the culminating point for “Butter Lamp,” but the film has had a long journey to get to this point.
Hu Wei:"Butter Lamp" was first screened at the Cannes Film Festival in 2013, and from that point on it has been selected by over 300 film festivals. I'm very glad that I've been able to share this 15-minute short with people from different countries, backgrounds, and religions.
Aguilar: Tell me about your Oscar experience
Hu Wei: I was quite surprised because I feel like "Butter Lamp" is not your typical Oscar-nominated short film. I’m very happy we are nominated.
Aguilar: Your film has connected with an incredible amount of people during its festival run. Why do you think people have found it so appealing even
if they don’t know anything about this part of the world?
Hu Wei: I created this film based on my own experience. For me it’s like looking into a mirror. When I look at these Tibetan people I also look at myself and how I've changed because of globalization and modernization. I also think about where these changes are leading us. Maybe other people felt the same way when watching it. The film also uses a quite unique format and that might also be part of why people where drawn to it.
Aguilar: What are you working on now, a feature film perhaps?
Hu Wei: Right now I'm writing a script for a feature and I'm working on another short film about one person living alone in a tropical forest. Throughout the whole film there is no dialogue. We are still deciding where we are going to shoot it.