Norah Shapiro and Tenzin Kecheo Find Real Beauty in "Miss Tibet"
Playing at Film Festival
Norah Shapiro and Tenzin Kecheo Find Real Beauty in Miss Tibet
(from Sag Harbor Express Online 11/25/14)
By Danny Peary
Norah Shapiro (left) and Tenzin Kecheo.
Miss Tibet: Beauty in Exile fits my category Movies That Should Play in Sag Harbor. I expect it to play at various festivals, but the enthusiastic reception it had at a recent sold-out screening at Doc NYC indicates that a smart distributor might snap it up and you’ll be able to see it in theaters in the not-too-distant future. The second documentary feature by Minneapolis director Norah Shapiro follows a young, assimilated Tibetan-American, Tenzin Khecheo, as she travels from her home in Minnesota to India, where she was born in exile, to compete in the Miss Tibet beauty pageant. It’s a most peculiar event in Dharamsala run by a dynamic but somewhat untrustworthy personality. As Shapiro’s press notes state, “Pageant founder Lobsang Wangyal seeks to fill a void within the Tibetan exile community by bringing a bit of glamour into his corner of the world. Complete with catwalks and evening gowns [and skimpy swimsuits, his] pageant [gives] an opportunity for exiled Tibetan women to both immerse themselves in Tibetan culture and add their voices to the global fight for a free Tibet by using the pageant as an unlikely political platform…Tenzin Khecheo finds herself feeling like a fish out of water, surrounded by contemporary Tibetans desperately clinging to their culture while striving to return to their homeland.” Below is a transcript of the brief Q&A session with Norah Shapiro, Tenzin Khecheo, and coproducer Kelly Nathe that took place after a screening last Monday at the IFC Center. It is followed by my interview, over tea, with the personable director and her smart-beyond-her-years subject.
Audience Q&A with Norah Shapiro, Tenzin Khecheo, and Kelly Nathe
Q: Norah, how did you get involved with this film?
Norah Shapiro: I first heard about the Tibetan beauty pageant when I was in the middle of making my first film, If You Dare, about an inner-city theater company that works with at-risk kids. Somebody who was peripherally involved came up to me and said, “I’m watching what you’re doing as a filmmaker. I’m writing a play about the Miss Tibet pageant. What do you think about it as a documentary?” I was immediately fascinated by what seemed to be an impossibility from my limited understanding of Tibetan myth. Kelly came into the project years later.
Kelly Nathe: We met at the time she was finishing If You Dare and talked about doing something together. She told me she was working on a film about the Tibetan beauty pageant. She’d filmed the pageant a couple of times in a row and wanted to go back and finish it. So I offered to help her.
NS: It was a crazy story. I had been working on Miss Tibet for a couple of years. Then I put it on the backburner to finish If You Dare and take care of my children. I had traveled around the world looking for my subject and actually had thought I’d use a different young woman. Then inadvertently I learned that Tenzin Khecheo who lived only minutes from me in Minneapolis was entering the Miss Tibet North America Pageant here in New York City. And the prize for winning was to compete in the 10th Anniversary Miss Tibet pageant in Dharamsala, India, where I was already planning to go. We came to New York and the pageant took place on New Year’s Eve in an Armenian church. Lo and Behold Tenzin won. She was so compelling from the get-go, and remarkably gracious and courageous to allow me and the camera inside her life. And it went from there.
Q: Tenzin, what is it like to see your story in a movie?
Tenzin Khecheo: It was probably the biggest experience of my life and I never thought I’d see it on screen. And it’s really weird to see it from another person’s point of view. At the same time, after seeing the movie and hearing people give feedback, I feel more confident and proud to have grown through this journey. I know my mom is really proud and that’s the biggest gift for me.
Q: Why did your family come to Minnesota from India?
TK: New York has the largest Tibetan population. Second to that is Minnesota, in Minneapolis and St. Paul.
NS: The Twin Cities has a very rich and interesting history of having a really diverse refuge community. There are Laotians, the largest Somalian population outside of Somalia, Tibetans. It is very welcoming.
Q: Was there any convincing you had to do with the Miss Tibet pageant organizers to make sure you weren’t limited in what you could shoot, including the political content?
NS: Remarkably, no. There were many times we worried about that. But my observation about how Lobsang Wangyal does his business is that any publicity is good publicity, even if it is controversial. Controversy is essential to his idea of the pageant.
Q: Has anyone thought of having Miss Tibet compete afterward in the Miss Universe or Miss World pageants?
SH: I’m sure China would put pressure on the pageant to not allow her to compete.
TK: There was a small pageant in 2007 and China made a big deal of it. I don’t think any Tibetan girl or woman would go on stage representing China. If I went to Miss Universe, I’m pretty sure there would be a crackdown. I’d step down because I wouldn’t represent China.
Q: Norah, how has Tenzin been since the Miss Tibet pageant?
NS: She’s going about her daily business, going to college and working toward a nursing degree. I think she’s looking at the film and appearances in relation to it as kind of a platform. She’s walking that line but being Tibetan is central to her life. I think she’ll always try to figure it out.
Q: Tenzin, you’re an extraordinary ambassador for your culture and country. What more can people do about the situation in Tibet?
TK: I believe this film a small contribution to the cause of making more people aware of the Tibetan situation. Tibet shouldn’t be thought of only as an oppressed country but as a country that has lost its home but is still fighting for it. Its voices keep getting higher and higher and the passion for Tibet is still burning and is something the people will never let go of until it is free again. Just talking about Tibet, saying the name Tibet, is a great way to contribute. People in Tibet don’t have the rights to talk about the culture, religion, and beliefs, so making Tibet an every-day topic is a step everyone can take.
Q: How can people keep track of your movie?
NS: We’re not sure where the next screening will be yet. We expect it to be at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Festival in April. We’re waiting to hear from a number of other festivals. We’re thrilled to have our premiere at Doc NYC. If you’re interested in following our film, you can go to our web site, misstibetbeautyinexile.com or follow us on facebook or twitter.
My One-on-Two Interview with Norah Shapiro and Tenzin Khecheo
Danny Peary: Looking back, why do you think you were so drawn to this topic so that you’d spend years on it, even filming previous Miss Tibet pageants?
Norah Shapiro (laughing): I certainly didn’t think I’d be working on it for the next eight years. I was fascinated by it…
DP: And I’d guess the subject, a beauty pageant, also irritated you in a challenging way…
NS: Of course! I was a public defender before I was a filmmaker. Part of my personality is (A) being a little bit oppositional and (B) being really drawn to figuring out something that defies the easy, knee-jerk explanation. Also I had read The Jew in the Lotus [Rodger Kamenetz's 1994 book about a historic dialogue between rabbis and the Dalai Lama] years before and saw there was an intertwine between the Jewish exile experience and the Tibetan exile experience that I found compelling. There has been a long connection between Jews and Buddhists. This was out there in the cosmos, feeding me. And I land in India for the first time and I meet this guy who runs the pageant, Lobsang Wangyal, a maverick Tibetan impresario. To have someone like that fall into your lap? He’s in part a brilliant visionary and an admirable, amazing guy, but he’s definitely an antihero. Who could walk away from a cat like that? Then I met Tenzin Khecheo, and she was riveting. So I kept having things happen every step of the way that told me I had to make this movie.
DP: Tenzin, did you ask Norah why she was making the movie?
Tenzin Khecheo: Yeah, I was curious. I was surprised she was making a movie about the Miss Tibet pageant because I thought the only people interested in that were in the Tibetan community. Not a lot of people know about it. That’s what makes this movie unique. She wanted to give a fresh perspective on the struggle of Tibetans since China’s occupation, but instead of the gloom she wanted to celebrate the Tibetan culture and identity. She told me about her background and interest in the Tibetan history and women. I never thought there would be a film about this and to have it premiere in New York City is so surprising.
DP: Did you do any filming in Minnesota prior to Tenzin winning the Miss Tibet North America pageant?
NS: None. We met there at the very end of October or beginning of November in 2010 and the event took place in a month or month and a half. Some of the footage of that pageant that is in the movie was mine and the rest was the organization’s. That’s the first footage I have of Tenzin. Then after she won, we started spending time with her in earnest in Minnesota.
TK: Obviously, it was a huge coincidence to have us both be living in Minneapolis and both be going to the pageant in New York, but then to have me actually go to New York and win? It was meant to be.
DP: Norah, if Tenzin had lost that North American contest, what would have happened to your movie?
NS: I don’t even want to go there. That’s the fun of documentaries, you don’t know exactly what’s going to happen.
DP: Tenzin, if you had lost that pageant in New York would you have entered the next year because you wanted to go to India?
TK: I don’t think I would have. There had been a small pageant in Minnesota that my friends were doing as a fund-raising event. I like being on stage and getting attention, so when they asked me to be in it I said, “Okay, why not?” That was really nerve-wracking because it was in front of the whole Tibetan community. I had plans to come to New York before I heard about the Miss Tibet North America pageant from my cousin, who had a relationship with the organizers. I was hesitating about competing in it because my confidence level wasn’t that high and I was embarrassed about speaking Tibetan and worried I wouldn’t be comfortable in front of judges. But my mom said, “You did it the first time so the second time won’t hurt. And you’re going to be in New York anyway so just do it for fun.” No one knew I’d win and go to India. That was an eye-opener.
DP: Was your goal all along to go to India to be in the Miss Tibet pageant?
TK: No, that started with the New York pageant. After I signed up I saw that the prize was a trip to Dharamsala to compete in the Miss Tibet pageant.
DP: Had your mother ever talked about taking everyone to India to be with the Tibetan exile community there?
TK: Maybe eventually in the future. But after I won, she saw it was an opportunity for her to go back then. I saw it as a way for all of us to go and I’d be going there with a purpose. My family wanted to tag along to support me and to see India.
DP: As compelling as you found Lobsang, you wouldn’t have thought of making the film about him. You wanted to make it about a girl.
NS: True. I always wanted it to be one of the contestants.
DP: Because you wanted to relate vicariously to a young female?
NS: There was nothing vicarious about a girl entering a beauty pageant. That’s the last thing I ever would have been a part of. In fact, I’ve told Tenzin that I wouldn’t want my daughter to be in a beauty pageant. But there was a vicariousness for me in regard to her experience in relationship to her own cultural identity. The pageant was an interesting way for her to experience this. Also, it turns out in many cultures beauty pageants have ended up being a really interesting vehicles for something more. They are not simply about objectifying women or anything else that feminists would traditionally snub their noses at, but a place for celebration of a culture and a platform for women to speak out that wouldn’t otherwise exist. There have been a lot of movies made about these outsider pageants because it is a way for a culture to highlight itself. It’s complicated.
DP: The Miss Tibet pageant is almost subversive. It’s very odd.
NS: Exactly. Like other societies, the Tibetan society is patriarchal and there are not a lot avenues for women to have their voices heard. Even in this modern day, the women are supposed to be docile, demure, and quiet. I think Tenzin was drawn to being able to present them in a different light.
TK: I was attracted to going to Dharamsala for the pageant because I thought I could break from the stereotype of the typical Tibetan woman. I grew up watching Miss America and other pageants, I was excited by the glamour part because I like being on stage with lights and cameras. When I went to India I already knew the Miss Tibet pageant was a platform for us young women to talk about what’s going on in Tibet. But when I was there I had a week of training and learned about the culture, the language, the music, politics–that wasn’t what I expected. Those small talks and lessons made me realize this wasn’t like a westernized beauty pageant. It has our culture and identity in it and lets us celebrate it as a Tibetan woman. I don’t want to my life to be doing the housework and being in the kitchen. I want to be more than that. I do not want to be stereotyped by gender but be seen as an individual; I want to see what I can do.
DP: Did your perception of what a Tibetan woman is change in India?
TK: No, because my mother has always been my main role model for what a Tibetan woman is. She’s hardworking, family-oriented, loves her children, and makes everyone happy. She doesn’t have a lot of time for herself but she never lets that show. Having her as mom gave me a strong sense of what a Tibetan woman is and how I wanted to be when I grew up. I wanted to be someone who can do everything and doesn’t complain about anything. It was already planted in with me. And then to have Miss Tibet as part of my life, my impression of what a Tibetan woman kept building up and up. It was a huge leap. Obviously, my views have changed a little bit because the Tibetan women in India are a little more traditional and more closed-in, but the other contestants were more like me.
DP: I see that many films at this festival deal with characters trying to find an identity and learn their culture.
RS: That is certainly what interests me as a filmmaker, the work that I want to do.
TS: Identity is very important aspect to everyone, especially when you have a conflicted identity. For me it’s about how to balance being an American without losing my Tibetan roots. Finding out who we are is such a universal topic because everyone at one time has an identity crisis and asks themselves who they are as person, what their values are, and what their beliefs are. The identity topic attracts people because it’s so relatable.
DP: What part does “beauty” play in this movie?
TS: Usually when I go out I’ll put make-up on. During the week in Dharamsala there wasn’t much time for that because I’d wake up and go to our lessons. Honestly, for me, going through the process of learning about Tibetan culture and getting more involved in it was the “beauty” part of it. That’s what made this pageant different from others.
NS: I intentionally included an anthropologist talking about Tibetan beauty pageants and the idea of female beauty being about the culture. So for people to be looking at Tibetan women’s beauty is improper and ludicrous. Tenzin and the other girls are beautiful but the culture and customs, the dance, the music, all of it was so beautiful to me. I care about beauty. I am a devout feminist and I reject the idea that feminists can’t care about beauty. I think it’s hypocritical to say beauty doesn’t matter. Tenzin and her sisters are stunning, as are many Tibetans. They are a beautiful people.
DP: Tenzin, talk about sitting with Ama Adhe on the visit to the Tibetan Women’s Association She tells you that she spent a third of her life in prison for protesting against China’s invasion of Tibet.
TS: When we went to visit her I didn’t know what would happen. She just started talking about her struggles and how she spent twenty-seven years in prison and how there were three hundred women with her and all but four died of starvation. She survived and she’s still wishing for a free Tibet. Just to hear that was so emotional for me. You can see my reaction in the film. I automatically connected to my own grandmother and wondered how she felt when crossing the border into India. If she had been caught this is what she would have gone through. It was amazing to see her spirits so high after going through what she did.
DP: Norah, how was it to witness that?
NS: It was an honor to be in the presence of Ama Adhe and I could see what was happening on Tenzin’s face as she listened to her. Because of our relationship, I wasn’t worrying about anything else, I knew what was happening with Tenzin was profound.
DP: I heard Emma Griffiths, the film’s publicist, talk about Miss Tibet as a “coming of age” film. I hadn’t thought of that.
Norah Shapiro: It’s funny that I hadn’t thought of it that way either. When I first got in touch with Emma, I asked her what she liked about the film. And that was one of the things she said. The second she said that, I said, “Oh, my god, it is a coming of age film! Why didn’t I think of that?” It absolutely is that. Tenzin’s coming of age, the pageant’s coming of age—all of it. I realized at a certain time while making this film that this story is about any immigrant’s or children of immigrants’ experience in the American melting pot. It’s my own story, too. I’m only one step farther along than Tenzin, she’s where my mother was. So I relate to a lot of things I’ve seen Tenzin going through.
DP: Do you mean that you relate to her being young?
NS: No, I mean in terms of how I feel about what I know and don’t know about my own religious culture. I’m part of an ancient religious culture, yet I don’t practice it on a daily basis. I ask, “How does that make sense?” and “What part of my identity is that?” When I had those thoughts about my own cultural identity, the story I wanted to tell fell into place.
DP: What about you, Tenzin? Did you see this as a coming of age film because you feel you evolved?
TK: I was young Tibetan-American but through the whole process of going to India to be in the pageant, without thinking there would be a movie afterward, I saw there was a whole new world for me to be in. Going through that whole pageant experience was a bridge to get there. I was able to not be scared to go out there and take this new journey.
NS: My perception of her change was so profound. I watched her in America when she had tremendous uncertainty and insecurity about “Am I going to be accepted by the Tibetan community as being Tibetan? Am I Tibetan?” Then she went to India and I saw her come out on the other side, with such a stronger sense of who she is. Now she could say, “I am a Tibetan woman.”
DP: You had been working on this film long before you met Tenzin and, being a feminist, had reconciled your feelings about beauty pageants long before. I’m not sure if Tenzin considered herself a feminist then, but did you convey your personal opinions to her?
NS: Not really. My approach to filmmaking is that I try to be a fly on the wall and don’t want to be affecting or impacting but documenting. Of course what I choose to include in the film and exclude and how I put it together reflects my point of view. But did I inject my feminist beliefs with Tenzin during the making of the film? Not at all, intentionally. However, since we finished shooting, Tenzin and I have had conversations and I let her know I was pleased to hear that Tenzin took a Women’s Studies class in college. We talked about what she was reading. A couple of weeks ago, I went to her family’s home and showed Tenzin and her mother Miss Tibet for the first time and we had a conversation afterward about the film and other things. And we ended up talking about what a feminist is and what a new feminist is. Having those conversations pleased me very much.
DP: At one point in the film, Tenzin, you cry about something in the pageant—I won’t divulge what it was but Norah filmed you in close-up while you talk and get teary. But did she hold you afterward and offer reassuring words?
TK: It was an upsetting, bad moment regarding the pageant. But like my mom, she assured me that the pageant didn’t matter as much as what I got from the experience, and my crossing the bridge and getting to the other side.
NS: Part of being a good documentary filmmaker is knowing when not to talk. There were many times during the making of this film, I had to put on hold how I felt as a person and I how I felt affection for her and sympathy for what she was going through. I had to very consciously wait and let moments unfold so I could capture them on film. A number of times I cried with her while I was filming her. Once the camera was off, then I could hug and talk to her.
TK: Norah was my backbone in India. She was there every morning and if I had any questions or troubles she was there to talk me through it. She would always tell me that I had nothing to worry about and was doing the best I could. That was so important because my mom was staying at another hotel. She was like a step-in mom for me. She was always supportive.
DP: Norah, in that emotional scene, I was thinking Tenzin was having exactly the wrong, young person reaction.
NS: Of course. That’s why she gets to that place. I told her, “Listen to yourself. Listen to what you are saying. And remember all the things on the other side of what you’re feeling and talking about.” She came to see it that way, and not because I manipulated her.
DP: It’s a matter of patience. She’s smart enough to figure it out herself.
NS: It takes a long time to edit a film, to put things together, and raise the funds, and there was time for there to be a big shift in her perspective. As time passed, her perspective on the pageant changed, in regard to what was important. She now says the most important thing was the experience.
TK: To be in that environment in India is a totally different experience than being in America. There were more opportunities there for us to do something for Tibet. There was also the camaraderie I felt for the others in the pageant, so there were many things I could get out of the pageant rather than just getting a crown.
DP: In India Tenzin bonds with her competitors and seems to become very enlightened by her experience among Tibetans in exile, so it surprised me that she became so adamant about winning the pageant.
TK: Yeah, that’s because I hadn’t realized how a big a platform the winner would have. That’s when it hit me.
NS: I don’t think that for Tenzin or the other girls it was, “Oh, I want the crown for me!” I think they truly became awakened to how big a deal it could be for Tibet if they won. I think that was why the girls who didn’t win were so devastated.
TK: Yes, I knew how important it was even before I arrived in India just to be part of the pageant. It wasn’t about becoming Miss Tibet, but what I could do for Tibet if I did win. Winning isn’t just for you but the whole community.
DP: I know Tenzin grew up watching beauty pageants so I thought that kicked in when she realized how much she wanted to win.
NS: I think there was a little of that.
TK: When we were realizing that the final round was coming, there was the feeling, “Oh, I want this more than the other girl does.” But that was never an issue among the girls. There were no catfights or sabotage. Of course all the girls wanted to win but it wasn’t just for selfish reasons. It had to do with how they could use the crown.
DP: Tenzin, at the Q&A you spoke about your journey as if it were over. I would think your journey is continuing.
TK: I thought the journey was the pageant but now that the movie has come out I think there is a long way to go for me. This movie showing and premiering in different places is how the journey continues. Maybe along the way people can relate to the new journey. I’m watching it grow. As more people know my story and about being a Tibetan-American and the situation in Tibet, my journey continues. I think it’s not only Tibetans in the younger generation who will be able to relate to the double identity. The young generation that lives here and doesn’t have a huge knowledge about their cultural identity can relate to the film.
DP: It’s as you are walking down a road and people fall in with you.
TK: Yeah. Just to have a world premiere here in New York was a huge deal. I didn’t think a lot of people would be interested but it sold out. Norah really made a good movie. She worked so hard on it. There is nothing more I could ask for.
DP: What do you want to happen with this film?
TS: I want everyone to know that even though Tibet is going through a terrible occupation, we’re still going to keep the culture alive and we’re going to continue to celebrate it. And I want people to see that Tibetan women are no longer just in the kitchen but are out there doing something for their country. I hope this movie goes a long way in getting our cause attention. And I hope Tibetans see it and are proud of me for getting the word out.
NS: I want all that Tenzin just said. It’s also an opportunity for my work to be seen. I am very proud of this film and I hope that many people who think they know what a Tibetan is and what a beauty pageant is will see this film and have their eyes opened.
DP: Tenzin, I won’t say whether you win or lose the pageant but only that you deserved to win.
TK: Thank you!
NS: We don’t want anyone know. It’s our cliffhanger!