Film - Butter Lamp

Butter Lamp

Ren Zelen takes a look back a festival beauty from a few years ago with Butter Lamp...

Butter Lamp is a short film (with a running time of only 16 minutes) which was premiered at the Cannes Critics’ Week 2013, and has since toured all around the world gathering numerous nominations and awards.

Butter Lamp features several Tibetan nomadic families posing for a group photograph - a popular practice in China. They are being snapped not in their natural milieu but in front of odd and perhaps symbolic backgrounds, such as a Hong Kong cityscape, the Great Wall of China, the Forbidden City (with the picture of Mao), the Potala Palace in Lhasa, Disneyland, and a tropical beach. They are being photographed by an itinerant photographer and all of the action takes place in front of a fixed camera. Captured before the stationary lens, the villagers tease, laugh, bicker and pose. When the village mayor arrives to make some announcements and report a theft, a respectful young couple ask to borrow his new motorcycle to include in their shot. The wind whips and billows the backdrops, old people arrive twirling their prayer wheels, youngsters sulkily refuse to change clothes. An elderly grandma is mesmerised before a photograph of the Potala Palace and reverently prostrates herself before it, rather than pose for the photo.

The exotic backdrops change for each photograph, but when the last artificial screen is pulled up, the true background is revealed, which is also the actual location of the set - a half-built motorway, elevated between the hills. The contrast neatly expresses the theme of this experimental documentary. Apart from being a reflection on reality and representation, Butter Lamp offers an insightful comment on the effects of globalization and technology and the assimilation of Tibetan culture by the Chinese and the Western world, where the Tibetans must struggle for their identity while being pushed ever more towards a peripheral position.

The visual system of this short film is very simple, but effective. As the director Wei Hu states in an interview, the idea of ​​the film came from looking at a Michael Bash picture Warsaw 1046, Says Hu Wei: “I wanted to reproduce the device to photograph characters against various backgrounds. It is a practice still very popular in China. I wanted an uncluttered movie, between fiction and documentary, reality and dream, modern civilization and traditional habits, Chinese ideology and Tibetans beliefs. Today’s world is complex, conflicts are everywhere, including Tibet, but I did not want to offer a positive or negative judgment, I just wanted to show today’s changes...”

Hu Wei was born in Beijing in 1983, he currently lives and works between Paris and Beijing. He graduated at the Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris in 2011, and at Le Fresnoy-Studio National des Arts contemporains in 2013. Besides cinema, he creates installations, sculptures and drawings.

Image - Cannes.