Wednesday, October 02, 2013

NYFF ’13: Butter Lamp (short)

He is like an Old West daguerrotypist capturing the faces of the vanishing frontier, except this barnstorming photographer travels through Tibet. Viewers will watch him work in Hu Wei’s Butter Lamp (trailer here), which screens during Shorts Program 2 at the 51st New York FilmFestival.

At first it looks rather surreal.  A quick succession of Tibetan nomads assembles for family photos shot in front of the photographers wildly anachronistic fake backdrops, such as Disneyland and the Great Wall of China. Every time the shutter clicks Hu skips ahead to the next family. The older nomads still don traditional formal dress and wield their prayer wheels, but in each subsequent photo sessions, the younger, impatient generation more frequently wears blue jeans and western sportswear.

While the format is simple, Butter offers a shrewd commentary on globalization and the deliberate marginalization of Tibetan culture. While an elderly woman will prostrate herself before the image of Potala Palace, most of the photographer’s customers chose something reflecting a more consumerist lifestyle. Yet, some customs are still observed. 

Straddling the boundaries between dramatic narratives, documentaries, and cinematic essays, Butter Lamp is visually inventive and decidedly zeitgeisty (particularly at a time when the Tibetan language is struggling for survival, per government policy).  Patrons on a New York budget may not feel Hu’s fifteen minute film alone justifies the price of a ticket, but it is an accomplished production, well worth acknowledging.  It screens this Sunday (10/6) and next Thursday (10/10) as part of the 2013 NYFF’s Shorts Program 2.