Minneapolis student in ‘Miss Tibet’ seeks to spread the message of oppression

MinnPost photo by Jim Walsh
Minneapolis student Tenzin Khecheo, the subject of the documentary “Miss Tibet.”

Early in Norah Shapiro’s fascinating and beautiful documentary “Miss Tibet: Beauty in Exile,” a Tibetan official proclaims that Western culture-inspired beauty pageants are antithetical to Tibet’s Buddhist ways of being and believing, because “competition is at the heart of all conflict.”

That quandary is at the core of “Miss Tibet,” which follows 19-year-old Minneapolis student Tenzin Khecheo to Dharamsala, India, the Himalayan home of the Tibetan government in exile, in her quest for the crown of Miss Tibet. But unlike North American beauty queens, Khecheo seeks the sash as a way of spreading the message of Tibet’s ongoing oppression by China, the work of the Free Tibet movement, and the peaceful nature of Tibetan people. The film premiered to enthusiastic sold-out notices in New York in October and makes its official world premiere at the Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival on April 18, after which it will hopefully gain wider attention given the fact that it begs plenty of timely questions, namely:

When’s the last time you heard an American beauty pageant contestant talk in her interview segment about inner peace, selfless love and the wisdom of the Dalai Lama?

“Never!” laughed Shapiro by phone Friday afternoon from Iowa, through which she and her family were road-tripping for spring break.

“I was interested in this story from the instant I heard about it, when I was working on my first film, ‘If You Dare.’ Based on my impressions and understanding of Tibet, and my impressions as a Western feminist about beauty pageants, I thought, ‘That can’t possibly be. What on earth is going on?’ Before it had any funding or anything, I just decided to jump on a plane and go to India. That was supposed to be just for research, but I ended up literally filming the whole time from the minute we hit the ground.”

The story revolves around Khecheo and the pageant’s sketchy founder, Lobsang Wangyal, a shady opportunist who launched the Miss Tibet pageant in 2002 and at one point proudly declares himself “the Donald Trump of Tibet.” In the end, Khecheo controversially doesn’t win the crown and Wangyal is exposed as a fraud. But along the way “Miss Tibet” provides an unprecedented glimpse into the peaceful nature of Tibet and it’s culture clash with the contemporary Western world.

“I was drawn to this story because of its complexities, “ said Shapiro, a third-generation Jewish-American and public defender-turned-documentary filmmaker who was in part inspired to tell a complicated immigration story after reading Rodger Kamenetz’s “The Jew in ohe Lotus.” “I love when things co-exist and rub up against each other. On the one hand, yes, competition is the root of all evil, and there’s the inner versus the outer, and yet here’s this beauty pageant that’s co-existing with all of that.

Norah Shapiro
Flying Pieces Productions
Norah Shapiro

“I see this as a coming-of-age film, and I love how it ends, with her saying, I think I’m going to be dealing with this for the rest of my life: What is my Tibetaness? How does it manifest? It’s an evolving thing. And, it was a way to bring attention to this ongoing struggle. The situation in Tibet, which I didn’t get into in this movie, is ever more dire. The self-immolations going on inside Tibet because of how extreme of what’s happening there is a story that the world isn’t really paying attention to.”

At the moment, 24-year-old Khecheo is finishing up her nursing degree at Minneapolis Community and Technical College (MCTC), and works as a waitress and host at a Minneapolis Tibetan restaurant. Saturday afternoon, with incense burning and recorded Buddhist chants playing softly, over Tibetan tea and cookies and with her mother and two sisters hovering about the family’s modest Columbia Heights home, Tenzin sat down in the house’s candlelit cho-khang (prayer house) to talk about Tibet and her big screen debut.

MinnPost: What a beautiful room, a true place of peace.

Tenzin Khecheo: Every morning my mom puts water in those little silver cups up there as an offering to the gods, and then every evening we dump it out and start the whole cycle again the next morning. This is where my grandpa prays. He’s not here right now, he’s in Nepal at the moment, but when he was here he would wake up every morning at five in the morning and pray for an hour or two, and he does that every morning.

MP: The film is beautiful, and your goal obviously was to become Miss Tibet and talk about Tibet and the plight of the Tibetan people, yet you were never really allowed that chance – other than your interview segment, when you spoke about the Dalai Lama. What would you have said? What would you say now?

TK: Obviously, if I had won, there probably would have been more opportunities other than just this film now that I’m promoting, and stuff. I’m pretty sure there would have been a huge media outbreak in India, and because of my American citizenship, I think I would have had attracted more attention. What I would have said is pretty much what I said throughout the whole competition, letting more people know about the Tibetan struggle and how it’s been almost 60 years now, and the situation hasn’t improved.

But even with all that, there’s still hope for Tibet within the Tibetan community, and just to see that flame still be ignited after all these years, I think that’s truly a story the world needs to know. It’s not just Tibetans fighting for Tibet, it could be taken for other countries who are also struggling, who have gone through the same occupation as Tibet has been for so long. Human rights violations and injustices don’t only affect Tibetan people; they affect all people all over the world.

MP: Tibetan people are, by nature and culture, very peaceful people. It’s a very inner spirituality, as one of the contestants in the film talks about, this selfless love that Buddhism practices and which is such an important message to the world. But as the world melting pot burbles, and war and strife happen in so many corners of the world, the Tibetan people and their way of living have to be heard.

TK: Right. Selfless love doesn’t just apply to Tibetan people and Buddhists, it applies to the whole world. If you think about it, all religions are simple and kind of similar to each other. It talks about how you don’t harm others, and that’s basically what Buddhism is. For me, I consider myself a Buddhist, based on my grandparents and my parents, but I don’t practice Buddhism just because I wasn’t exposed to Buddhism the way other kids in Dharamsala were, so for me to sit here and talk about what a real Buddhist is is kind of difficult. But there’s that baseline where it says that Buddhism is about selfless love, not harming others, and putting others before yourself, and just being compassionate to every living being in the world. … I’m not 100 percent Buddhist; I have a lot to learn that I can never comprehend.

MP: I’m not asking you to be a spokesperson for Buddhism, I’m just saying that the idea of compassion and peace and love and the inner journey isn’t widely discussed in the West. It’s gotten better since the 1950s, but I mean, you and I have been talking here for seven minutes and we’re already talking about selfless love. That conversation doesn’t happen every day in mainstream America, and that’s what you were trying to do with this pageant.

TK: I’m glad you took that away from the movie, because that would’ve been my position if I had won Miss Tibet: to be a spokesperson for Tibet and Tibetan women, so I’m really glad you thought about it, but I know I have a long way to go before I truly become that because there are tons of people out there who have done much more than I have. I started out with all this passion in me and went to all the Free Tibet protests and along the way I kind of felt like it was drowning in me. I wasn’t as motivated and life and school and work got busy and I didn’t have the time on my hands to go on the Tibetan lectures and gatherings and protests. That’s why I thought being Miss Tibet would kind of step me up in the game again and to really connect with my Tibetan identity.

Going to India, being in the competition, having a week of lessons on Tibetan music, culture, religion, writing, that was a good foundation for me. With the crown, there are a lot of opportunities to talk about Tibet. But even without the crown, you can do that. I can do that. You don’t have to wear a sash or a crown on your head to talk about the struggle about Tibet.

After they announced the winner, I had people come up to me from Dharamsala and say, ‘You should have won, you’re the real winner,’ and I got tons of requests on Facebook from people in India, messaging me and saying they were proud of me for standing up for Tibet. I never really believed it myself, but after I got over the whole, ‘Oh I didn’t win, boo-hoo’ part, I kind of realized that in a way, every one of those girls were winners and were stepping up for Tibet. But with this movie coming out and the attention it gives Tibet, I feel like a winner.

MP: Beyond the troubles, what do you want people to know about Tibetan people? What do you love about your people?

TK: There is that huge conception that Tibetan people are peaceful, compassionate, open-minded, and [practitioners of] selfless love, and we have all those qualities within us, but we are much more than that. We are fighters, we are believers, we are hopeful people who have this really oppressed, horrifying history. Our land was taken from us, our country was taken from us, our beautiful monasteries were destroyed, lots of brothers and sisters were killed, and even then, we’re still here and we’re still celebrating our culture and practicing our religion.

Tibetan people are proud of who we are, and we won’t stop fighting for our country, until we gain our independence. I think what I want people to know about Tibet is to view Tibet as an oppressed country for sure, but also to look at us and let us be an example of what it is to be human, for what it is to be without a country to call home. Also to know that even with all the horrible things that have been going on in Tibet, we’re still celebrating who we are because that’s the only thing we can do. If we stop doing that, nobody’s going to know what Tibet is, or if it even existed.

So keeping Tibet alive is in our protests, our hearts, our morning prayers, and in our everyday conversations. I want people to make Tibet an everyday conversation, and keeping Tibet alive. That’s the message I want to get across with this movie: Tibetan people are still here, and we’re proud of who we are and we’re proud of our home country and there’s no way we’re giving up. We’ve come a long way, and I’m hoping that someday Tibet will regain its independence and people will celebrate.

MP: Did you enjoy the film, did your family enjoy it?

TK: My family really liked it; once they saw it and saw that it wasn’t just me, it was about Tibet and Tibetan history, my mom really liked that. It showed twice in New York, but I wasn’t as nervous as I am about this one, because this [April 18 premiere] is the hometown. I never really thought much about the fact that this stranger was going to come into my life and document my every move. I was like, “I’ve always wanted to be on a reality TV show,” and this is kind of like that.

It’s all raw emotions, raw feelings. It’s who I am, and what my mind was going through at the time. Seeing the film now, the journey itself was one of the best experiences of my life and having people give all this good positive feedback makes me happy and makes me think that maybe this is one of the good things I’ve done in my life. Hearing people talk about Tibet because of the movie has been really self-rewarding. I’m really excited and I’m super-nervous and I hope people enjoy it.

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