Miss Tibet: Beauty in Exile Dir. Norah Schapiro

[Flying Pieces Productions; 2014]

Styles: documentary
Others: Olhando pras Olas, Breath Made Visible

Miss Tibet: Beauty in Exile, directed by Norah Schapiro highlights the little heard or seen event Miss Tibet, which takes place annually in Dharamshala, India. As the title suggests, the pageant is, for the organizers and the contestants, more than just a venus to parade oneself; it is an avenue to assert Tibet’s independence from China and gives Tibetan women one of the only public platforms to be leaders and speak on political issues. From the mid 90s to the early 00s, the limbo of Tibetans took center stage with events like the Tibetan Freedom Concert, organized by the Beastie Boys, but the cause seems to have slipped from the Western world’s radar in past years, with the Middle East and the Great Recession making the majority of headlines.

However, for the millions of Tibetans living around the world in the United States, India, and Europe, and beyond, the situation is as present as ever. Hence, while many feminists — including Andrée-Marie Dussault, who is interviewed in the film — generally cast a cynical eye towards most pageants, they see Miss Tibet as a pageant with a difference. It strives to educate Tibetan youth about their culture in an effort to maintain ties to their homeland in spite of exile, and in past years it has featured a required training week in which the contestants were invited to take culture lessons and hear lectures from Tibetan leaders.

While Miss Tibet sets itself apart by serving as a platform for social change, though, it is still a beauty pageant with a a swimsuit contest and evening gown show (which are requirements to participate in the international beauty pageant circuit). As the documentary progresses, it becomes clear that the drive to modernize and be a part of a globalized world is changing the Tibetan community. While on the one side, the entire event was decried as un-Tibetan, going against modesty and tradition by many leaders such as the exiled Prime Minister Samdhong Rimpoche , there is also the perspective of the many Tibetans around the world being assimilated whether they like it or not into a globalized culture, which includes the celebration of women in bikinis. The director and funder of the pageant, Lobsang Wangyal, revealed this position in his statement, “My path is bringing Tibet on the modernization path, not the Westernization path. This modernization may have elements of the West, which is okay. Why is it okay for Westerners to, you know, to convert to Buddhism or Hinduism or whatever, they can do yoga and all this, whereas we cannot do fashion shows and all this?”

The main subject of the film and one of the contestants, 19-year-old Tenzin Khecheo, lives out this tension between East and West. In the opening scenes before the contest (which takes place in India), she describes herself thus: “I am a modern American girl. I do what any other American girl do.” We meet her in her family’s adopted home in Minneapolis, Minnesota sipping on a McDonald’s drink. Indeed, she appears to be a typical suburban teenager listening to pop music and driving to fast food restaurants, but her personal history sets her apart from the concerns of most girls her age. Born in India to Tibetan refugees and brought to the US through a government lottery, she carries the burden of working to not forget her heritage. She tells us that she initially tried out for Miss Tibet to help boost her confidence, but as she prepares to leave for India, she shares that her motivation to become Miss Tibet is also meant to honor her past and her father who passed away after moving to the US. As the competition unfolds, emotions run high as the quest for Miss Tibet also becomes a search to assert one’s identity. Towards the end of the pageant, before the speech competition, Khecheo admits, “I’m so afraid that everyone will think that I’m just some dumb American girl who doesn’t know anything about Tibet.” For Khecheo, fitting in and standing out becomes a more complicated feat than for the average girl.

The speech competition seems to be what put Miss Tibet into its own class of beauty pageants, giving Tibetan women a chance to be heard. But after all is said and done, an uncomfortable truth about how Miss Tibet is finally selected is revealed in the 2011 pageant. Without giving away the surprise ending, let’s just say that perhaps the winning qualities of Miss Tibet are more subjective than one might hope. With the announcement of the winner shrouded with murmurs in the crowd of astonishment, the contestants, and even the runners-up, are forced to re-evaluate what it means to seek to be Miss Tibet.

As we see Tenzin Khecheo return home to Minnesota after the competition, in spite of questions about the contest — is it anti-Tibetan, is it fair, etc. — one is left inspired by the passion she expresses about her hopes for the future, of wanting to pursue something outside of herself, for Tibet.

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