Butter Lamp may be more a series of compelling sentences than a completed short story, but it’s unlike any Academy Award-nominated short film from this year or last.
The idea is brilliantly simple: a traveling photographer sets up shop and spends a day shooting portraits for indigenous Tibetan families, bringing with his collection of large backdrops. The families come, select a backdrop, and have their picture taken. This series of events, captured from a single, static camera position by director Hu Wei and featuring a number of non-professional actors, makes up the whole of Butter Lamp. Also found here: life, humor, truth, and urgency.
The primary conceit is one derived from the clash of tradition and modernity. The Tibetan subjects – large families, a group of young brothers, a teenaged couple – come dressed in long, traditional dresses, but pose in front of international Chinese iconography such as The Great Wall, the Beijing Olympic Stadium, and Disneyland. This clash between their authentic culture and the façades of various modern sights creates the conflict that Wei confronts.
If the purpose of a photograph is to mark a memory – one indicative of a specific time and place – what desire drives these families to select backdrops other than their own? The answer seems to be embedded in the ongoing influence of Chinese culture on Tibetan identity. The subjects’ preference of being photographed in front of lavish, world-famous settings seems to fulfill an aspiration that is touristic in nature. From an outside perspective, particularly a Western one, this arrangement presents a distinct sense of destabilization of place and time. Those with the financial means to travel will likely view these obviously fake backdrops as “touristy” (in a derogatory sense), especially in comparison to the rural Tibetan vistas that these people likely witness every day.
This begs the question: what exactly is behind these assorted backdrops that the photographer and subjects are so keen to cover up? The reveal, the only time in which the camera shifts focus, is powerful, but leaves larger questions in its wake. How important is truth in these photos? Are the indigenous Tibetans going through the grinding process of cultural evolution or becoming woefully alienated?
The most interesting vignette is one featuring an elderly woman who, upon seeing her vinyl backdrop unrolling – a temple – falls to her knees, quite literally worshipping the surface level. Despite the intellectual weight of its material, nearly every scene in Butter Lamp is sprinkled with the quiet humor of real life. Hu Wei succeeds as a filmmaker aware of the structural constraints of the short format. He sets out to make a 16-minute film, not a proof of concept pitch for a 90-minute one. It suggests a great capacity for ethnographic achievement, should Wei decide to shift his focus to documentary work in the future. As a neutral presentation of cultural realities through the artifice of narrative cinema, Butter Lamp is an impressive and unexpected play on art and life imitating one another.Continue Reading Issue #36