Pawo | Marvin Litwak | Queens World Film Festival 2017
As an American, it’s hard to imagine what it would be like to be exiled from your own country for political reasons. Pawo succeeds in letting you experience the fear, frustration, and sometimes utter hopelessness of what that would be like. It’s a gorgeous looking and powerful film that gives you an intimate take on the ongoing Tibetan conflicts with China. Shavo Dorjee stars as Dorjee, a young Tibetan man who just lost his father. He hopes to one day be a warrior against the Chinese oppression like his father was. While at a protest in his town square, Dorjee is detained, tortured, and threatened by Chinese police. Fearing for his safety, his mother forces him to go into exile in Nepal. Along his dangerous journey, he meets a young woman named Tenzin (Rinchen Palzom). Once in India, Dorjee gets closer with Tenzin and reunites with his cousin and childhood best friend Kelsang (Tenzin Gyaltsen). They are all exiles, and soon come to rely on one another in order to recapture their love of Tibet and life.
Director Marvin Litwak has made the great choice of filming Pawo in 4k, resulting in some truly breathtaking shots of rural Tibet, Nepal, and other areas of India. The main plot of the story focuses on Dorjee in the present, but there are also flashbacks of his childhood spread out through the film. These childhood moments are often filled with natural feeling dialogue and great acting by the children of the cast. The chemistry with Dorjee and Kelsang as children continues along with their adult actors. Both give great performances that feel raw and honest. Kelsang chose to exile himself to Nepal when he was a child, so he is more than used to living there now. Dorjee spends most of the film feeling homesick and utterly lost. Pawo works best when the dynamic between Kelsang and Dorjee is on screen. Dorjee feels useless while working as a cook in Nepal, and wants to do more with his life, where Kelsang seems content with what he has.
The subject of self-immolation is a major theme of Pawo. The characters have a few discussions on whether the act of suicide is really helping the cause, or if it makes things harder on the “martyr’s” family. It’s understandably a complicated issue for the people of Tibet, and the film doesn’t tip-toe around the subject. The themes of nationalism, belonging, self-sacrifice, and persistence permeate this film. Although there are some dark moments and themes here, there are also many moments of laughter throughout Pawo. The conversations between Dorjee, Kelsang and their two other roommates are often light, touching, and genuinely funny. Litwak also shoots in the intimate hallways and back alleys of Nepal with great success, which makes you feel like you’re really there. There is hardly a sound stage to be found anywhere in this film. Everything feels authentic. The mountain, river, and wilderness scenery is as beautiful as some cinematography can get.
The natural lighting of the night scenes in the busy Nepal streets and apartments make the actors stand out in a great way. The story wraps up in a surprising, yet natural conclusion that doesn’t feel too preachy or pandering. It definitely affected the audience I was viewing it with. The romance subplot between Dorjee and Tenzin is a tad silly sometimes, but it still feels real and creates some needed levity in a film dealing with such serious subject matter. The Dalai Lama himself even makes a quick appearance, and the subject of his next re-incarnation has actually been on my mind lately.
There are many philosophical ideas flowing through Pawo, and its ending message makes it pretty clear that this is a film for the people of Tibet. Overall, this was an enjoyable and affecting human drama that totally surprised me. The cast and crew of this film have created something genuine and with a message, while not beating you over the head with it. I’d highly recommend this one.