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‘Each time you tell the same story, it evolves’: Creator of Tibetan Animated Film Speaks With GlacierHub

Tibetan animator Kunsang Kyirong’s short animation “Yarlung” has been selected for the Ottawa International Film Festival 2020, the largest animation film festival in North America. 

The Yarlung Tsangpo (Tsangpo translates to River in Tibetan) flows across southern Tibet through the Himalayas and into India and Bangladesh, as the Brahmaputra River, before merging with the Ganges and emptying into the Bay of Bengal. Kyirong spent her childhood playing in the Yarlung Tsangpo with her family in Arunachal Pradesh, the northeastern-most part of India. 

Tea from the Yarlung is a recurring theme in Kyirong’s film. Source: Kunsang Kyirong

The storyline follows three children who interact with the Yarlung Tsangpo in different ways in response to a death in the family. Each child has their own relationship with the river. Tea is also a recurring theme; the ritual of drinking tea symbolizes all the generations’ dependence on the Yarlung Tsangpo. She implements a striking, monochromatic, charcoal medium to bring her characters and environment to life. 

This film is shot through a little boy and his two young brothers’ perspective of their environment and community. The flow of the river, the flow of tears/sweat, and the flow of the tea are all shown in parallel using soft, light, and dark charcoal hand-drawn tones. Through the boys’ eyes, the tea, grandma’s tear/sweat, and the river all look the same. The river becomes the tea and is enjoyed by the community for solace, sustenance, and connection. It catches a spectrum of emotions from loss to childhood playfulness, using soft and hard moving lines.

This is in direct contrast to how Western thrill-seekers usually present the Yarlung Tsangpo as “Everest of all rivers,” “liquid thunder,” and “monstrous and obscure.” For more than a century from colonial British explorers to modern-day Western adventurers, foreigners have strived and died to make their marks as “the firsts” to descent the Yarlung Tsangpo and achieve various feats using locals as overland porters. We almost never hear or read about local perspectives on the sacredness and importance of the Yarlung Tsangpo.

When the boys jump into the Yarlung, the sound and the visuals have the viewers feeling a rush of refreshing relief and enjoyment. Their swimming, playing and fishing shows the deep local connections to the river that starts from every childhood. At the end of the five-minute film, the viewer is left feeling familiar with a river that sustains so many lives, instead of the popular “beyond human-feat” Western narrative. 

GlacierHub sat down with Kyirong to talk about the film. 

GlacierHub: What is the significance of the Yarlung Tsangpo in your film?

Kunsang Kyirong: The Yarlung is significant in a number of ways: there is an emotional dependence that the three children (Tsamchoe, Tenpa, and Tenzin) share with the river, but also a fear, and the river exists in a way as its own character, uncontrollable maybe? The Yarlung is also consumed in the movie, so even though there are elements of fear and play, at the end of the day you are drinking the river’s water, and in the movie, it’s through the form of hot tea. 

GH: What inspired you to choose Yarlung?

KK: The Yarlung Tsangpo flows from the Angsi Glacier in Western Tibet and into India through Arunachal Pradesh. My Ama-la was born in the remote village of Tezu, a Tibetan Lama camp that is situated along the river. Throughout my childhood, I spent my summers in Tezu, while there our daily lives depended heavily on the Yarlung Tsangpo. We would go to the river maybe 3 or 4 times a day to bathe, wash dishes, and to collect water for our home. The river was also our main source of play, jumping off of bridges, and flowing downstream, the river provided everyone with a lot of joy. 

GH: What is the intersectional significance of the environment and art in your work?

KK: The starting point of this film came from researching the Yarlung Tsangpo and the number of communities that depend on this enormous river that flows from Tibet, into India and merges with the Ganges. I got interested in a cascade of damming projects planned by China and how their dam plans would impact those communities. The project was initially intended as more of a documentary project. But I cherish stories, and wanted to find a way where I could explore the preciousness of the Yarlung. The cool thing about the process was even though the film is a melange of fiction and non-fiction, a lot of the story came spontaneously from the process of straight-ahead animation; similar to how stories unfold when told orally, where you might remember one detail which reminds you of another and so on. Each time you tell the same story it evolves. The same thing happened as I was drawing; a scene of the river would evolve into a cup of hot pouring tea, usually unplanned.

GH: What future projects are you working on?

KK: Currently, I am working on making puppets and animating them in the process of stop-motion animation. I want to do a parody of the ways in which Tibet is depicted in the West, I plan on making it pretty silly, a lot of milking Yaks and meditation, contrasting that stereotype with the way that contemporary Tibetans in the diaspora actually live. I found this image online of a Tibetan monk in New York City with a rose gold iPhone and the juxtaposition always makes me laugh. 

You can follow Kyirong and her work on Instagram. 

A scene from “Yarlung.” Source: Kunsang Kyirong
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Chintan Sheth
3 years ago

This form of story telling and the story itself is so unique and creative. But I had one question to Kunsang – Tezu on the banks of the Lohit river or Zayul Chu. Pasighat and other areas of the Siang valley are on the banks of the Siang – the name of the Yarlung-Tsangpo in Arunachal Pradesh.

Reply to  Chintan Sheth
3 years ago

You are very right.

kunsang kyirong
3 years ago

Hi Chintan!

Firstly thank you for watching the trailer and for your lovely comments! To answer your question, Tezu rests on the banks of the Lohit river, however the river merges with the Yarlung (Siang/Brahmaputra/Jamuna) at the bottom of Tibetan Lama Camp No.1. There still remains the sort of rubble of the bridge that is above where the two rivers connect.

chintan sheth
chintan sheth
Reply to  kunsang kyirong
3 years ago

Ah I see Kunsang! Lovely story telling! All the best.