Because Mr. Tseden’s films touch on issues related to ethnic minorities, they are vetted through a stricter-than-usual censorship process. Every line in the script is scrutinized. For inspiration about working within the constraints of overwhelming censorship, Mr. Tseden studied the work of Iranian filmmakers like Abbas Kiarostami and Mohsen Makhmalbaf.
Despite the intense scrutiny, all six of Mr. Tseden’s feature films have received the official “dragon seal” of approval from Chinese censors — a testament, critics say, to the subtlety of his cinematic expression. (His films have had limited box office success in China, though, in part because of their slow pacing and art-house aesthetic.)
In conversation as in his films, Mr. Tseden is cautious. When asked about what some critics say are China’s increasingly assimilationist policies toward ethnic minorities, he said that he felt “very helpless.” He added, “When you are a relatively small subject and you encounter something with greater power, of course you have no choice but to change and adapt.”
But his films can be direct. A sense of despair pervades the 2011 film “Old Dog,” in which a shepherd would rather kill his beloved nomad Tibetan mastiff than see it stolen or sold to meet the growing black market demand among Chinese businessmen. “A grim and uncompromising allegory of the waning of Tibetan traditions and values,” the critic Jeanette Catsoulis wrote in a New York Times review.
The Tibetan language also features prominently throughout Mr. Tseden’s films. His insistence on shooting in Tibetan, particularly his native Amdo dialect, comes as bilingual education for ethnic minorities in China and has been subject to increasing pressure. Last year, a Tibetan entrepreneur was sentenced to five years in prison for campaigning to preserve the Tibetan language in the face of the increasing dominance of Mandarin Chinese.
Though the boundaries of what is acceptable are constantly shifting, for now, Mr. Tseden said, “It’s possible to still express yourself without touching on the so-called sensitive stuff.”
Several years ago, Mr. Tseden moved from Beijing to Xining, the capital of Qinghai, not far from the secluded mountain village where he grew up. Moving back at a time when more Chinese artists are thinking about moving abroad was a natural decision, he said.
“Being an artist in the system in China is a difficult life,” he acknowledged. “But freedom is a relative concept. And this is the land I belong to.”