By Frank Scheck
ON THE WEB, 2 December 2014
There are beauty pageants of all stripes, but few are as memorably exotic as the one depicted in Norah Shapiro’s documentary chronicling the decade-old competition featuring Tibetan exiles. Run by a colorfully shady impresario who deserves a film of his own, the “beauty pageant with a difference” is the colorful backdrop for Miss Tibet: Beauty in Exile, which recently received its world première at the DOC NYC Festival. It should easily attract more festival bookings as well as eventual exposure in arthouses and on public television.
Beginning with a thumbnail history of Tibet’s oppression by the Chinese, and depicting Hollywood’s treatment of the region via clips from such films as Lost Horizon and Seven Years in Tibet, the documentary proceeds to explore the western-style pageant featuring evening gown, talent, and yes, the inevitable swimsuit competitions.
It’s the brainchild of founder Lobsang Wangyal, a flamboyant, colorfully-dressed figure who claims that “already some people are calling me the Tibetan Donald Trump.” It’s an apt description for the endlessly ambitious and eccentric figure who proclaims, “When Tibet will be free, then I’ll be a big man, you know.”
The event started in 2002 has not been without its controversies, as illustrated by Tibet’s prime minister-in-exile who decried it, declaring that “competition in any form is the root cause of all kinds of conflict.”
It nonetheless attracts hordes of eager young women motivated not only by the pageant’s rewards but also a desire to reconnect with their Tibetan heritage. One of them is Tenzin Khecheo, a Tibetan-American teenager from Minnesota — the Midwestern state boasts the second largest Tibetan community in the United States — who travels to Dharamshala, India, to compete in the pageant, with her mother and little sisters in tow.
The competition features no shortage of bumps in the road, from the young women clearly uncomfortable parading around in skimpy swimsuits to China’s pressuring a previous winner to wear a sash labeled “Miss Tibet-China.” She refused.
Even more disturbingly, the contest proves a bit of a sham, with the unexpected winner proving a source of disgruntlement for her fellow contestants who question the results. They confront Wangyal, who claims that the judging sheet was lost before eventually admitting that a mysterious element, dubbed the “Grace Mark,” figured prominently in the selection.
Running a scant 69 minutes, the film doesn’t delve into its topic with sufficient depth, too often relying on its quirky central character for entertainment value. But if does offer an incisive portrait of a younger generation of Tibetan exiles who long to embrace their ethnic identity and raise their voices in political activism, even if it means traversing a catwalk or two along the way.