Living in political exile abroad as a Tibetan leads to intense feelings of guilt, knowing the struggle of those left behind and the overwhelming feeling of not being able to do enough for the community. In the new Canadian drama Tenzin, themes of guilt, belonging, and loss are at the forefront of one man’s journey.
Directed by Michael LeBlanc and Josh Reichmann, Tenzin follows a young Tibetan man living in Toronto. His older brother has self-immolated in protest of the Tibetans living under Chinese occupation. Struggling to come to terms with the devastating loss of his brother from abroad, Tenzin (Tenzin Kelsang) is also trying to balance his life in Toronto. A member of the close-knit and devoted exile community, Tenzin feels caught between his identity and Western youth culture.
Tenzin is written by the film’s Tibetan cast, including Kelsang. Tenzin Choekyi, Salden Kunga, Yeshi Tenzin, Chemi Lhamo, and Norbu Dhundup, and all receive story credits and appear as main characters in the film. Filmed with mostly non-actors, it is the first Tibetan-Canadian feature film production of its kind.
Working alongside his cousin as a truck driver in Toronto, Tenzin is a lost soul wandering through a new landscape. Filmed in winter when Toronto is at its least welcoming, the city feels dark and heavy, much like Tenzin’s mood. Seeming to walk through his days in a haze, Tenzin feels he cannot live up to his brother’s reputation amid a community that heralds him as a martyr for their cause.
Comparisons between East and West are rife within the film. With a dead-end job and a bully of a boss, the oppression the Tibetan people face is mirrored here with Tenzin’s boss, however on a much smaller scale. The contrast between the vibrantly-coloured Tibetan ceremonies and the Toronto nightclub scene are also here to serve as a counterpoints to one another. Filming each of them in a dreamlike environment, Tenzin floats through each world, unable to find a true connection in either. The soundtrack and score further drive this message home, mixing Tibetan and Western sounds that heighten the overall sleep-like mood.
First-time feature directors LeBlanc and Reichman show technical competence here, and with a runtime of 74 minutes, Tenzin doesn’t overstay its welcome. LeBlanc has an award-winning career as a cinematographer for shorts and music videos for bands including the Arkells, The Rural Alberta Advantage, Timber Timbre, Spoon, Bahamas, and more. LeBlanc lends his expertise here too as Tenzin‘s cinematographer and editor.
While the film tells the story of a Canadian immigrant community we don’t often (if ever) see represented, the overall journey underwhelms at times. Like Tenzin, viewers may feel like they’re sleepwalking through the unfolding narrative. Tying an intimate and personal story to the larger context of Tibetan oppression is a gateway into the subject matter, but ultimately falls short of making any statement or serious criticism of the Chinese government. It’s unlikely the story will push an audience into action or give viewers a newfound outlook on Tibet and the Tibetan community in exile. However, there is no doubt that newcomers, immigrants, and first-generation Canadians will connect to the feeling of being caught between Western ideals and their traditional culture.
Though Tenzin may not succeed on all fronts, it is a pleasure to see a film of its kind from an underrepresented community. One can only hope it further opens the door to telling more diverse and representative Canadian stories.
Tenzin opens in Toronto, Calgary, and Vancouver on March 17.