Movie Review: ‘Miss Tibet: Beauty In Exile’ Is An Interesting Look At Another Culture

Greetings again from the darkness. Proving once again that real life provides the most fascinating topics and characters, documentarian Norah Shapiro takes a look at cultural identity and the slow process of exiled-Tibetans adapting to the outside world. Her project takes us inside the Miss Tibet Beauty Pageant … “a pageant with a difference”.

Tenzen Khecheo is the film’s focus. She appears to be a pretty typical teenager living in Minneapolis, though we soon enough learn her family history. Her father received one of the rare immigration visas issued by the U.S. to exiled Tibetans. His family later joined him in the states, and Tenzen’s story picks up after his death. She decides to enter the 10th annual Miss Tibet pageant, and is accompanied by her mother and sisters as they head off to Dharamsala in the Indian Himalayas.

The pageant is run by a self-described “small town impresario” named Lobsang Wangyal, who is more flamboyant and publicity-addicted than any of the six women in the pageant. The stated ideal behind the pageant is to empower Tibetan women and provide them confidence and a platform to have their voice heard. Of course, this seems ironic to us Americans who have heard for years that these pageants are the polar opposite of empowering. But this contradiction helps us understand some of the basic cultural differences in the United States (where freedom is abused) versus exiled-Tibet where morals, honesty, kindness, modesty and spirituality are the most adhered to traits.

What follows is more or less a Westernized Beauty Pageant replete with segments of swim suit modeling, personal talent, current events, and photography sessions. And just like in the U.S., scandal, controversy, and accusations of fraud and unfairness follow the announcement of the winners. This ugly scene captures the essence of what we previously heard from those interviewed – competition goes against the nature of this culture. While they are not against modernization and adapting, the idea of becoming more Westernized is quite unappealing to many.

Ms. Shapiro is kind enough to provide a brief history lesson on Tibet, and how the invasion of China led to the exiled community who for years has followed the guidance of the Dalai Lama. We also meet Ama Adhe, a long time political prisoner, who meets with the girls – driving home the difference between those who have truly suffered for their beliefs and those who simply talk a good game. Tenzen Khecheo mostly behaved like a typical American teenager, though she did show moments of humility when she doubted her relevance among the Tibetan women. It’s always interesting to get a glimpse inside another culture, especially one that is in slow transition.

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