Hema Hema: Behind the Masks


Masked dancers glow in the light of a bonfire, twirling between the shadows, lurking behind a false identity. Every twelve years, hundreds of souls gather in the forest, embroiled in a lucid journey of transformation.

Text by Jessica Vernon

Studio Shoot by Solly Baba

What would you do if you had total anonymity? How would you act if there were no rules and no retribution? Who would you be if you could reinvent yourself? Would you be happy with the person you’ve become?

In Kyentse Rinpoche’s latest film, Hema Hema: Sing Me a Song While I Wait, these questions challenge the very core of our identity—as individuals and as a society. Once again, Rinpoche gives us a story that makes us think a different kind of story; a story with few words and many masks. Spanning twenty four years, the saga of Hema Hema takes us on a visual journey of the samsaric soul. Themes of sin, desire, death, retribution and rebirth are colorfully intertwined with historical fact and fiction. Evocative of all the best Buddhist stories, Hema Hema is open for interpretation.

The cast and crew took a break from their international film festival circuit to talk to Yeewong about Rinpoche’s vision for the film, the danger of freedom, their own interpretations of the story, and hopes for the future of Bhutanese cinema. “We as a Bhutanese have a very complex way of communicating. It is very subtle and interesting and many times we need to understand what is happening with [our] gestures. But in most of the Bhutanese films you don’t see that. It’s a beautiful way of communicating and I feel like we are losing that. With Hema Hema I think Ripoche had brought back this sort of communication,” says the film’s producer, Pawo Chonying Dorji.

Pawo Dorji has worked with Rinpoche in various capacities over the years, but says this film was different than all of Rinpoche’s previous works. With this film Rinpoche breaks the rules of storytelling. “When you think of stories and movies you have to see faces and hear voices, how else can the audience relate to the story, right?” But Rinpoche’s vision for the film transcends dialogue and strips the face of all emotion. “We are not only pushing ourselves into the category of an art film but we are also pushing ourselves really to a boundary of how stories are told.” The film centers on a group of masked characters; faceless, sexless, emotionless, brought together in a dense forest in remote Bhutan at a festival that takes place once every twelve years. There is little dialogue but the film uncovers creative ways to convey the dramatic nuances of human emotion through lighting, costumes and colors.

Pawo Choyning Dorji

As with all art films, interpretation is very subjective. “Everyone seems to have their own understanding of the film,” says actress Sadon Lhamo, who plays Red Wrath. “I think it’s definitely about the consequences we have to face in life with any kind of freedom we’re given. I also think it’s about our need to escape from who we are sometimes; our need to be someone else; how differently we would live. But eventually who we are will catch up. Everyone has a different interpretation of the film and I think that is exactly what Rinpoche’s films do… They’re like poetry and you can come up with your own reasoning. They make you think out of the box and it keeps you guessing.”

Pawo says the idea for the film was inspired by online chat rooms; “What Rinpoche found was that when people entered these chat rooms, they take on different names, different photos, they put on a mask basically. They take on different personas. With that they almost become totally free. They do whatever they want; things that if they weren’t in a chat room they wouldn’t do. So you see this movie is really about freedom. Everyone talks about wanting to be free but what really happens when you have that much freedom? We humans are a society that is governed by what other people think of us. So in a way we don’t wear [literal] masks, but we are masked. And this movie is really about that. What happens when we have too much freedom? The sense of righteousness, does it break down?”

As the characters gather for this festival they shed their identity, their gender and their past. They are in essence, reborn. The festival is a place in limbo; a place of transition and transformation. A place with no rules and no justice. But what will the characters do with this autonomy?

“I think masks are so powerful. In this movie we wear masks to hide ourselves but the irony is that we are wearing a mask in order to be mask less. It’s about what you do when you have no identity. You become free and that is when the true self comes out,” says Pawo.

Actor Tshering Dorji

Tshering Dorji, who plays the lead protagonist, Faceless, feels the “so-called self is very dangerous,” especially if that self is not guided by the rules of social morality. He feels the film serves as a metaphorical social experiment through which the audience can “invent their own way of finding the so -called self.”

Actor Thinley Dorji plays the festival conductor or Lha Karpo, who hints at having ties to the divine.  His is the only character at the festival who doesn’t wear a mask; the only character accountable for his true identity. His interpretation of the movie’s metaphors are more tangible: “In Hema Hema I saw the old man as the government and the anonymity and freedom as being democracy. And how each one uses that freedom is very much determining how Bhutan will turn out. Just like how all the people in the camp behaved would determine how they experience the whole society in the particular two weeks. I think it is all compelled by the behavior and the desires of the character. There is a really meaningful play being enacted on stage but most of the people there were too busy going after their own hungers and desires. A mundane samsaric kind of a thing. Even when you are told that you have this opportunity to improve yourself, people are too busy with their own samsaric preoccupation.”

Actor Thinley Dorji


Thinley says, “The question of identity and anonymity is very relevant and timely in Bhutan at the moment… It is about the mask that we put on every time we are interacting with each other and in many ways it is so relevant in Bhutan because our culture and our driglam nam zha, everything requires us to play a certain role. I always joke that Bhutanese are acting all the time. I am not being harsh and judgmental as if to say that I am above it all. I am just saying that including myself. But everywhere we are always putting on mask and more so in a very small interrelated society. This movie is about identity and anonymity and accountability. And I think as we are now in the 12th to 13th year into democracy this movie may hint at the roles each one of us could play not just as an audience but as real participants with the stage being our community, our country and society.”

Actor Sadon Lhamo

The fictitious festival draws inspiration from many real Buddhist celebrations. The choreography was inspired by traditional dances from across Bhutan. Pawo says, “Most of the dances that we see in the movie are dances that exist. For example the bardo cham is there in the tsechus. Lha karpo and the nangchungs , singhye gyalp is all over Bhutan. But the best lhamo dancers come from these small pockets of Bhutan. Even the naked dance is also Bhutanese. That is a dance that is performed by the bartsam gomchens. It’s exactly as it’s performed. There is this one dance where the masks are wearing different senses; as you are dying your senses are leaving you. There is the eye mask walking out, followed by your nose, touch, etc.”

“I think a lot of people will see this [film] as a form of teaching,” Pawo reflects, “They will find some spiritual inspiration in it. We can’t help it. It is Rinpoche’s film. It is a film that touches upon bardo. It has a lot of Buddhist themes to it.” The cast and crew are hoping that these themes will resonate with the Bhutanese audience despite the many convoluted artistic flares that are uncommon in Bhutanese cinema. “I hope that even if they don’t grasp the movie, there is some sort of spiritual inspiration they can find. And for people that do grasp the movie, I hope it kindles their fire for creativity. Because I think for the Bhutanese cast and crew involved it has really sparked something special in them.” While there is song and dance, Hema Hema is far from mainstream cinema. This film, and others like it (including Dechen Roder’s newest, Honeygiver Among the Dogs) challenge Bhutanese viewers to broaden their cultural horizons through media that makes them think.

Cinematographer Jigme Tenzing

Pawo says he is noticing a new movement arising in Bhutan, “It is a quiet and slow movement, but it is a movement of the arts happening which I am so happy about.” With the country progressing on a rapid journey of modernization, our art forms should reflect that. As our view of the world—and our role in it—changes, we should no longer be satisfied with shallow stories that require no critical thought. Through film, Rinpoche is pushing the boundaries of local cinema and marking a new era in the evolution of cultural expression in Bhutan.

In many ways this film is reaching out to the Bhutanese community, not only by challenging their expectations of cinema, but by investing in their future. Rinpoche insisted that the film crew be mostly Bhutanese, actively seeking out young professionals and recovering addicts.  Pawo recounts, “Rinpoche said that this should not only inspire Bhutanese to make films, but also give them a chance to express themselves and to find some sort of distraction if they were substance abusers.” The few foreign crew members that were brought in also acted like teachers, guiding “our young Bhutanese on how to do this particular work so that they leave some sort of a legacy behind.”

This sense of community extended far beyond the cast and crew. While lead cinematographer, Jigme Tshewang Tenzing dealt with the logistical and lighting challenges of filming on location in the remote forests of Pemathang, Pawo says the local villagers “saw the filming as a true religious event.” When the word spread that Dzongksar Khentsey Rinpoche was making a film about bardo, the villagers showed up in throngs to volunteer as the 300+ extras needed for the festival scenes. “It’s a film where there is de nag chung, lha karpo and all these chams going on and there is a baad singing the songs of life and death, I think the villagers saw it as a religious event more than a movie.” It is typically quite difficult to recruit and coordinate hundreds of extras but Pawo says, “for us they willingly came because they saw this as a religious event and not a film set. So it was almost like they wanted to be there. And every time the performance started and the lha karpo came, these people would fold hands and bow in respect because for them it wasn’t a movie.”

Though this mysterious world of masks, peculiar dialects, vibrant colors and mood lighting may seem alien to some, the spiritual aspects and concepts of identity and desire are themes that speak to all people irrespective of whether we are from Bhutan, Switzerland or America. This ability to transcend cultural boundaries and verbal communication lends the film a sense of universality. Hema Hema’s success abroad solidifies Rinpoche’s unique contributions to the great treasure chest of Bhutanese tales. “Rinpoche is a very inspiring story teller. I think different teachers manifest in different ways. Thang Thong Gyalpo built bridges and he founded a Tibetan opera, so there is nothing new in a Buddhist teacher taking on different roles to express teachings of the Buddha. People say that the artist creates illusions to show people the truth, so Rinpoche in his capacity [as a spiritual leader] is a producer of the truth, but then as a film maker he is a creator of illusions.”

Hema Hema is at once a paradox and a mirror for society. It teaches us that we have the opportunity to be reborn daily; to reinvent ourselves in a myriad of ways. In a world where we can be whoever we want to be, would we choose the righteous path or would we succumb to our desires? Hidden behind a mask of anonymity we have the power to decide our own reality, to change our destiny. This power, like the forest and the festival, is an illusion, but the feeling one has when submerged in its deluded trance is as real as any existence we’ve lived before.

So, which mask are you wearing today?

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