Reel Grrls Alumni Profile: Tenzin Mingyur Paldron

“Because of Reel Grrls, I am a happy, feminist man.”

We have many traditions at Reel Grrls that are put in place to foster our feminist culture. One of our favorites is that we catalog our equipment by naming them after women artists we admire, most often filmmakers, with a short bio. Our students have a built in way to learn about the history of media making. So in our equipment closet sits Ava Duvernay, Sofia Coppola, and Agnes Vardas laptops, and next to those is a Trinh T. Minh-ha hard drive. It never occurred to us that one day a Reel Grrls student would someday call one of those women we admired their academic mentor. We recently caught up with a participant from our 2003 programs – Tenzin Mingyur Paldron – who is pursuing his PhD as the first in his family to attend college and as a student of Trinh T. Minh-ha at UC Berkeley. We’re proud to learn about his trajectory, through his academic pursuits and activism for issues he is so passionate about, and that Reel Grrls could play a small role helping him take a step on that path.

  • Name: Tenzin Mingyur Paldron
  • Preferred Gender Pronoun: He
  • Year at Reel Grrls: 2003
  • Current location: Bases in Berkeley, Seattle-Olympia, and Toronto

Hey Tenzin! It’s been 13 years since you participated in Reel Grrls’ programs! What are you up to now? Have you been working on any cool projects you’d like to share with us?

I’m currently finishing my PhD in Rhetoric at UC Berkeley, with an estimated graduation in 2017. The coolest thing is probably my research 🙂  I would describe my program’s emphasis in Rhetoric as placing a priority on thought, value and interpretation. Candidates are trained in following the multiple lines of thought that exist in a text, address, film, work of art, etcetera, as well as how the way we think and talk about a thing changes the thing itself. How thought and language are world-creating and world-impacting might be another way of saying it.

My own research has to do with considering how certain matters related to Tibet have something significant to offer the world in terms of rethinking notions of ethics and suffering, as well as speech and silence. Reevaluating our assumptions in these realms may also help equip us to offer something of significance back to Tibet and Tibetans. I’ve also been involved in a nonprofit called Machik, that does incredible work on the Tibetan plateau, including gender equity! It was co-founded by two amazing feminist Tibetan sisters and scholars :).

The field of rhetoric sounds like it relates to media literacy! Can you tell me more about why you’re focused on Tibet?

I never thought I would pursue a PhD — neither of my parents attended college.  In my plans to pursue film, I certainly imagined Tibetan stories as a priority, but when I turned to research I was simply drawn to what is informally known as LGBT or queer studies as well as postcolonial studies.  As a Tibetan, although I gave Tibet and Tibetan experiences a lot of reflection, I had created a kind of wall inside myself from considering it as a focus of my research.  But eventually I faced the inevitable, and it has been a path yielding more and more reward with each passing year.

Tenzin speaking at George Washington University in 2012. Photo courtesy of Machik.

Tenzin speaking at George Washington University in 2012. Photo courtesy of Machik.

What has your role in Machik been? Is there anything about the program that you would want to highlight?

I would describe my role in Machik as being a fairly regular volunteer and participant in their North American programs over the last few years.

Machik is a nonprofit founded by Tibetan sisters and scholars Losang and Tashi Rabgey.  What began in 1998 as a project to rebuild a school in their ancestral village in Tibet grew into a permanent commitment to understand the needs of the local community and help everyday Tibetans access the means to build a viable future for the present and future generations of Tibetans.  For Machik, this work began in the realm of education. But as years became a decade and now closing in on a second decade of thoughtful perseverance, Machik’s work extends across education, community health, social entrepreneurship, women’s and youth leadership, and governance. They partner with leading Tibetan artists, conservationists and scholars to contribute toward a brighter future for Tibet and Tibetans.

Can you tell us a time when you took on a leadership role since Reel Grrls? How did Reel Grrls prepare you for you for that?

I’m hesitant of interpreting anything I’ve done as leadership. I will say that I have given two public addresses, one at a large conference and one at a smaller one. And in 2008 I spoke at the Broadway Performance Hall, as part of an event organized by Seattle Central College. There, I addressed a diverse audience of three hundred students and faculty as part of a documentary filmmaker panel. My film interviewed a dozen LGBT-identified Asians and Pacific Islanders living in Seattle.

I would say Reel Grrls prepared me for these occasions by providing a safe, supportive and creative space for myself and others to be both in front of and behind the camera.It also gave me my first tools for helping co-organize events, as drafting a script and storyboard, getting together the equipment, crew, scouting locations etcall require organizational skills!  These experiences also helped me develop the skills necessary to be part of a team, to identify the assets I could bring, to get out of my comfort zone and develop the courage to speak in front of others. 

How would you describe yourself on the first day at Reel Grrls?

Very quiet, withdrawn, but with a definite spark. My life was quite rough the year prior to Reel Grrls. I distinctly remember making eye contact with the person who would become my mentor later…I thought she seemed so cool and nice!

Do you remember your Reel Grrls mentor name?  

The extraordinary Cathy Banks :).

Are mentors still a part of your academic career?

Yes. I majored in documentary film in college, and only in my last year, when researching texts and films to enhance myself as a director, did I come across an incredible postcolonial feminist filmmaker’s work. Later, when I told a professor I loved reading the various textbooks I had been exploring as part of my study and wished I could do it for the next seven years, she told me, “There’s a word for that. It’s called getting your PhD.”

The first bit of advice she gave me on how to find the right program was to search for authors whose work I liked. I did that, but didn’t feel thrilled by any particular program. Then I remembered this filmmaker, and I looked up her name. I was surprised to see she was a professor, and that she was teaching not in a film program but in this odd placed called “Rhetoric” at UC Berkeley. This woman, Trinh T. Minh-ha, became my mentor and adviser, and is the chair of my dissertation committee. I was embarrassed to include my films as part of my application’s portfolio, given how advanced and acclaimed she was as a filmmaker, but I did so. From the first day I met her until today, she has been encouraging of never forgetting my roots as a filmmaker, and allowing space for the possibility of my returning to film, or incorporating that in future work.

How would you describe the influence Reel Grrls has had on your life or career?

Reel Grrls! You provided one of my earliest experiences with true mentorship and self-love. And creativity! I cannot speak highly enough of the importance of this feature of Reel Grrls’ work.

What I find so remarkable about Reel Grrls’ biography and accomplishments is that it has been able to forge ahead as a group of amazing feminists, artists, and mentors — this is not easy!  An individual can make an impact, and a group can make a larger one, but in a group you have to navigate so many more dynamics and points of view.  Yet it is in threads of community that we find meaning about ourselves, that we learn what it is to be human at this moment in time.  

Reel Grrls introduced me to a group of strangers who showed me unconditional love and respect.  I didn’t need to prove my talent or justify myself to them.  Here were a group of incredibly gifted women showing up just to show me love.  Yes, to help educate me.  Yes, to provide me with practical skills and experience.  And yes, to empower me to move toward a brighter future.  But the first step was showing me love, and being an example of how to treat one another as valuable colleagues.  It was from experiences like my 2003 program with Reel Grrls that I learned how to better love myself, as well as how I should treat my peers.

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