Vultures of Tibet

In rapidly developing Western China, Sky Burial - a sacred ritual where the bodies of Tibetan dead are fed to wild griffon vultures - becomes a popular tourist attraction.
Year Released
Film Length(s)
21 mins
Remote video URL


Sky Burial, a private ritual where the bodies of Tibetan dead are offered to wild griffon vultures, becomes a tourist attraction in Chinese modernized Tibet. This intimate window illuminates an ideological conflict often hidden to the outside world confronting the potential for oppression in the act of observation.

Featured review

Remarkable depth of interpretation, as anthropological observation gives way to sobering socio-political commentary.


As seen on National Geographic's Short Film Showcase 2016, Director Russell O. Bush's Vultures of Tibet explores the recent commercialization of a sacred Tibetan funeral tradition known as Sky Burial. In Sky Burial, Tibetans ritually feed the bodies of their dead to wild Griffon Vultures as an offering to benefit other living beings. With the modernization of Western China and the expansion of tourism in Tibet, burial sites are now highlighted on tourist maps and local officials charge visitors admission to view the private ritual. Against the will of affected families, visitors take photos and video, often posting them online. Filmed in August, 2011, when regional tensions became so unbearable that scores of Tibetans began setting themselves on fire; Vultures of Tibet reveals the current state of Sky Burial as an anecdote of the larger ideological issues in Tibet today. Exposing a world in which nature and culture, humans and animals, spirituality and politics are all interconnected, Vultures of Tibet engages audiences with the potential for oppression in the act of looking.


Vultures of Tibet achieves a remarkable feat in a very condensed package. It is an engrossing, beautiful, and troubling documentary about cultures in contact, asymmetries of power, and everyday life in Tibet. The cinematography and editing alone will have audiences riveted to the screen. Bush's remarkably careful treatment of a what could so easily be a spectacle of the bizarre and strange is a testament to the filmmakers' commitment to honest and principled documentary cinema. This video will open up many conversations, from critiques of tourism to the politics of representation. Vultures of Tibet works on a number of different levels that engages audiences in overt critiques and implicit self-reflexivity. It provides myriad opportunities for educators to teach students about cultural difference within a context of a rapidly changing Tibet and an increasingly ambiguous field of global visual culture. For many anglo audiences an examination of Han Chinese tourism by itself will be a revelatory and instructive lesson. Most audiences will gradually come to realize a nesting set of frames that not only challenge the banality of exploitative tourist practices in Tibet but also the vicarious tourism of global internet spectatorship.
-Craig Campbell
PhD, Department of Anthropology, University of Texas at Austin
The film offers a potent meditation on contemporary politics, representation, and power dynamics in minority nationality areas of China. This film will be of interest to those invested in the contemporary cultural life in Tibet and China...
-Dr. Kenneth Bauer
Dartmouth College, American Anthropological Association Journal 2014

Awards and Screenings

Winner, UT Longhorn Documentary Filmmaker Award, 2013
World Premiere AFI Docs (Silverdocs), 2013
International Premiere - Edinburgh International Film Festival, 2013
Palm Springs International ShortFest, 2013
RAI Ethnographic Film Festival, 2013
Banff Mountain Film Festival, 2013
Toronto Reel Asian Film Festival, 2013
Jaipur International Film Festival, 2013

Director Commentary

Russell O. Bush - Director

In the spring of 2010 I stumbled across a photo series of a dead Tibetan man being cut apart and eaten by vultures. It was posted on a popular Internet website and while there were nearly fifty photos, nothing was written to bring context to these arresting images. I later came to find that these photos represented a Tibetan Sky Burial (Jhator), a Buddhist practice of offering one’s body to the benefit of other sentient beings, and that the images had been captured in the politically disputed area between Eastern Tibet and Western China. A little over a year later, I traveled to Tibet through China with a small documentary crew in an attempt to further understand this unique relationship between nature and culture. What we found however was an even deeper and more complicated connection between human and animals.

Under influence from political officials and against the will of nearly all Tibetans in the region, admission prices to attend Sky Burials were being charged for tourists on vacation. This was the direct reason I had seen these photographs on the Internet a year earlier.Upon witnessing this cultural transaction, and the emotional responses of people on both sides of it, I was compelled to widen our lens and create a record that not only revealed how ecology and humanity influence one another at the Sky Burial, but that they are further affected by the proliferation of technology, wealth, and systematic religious oppression.
I believe the narrative our crew captured in Tibet and China is a universal one, bound by neither geography nor time. For me, this film is an attempt to lift the veil of mysticism, commonly projected onto traditional cultures around the world, and engage audiences with a global history of oppression bound in the simple act of looking. It took three years from the time I first encountered those Internet photos of a Sky Burial to the completion of this short subject film; and in that time 120 Tibetans have lit themselves on fire in response to the Chinese political impact in Tibet. It’s my hope that my film confront us as viewers and draw into question the way we interact with a world we are fascinated by, yet often betray without knowing so.

Features and Languages

Film Features

  • Subtitles
  • Resources for Educators

Subtitle/Caption Languages

  • English

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