Tibet on Film
Created | Updated May 3, 2013
Tibet | Dalai Lama | Panchen Lama | Great Thirteenth Dalai Lama
Dharamsala | Lost Lhasa | Friends of Tibet
Ngawang Sangdrol | Tibetan Diaspora | Tibet on Film | The Monks of Drepung | Tibet's Warrior Nuns
Tibetan Children's Villages | Why the Chinese are There
If you're like most people, you probably became aware of Tibet in a cinema. The mystery and exoticism that most Westerners associate with Tibet was born on the silver screen. To a great extent, our growing awareness of the tragedy of modern Tibet is a by-product of the film industry. Even the limited political response that has been generated towards the abuses of human rights in Tibet is due largely to home video footage of monks being beaten by Chinese soldiers in 1989.
Lost Horizon (1937) is a classic of the silver screen and the main reason that Tibet is associated in the minds of many people with the mythical paradise of Shangri-La. Based on the James Hilton novel of the same title, it is considered to be one of director John Capra's greatest films.
It stars Ronald Colman as British diplomat, Robert Conway, who must lead the evacuation of frazzled Europeans on the last flight out of war-torn China. They are kidnapped by their mysterious oriental pilot and flown to an equally mysterious location in the heart of Tibet. The mix of refugees includes a shady businessman, a nutty professor, a jaded socialite with tuberculosis, and Conway's petulant brother.
After sorting out that being stranded in a virtual paradise isn't really such a bad thing, all settle back to have a nice time... all, that is, except the petulant brother, who wants to escape from this hellish paradise on earth in order to get back to 'civilization' with his new friend, the mysterious Maria, who could be 20 or 120, depending on whom you ask.
Eventually, Conway, who has in the meantime been cajoled into taking over Shangri-La by the 200-year-old Belgian priest with one leg who runs it, is persuaded to join them in their flight... much against his better judgement, because apart from the prospect of inheriting everything there also happens to be a pretty girl in the picture, who, like Maria, may turn out to be ancient but looks good swimming naked anyway. Unfortunately, this is the 1930s and the suspicion of being lied to carries more weight than self-interest, sex, or common sense. And so they make good their escape.
Naturally, it turns out that the pretty 20-something, Maria, is really a scary old hag and so everything comes crashing down; Maria suddenly dies of old age; and the irritating younger brother is carried off in an avalanche. Conway decides to find his way back to Shangri-La.
Shangri-La is based on the Tibetan myth of a pure and unsullied kingdom in a lost valley, where people live forever in perfect health. But the 'natives' portrayed in the Capra film are a bizarre hodge-podge of eclectic orientalism that, three-quarters of a century after its release, is almost too daft to laugh at. Pigeons with pan-pipes tied to their tails was probably a mind-blowing trip to audiences in the 1930s, but they just seem silly now.
Lost Horizon is simply a fantasy that could have been set in any remote corner of the world. Unfortunately, the success of the film has left a lingering and false impression of Tibet as a fantastic and somehow unreal place where everyday problems mean less than they do elsewhere.
Perhaps the single most significant event in the recent awakening of our consciousness of a real place called Tibet was the debut of Martin Scorsese's Kundun (1997).
This is a beautiful film, remarkable because it features a Tibetan cast. The stunning cinematography is accompanied by the music of Philip Glass, which is either hauntingly beautiful or annoyingly repetitive, according to your musical taste. It tells the story of the childhood and early adolescence of His Holiness the Dalai Lama.
Scorsese's interest in the subject takes us beyond the quaintness of an exotic alien culture. He attempts to breathe life into our view of the Tibetan world, as it stood poised on the brink of disaster, and make us feel a part of the society about to be invaded and destroyed. He accomplishes this by presenting the early life of His Holiness in a smoothly flowing series of intimate vignettes, a string of close-up portraits that lead us from the innocence of the Dalai Lama's childhood to the horror and desolation of His flight into exile as a young man.
The strength of Kundun is that it manages to evoke a strong emotional response without taking unpardonable liberties with the historical context of the film. This is not a documentary; but it does provide a meaningful glimpse into the life of the Dalai Lama and the lives of those around him at the time of the Chinese invasion of Tibet.
Seven Years in Tibet
Also unveiled in 1997 was director Jean-Jacques Annaud's opus, Seven Years in Tibet, starring Brad Pitt as Heinrich Harrer. Less celebrated, but perhaps more meaningfully, Annaud cast Jetsun Pema1, His Holiness the Dalai Lama's sister, in the role of their mother.
This is a fairly conventional film adaptation of Harrer's account of his experiences in Tibet, particularly his unique relationship with the young Dalai Lama. It follows the evolution of Harrer's personality from the rather nasty, egocentric young athlete in Austria to his ultimate rebirth as a wiser and more compassionate refugee in Tibet.
This is a less poetic presentation of Tibet than Kundun, focussing less on life in Tibet than on the life of Heinrich Harrer, which, in fairness, is what one should expect of what is, after all, basically a film version of Harrer's memoir. It is a better than average romp through the Himalayas, which manages to introduce us quite competently, if rather superficially, to some interesting historical personalities, not least the Dalai Lama.
Where Seven Years in Tibet falls short is that it tends to subvert to some extent the historical events taking place around Harrer. It is also disappointing that Hollywood regulars BD Wong and Mako were cast as Tibetans. The film redeems itself a little by suggesting that Harrer's companion, Peter Aufschneiter (David Thewlis), played a more central role in the adventure than he is generally given credit for, though not as much as he deserves. It also introduces us to the lovely and talented Lhapka Tsamchoe as Aufschneiter's wife.
Windhorse (1999) was written, produced, and directed by Paul Wagner. It is an unflinching portrayal of the brutal consequences of dissent in Chinese occupied Tibet and hard choices that young Tibetans must make to survive there.
The story is told through three young Tibetans:
Dolkar - a pop singer whose success depends on not rocking the boat.
Dorjee - Dolkar's brother, a loafer with no ambition and no prospects.
Pema - their cousin, a Buddhist nun.
When Pema is arrested and brutally tortured for shouting 'Free Tibet', the three are brought together in a moral crisis that forces each to re-evaluate their roles in society.
Windhorse is remarkable in that segments were shot surreptitiously in Tibet; and the production crew experienced firsthand the danger of working in a police state. Even in Nepal, where most of the filming took place, care had to be taken to disguise the subject of the film from Nepali authorities, nervous of offending China.
The Cup (2000) is a real gem. This is filmmaker Khyentse Norbu's first major work, and it's a beauty. It was shot on location in Chokling Monastery and the ambience is so soothing that watching it is like being on holiday. It is the first feature film from the Kingdom of Bhutan.
Not that The Cup isn't an action-packed adventure. The story is based on actual events. It recounts the improbable obsession of a group of football-mad young monks, inspired by the 1998 World Cup, and the lengths they go to in order to watch the competition. Orgyen is a cheeky young imp and the driving force behind the scheme to bring a television and satelite dish into the monastery in order to see France, '... the only country loyal to Tibet', defeat Brazil in the final.
Apart from the magnificent scenery, what makes The Cup special is that it is the first feature film in the Tibetan language and none of the people in the film had any previous acting experience. As most were unable to read the scripts, which were written in English, the actors ('participants' is probably a better description) were simply told what they were expected to do. It is a tribute to their traditional Buddhist education that the monks were able to master their lines and produce such creditable performances.
Khyentse Norbu shows us Tibetan monks as we have never seen them before, as fun-loving pranksters. Certainly, they are devout and dedicated to their religious practice; but they are still real people, who do goof off from time to time, fall asleep during prayers, and like a good laugh, just like the rest of us. He is uniquely qualified to provide this rare glimpse into monastic life, as he is not merely a talented director but also an important incarnate Lama.
The Chinese occupation of Tibet is only referred to obliquely in The Cup. We are introduced to life in the monastery by Palden and Nylma, two recent escapees from Tibet who seem to be perpetually on the verge of being overwhelmed. The old Abbot, played by the Venerable Lama Chonjor (the real-life Abbot of Chokling Monastery), keeps his belongings packed in trunks, ready for his return (one day) to Tibet. Through his wise, old eyes we see the subtleties of the tragedy that has befallen Tibet and the challenge of reconciling the preservation of its ancient Buddhist culture with the needs of young monks growing up in exile.
The darkness lurking beyond the Himalayas only casts occasional and fleeting shadows over what is essentially a very upbeat and positive film. At the end of The Cup we are told that Orgyen dreams of forming the first Tibetan national football team and that Venerable Lama Chonjor has returned to Tibet where the Chinese are still serving rice, a subtle reminder of the unwelcome imposition of their culture in that country.
Through the Looking Glass
There are, of course, other films about Tibet, including many excellent documentaries, such as Tibet's Stolen Child (produced by International Campaign for Tibet). The films described in this Entry were selected because they represent the evolution of our curiosity, from being content to view Tibet as a fairy tale world of myth and magic to our interest in watching real Tibetans portraying aspects of their own lives in their own language.
Film has played an important role in bringing some awareness of Tibet to people whose level of interest in world affairs might not otherwise have led them to it. But it has also helped to preserve the sense of cultural identity among the Tibetan exile community.
As any emigrant knows only to well, it is a difficult thing to grow into a role in a new society without losing something of yourself in the process. This erosion is insidious and may go unnoticed until one's sense of belonging is hardly more than an intellectual exercise. Most emigrants understand the sense of existing in a kind of limbo between cultures. This makes passing on the essence of a culture to a new generation an extremely difficult task.
Casting members of an exile community with little or no acting experience in films such as Kundun and Seven Years in Tibet, many of whom essentially play themselves, provides an opportunity for them to become reacquainted with their past and a chance for their children to experience first hand an aspect of their own identity of which they might otherwise be deprived.