Hollywood celebrates the year of Tibet

The film set's new passion for all things Tibetan promises to drive China wild, reports Tim Cornwell
Click to follow
The Independent Online
The Dalai Lama began a six-day visit to Taiwan this weekend in the face of angry protests from China. "Splittists" is how Peking refers both to the Tibetan god-king, and Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui, accusing them of agitating for independence. "The Chinese communists have repeatedly used the Dalai Lama's visit to attack us," President Lee said this week. "We should not be afraid of the Chinese communists' intimidation."

A bigger nightmare for Peking, however, may be threatened with the visit of the Dalai Lama to Los Angeles this summer. His early years are now the subject of two big-budget studio films, both scheduled for release by Christmas. On his last trip to the States stars as diverse as Harrison Ford and Shirley Maclaine queued to meet him.

A Hollywood love affair with Tibet and Tibetan Buddhism, several years in the making, promises to reach its climax in 1997 - dubbed "Year of Tibet in the Movies" by hopeful human rights campaigners. The films - with their World War II era settings, and thematic echoes of both The Last Emperor and The English Patient - are feeding hope in the Tibetan exile community that Hollywood's clout will help the Tibetan cause.

"It will have tremendous popular impact," predicts Tenzin Tethong, a former long-time adviser to the Dalai Lama, who was hired as a consultant on Seven Years in Tibet. The film, directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud (The Bear, The Name of the Rose, Quest for Fire), stars no less a heart-throb than Brad Pitt (Seven), playing an Austrian mountaineer who flees a British prisoner of war camp for the Tibetan court. "A lot of young people all over the world, including large numbers of Chinese, will be watching this movie for sure," Mr Tethong says. "It will be banned in China, and what gets banned gets seen, some times more."

His work on the film included correcting speech patterns and mannerisms that were not Tibetan, and minor adjustments to a scene or two where people wore the wrong ceremonial hats. Seven Years in Tibet recently completed filming in the Andes. The production moved to South America, it is reported, after intervention by Chinese officials persuaded the Indian government to block filming there.

The film comes with the usual Hollywood mixture of high fakery and authenticity at any cost. As well as recreating throne rooms in the Dalai Lama's 1,000- room palace, Annaud imported a herd of yaks, and some 150 Tibetan extras from India. Bolivians dressed as Tibetans were used to fill out the crowds. The cast includes British actor David Thewlis (Naked), and the Dalai Lama's sister, Jetsun Pema, playing his mother. The film is based on the true story of Austrian Heinrich Harrer, who befriended the Dalai Lama.

The Chinese Government has made no bones of its irritation. It placed the cast and crew on a black list for Tibetan visas, though Annaud is said to have secretly shot footage in the country. Last year, Disney was warned that the company's business in China could suffer if a rival film, Kundun, directed by Martin Scorsese, went ahead. Disney refused to back down and 59 Hollywood figures signed an open letter protesting against censorship.

Kundun, filmed in Morocco, is based on the autobiography of the Dalai Lama, and is now set for release on Christmas Day. Using a cast of unknown Tibetan actors, with a slow-moving plot and ending with leaving Chinese- occupied Tibet for India in 1959, it hardly carries the sex appeal of Brad Pitt. It was written however, by Melissa Mathison, screenwriter for ET and wife of Harrison Ford.

Western fascination with the mysticism and mystery of Tibet has a long history. But in Hollywood it dates back to 1937 and Frank Capra's film of Lost Horizon. In a romantic adventure, four westerners are rescued from a plane crash by monks, and taken to the blissful valley of Shangri- La to meet Lamas hundreds of years old.

But it was in the 1990s that Tibetan Buddhism began to draw prominent members of the Hollywood set. Oliver Stone helped import Tibetan Lamas to California, and a number of Tibetan film projects got under way. A low-budget independent film, The Wind Horse, recently completed filming, promising the "urgent, contemporary story of an aspiring Tibetan pop singer". By contrast, one of Hollywood's most macho action heroes, Steven Seagal, also commissioned a script based on the CIA's ill-fated operations in Katmandu, Nepal. A "Tibetan Western" is the description by those who have read it.

There are now 21 Tibetan centres, or dharmas, in Los Angeles, most established in the last two or three years. The star names involved run from serious committed Buddhists, like Richard Gere, who famously denounced China from the Oscar stage in 1993, to others more generally supportive of the Tibetan cause. Tina Turner is a Japanese Buddhist practitioner. Oliver Stone is said to have a Buddhist shrine in his home. Goldie Hawn is a big supporter of the Dalai Lama. Sharon Stone is on the board of the American Himalayan Foundation.

Los Angeles based British film-maker Martin Wassell, who has made documentaries on Tibet and "His Holiness", cites the image of the Dalai Lama in a Microsoft commercial as evidence that things Tibetan have entered the popular mainstream - 50 years after the Chinese invasion and the oppression that followed. The Tibetan Buddhist belief system, centred on realising one's human potential, appeals to a culture keen on therapy, he said. Hollywood also "loves a good cause, especially where there's an underdog involved. The injustice of this holocaust that the world has chosen to ignore, it resonates with Hollywood's tinsel heart".