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Scene from tthe film Kundun
Documentaries about Tibet include “Compassion in Exile”, “The Saltmen of Tibet”, “Tibet's Stolen Child”, and “Red Flag Over Tibet”.

”The Cup” (2000) is about soccer-mania reaching a Tibetan monastery during the 1998 World Cup. The first ever feature-length film shot in the Tibetan language, it was written and directed by Khyentse Norbi, described as “one of the most important incarnate lamas in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition." The actors are real life monks who live at the monastery where the film was shot.

”What Remains of Us” is a film shot over an eight-year period between 1996 and 2004 with a small digital camera by a French-Canadian named Francois Prevost and a Tibetan woman named Kalsang Dolma. It features a short emotional plea delivered by the Dalai Lama to the people of Tibet and the reaction of Tibetans who saw it in Tibet. Describing the Tibetans reaction Wendy Ide wrote in the Times of London, “All crouch around the portable screen. Always rapt, often tearful, their faces are illuminated by the reflected light of their exiled leader. It’s a glimpse of raw, emotional intensity and unguarded openness in a people who have had to keep their thoughts hidden.”

”Mountain Patrol: Kekexili” is a National Geographic film is about the patrols that protect the chiru in Kekexili. It was released in China in 2004 and was popular there. An IMAX film about Mt. Everest shows a Tibetan explorer unfurling the banned Tibetan flag on the summit of Everest. Merchant and Ivory bought the script about two American tourist who witness the Chinese crackdown in Tibet in the 1960s. The script writer described the film as a combination of "The Killing Fields" and "Midnight Express."

Other films about Tibet include “Dixie Cups”, a movie directed Steven Seagal about a CIA agent helping Tibetan rebels in the 1960s; “The Windhorse” (1998), directed by Paul Wagner and about a Tibetan pop singer whose cousin, a Buddhism nun, is tortured in prison; and “The Golden Child” (1986) with Edie Murphy and a Dalai-Lama-like child monk character. “Red River Valley” is a love story set during the brief British invasion of Tibet in 1904. This film was produced by a Shanghai studio. It features British soldiers rather than Chinese soldiers destroying Tibetan villages.

The Dalai Lama told Newsweek, "I don't pay much attention to what people might say. I feel happy that all these films are being made, because we need more awareness of Tibet. Take, for example, a film like 'Little Buddha.' from a Buddhist perspective, an ordinary human being taking the role of Buddha — that's impossible. But from another angle, its way of showing the Buddha can bring some idea of the basic story of Buddha and his thought to millions of people.

Book: “Virtual Tibet: Searching for Shangri-La from the Himalayas to Hollywood” by Orville Schell (Henry Holt).


”Himalaya” (2001), also known by the name "Caravan", is a fictional film about the real-life yak caravan between Tibet and the Dolpo region of Nepal that trades salt for grain. Directed by French film maker and photographer Eric Valli, it is a joint French-Nepali-Swiss-British production in a Tibetan dialect and subtitled English. It was nominated in 2002 for an Academy Award for best foreign film.

”Himilaya” is shot in the Tibetan Dolpo region of Nepal. It is about a caravan leader who is prevented from leading a caravan because he was held responsible for the death of a son of a village elder. The plot revolves around generational differences and an effort by the young herder to take over the caravan.

Dramatic moments in “Himalaya” include crossing a 16,000-foot pass in a blizzard; losing a prize yak after it falls off a cliff; and clashes between the chief and the caravan leader. “Himalaya” was shot over a nine month period using mostly non-professional actors — residents of the Dolpo — using a script based on real events in their lives. Much of the equipment was transported around using yaks. The scenery is spectacular and the story is engaging and plausible enough.

Seven Years in Tibet and Kundun

“Seven Years in Tibet”, a film starring Brad Pitt and directed by Frenchman Jean-Jacques Annaud, is the story of Heinrich Harrer, a real-life Austrian mountain-climber who befriended the Dalai Lama (See Above). The Dalai Lama is played in the film by a young Bhutanese actor named Jamtsho Wangchuk. The Dalai Lama mother is played by the Dalai Lama’s real sister, Jetsub Pema. See History and the Dalai Lama.

“Seven Years in Tibet” was filmed in Argentine Andes. Lhasa was carefully re-created and ceramic yak dung piles were mass produced for authenticity. One of the biggest problems in making the film in South America was importing the yaks. The animals were provided by a ranch in Montana. Before they were transported they were given traveling papers with three photographs of the yaks head and muzzle prints.

“Kundun” is a dreamy film about the early life of Dalai Lama. Shot in Morocco, it was financed by Disney, directed by Martin Scorsese and written by Harrison Ford's former wife Melissa Mathison. The Dalai Lama's mother in this film played by his sister's daughter. Kundun (meaning "presence") is the name by which the Dalai Lama is known among his close associates.

“Seven Years in Tibet” and “Kundun” were shot outside Tibet because the Chinese government wouldn't allow them into China. The Disney picture shows Chinese soldiers ripping a portrait of the Dalai Lama off the walls and stomping on it. Beijing was angry with Disney for making the film.

Heinrich Harrer and Seven Years in Tibet

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Heinrich Harrer

“Seven Years in Tibet” is based a 1953 autobiographical book by Heinrich Harrer (1912-2006) , a selfish, real-life Austrian mountain-climber who befriended the Dalai Lama and became his tutor. Harrer had been a Nazi and a S.S. officer before setting off for Asia on a climbing expedition, leaving his pregnant wife behind. The book “Seven Years in Tibet” has sold 4 million copies and been translated into 48 languages. [Source: Lewis Simmons, Smithsonian magazine, H.G. Bissinger, Vanity Fair, October 1997]

Harrer’s original destination was Pakistan, where several of the world’s highest mountains are located. On his way there he was captured by the British and sent to a prison camp in India. After three unsuccessful escape attempts, he and six other men disguised as British military officers and Indian laborers slipped out of the lightly guarded prison in April 1944. Two years later, after a 1,500-mile journey over 65 Himalayan mountain passes he arrived at the gates of Lhasa with his partner Peter Aufschnaiter, another Austrian mountain climber.

Harrer and Aufschnaiter's original plan was to make their way to freedom in Manchuria — then held by Japan, an ally of Germany and Austria in World War II — on the treacherous northern route through Tibet in the winter. On their journey they encountered valleys with leech-infested strawberries, endured attacks by bandits, suffered hunger-induced hallucinations, walked along cliff-side trails from which numerous animals had fallen. To gain entry into Tibet they convinced local officials that an entry permit they had for western China gave them permission to travel into the Tibetan interior.

After plunging his feat accidently through some ice into freezing water, Harrier wrote, "as soon as we pulled ourselves out our feet froze immediately. They turned brown and then black. We wrapped them in every piece of cloth we could find but the pain was excruciating. I still don't know why we didn't lose our feet."

Heinrich Harrer and the Dalai Lama

In January 1946, Harrer and Aufschnaiter arrived in Lhasa "dead-tired and half-starved." The were accepted as guests by the Tibetan aristocracy. They taught the Tibetans how to play volleyball and hosted swimming parties.

Harrer befriended the Dalai Lama and became his tutor. Featured in the film “Seven Years in Tibet”, the friendship began when Harrer was 37 and the Dalai Lama was 14. Harrer taught the Dalai Lama English and geography, informed him about Western customs, and explained the best he could how planes flew, tanks worked and atom bombs were detonated. Harrer and the Dalai Lama shared the same birthday, July 6.

Describing the first time he saw the Dalai Lama in a procession, Harrer wrote: "And now approached the yellow, silk-lined palanquin of the Living Buddha, gleaming like gold in the sunlight. The bearers were six-and-thirty men in green silk coats, wearing red plate-shaped caps. A monk was holding a huge iridescent sunshade made of peacock's feathers over the palanquin. The whole scene was a feast for the eyes — a picture revived from a long-forgotten fairy tale of the Orient." Anything the Dalai Lama touched, Harrer said, was seized as an auspicious object.

Explaining how he met Harrer, the Dalai Lama said, "We had an old movie projector and a generator which always broke down. My aides were afraid I'd be electrocuted." Harrer was called in. "In those days, we considered all Westerners to be experts in mechanical things...During his stay in Tibet, everyone liked him." To amuse himself the Dalai Lama used to take projector completely apart and put it back together.

Jean-Jacques Annaud, Director of Seven Years in Tibet

Jean-Jacques Annaud directed “Seven Years in Tibet” (1997) — with Brad Pitt. He was demonized by the Chinese Communist Party for among other things for his casting of the sister of the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama and his portrayal of the People’s Liberation Army’s invasion of the region in 1949 .

When asked how do he addressed “Seven Years in Tibet” when in China today, Annaud told the Los Angeles Times: “When I did “Seven Years in Tibet,” I was not aware of the Chinese point of view. I was convinced that so many years after, it would not be a problem to talk about a period in the early 1950s and late 1940s. I thought it would be like France and the war in Algeria. We had this war when I was a teenager, and for years now we’ve been speaking very freely and admitting that we had different points of view than the people in Algeria. My mistake was to think that it was the same in China regarding Tibet. I realize now that it was seen as something very intrusive, which was not my intention. I am a man of peace and I like bringing people together and not pitting people against each other. People in China have not seen “Seven Years in Tibet,” and in a sort of natural way, it’s a movie that people avoid mentioning. [Source: Jonathan Landreth, Los Angeles Times, June 15, 2012]

Did he apologize for “Seven Years in Tibet” to work in China? No, absolutely not. In order to be positive and constructive you have to make sure you don’t antagonize your guest. I think it’s more constructive. I think that many mistakes have been made in the West which do not contribute to something positive. What would we think in France if the Chinese were interfering with Corsica? Or what would Americans think if the Chinese were interfering with Puerto Rico?

Annaud, got back in Beijing's good graces enough to be invited to China to film "Wolf Totem", a 2015 drama film based on a very popular 2004 Chinese semi-autobiographical novel of the same name by Jiang Rong. The Chinese-French co-production features a Chinese student who is sent to Inner Mongolia to teach shepherds and instead learns about the wolf population, which is under threat by a government apparatchik.

Chinese Films about Tibet

"Tibetan Class" is a Chinese propaganda film about a group of Tibetan students and their Han Chinese teacher. Released in 2019, to mark the 60th anniversary of “peaceful liberation” (invasion) of Tibet, and purportedly based on a true story, the film is about what happened at Liaoyang city No.1 Middle School, where a Tibetan students program was established in 1985. Zhu Xinyun, director of August First Film Studio said, "We want to tell the story through those Tibetan students, who have experienced the love and care from the teachers and school. The Tibetan kids feel their teachers are more than a teacher, more like a parent."

"Once upon a Time in Tibet" ("Xizang Wang Shi") is a 2011 film set in the 1940s during World War Two. The story revolves around a struggling romance between a troubled American Air Force pilot and a Chinese woman. CRI reported: Robert (Joshua Hannum), who is on a mission to bring supplies to China, is seriously injured after being accidentally ejected from his aircraft. He is saved by Yongcuo (Song Jia) with whom he soon falls in love. But the romance is challenged as a local man named Jiangcuo (Peter Ho), who is determined to capture Robert for the sake of his own freedom. The film is the second feature of Chinese director Dai Wei who made her directorial debut with the 2006 musical film "Ganglamedo" ("Gang La Mei Duo"). [Source: CRI February 21, 2011]

The Tibet-centric film ‘De Lan’ won big at the Shanghai Film Festival in 2016. The Global Times reported: “Of the three films from China, two were set in Tibet. De Lan, a film directed by Liu Jie, won Best Film. Set in the 1980s, the story revolves around a young Han Chinese loan officer named Xiaowang who meets a Tibetan girl named De Lan. Being led to a Tibetan village, Xiaowang experiences culture shock from having to adapt to life there. The Golden Goblet Awards gave the film high marks, saying that, "It is a simple but intriguing film, in which life generates miraculous confrontations that provide emotional resonance to the entire story." [Source: Sun Shuangjie, Global Times, June 20, 2016]

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2022

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