FILM, MEDIA, THE INTERNET AND TIBET

FILMS ABOUT TIBET

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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.

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

Himilaya

”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”, the film starring Brad Pitt, was 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?

Other Films About Tibet

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.

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."

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.

Tibetan Director Pema Tseden

In recent years several Tibetan language films made by Pema Tseden and Sonthar Gyal. Dung (2010) is a film by Lance, a Tibetan herdsman from Qinghai Province.

Bruce Hume wrote in his blog: Pema Tseden is arguably China’s poster-boy Tibetan filmmaker. The son of nomads, he went on to graduate from the Beijing Film Academy and shoot Silent Holy Stones(2005), the first-ever feature film in the Tibetan language and using an all-Tibetan cast and crew. He followed this up with The Search (2009), which won the Grand Jury Prize at the Shanghai International Film Festival. [Source: bruce-humes.com, May 2012]

“I think Tibet has always been mythologized and worshipped, and made more remote,” says Pema Tseden in a revealing interview with NPR. “People’s psychological expectations and experiences of Tibet are stuck in the past. They don’t understand the new Tibet.” But he faces considerable obstacles in telling his story about the “new Tibet.” According to the NPR report, his second film The Search “was vetted by the State Administration of Film, Radio and Television, as well as by the Religious Affairs Bureau and the United Front Work Department, which manages relations with ethnic minority groups in China.”

Nor does he necessarily relish his role as the China-based director who has brought Tibetan film to the world’s attention. Silent Holy Stones won a Golden Rooster, a major Chinese award, in 2005---the year the PRC celebrated 100 years of film.”Lots of people asked me if I felt it was a very glorious and proud moment. But I felt very sad that it’s taken 100 years to have a Tibetan film. I’m not proud; I think it’s a matter of great sorrow,” he told NPR.

Christopher Bell wrote on indiewire.com: Pema Tseden is a name you're going to be much more familiar with in the coming years. With his strong sense of visual composition and a dedication to presenting the real Tibet, it's only a matter of time before Cannes starts lapping his films up. Already a prolific novelist in his native country, Tseden took up the camera in 2002, producing a number of features in the neo-realist vein and jump-starting the Tibetan independent scene with cinematographer Sonthar Gyal. "Old Dog" is his latest effort, a quiet affair depicting one family's struggle to keep their elderly family pooch from being stolen at a time when its breed fetches a high price. Though the plot reads like something thinly conceived, it's actually a cleverly devised story, rich in allegory and social critiques with very little fat on its bones. After showing "Old Dog" in both China and Tibet, audience members responded well, praising the accurate representation of the region. [Source: Christopher Bell, .indiewire.com, June 9, 2012]

On his influences, Tseden told Christopher Bell: "I studied at the film academy in China for many years and I watched hundreds of movies, so it’s hard to say who really influenced me. But I will say, Ingmar Bergman is probably one of them who really struck me."

Tibetan Director Pema Tseden on the Aims of His Films

On his films, Pema Tseden told Christopher Bell: tried to show people the traditional way of life and the social change taking place. For instance, in this film, there’s a story inside a story -- that young couple couldn’t have a child. Through that kind of situation I'm trying to tell people what is current in Tibet. Things are changing," Tseden noted. "The main point of the film is not just to tell a story, but also to demonstrate or document small details that make up Tibet." [Source: Christopher Bell, .indiewire.com, June 9, 2012]

On his use of bleak landscapes in “Old Dog” to give the film a kind of post-apocalyptic wasteland feel, Tseden said: "I intentionally created that kind of impact, but based on the story and the needs of the story,” confessing that he was "kind of depressed" during the writing and shooting stages of the movie. "Maybe you noticed that many scenes in the movie don’t contain a lot of sky -- the shots were framed very level, or horizontal. We wanted to create a very sad feeling through this. When you watch the movie, and the dog is killed, in many ways it’s kind of a liberation. The dog is liberated in a way, and the old man is too. At the end, he climbs a hill, which has some symbolic meaning, because at the end of it it is closer to the sky."

Explaining how a memorable scene from “Old Dog”--- in which an entire flock of sheep run across the back of the frame while an isolated one attempts to return to its group---came about, Tseden said: "90 percent of compositions are pre-meditated, pre-planned. We intentionally separated the one sheep from the group and set up a camera to see what would happen, but we didn’t know it would walk down toward the camera. That was great, and then something even more miraculous happened. When the old man walked back with the dog, the entire sheep herd followed him. That is a very interesting part, and we didn’t expect that to happen! But it happened really naturally, they merged, and it went with the feeling of the movie." Tseden often takes advantage of the digital format by shooting scenes numerous times, but he was so pleased with this outcome that he moved on after a single attempt. "It was very natural... we had the perfect one," he declared confidently.

One a new movie titled "America," Tseden said: "It's about a Western cow, not the traditional one found in Tibet. This time the story would take place in Central Tibet. One family purchased a very expensive cow from a foreign country because they were told that it would produce a lot of milk. They're unsure what to name it, and since they know there are a lot of these in America, that’s what they name it. When they attempt to breed it, it inexplicably dies, leading to an investigation from the security department. Because of this chain of events, the relationships between people in this particular tight-knit village change, which is the main point I'm going for. It's structurally different from 'Old Dog,' and the movie will start when the cow is already dead, with people giving their individual stories to the security department."

Pema Tseden’s Tibetan Film 'Old Dog'

Bruce Hume wrote in his blog: The first director ever to film a movie entirely in Tibetan on the ground in China, Pema Tseden , now has another award-winning flick to his name: Old Dog. It captured the Grand Prize at the Tokyo Filmex in late 2011, and premiered on the West Coast of the U.S. in Los Angeles on May 11, 2012. [Source: bruce-humes.com/, May 2012]

Nicola Davidson wrote in the South China Morning Post: “Old Dog” “is a story centred on an aged Tibetan Mastiff. The creature has caused a rift between a father who dresses in Tibetan Garb and rides a horse to town, and a son, an alcoholic who rides a motorbike. The son sells the mastiff to a dog dealer, but his father retrieves it and sets it free in the mountains---only to find the dog once again in the hands of the dog dealer. In the end, the father takes drastic action to liberate his long-time companion.

Christopher Bell wrote on indiewire.com: Pema Tseden’s “Old Dog” doesn’t include any of the flourishing beauty of “Seven Years in Tibet,” instead opting to showcase a dismal, despairing area where the cities look like post-apocalyptic wastelands and the countrysides don’t seem to contain a speck of life. While his outlook on things is unrelentingly critical, he’s not being negative for the sake of it -- there’s some true passion behind this work, and Tseden is a director with plenty to say on all topics, ranging from the younger generation's lack of connection to their heritage to the troubling relationship between Tibet and China. All is told in a subtle way, with a minimal plot and quiet, patient long takes -- which is also another way of saying that his modus operandi isn’t likely to please everyone, but for those that admire the work of filmmakers like Jia Zhangke, another remarkable talent has emerged. [Source: Christopher Bell, .indiewire.com, June 9, 2012]

Things begin with a young man touring the city on his motorcycle, dog in tow. This is Gonpo, and he hopes to get some scratch by selling his old family canine -- with all the recent pooch snatching, he figures he could beat the thieves to the punch and at least make some money out of it. Unfortunately, the Chinese buyer he meets doesn’t offer the right price, so the unkempt looking man recruits his cousin (also a police officer) to help negotiate a better price. He manages to seal the deal, returning to his rural home without the mastiff mutt but with a hefty chunk of change instead.

But no amount of money would please Akhu, Gonpo’s elderly father, who berates him for selling the dog. Add it to the list of issues he has with his kin: Gonpo is lazy, unmotivated, and has been married for years but is still without the pitter-patter of little feet. Akhu returns to the town and, after enlisting the same badge-wielding relative (what a helpful guy), he manages to retrieve the hound. Unfortunately this is just the start of their problems with the mastiff, and to add icing to the cake, the married couple soon discover why they’ve been having so much trouble conceiving.

Though the story is generally banal and plot developments are few and far between, what is there is quite rich from both an emotional standpoint and an allegorical one. Much of the former admittedly has to do with the sole fact that the narrative is based around man’s best friend -- it’d be difficult not to connect with this lovable pet, especially considering he’s shipped back and forth like some material possession -- but Tseden knows the difference between legitimate warmth and manipulative tear-jerking. Instead of pressing in for dramatic impact, he tends to stay static, and from a distance -- the results cause one to feel as if they’re living there, in the moment. Though the characters are reticent, we can feel their presence, their bonds, their life.

Constructing a narrative where character arcs represent anything metaphorical is always a danger: lay it on too thick and it can backfire, feeling downright silly... “Old Dog” takes things down a subtler route, with the only hazard being that proceedings might be too understated for those not fluent in the goings-on in the Tibetan region -- for example, the loss of traditional values is embedded heavily into the journey of the eponymous doggy and Gonpo. That said, the film isn’t any less absorbing because of this, and the power of the image is not just universal but also the proper sweet spot between the aforementioned poles-- one look at the muddy decrepit urban area that the characters frequent is all it takes to see where Pseden is coming from.

These visual compositions are certainly planned and plotted in an assured manner, but they still retain some life thanks to some intuitive looseness. Towards the end of the film, a scene involving some strangers offering to buy Akhu’s mastiff is framed incredibly wide, with a herd of sheep lingering in the distant background and the humans conversing closer to the camera, a fence separating the interested party and the elderly owner. After Akhu dismisses the offer and returns to his stock, a lone sheep is isolated on the opposite side of the fence, struggling to jump over and return to the pack. Despite the scene being over, we linger for quite awhile on this labor, with the abandoned one moving up the hill, closer to the lens. It all results in a terrifically moving, magical moment, something akin to last year’s majestic “La Quattro Volte.” The slow pace eventually gives way to a truly unsettling climax, one which will likely leave a deep imprint... But this finale’s lasting power, especially after the initial shock has worn off, is a testament to how fantastic the preceding sequences were. “Old Dog” is a true gem and the mark of an especially skilled director -- mark our words, Pema Tseden is a name you’ll be seeing in contention for the Palme d’Or in the not-too-distant future.

Shangri-La and Lost Horizon

The term "Shangri-la" was coined by English novelist James Hilton in his novel “Lost Horizon”. It refers to a beautiful mystical place discovered by four Westerners who crash land in an airplane there. “Lost Horizon” was published the year that Hitler rose to power and topped the best seller list for two years. Frank Capra did a 1937 film version of the novel, which starred Ronald Colman and Jane Wyatt. It won several Oscars but seems quite silly and dated when viewed today.

In “Lost Horizon”, Shangri-la is a Buddhist monastery in a Tibetan valley where people enjoy a happy trouble-free life and live to be more than 200 years old by doing yoga, breathing in the mountain air and eating tangatseberry (a native herb).

The monastery boasts central heating, European plumbing, an Oriental garden and a first-rate collection of Chinese art. It is run by a 163-year-old Catholic priest who keeps a file of the London Times and maintains a library. The residents spend their free time learning new languages, mastering Chopin piano pieces, contemplated eternal questions and bathing in green porcelain tubs.

See Places, China

Models for Shangri-la

The word Shangri-la is possibly inspired by Shambala, the Tibetan word for paradise based on Tibetan legends about “beyuls”, secluded sanctuaries located in beautiful valleys. Shambala is Tibetan Buddhism’s earthly paradise where there is no war and no suffering, where people live in peace and harmony through meditation and self-discipline. It is said to be beyond the Himalayas at the base a crystal mountains, where people have been untouched by the corrupting influences of the outside word.

In 1998, after five years of looking, explorer Ian Baker said he found a beyul in the Pemako area around the Tsangpo River in eastern Tibet. After following a route described in an 8th-century Tibetan text, he reached an extraordinarily beautiful valley through a portal in a cliff masked and penetrated by a waterfall. The Pemako region is located where Tibet, India, Bhutan and Burma all come together. Reached after weeks of jeep and foot travel, it is situated in an area of dense, wet forest with pit vipers and leeches and high mountains. The local people, the Lobas, are fierce animist warriors. They live in villages on high terraces above he Tsangpo River. They believe some valleys are occupied by yetis and others are home to poison cults (made up of woman who poison people to obtain good fortune).

James Hilton

James Hilton (1900-1954) was born in Leigh in Lancashire, England. He grew up in London and earned an honors degree at Christ College, Cambridge. He wrote for the Manchester Guardian as a teenager and had his fist novel published when he was in college. When he was 24, he wrote the bestseller “Goodbye Mr. Chips”. “Lost Horizon” was published a year later. Hilton wrote 22 books. Hilton lived in California from 1935 to his death in 1954.

Hilton reportedly got the idea for “Lost Horizon” while riding his bike and wrote the short novel in four days. The story was originally a Christmas feature in the magazine British Weekly. It was released as book in the United States but wasn’t as successful as “Goodbye Mr. Chips”.

Hilton never visited Tibet or China. He was reportedly inspired by articles written by the botanist Joseph Rock for National Geographic in the 1920s and 30s. The 6,500-meter-tall Mount Kagpo, also known as Meili Xueshan, described by Rock, is believed to be the model for Hilton’s mystical Mount Karakal.

Hollywood, Fashion and Tibetan Activism

On visits to the United States, the Dalai Lama is often escorted by Richard Gere. Both Gere and Harrison Ford have spoken before the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee pleading for more support for the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan cause. Harrison Ford’s screenwriter wife, Melissa Mathison, Alec Baldwin, Carmen Electra, Barbara Streisand, Todd Oldham, Oliver Stone, Sharon Stone, Willem Dafoe, Dennis Quaid, Meg Ryan, Steven Seagal, and Goldie Hawn are among the Hollywood stars that have voiced their support for the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan cause.

On the Dalai Lama’s relationship with Hollywood, Sinolgist Orville Schell told Newsweek, "Since he doesn't have embassies, and he has no political power, he has to seek other kinds. Hollywood is a kind of country of its own, and he's established a kind of embassy there."

In 1992, Dalai Lama served as guest editor for Vogue. The supermoderl and entrepreneur Elle MacPherson decided to drop her planned lawsuit against the model Heidi Klum for stealing her nickname “The body” after talking to the Dalai Lama.

See Rock n' Roll and Tibetan Activism Below

Richard Gere and Tibetan Activism

The actor Richard Gere is one of the biggest supporters of the Tibetan cause and one of the outspoken critics of Chinese policy in Tibet. Before presenting an award at the Academy Awards in late 1990s, Gere said, "If you are listening, Deng Xiao Ping" and then launched into a long polemic about atrocities in Tibet. Gere was never invited back to Academy Awards after he made a long speech.

Gere once sponsored an "stateless dinner" for Tibet that coincided with the state dinner for Chinese president Jiang Zemin at the White House. In the film Red Corner he plays an American falsely accused of murder and repeatedly subjected to injustices at the hands f the Chinese judicial system. Gere's photographs of Tibetan monasteries have been shown at gallery exhibitions.

Gere often tells a story about a group of nuns who held up a placard saying "Free Tibet" at monastery. "They were immediately arrested with all the other women in their convent," he said. "They were taken a police station, and stripped naked and tortured and beaten, They were hung by ropes tied behind their backs; and several of them were shocked with electric cattle prods." Gere asked one nun, "How can you handle this?" He said she said, “It's so much bigger than me, so much bigger than these events.”"

Commented on his friendship with the Dalai Lama, Richard Gere said, "He's made me a better person in tangible ways. I get less angry."

Steven Seagal and Tibetan Activism

Steven Seagal, the action movie star of films like “Hard to Kill” and “Marked for Death”, was declared a reincarnation of an important 8th century lama---Chung-rag-Dorje, also known as Terton, or treasure seeker, who is credited with finding important Buddhist texts--- by Dalai Lama's organization. He is therefore regarded as a "tukla," a sacred vessel of Tibetan Buddhism.

In February 1997, in a special ceremony at a Buddhist monastery in southern India, Seagal was officially declared Chung-rag-Dorje’s reincarnation. The whole affair began when Segal invited the respected lama Pemor Rimocer to give a lecture in the United States and the lama "immediately identified Seagal as something special."

Seagal said that he studied Buddhism and martial arts as a child and while he lived in Japan. In the United States, Seagal helps take care of the Panchen Lama’s daughter. Gere was apparently bothered that the naming of Seagal as a lama would tarnish the Dalai Lama's reputation.

Tibet, the Truth and Media

Finding out the truth about what is going on in Tibet has traditionally been hard because Tibet is so hard to get to and inhospitable once one is there. These days the same is true because the Chinese government works hard to make sure that news that makes China look bad doesn’t get out, sometimes closing down the entire region to foreigners, journalists and other outsiders,

As of 2010 the government barred foreign reporters from traveling independently in Tibet. Edward Wong wrote in the New York Times, “Journalists on the tour were brought to several development projects by ministry officials, but were occasionally able to interview locals on their own. Tibetans interviewed independently expressed fear of the security forces and spoke on the condition of anonymity. Several journalists who have entered the region have been detained or forced to leave.[Source: Edward Wong, New York Times, July 24, 2010]

Tourists often have an easier time getting to Tibet than journalists who need permission from the government to legally enter, which is rarely granted unless that government has some motive to give it. Reporters that travel to Tibet have traditionally either had to sneak around or make a kind of Faustian deal with the Chinese government to deliver favorable reports in return for access to restricted places.

Cell Phones, Satellite TV, Internet Censorship and Tibet

Cell phones, the Internet and digital cameras have help Tibetans spread the word among themselves and expose their plight to the outside world and helped the outside world communicate with them. In some places every Tibetan over 18 has a cell phone. Some Tibetans cut throw the Great Firewall censors with specially-rigged satellite dishes.

In many parts of Tibet you can find homes without toilets, without even out houses, but the residents have cell phones. Kevin Kelly of Wired magazine told the Washington Post he stayed at a house in Tibet as large as his own in the United States: “They could build shelters. But they didn’t build toilets...Went in the barnyard like their livestock. But many they have better cell phone coverage than we do at home. Communications, not cleanliness, is next to godliness.”

Describing monks at the Longwu Temple in Qinghai after the riots in 2008, Melinda Liu wrote in Newsweek: “While boy novices...chanted late afternoon sutras in a golden prayer hall...older monks sat nearby sharing news they got from colleagues via wireless phone about arrests and body counts. Another monk flipped through a series of images in his digital 35 mm camera, showing...when Longwu’s lama’s defied rings of riot police...A senior lama opened his IBM laptop” and “managed to call up video footage from clashes...between Tibetans and police in the surrounding town of Tingren.”

Villagers with satellite dishes can get Voice of American by pointing the dish in the proper direction and punching a 10 digit code into the signal receiver. Villagers from all over the village often show up to watch television. The Tibetan Daily is the official Chinese-government newspaper in Tibet.

“Landline, cell and Internet services in Tibetan areas were interrupted during the period of unrest. When the Chinese government became aware that Tibetan dissidents were using the video-sharing website YouTube as a text-free method to communicate, it shut it down. When image-sharing website Flickr emerged as a potential source of visual information, it was blocked. Tibetan radio broadcasts by Voice of America (VOA), Radio Free Asia (RFA) and Voice of Tibet were jammed. A campaign against satellite dishes was intensified to limit the audience of VOA's direct-to-dish Tibet TV service. In order to cut off cell-phone based talk, text, and images, China reportedly limited service and tore down cell phone towers.” [Source: Peter Lee, Asia Times, April 8, 2009]

“When confronting in cyberspace supporters of Tibetan dissidents located outside of China, the Chinese government is apparently abetted by a group of hackers, acting either pro bono or with government encouragement. The hackers disrupt websites, harass activists and, it transpires, organize extensive espionage operations against targeted computers around the world.”

Tibet and Hackers

The Dalai Lama has said that hackers have hacked into his computers and those of the Tibetan exile community and accessed e-mail and information, in one case getting information about a request for an Indian visa, with the Chinese government contacting an Indian embassy and telling them not to grant the visa. In other cases hackers have gained access to e-mails between exile offices just a few kilometers apart in Dharamsala.

The Dalai Lama has said he is not sure who the hackers are but is sure the stolen information finds its way to the Chinese government, A Canadian research group called the Information Warfare Monitors which looks into the matter said mainland hackers they have researched tend to be very nationalistic and “place as much importance on sovereignty [over Tibet] as Beijing does.”

During an investigation at the Dalai Lama's private office, Citizen Lab investigator Greg Walton observed as documents were being pilfered from the computer network, including a file containing thousands of e-mail addresses and another detailing the negotiating position of the spiritual leader's envoy. [Source: Peter Lee, Asia Times, April 8, 2009]

During the investigation into the so-called Shadow Network, investigators were able to obtain data taken by the attackers, including some 1,500 letters sent from the Dalai Lama's office between January and November in 2009. While the report said many of the letters did not contain sensitive information, it added that they allowed the attackers to collect information on anyone contacting the exiled spiritual leader's office.

Computers of the Tibetan Government in Exile and its support groups around the world have been attacked by a Chinese-made virus that some believe was sent an okay from Beijing. One monk in Dharmsala is reported to have watched Outlook Express open by itself and send an e-mail off with a document attached - was a pressing issue in itself, and enough to justify the extensive investigation.

Uncovering Cyber Attacks in Tibet

In 2008, at the request of the Office of the Dalai Lama, Citizen Lab, a groups based at the University of Toronto, checked the computers of the Tibetan government in exile offices in Dharmsala in India and in various European cities to determine if they were infected with malware. [Source: Peter Lee, Asia Times, April 8, 2009]

Citizen Lab investigator Greg Walton collected reams of suspicious code. By plugging a likely bit into Google, he was able to locate the server that the malware was communicating with. He lured the server into establishing communication with a “honeypot” - a computer set up to document and trace cyber-intrusions - and finally penetrated it.

Walton discovered three other servers supporting the malware, and obtained a list of almost 1,300 computers - many located in the offices of emigre Tibetan government and NGOs around the world, but also in numerous Taiwanese, European and Asian governmental offices - from which they were collecting information.

The operation, which the investigators named “GhostNet”, used a Trojan hidden in e-mail attachments to compromise a computer's security and download a piece of malware called gh0st RAT (RAT standing for Remote Access Tool). Gh0st RAT allowed a remote operator both to examine files on the computer and to upload them to a gh0st RAT server. Keystrokes could also be logged - a key hacking tool for acquiring passwords - and, purportedly, the computer's microphones and webcam could be activated and the audio and video sent to the gh0st RAT server.

Image Sources: Purdue University, Cosmic Harmony, the film Kundun

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 December 2012


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