Join our Mailing List

"I believe that to meet the challenges of our times, human beings will have to develop a greater sense of universal responsibility. It is the foundation for world peace."

Tibetan Film Speaks for Itself

April 16, 2009

Douglas Heselgrave
Paste Magazine
April 14, 2009

Until recently, movies about Tibet haven’t
wavered much from the formula established by
Frank Capra’s 1937 epic Lost Horizon, in which
plane-crash victims discover the lost kingdom of
Shangri-La—a magical place where time stands
still and there is no war, violence or jealousy.
Thankfully, since 1999, Himalayan filmmakers like
Bhutanese monk Khyentse Norbu have started
challenging these stereotypes by telling their own stories.

Now out on DVD, Milarepa is the region’s newest
movie. Made by first-time director Neten Chokling
(another Buddhist monk, and an actor in Norbu’s
lighthearted debut The Cup), it tells the story
of Tibet’s most popular cultural hero, a young
man who studies black magic in an all-consuming
quest for revenge against those who robbed his
family. As exotic as the film’s subject may seem,
Milarepa’s story is as familiar to Himalayan
audiences as DeMille’s Biblical epics were to Americans in the 1950s.

Unlike recent American movies about Tibet,
Milarepa does not explore overtly political
themes, and -- unlike Hollywood directors who
have tackled the subject—Chokling has no plans of
introducing Tibetan politics into his films.
"What is happening in Tibet is a painful
situation," he says from his monastery in Bhutan,
"yet the suffering taking place there is explored
in Milarepa, and I hope that the messages of
compassion, tolerance and honesty embodied in his
story do get communicated and make an impact.
Injustice, revenge and remorse are relevant in
today’s world, though Milarepa’s story is 1,500 years old."

Chokling is currently planning a sequel, and he
doesn’t want to restrict himself to traditional
stories. "We would like to tell the rest of
Milarepa’s tale," he says. "We’ll take a
different approach that is less linear -- more
‘modern’ -- with the hope that we could reach a
wider audience. I have an ongoing discussion with
Norbu about presenting our culture in stories
that are not specifically Buddhist. I am
interested in telling a modern tale without the
structure of a traditional story, but with a focus on similar themes."

AN INTRODUCTION TO FILMS ABOUT TIBET

* Little Buddha (1993)
Despite the questionable casting of Keanu Reeves
as the Siddhartha, Buddha admirably familiarizes
Western audiences with the current situation
in Tibet, and with Buddhist concepts such as reincarnation.

* Seven Years in Tibet (1997)
Brad Pitt stars as the Austrian climber Heinrich
Harrer, who escapes to Tibet from a British
prison camp in the Himalayas during World War II.
While in Tibet he becomes the young Dalai Lama’s
tutor and witnesses the first Chinese invasion in 1950.

* Kundun (1997)
Martin Scorsese’s uneven Dalai Lama biopic
describes the Tibetan leader’s childhood up until
the time he was forced to flee his homeland with
the Chinese army in hot pursuit.

* The Cup (1999)
The first major release from a Himalayan director
is a delightful comedy about monks at a remote
monastery searching for a TV to watch the World Cup.

* Travelers and Magicians (2003)
Norbu’s follow-up to The Cup is an even better
film that explores humor and pathos in a way that
owes as much to Woody Allen as it does to traditional Tibetan storytelling.

CTC National Office 1425 René-Lévesque Blvd West, 3rd Floor, Montréal, Québec, Canada, H3G 1T7
T: (514) 487-0665   ctcoffice@tibet.ca
Developed by plank