Lights, camera, retraction: How China cut Tibet out of movies

Kundun

Chinese troops in the 1997 movie “Kundun,” directed by Martin Scorsese. After the film premiered, Disney’s CEO traveled to China to apologize for releasing it.

“You’re not going to see something that’s like ‘Seven Years in Tibet’ anymore,” says Larry Shinagawa, professor at Hawaii Tokai International College, in a recent New York Times piece titled “How China Is Rewriting Its Own Script.”

That’s cause for concern, because when I was growing up, movies like “Seven Years in Tibet” and “Kundun,” both of which opened in 1997, helped introduce me—and surely many Americans in my generation—to the Tibetan issue. If such films are no longer made, how will kids today discover this important topic?

Hollywood screenwriters love a good-vs.-evil story. Twenty years ago, they found a great one in Tibet.

Just imagine this pitch to a producer: admirable but outnumbered protagonists follow a wise elder who teaches inner peace and spiritual growth. The antagonists, meanwhile, are an evil empire bent—as real-world events have shown—on actual global domination.

Not even George Lucas could do it better. So why, then, did Hollywood turn its back on Tibet?

The sad answer is that, for now, the evil empire is winning.

According to the Times report, written by reporters Amy Qin and Audrey Carlsen, “China wields enormous influence over how it is depicted in the movies Americans make and watch.”

The Chinese gained that influence by using many of the same tactics that every colonial power uses: invade when local institutions are weak, buy off the elites and spread fear to squelch dissent.

In the case of Tinseltown, the takeover was obviously less dramatic. But it largely followed the same script.

Hollywood studios were weakened by years of declining revenue and competition from online streaming. China swooped in with huge wads of cash and the promise of a blockbuster market for foreign ticket sales.

As a result, Hollywood executives today are simply too afraid to make a movie that could offend China. That means no more “Seven Years in Tibet” or “Kundun.”

Apparently, the release of those films helped provoke Chinese censorship in the first place. In the mid-1990s, Disney was just breaking into the Chinese market when the government in Beijing heard about “Kundun,” a beautiful film on the early life of the Dalai Lama directed by screen legend Martin Scorsese and written by Melissa Mathison, an International Campaign for Tibet (ICT) Board Member who died in 2015.

China’s leaders raged against the movie, Disney pulled back on its marketing campaign, and Disney’s CEO, Michael Eisner, traveled to China to apologize to the Chinese prime minister—and to negotiate a new theme park in Shanghai. (As a supporter of Tibet and an ardent cinephile, I took heart in this line from a 1998 Film Comment article: “You decide: who’ll be lucky to be even a footnote in movie history, Eisner or Scorsese?”)

Following that experience, it’s safe to assume that no studio today would greenlight a film like “Kundun.” But even when Tibetans come up organically in a story, Chinese pressure forces them out.

Case in point: the 2016 Marvel epic “Doctor Strange.” In the comic books, the titular doctor learned his craft from the Ancient One, a wise Tibetan sage.

But in the movie, the Ancient One is Celtic and played by Tilda Swinton, a white actress from Scotland. Although Disney—once again behaving as nefariously as any of the villains in its cartoons—claimed it was trying to avoid a stereotypical portrayal of Asians, the screenwriter shockingly admitted, “If you acknowledge that Tibet is a place and that [the character is] Tibetan, you risk alienating one billion people.”

Unfortunately, Hollywood, the land of make believe, is not the only place where China’s government has pressured Americans to pretend Tibet isn’t real.

The 2018 annual report by the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission notes that earlier this year, “the Shanghai branch of the Cyberspace Administration of China shut down Marriott’s Chinese website for a week as punishment for listing Taiwan as well as Hong Kong, Macau and Tibet as separate from China on a questionnaire for customers.”

Like its peers in La-La-Land, Marriott sheepishly apologized. ICT followed up with a letter to Marriott’s CEO, Arne Sorenson.

The Commission’s report also states that China doesn’t have to tell European diplomats not to mention Tibet; instead those diplomats simply choose on their own not to bring it up because they don’t want to face Beijing’s wrath.

The result is arguably the most insidious form of censorship: self-censorship. And it’s becoming more common on the issue of Tibet.

Unlike in the movies, good doesn’t always triumph over evil in real life. Hollywood, which once championed the Tibetan cause to kids like me, now shuns the Tibetan people.

Thankfully, there’s still hope for a better ending. Movie studios may fear getting banned by China, but Tibetan-Americans already face that reality. Although Chinese citizens are free to travel throughout the United States—and Chinese officials throw their weight around unimpeded in this country—China restricts Tibetan-Americans from visiting their homeland.

The Reciprocal Access to Tibet Act, which was passed by the House of Representatives in September and unanimously approved by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last week, aims to change that situation by denying US visas to Chinese officials who prevent Americans from entering Tibet.

According to Congressional Quarterly, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who introduced the Reciprocal Access to Tibet Act in the Senate, said that Chinese authorities are “literally undertaking an effort to strip people of their identity.”

Although we can no longer count on our favorite movies to protect that identity, we can—and should—still lobby our government to do so.

About author View all posts

Ashwin Verghese

Ashwin Verghese

As the Communications Officer for the International Campaign for Tibet (ICT), Ashwin Verghese works with members of the media, writes stories and helps share the message of ICT’s mission to promote human rights and democratic freedoms for the people of Tibet. He joined ICT in the summer of 2018 after a 10-year career in communications and journalism, including stops with The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Broadcasting Board of Governors, Temple University and The Pew Charitable Trusts. A native of southern India, Ashwin is passionate about helping the Tibetan people maintain their culture, religion and dignity.

Contact Ashwin at ashwin.verghese@savetibet.org or (202) 580-6772.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *