Mountains, monks and mandalas: ‘Kundun’ and ‘Seven Years in Tibet.’

  • Author(s): Mark Abramson
  • When: 1998-07
  • Where: Cineaste
  • In 1925, cinemas in London's West End were showing the documentary film Epic of Everest. Shot during a recent failed British expedition during which two climbers died near Everest's peak, the film was a paean to the unconquerable "purity" of the Tibetan mountains, in contrast to the "dirt" and queer customs of the Tibetan people. It became the subject of official Tibetan government protests and a cause celebre in Anglo-Tibetan relations not only because of certain "vulgar and indecent" scenes (such as one which portrayed a man delousing a boy and killing the lice between his teeth, leading to the British interpretation that lice were part of the Tibetan diet), but even more so because the screenings were accompanied by a music and dance performance by a troupe of Tibetan monks, referred to in the British popular press as "the dancing lamas." Peter Hansen's excellent article on the subject shows how the British media reacted to the Tibetans with a mix of condescending humor (a sample headline read, "Seven Lamas Come to Town. Escape from Tibet as Bales of Fur"; the monks were also taken to the London Zoo and photographed with the llamas), respect for their mystical religion, sympathy towards these strangers in a strange land, and, most telling, objections that the tawdry display would kill "the romance and mystery of Tibet."

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