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A tale of two Tibets


Western, Chinese films tell differing stories

October 10, 1997
Web posted at: 2:21 p.m. EDT (1821 GMT)

From Correspondent Rebecca MacKinnon

BEIJING (CNN) -- Tibet. Is it a Socialist paradise? Or is the mountainous region of western China a land of people struggling against oppression? Those conflicting views are conveyed in new films considered propaganda by their critics.

Hollywood's version, "Seven Years in Tibet," stars Brad Pitt as a tutor to the young Dalai Lama, Tibet's spiritual leader. The movie takes a nostalgic look at Tibet -- the way it was before 1959, when Tibetans revolted against Chinese rule. Communist troops tightened their grip on Tibet and the Dalai Lama fled into exile.

Another Tibet-themed movie, Disney's "Kundun," will hit U.S. movie theaters by year's end. It, too, is about the Dalai Lama and is critical of Chinese rule in Tibet. Last year, Chinese authorities threatened Disney's other businesses in China due to its involvement in "Kundun," but Disney went ahead with the movie anyway.

Now, China's government-run media are working hard to sell Beijing's side of the story, painting a very different picture of Tibet's past.

  • A recently aired TV documentary says the majority of Tibetans used to live as slaves to a corrupt religious elite -- a system the documentary said was headed and approved by the Dalai Lama himself.

  • A Chinese summer box office hit called "Red River Valley" tells how Chinese and Tibetans fought together against British intruders at the turn of the century.

Both pictures uphold government policy -- that Tibet is an inseparable part of China. And their timing -- coinciding with the release of Western films showing China in a negative light -- was no fluke.


"We did it on our own initiative. But the state and the government gave a lot of support for us to film this kind of topic," says Feng Xiaoning, the director of Red River Valley.

Both films are aimed at audiences both inside and outside China, says Hao Shiyuan of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. "In China, a lot of people, including young people, don't understand about Tibet. They hear a lot of criticisms from abroad so they don't understand the truth about Tibet," he says.

So far, Red River Valley has not made it overseas. The television documentary was broadcast worldwide on Chinese satellite TV but still hasn't found an international distributor.


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