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Virtual Tibet: Searching for Shangri-LA from the Himalayas to Hollywood Hardcover – Bargain Price, April 30, 2000
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Meanwhile, back in Hollywood----the Dalai Lama became a cult figure for many of the figures of Filmistan. The cultural destruction of Tibet under Chinese rule came to the attention of many who previously could not have found Tibet on a map. In the 1990s, not one, but two movies were produced about Tibet----the film version of Heinrich Harrer's "Seven Years in Tibet" and "Kundun", more the story of the Dalai Lama. Since filming on site was out of the question due to politics, the former was filmed in Argentina starring Brad Pitt. Schell weaves an interesting tale, alternating between the story of Tibetan travellers and the production of the film. In the end, it seems that the film and real Tibet merged because the film brought the extinct version of Tibet back to life for Tibetan actors and film audiences everywhere. "...in the popular imagination of the West, the plight of the Tibetans....occupied against their will....has been added to the lure of Tibet as a mystical place of physical beauty and spiritual refinement." But haven't Westerners created "virtual Tibet" in order to improve the quality of our lives, to give hope that somewhere out there Shangri La really exists? Wasn't Heinrich Harrer an unreconstructed Nazi? Do we know much about real Tibet? These are very interesting questions because Tibet is not the only place, nor Tibetans the only people, to suffer "virtualization". I recommend this book if any of this interests you.
There are many errors of fact (for instance, the events at Waco are said to have occurred in 1995) and interpretation (the passages about Buddhism are quite garbled).
Finally, I must differ with the author about the many travellers to Tibet in recent decades. I have spent much of my life in this region and have found the majority of travellers there to be well-informed about the history and politics of the region. Though doubtless there are some who arrive seeking a fantasy and leave disgruntled, this is true of most any travel destination. The beauty of the landscape and indigenous people of Tibet is very real, and much appreciated by most who journey there. Portraying the average Western traveller to Tibet as a naive Shangri-La seeker is a disservice in this era of savvy, Lonely Planet guide carrying wanderers. The situation in Hollywood is another matter entirely (well treated in this book), but I would also suggest that, prior to the Brad Pitt film, most Americans had only the faintest idea what Tibet even was, if they had heard of it at all.
Still, Schell does deserve much credit for his honesty and introspection - this is by and large a fair and balanced work. I hope it gets a wide audience, and that interested readers consult the bibliography in the back.