tenzin tethong
He was adviser on the film Seven Years in Tibet. Tethong formerly was the exiled Dalai Lama's representative in the U.S. and now works for Survivors International, an organization which helps victims of torture.



interview
q:  What was your role on the film SEVEN YEARS IN TIBET.

tenzin:  I was considered the official advisor or consultant. And I tried to help, in terms of getting some of the, historical and other technical facts correct about the story, sequence of events about different characters in the storyline. And I also some of the cultural aspects of Tibet correct for the film. Because we had a lot of scenes about ceremonies, and very formal governmental kind of situations where some of the protocol had to be correct. Now most of this is facts which, the rest of the world wouldn't know about and probably would be able to distinguish and most Tibetans for that matter may not ever know about it.

q:  Was there enthusiasm among the filmmakers to try to make a film that helps tell the world about the Tibet story?

a:  I think it was there, definitely. Telling the story of Heinrich Harrer, obviously the Tibetan story was the very important background to the whole story. And people who came there to work on the film-- I think all the Tibetans were very enthusiastic and eager to be part of that storytelling. And I think many of the other, technicians who were there, who initially probably came just to work on another film, I think they got to be more aware of the Tibetan situation, got to talk more about what's happening in Tibet. And I think that there was very clear sense they were all beginning feel involved in a important issue that was being told to the world.

q:  I imagine there were many Tibetans involved in the production of both these films - "Kundun" and "Seven Years in Tibet." And it must have been an emotional experience for them to be reliving these events.

a:  I think in both production hundreds of Tibetans involved in it. Especially for the older people, many of the monks, some of the lamas, some of the former officials older people. They had lived in Lhasa, they had been part of the story that we're trying to tell. so they were obviously very emotionally involved in the process. For some of the younger people, obviously, less so because they have little memory of that Tibet. But at the same time, I think they were very conscious of the fact that here was a very powerful storytelling medium that they were involved in.

q:  What is the story that "Seven Years..." is trying to tell about Tibet?

a:  Seven Years in Tibet is about this Austrian mountain climber who is very eager to prove himself all over the world and he ends up being a prisoner in India and then escaping to Tibet where his life is transformed by his interaction with the Tibetans and especially getting to know the young Dalai Lama and the circumstances have changed in Tibet when the Chinese come. All of that seems to have transformed the man into a better person. I think that's what the director is trying to tell us.

But behind all that is the story about Tibet itself, a country that is facing extinction at the hands of the Chinese communists and it's a juncture in its history when our traditional way of life, our spiritual way of life crashes with the modern world. So that's the story and we believe it's -- it is a story that's not complete yet and it's a story which raises issues that confront all of us, how and why we should preserve different peoples, different languages, different cultures, different traditions in the world today. So Tibet becomes a broader sort of symbolic story for all of us.

q:  How do you understand this fascination with Tibet in the West?

a:  Well, somehow there seems to have been quite a fascination with Tibet in maybe for the last hundred years or so. Maybe a little longer. Much of this is because Tibet was very remote, inaccessible, and there were all these fantastic stories about magic and mystery in Tibet. A large part of which is, in a sense true. , but the current fascination also to do with Tibet becoming an issue that is in some sense very symbolic of many issues in the world today. It's about cultural preservation, it's about distinct people having a way of life that should be respected, preserved. And it's about Tibetan Buddhism and various Buddhist techniques that have developed in Tibet which may be entirely applicable and useful in our lives to day - in this modern world.

q:  What is your fondest hope for these films and what they'll accomplish?

a:  I think what these films will accomplish is that it will educate a large number of people all over the world about Tibet a little -- give them a sense about what's happening in Tibet today. So it will be to a large extent somewhat superficial kind of education but it will nevertheless reach millions of people all over the world and I hope that will help the Tibetan situation overall because right now no government or no force in the world is in position to have a real impact on the Chinese leadership to change things for the better. And the only thing that is making some difference is the fact that there is a ground swell of public support all over the world -- it comes from young people, old people, people from all walks of life and that in a sense, in a very strange way is adding up to something.

q:  What about a young person or young people going to see Brad Pitt's adventure film...what message are they going to walk away with from these films do you think or hope?

a:  Well I can't speak for the director but I believe a very important part of this story is it's about a very aggressive success-seeking Austrian mountaineer who after his experiences in Tibet becomes a changed man for the better. I hope something of that will also come through to the young people who go and see Brad Pitt, they just want to see a good-looking successful actor and maybe they'll get more than just good looks and acting but the major part of the story Seven Years in Tibet and I hope they become more aware of different cultures and different peoples that need to be preserved, respected, helped in this world. It's not everybody living in huge urban environments.

q:  What's at stake for Tibet and the Tibetan community in these films?

a:  What's at stake is that although the films are not going to determine what's going to happen in Tibet, but the films could have an important role to play in possibly preserving or saving Tibet. So they could play an important role at this juncture in Tibetan history.

q:  What are your thought on our fascination with Tibet, with the Dalai Lama and what he personifies?

a:  Well the Western fascination with Tibet seems to be several hundred years old and I think it's largely due to the fact that Tibet was remote, inaccessible and so it built up this myth about this remote forbidden kingdom and at the same time it was reinforced by all these stories about magic and medicine or about Buddhism and you know tantric practices in Tibet. But in more recent times with -- the face of Tibet has been that of His Holiness, the Dalai Lama and the world has come to know him, they've come to respect him, they've come to love him and he represents maybe the finest aspects of Tibetan tradition and Tibetan culture by and large which is Tibetan Buddhism, and I think he is able to convey the fact that spirituality and many of the Buddhist traditions and practices can be extremely useful and relevant to individuals no matter where we live and under what circumstances.

q:  Is there almost a kind of celebrity status that the Dalai Lama is now taking on in the West and among very famous figures in Hollywood?

a:  Yes, it seems to be to some extent whenever some well-known celebrity figure meets the Dalai Lama or comes to greet him or attend a Tibet-related fund-raising event it draws that kind of attention, that's true.

q:  What do you make of that?

a:  I think it seems to be quite natural because wherever the Dalai Lama has traveled in recent years people from all walks of life have come to meet him, to attend a lecture or attend his teachings or just to greet him and so it's been a you know wide range of people and I think celebrities are no exception really.

q:  Why is the Tibetan issue more and more popular, more noticed? For many years it has been an important issue in policy circles, in Washington and maybe in the Congress. Now, it's jumping over the firewall-- as Orville Schell calls it---into popular culture. What's the implication?

a:  Well the reason why the Tibetan issue seems to be getting more and more popular is because I think it is becoming a symbol of many popular issues in a sense. When you talk about Tibet, it's not just human rights, it's not just environment, it's not just cultural preservation. It's not about language. It's about all of these and many other issues. And there re issues like this in different parts of the world which are purely human rights, purely environment, purely about culture and somehow this Tibetan issue touches so many of these issues that it is becoming a powerful symbol for many other issues. Then it's been enhanced because His Holiness the Dalai Lama has been the primary spokesperson, the face, the public face of Tibet and his personal charisma, his personal ability to communicate the history of the Dalai Lamas behind him and his integrity in conveying this issue has taken the issue many levels beyond what it would have been at .

q:  But do you see these films sort of breaking Tibet into a new kind of consciousness on people and their ability to move leaders to change things?

a:  I think on a popular level, yes, it will bring Tibet to a new level of consciousness but whether it will determine a breakthrough as such that I have my doubts. I think it will add something to it but it may not be the determining factor in how the US might react to China.

q:  How have the Chinese reacted to these films coming out on Tibet?

a:  I think the Chinese have not been comfortable with these films obviously the fact that the Indians couldn't give permission to film in India is an indication of Chinese dissatisfaction with such a potential project. They have protested openly about Disney, they have even compiled a list of people associated both films who are persona non grata in China. And when the film comes out and it becomes a big thing they will obviously denounce it as some kind of political game the West is involved in and they will also say its all the negative propaganda of the Tibetans and the Dalai Lama and in fact they've already gone ahead and made a movie or two, I believe they've made a movie about the British Expedition to Tibet at the turn of the century somewhat trying to combat Hollywood but quite unsuccessfully I believe. They've also produced a documentary on the present Dalai Lama from their footage to prove that the Dalai Lama has always been something different. So there's a propaganda war being waged in some sense but the more the Chinese react I think the Tibetan message will come through more.

q:  Tell me now about the change. The change and the impact films will have and Free Tibet Concerts will have on popular culture and masses of people and how they will affect leaders?

a:  Well as far as the impact in the United States, it will continue to strengthen public support in the United States Congress and in the media, obviously and young people are becoming more and more involved I believe they are now, close to 300 or more college and school groups about Tibet. I think that will continue and how that translates down into real political change I think may be more complex and may take a little more time.

q:  But do you see these films paving a way sort of breaking Tibet into a new kind of consciousness on people and their ability to move leaders to change things? Tell me if you do.

a:  I think on a popular level, yes, it will bring Tibet to a new level of consciousness but whether it will determine a breakthrough as such that I have my doubts. I think it will add something to it but it may not be the determining factor in how the US might react to China.

q:  What's your hope regarding Tibet's place on this big agenda between the United States and China? Tade is always talked about at the top of the agenda if not the whole agenda. Where does Tibet fall on that scale?

a:  I hope that little Tibet will be a very important element in the developing agenda. It is easy for big governments or big societies now and definitely in the past in history to ignore little issues and little people, little things. But I think we are in a different world and the issues that Tibet raises are important issues and people are increasingly becoming aware of that such as environment and human rights. They are not just something that's in the way that needs to be removed because there's such a pesky issue. They are actually touching on fundamental issues about how the United States should be in its contact of foreign policy and domestic policy and how China should be in its internal development.



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