A cross between a Hollywood religious biopic and an interiorized meditation on faith, loss, and transcendence, Martin Scorsese’s Kundun (1997) was unjustly dismissed as “Tibetan chic” by critics anxious to drag it down to their own level. But Scorsese’s depiction of the boyhood and coming of age of the Dalai Lama was, among many other things, a passionate attempt to put on celluloid the culture that was all but decimated by the Chinese invasion.
“What I’m trying to do is to create an impression of a world that doesn’t exist anymore,” a gracious and accommodating Scorsese explains in In Search of Kundun With Martin Scorsese. “It may be the only way to preserve the heart of that culture. We have documentary footage of it, but what I’m trying to do is capture the emotion and the spirit.” Its overblown title notwithstanding, Michael Henry Wilson’s documentary is a lively and often illuminating behind-the-scenes look at a master filmmaker at work. Wilson, who collaborated on the film-history doc A Personal Journey With Martin Scorsese Through American Movies, was on location in Morocco for the entire production and had good access to the director and his team—production designer Dante Ferretti, screenwriter Melissa Mathison, cinematographer Roger Deakins. The documentary is most useful when it shows Scorsese on set—directing his cast of Tibetan nonprofessional actors, choreographing shots, peering with worried eyes over the top of his reading glasses, improvising solutions to endless problems, making jokes to keep a lid on his temper. (“There must be a photography shop open late in Casablanca. What time is it? 3:20 a.m.?”)
Fluidly edited, In Search of Kundun segues between the Dalai Lama, videotaped at his residence in exile in Dharamsala, India, and Scorsese on location in Morocco directing reenactments of the events the Dalai Lama is describing. Wilson fills out the picture with old newsreels of Tibet and clips from the completed version of Kundun. There are extremely moving interviews with some of the Tibetans who acted and advised on the film. It’s a cliché that on long location stints lonely people, for better or worse, bond as surrogate families. Here the Tibetans, many of them related by blood or marriage, come from the ends of the earth and reunite to keep their story alive.
Slighter and certainly more conventional than Scorsese’s epic struggle to give expression to a culture in which aesthetics are inseparable from spirituality is Paul Wagner’s no-budget melodrama, Windhorse, set in present-day Tibet. The most fascinating aspect of Windhorse is the footage shot on hidden video cameras inside Tibet and smuggled out of the country. Wagner gives serious meaning to the self-styled guerrilla filmmaker’s notion of “stealing a shot.”
The audience likely to be most appreciative of the film are Tibetans in exile, who might have wished for more documentary and less fiction. Windhorse tells the story of a Tibetan family living in Lhasa and trying to survive under Chinese rule. The grandmother, whose husband was murdered by the Chinese, is openly defiant; the parents try to keep a low profile while putting food on the table; the son is a dropout who stops short of joining the underground; and the daughter, a nightclub singer, tries to win favor with the Chinese masters with songs about the glory of Chairman Mao. When their young cousin, a nun who was arrested and tortured by the Chinese, is sent home to die, the brother and sister are forced to reassess their choices. Wagner executes this familiar narrative competently enough, but the effect is to turn the Tibetan tragedy into a pale imitation of a 1940s studio movie about resistance and collaboration.