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Seven Years in Tibet

By Devin D. O'Leary

OCTOBER 13, 1997:  Every couple years, Hollywood grafts itself to some cause célèbre with an almost religious fervor. What with the publicity surrounding Seven Years In Tibet, the upcoming release of Martin Scorsese's Kundun and Steven Seagal being anointed as a high holy man, I think we can safely peg down "Tibet" as this year's cause.

For those who don't know, Tibet was savagely annexed by China in 1959. The 14th Dalai Lama fled to India as uprisings were being crushed and borders were being closed. According to reports by the International Campaign for Tibet, more than 6,000 monasteries and temples have been destroyed, and some 1.2 million Tibetans have died under Chinese oppression. Tibet's greatest enemy, though, may have been its strict isolationist policy. When China ran roughshod over the Himalayan nation back in the 1950s, the world took no notice. Today, the Tibetan people are trying to reverse that trend by becoming as high-profile as possible. You're more likely to see the now 62-year-old Dalai Lama shaking hands with Richard Gere or Sharon Stone at some Hollywood party than leading chants in a monastery.

The first cresting wave in this rising tide of entertainment industry-based political consciousness belongs to the film Seven Years In Tibet. It is directed by Frenchman Jean-Jacques Annaud, stars Hollywood pretty-boy Brad Pitt and is based on the best-selling novel by Heinrich Harrer. Harrer's novel is an autobiographical story about the Austrian mountain climber's escape from an Indian POW camp during WWII, his flight to Tibet and his eventual seven-year friendship with the young Dalai Lama. Unfortunately for the filmmakers, Harrer admitted several months ago to being a member of Hitler's SS. Though Harrer insists that he only joined to further his freedom to climb mountains, the revelation could have been a public-relations nightmare for Sony, who produced the film version of Seven Years. Filmmakers quickly added a bit of narration in which Harrer cursorily denounces his Nazi past. Ultimately, it makes little difference since the film bears only a passing resemblance to Harrer's autobiography anyway.

In the film, Harrer (Pitt) is an arrogant, bull-headed man ditching his pregnant wife back in Austria so he can go climb a mountain in the Himalayas. While he is gone, war breaks out, and he is tossed into a British POW camp in northern India. He eventually escapes with the help of another German climber, Peter Aufschnaiter (British actor David Thewlis). During their arduous trek across the Himalayas, the two become grudging friends. Eventually, the duo ends up in the forbidden city of Lhasa, home of the 14th reincarnation of the Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama. Aufschnaiter falls in love with a Tibetan woman (something that did not happen in real life), and Harrer pals up with the prepubescent Dalai Lama.

Director Jean-Jacques Annaud has always been interested in portraying the primal, natural world in his films (like Quest for Fire, The Bear and, to a lesser extent, The Name of the Rose). For the first half of Seven Years In Tibet, Annaud concentrates on Harrer's triumph over his surroundings (the Himalayas, the prison camp, the xenophobic environs of Tibet). These early scenes, although rife with the grandeur of nature, may seem emotionally chilly. They are an effective setup, though, for the film's more "humanistic" second half. It's up to Pitt to carry the film for a while and, while he's hardly a great actor, he does pull off the vain, glory-hogging aspects of his character (but he's even worse at faking an Austrian accent than he was at faking an Irish one in The Devil's Own).

Once our "hero" arrives in the holy city of Lhasa, the film begins its more political phase. Through Harrer's western eyes, we witness the beauty, simplicity and eventual destruction of Tibet. Fortunately, the script doesn't force us to swallow a huge spiritual awakening on the part of Harrer (the real Harrer booked it out of Tibet with fourteen pack animals full of gold, jewelry and other treasures). Instead, we get some wonderful interplay between Harrer and a voraciously curious young Dalai Lama (14-year-old Jamyang Jamtsho Wangchuk, who captures the Dalai Lama's intelligence, humor and compassion with almost scary accuracy). Through his tutoring of the Dalai Lama, Harrer comes to grips with his humanity, his past and his long-lost son. When Harrer's transformation does come, it is a simple shift from selfishness to awareness.

Perhaps by simply doing what it does best, Hollywood really can help the people of Tibet. A well-made, emotionally affecting film like Seven Years in Tibet is sure to increase awareness. And, as this film says, awareness is the first step.

--Devin D. O'Leary


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