LOS ANGELES — Near the end of "Seven Years in Tibet," with his people experiencing the first wave of Communist Chinese repression, the 14-year-old Dalai Lama asks his Western tutor a poignant question that jumps out of the late-1940s scene into present-day reality.
"Do you think someday people will look at Tibet on a movie screen," he asks his teacher, who has just built him a makeshift cinema, "and wonder what happened to us?"
Five decades later, this true story of a foreigner's interaction with Tibetan culture is one of three major Hollywood films plus an independent documentary that are indeed encouraging millions to wonder about Tibet.
Along with Chinese leader Jiang Zemin's current visit to the United States, the movies are putting the Tibetan tragedy in the brightest public spotlight ever. It's brighter than when the Dalai Lama fled into India in 1959 - or even than when the spiritual and political leader won the Nobel Peace Prize 30 years later.
"It is perhaps ironic that America's popular culture is such that people gain more of their worldview via popular movies than the news," says Martin Wassell, an independent film producer specializing in films about Tibet and Tibetan Buddhism. "One danger is that people may fail to understand that the tragedy of Tibet is factually true."
Besides the $80 million "Seven Years in Tibet" - which has pulled in $26.3 million since its release on Oct. 10 - another major picture on the Dalai Lama is due in December, Martin Scorsese's "Kundun." A smaller, independent film, "Windhorse," debuts next week at the Virginia Film Festival, tracking the effects of Chinese assimilation on three Tibetans. And opening in theaters today is a third studio picture, "Red Corner," which focuses on human rights abuses in China proper.
The movie releases are dovetailing with two developments on the diplomatic front.
No. 1 is Chinese leader Jiang's seven-city US tour and summit meeting with President Clinton, who met in April with the Dalai Lama and stated he would raise Tibet as a prominent issue with Jiang.
No. 2 is Secretary of State Madeleine Albright's promise to appoint by Nov. 1 a new "special coordinator" to oversee American policy toward Tibet. Because the US has not had diplomatic relations with Tibet, which it officially regards as part of China, the position is expected to raise the profile of Tibetan affairs within the US government and worldwide.
"We find it very heartening that at long last, both Washington and Hollywood have taken stock of the Tibetan question," says John Ackerly, director of the International Campaign for Tibet (ICT) in Washington. Noting a wave of activism that has included vigils in dozens of US cities as well as Canada, Mr. Ackerly says: "There is obviously a concomitant need for people in both spheres to sustain such interest to help prevent the extinction of a country and a culture before it is too late."
"I hope this is the beginning of a trend," says Lodi Gyari, president of the International Campaign and a former aide to the Dalai Lama. "If the US is consistent and sincere and vigorous in trying to persuade the Chinese government to come to a settlement, I strongly believe it will happen."
As the public is learning from the films, exhaustive media coverage, and demonstrations, the "Tibet question" spans the realms of politics, religion, environment, and culture.
Partly because of geographical isolation, separated from neighbors by mountain ranges and its 17,000-foot-high plateau, Tibet developed a unique culture, which prizes religious education and spiritual values. As many as one-fifth to one-fourth of Tibetan males study to become monks, and almost as many girls become nuns. Since 1462, a joint church/state focus has emphasized values of enlightenment: compassion, wisdom, generosity, and joy.
By 1650, Tibet had become the first country in history to demilitarize (Costa Rica was second, 300 years later). After the rise of communism in neighboring China, 100,000 Chinese troops invaded Tibet, quickly defeating a tiny makeshift army and occupying the Tibetan plateau, which is about the size of Western Europe. Tibet is valuable as a geostrategic bridge to India and for its resources - primarily lumber - that can be used to support China's 1.2 billion population.
The Chinese position is that Tibet has always been part of the motherland, that the Tibetan people represent just one of 55 Chinese minorities, and those who follow the Dalai Lama are illegal separatists. They trace their claim back hundreds of years to a Tibetan king who took a Chinese bride.
The UN General Assembly has passed three resolutions condemning China's actions, calling for self-determination for the Tibetan people. In 1959, during an uprising against occupying troops, the Dalai Lama and 80,000 Tibetans fled to India and Nepal. He has led a government-in-exile from Dharmsala, India, ever since, run with the contributions of Tibetans worldwide and the support of several governments.
Human rights groups estimate that nearly one-fifth of Tibet's 6 million population, about 1.2 million, has died as a direct result of China's policies. Tens of thousands have gone to labor camps and more than 6,000 monasteries have been destroyed. Tibetan language, customs, and culture were banned until 1979 and are still severely limited.
"The Chinese not only control political and military power in Tibet, but also the economic, cultural, and religious life," says Tseten Phanucharas, president of Los Angeles Friends of Tibet.
Awareness of the situation has grown steadily since thousands of Tibetans staged large demonstrations in 1987, and the Dalai Lama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989 for his international message of nonviolent resistance. (See interview with the Dalai Lama at right.)
Within the US government, seeds of official activism were planted about 10 years ago when Sen. Claiborne Pell (D) of Rhode Island and Sen. Jesse Helms (R) of North Carolina united in bipartisan efforts to draw attention to the humanitarian situation. They drafted legislation to create a US government position to monitor policy on Tibet and helped establish a Voice of America broadcast in the Tibetan language and Fulbright scholarships for Tibetans at American universities. They also spearheaded nonbinding "sense of the Congress" resolutions, expressing formal disapproval for the Chinese occupation.
The human rights community has criticized President Clinton for reneging on 1992 campaign promises to get tough with human rights abuse in China and Tibet. In 1994, he dropped conditions China was expected to meet to obtain most-favored-nation trading status with the US.
Those conditions included the release of political prisoners, allowing access to prisons by international humanitarian organizations, and respecting Tibet's unique religious-cultural-linguistic identity.
Now, with Jiang in the US, rights groups are calling on Clinton to make good on his April promise to the Dalai Lama, and those calls are getting a boost from the movie releases.
The films themselves angered Chinese authorities long before their openings. "China has done everything it can to slow or stop production of these movies, including banning them within their country," says Mickey Spiegel, researcher/consultant for Human Rights Watch. "They even went to Disney [producer of "Kundun"] and said, you cancel this movie or you won't be selling any Mickey Mouses in China."
Studio officials say Hollywood has not orchestrated any connection of the release of the three films - nor have the studios coincided releases with the Jiang tour. Nor have they bowed to Chinese threats. But the Walt Disney Company did recently hire former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to advise them on their dealings with China.
Many here credit actor Richard Gere's long-winded plea for Tibet at the 1994 Oscars as the genesis of awareness beyond the political arena. Such awareness has burgeoned with the rise of interest in Buddhism. Within the entertainment industry, Mr. Gere and Steven Seagal, Harrison Ford, Philip Glass, Courtney Love, Goldie Hawn, Tina Turner, Oliver Stone, Martin Scorsese, and singer Adam Yauch have all boosted the profile of Tibet and Tibetan Buddhism in recent years. Mr. Ford's wife, Melissa Mathison, wrote the screenplay for "Kundun."
Some in the diplomatic/human rights community privately worry that attention to the popular films could eclipse the years of behind-the-scenes work in Congress, which, they say, resulted in the new special coordinator. Others see the cinematic activity as a welcome boon. "There is some cynicism in many circles over why exactly Hollywood is involved," says ICT's Ackerly. "But the trickledown attention has been very, very valuable to us."
Rights groups have promised demonstrations highlighting the latest information coming out of Tibet at every stop of Jiang's tour.
Already available on the Internet at such sites as www.saveTibet.com and www.UShouse.gov are stories from recent visitors such as Rep. Frank Wolf (R) of Virginia, the only sitting member of the US House to visit since the Dalai Lama's exile in 1959. His unofficial trip, without Chinese knowledge that he was a US congressman, took place from Aug. 9 to13.
"In Tibet, humane progress is not even inching along, and repressed people live under unspeakable, brutal conditions in the dim shadows of international awareness," writes Mr. Wolf in a detailed account. Noting that government agents and video cameras guard against personal outside contact, Wolf tells of daily meetings with Tibetans who told stories of killings, starvation, and torture. "The inescapable conclusion," he says, "is that China is swallowing Tibet. Tibet is disappearing."
There are some credible accounts holding that, far from the capital of Lhasa, monasteries and towns are left alone. Newsweek writer George Wehrfritz has reported that one mountainous province formerly called Amdo is still overwhelmingly loyal to the Dalai Lama.
But others say such stories do not tell what lurks below the surface. "There are areas far from Lhasa that remain culturally intact," says Mary Beth Markey, former aide to Senator Pell. "But that is only because such regions are so remote to the Chinese control apparatus as to not be threatening.
"You can bet that if those Tibetans decided to buck the system by raising the Tibetan flag or pledging allegiance to the Dalai Lama, Chinese security would come down on them."