A vivid look at the Dalai Lama of Tibet, his people, and their vigil

The Dalai Lama of Tibet waits peacefully on the Indian border.

For more than 2,500 years, the Tibetans clung to their own unique and mysterious habits, shutting out almost all foreigners. Then, the Chinese invaded in 1949 and the era of fierce independence was over.

Exile: The Dalai Lama and His People (PBS, Friday, 10-11 p.m., check local listings)m is a vivid and colorful documentation of their diaspora and their long wait for return. This film, originating in Boise, Idaho, is still another example of the increased utilization of regionally produced, independent documentaries, the best of which PBS is more and more often plucking out of local stations and offering nationally.

In various parts of India, around 100,000 Tibetans go about their daily lives in conclaves made up of refugees from the Chinese invasion of their homeland. They wait stoically . . . patiently. Their leader, the Dalai Lama, who himself escaped about 20 years ago -- after a 1959 uprising against the Chinese failed -- now urges them to forego bitterness as he helps them prepare calmly for their possible return to Tibet.

The Dalai Lama has provided his exiled people with a new democratic constitution, and hopes it will help them gain experience in self-government so that they will be ready for a new life in Tibet . . . if it should come about. Meantime, though, he preaches that they must find constructive happiness even in the great hardships they are currently enduring. It is a far cry from the attitude of other refugee groups in other parts of the world.

Narrated by William Conrad, written by H. Lee and Rebecca Chaney, this beautifully photographed film, which includes a wondrously vague interview with the Dalai Lama himself, is presented on public television by KAID/Boise, Idaho, which is about as foreign to Tibet as you can get. But, somehow, the film manages, through newsreels and other film footage, to capture the feel of Tibet itself; its capital, Katmandu; Nepal; India; and several Indian cities where the refugees have integrated themselves while they try to maintain old traditions so that their children will not forget.

There are impressive scenes of Tibetan drama and dance, of Tibetan rugmaking, of Tibetan children learning Tibetan, Hindi, and English in school in India. Perhaps, we are told without Tibetan rancor, they are getting even a better education than they might have in Tibet, a peaceful country which once outlawed the wheel because it symbolized war to them.

The film is filled with fascinating tidbits about Tibetan mores. For instance , butter is the basic food of the country; Tibetans not only churn butter constantly, but even carve religious sculptures from it. The fragility of the butter sculpture symbolizes for them the impermanence of life itself. Their daily habits almost always reflect their Buddhist philosophy.

Is the dream of return to this country south of China, north of India, and east of Pakistan a hopeless one, the documentary asks.

''We shall see,'' the Dalai Lama, god-king of Tibet, responds.

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