IN much of the world outside central Asia, the mention of Tibet is likely to conjure up vague, mixed images of art, religion, and politics. These are gleaned less from personal knowledge than from journalistic reports - which hit a peak when the exiled Dalai Lama won the Nobel Peace Prize two years ago - and partly from pop-culture fantasies like "Lost Horizon," the 1937 movie that first popularized the notion of Tibet as a blissful Shangri-La.There is more to this ancient land than the heroics of its exiled leader and the pipe dreams of Hollywood studios, however. One purpose of the current International Year of Tibet, launched last March by Tibet House of New York, is to promote American awareness of some tragic facts: that since the Chinese invasion and occupation of Tibet in 1949, more than 1 million Tibetans have perished, forests have been destroyed, libraries and historic institutions pillaged, and traditional religion attacked. A centerpiece of the year-long event is an ambitious Tibet Film Festival, held at Anthology Film Archives with additional screenings at the Asia Society, on public television, and on the outdoor JumboTron video display in the Times Square area. A portion of the film festival - which ends its New York engagement this Sunday - will tour the United States beginning in January. It's sponsored by Zeitgeist Films, a distribution company specializing in alternatives to commercial programming. The idea for the filmfest came originally from movie actor Richard Gere, chair of Tibet House and a longtime supporter of Tibetan causes. The program was selected by L. Somi Roy, an expert in Asian cinema. Since there is no indigenous Tibetan film industry, Mr. Roy told me recently, he decided to bring together a wide range of international movies that would reflect Tibet's many-faceted image. "I was fascinated by how Tibet has been aproached by different people from different countries and periods," Roy says. "Each one seems to have a different perspective. We decided to include a certain amount of archival film about the initial 'discovery' of Tibet, much of it couched in scientific terms ... and also to show how the perspective on Tibet in countries like Germany, the United States, and the Soviet Union has changed from 'Tibet as Shangri-La' to a postwar attitude that's quite different." In the 1960s and '70s, Roy continues, US and Western European films on Tibet were mainly interested in issues of philosophy and religion, focusing on ancient Buddhist teachings and their influence on Tibetan life. But events of the late '80s - including the suppression of riots in Lhasa, the Tiananmen Square massacre in China, and the Dalai Lama's peace prize - sparked a greater interest in Tibet's political and human-rights situation. Roy says that all six of the films receiving their premieres show a c oncern for human rights as well as an alertness about culture. Also evident in the festival is an awareness of China's complicated relationship with Tibet and its people. Although the Chinese government's stance toward Tibet is one of occupation and domination, Roy notes that some Chinese artists have chosen to visit Tibet in recent years precisely because it's so distant from Beijing and "there may be less political pressure to fit government ideas of what an artist is supposed to do." A high point of the festival is "The Horse Thief," an extraordinary work by Chinese director Tian Zhuangzhuang, about a Tibetan thief thrown into exile. Initially banned in China, the highly pictorial film uses the protagonist's struggle as a symbol for the individual's ability to survive outside organized society - an ability that China's communist government does not care to celebrate, especially when it is depicted in harsh rural surroundings that contradict China's chosen image as the great modernize r of Tibet. Roy grants that virtually all films about Tibet reflect an "appropriation" of the country by "outsiders" who don't share its culture or history. Yet the West's fascination with Tibet reflects real needs and longings, he adds. "We have Angst, alienation, and too much industrialization," says Roy about much of the Western world. "So we are drawn to Tibet's spiritual, compassionate side. Nobody claims that it's a utopia, but the ideals it's associated with - as a society run on wisdom and compassion - are of great interest to artists. And artists can be seen a barometer of what our culture may think in the future. "That's why the festival tries to reach an audience beyond the converted, beyond people already aware of Tibet and concerned about it. We don't want the image of Tibet to be a far-off, exotic experience that's happening 'over there.' It can come to everyone on film."