By Jigme Duntak
In 1997 the movie Seven Years in Tibet arrived in theaters starring Brad Pitt and based from the book by Heinrich Harrer published in 1953.
Austrian Heinrich Harrer recounts the story of his experiences as an mountaineer in Northern India before the onset of the war in 1939. When the Second World War finally begins, following the invasion of Poland by Germany, Harrer and his fellow mountaineers find themselves taken captive as prisoners of war in British India. Heinrich and a few other captives manage to escape and eventually Heinrich and Peter Aufschnaiter make it into Tibet and finally to the ‘forbidden city’ of Lhasa. There the two travelers find refuge and work from the Lhasa government on various projects, particularly Harrer who eventually develops a very personal relationship with the young Dalai Lama as his mentor on the West.
I can remember the excitement that had surrounded this movie among the Tibetan community in my hometown, and also with the movie Kundun which was released a few months following Seven Years in Tibet. For the first time a mainstream Hollywood movie had been made about Tibet
Before the filming of the movie had actually begun, a casting crew had come to my hometown to find some hidden talent among our Tibetan community to play some roles in the movie, my amala (mother) put my brother and I into the auditions. Whether we were voluntarily or forcefully put into the auditions I can’t recall. I also don’t remember whether the casting was for Seven Years in Tibet or Kundun but suffice to say I didn’t make my debut as a child movie star, nor do I remember caring. I was more interested in eating the sub I had bought with my amala’s money, minutes before the audition, across the street from the building where the auditions were taking place rather than practicing the lines I would have to perfectly act out to the casting directors if I was to get a role in the film.
When the film had finally come out in the theaters, naturally my family and relatives wanted to go and see the movie for themselves and hopefully help it become a successful movie. I suppose the movie wasn’t completely mainstream since I recall that my family and relatives had to travel out of town, and strangely to a smaller city, to see the movie since it was not showing in any of the theaters in my hometown.
While sitting in the run-down theater before the movie started, besides the family I had come with, there were very few people who had come to see the film. One guy yelled to another one of his friends, that he had recognized a few rows down, asking why his friend had come to see the film, his friend replied “Brad Pitt man”. I thought to myself that perhaps many people would be coming to watch this movie for very different reasons than that of my family and also for reasons different from that which I would imagine Tibetans would like. I also thought it was strange and funny that a guy would come to a movie for the single purpose of seeing Brad Pitt, but now that I have gotten older, being only something like ten years old at the time, I can understand perhaps why a guy might have come to see a movie for the sole reason of seeing Brad Pitt regardless of Pitt’s terrible attempt at an Austrian accent.
After the movie ended I wasn’t completely impressed by the film and now, twelve years later,after recently finishing the book Seven Years in Tibet I feel the movie did not do justice to the book at all. For one, a lot parts from the book, which I think would have made the movie much more interesting, are omitted, and secondly, some parts of the movie are completely outright fabricated.
A few examples I can remember off the top of head:
-Contrary to what the film shows Heinrich Harrer does not throw Ngawang Jigme to the ground after Ngawang betrays the Tibetan government,
-In the book Harrer never mentions anything about his relations with his wife back in Austria, nor does he mention anything about any love interests or competition between he and Aufschnaiter for the Tibetan seamstress depicted in the movie, or of a Tibetan seamstress at all for that matter. In fact, in the book Harrer states that he had put off any relations with any female companions while in Tibet for reasons I can’t recall but my guess was that he found himself too busy with work.
-The movie omits many of the jobs Harrer had done for the Lhasa government before he had even begun to act as a teacher for the young Dalai Lama. Jobs such as: gardening, building fountains, making maps, translating works, recording various ceremonies and also taking photos of many different things.
-It also omits many of the details of Harrer and Aufschnaiter ‘s very tough times in Tibet when they had traveled through miles and miles of desolate terrain and found the company of many nomadic Tibetans, friendly and unfriendly.