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Hollywood and Tibet

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Sonam Zoksang was only a month old in 1960 when his family fled Chinese-occupied Tibet for the Indian border, hiking over mountain passes at night for two weeks and hiding out during the day. Later, when Zoksang was growing up in the Tibetan refugee camps around Dharmsala, India, his father often reminisced about their village of Kyirong, including the year two white men — Austrian explorer Heinrich Harrer and his climbing partner Peter Aufschnaiter — holed up in the tiny hamlet.

Fast-forward to 1995. Zoksang, now a professional photographer, was assigned to take pictures of the Dalai Lama at his 60th birthday in Dharmsala. Director Jean-Jacques Annaud, who was there auditioning Tibetans for his movie based on Harrer’s memoir, Seven Years in Tibet, spotted Zoksang and cast him in the film. A year later, Zoksang found himself on location in Argentina as a bandit who beats up Harrer — played by Brad Pitt. ”I’m not much for movie stars but I was impressed with Brad’s dedication,” says Zoksang, who lives in Manhattan. ”I had to put him on the ground and kick him. The stunt coordinator kept saying ‘Be careful, don’t hit him hard.’ Brad said, ‘Don’t worry, hit me hard.’ What a nice guy. So I hit him hard, and it was okay.”

Tibetans, of course, have been famously averse to hitting hard for centuries, ever since Siddhartha introduced Buddhism and the concept of nonviolence in India 2,500 years ago, and it filtered into Tibet in the seventh century. It’s a tradition they maintained even after Tibet was invaded by the Chinese in 1950, when China’s leaders decided to claim the nation, most of which lies on a spectacular three-mile-high plateau partly ringed by the majestic Himalayas and idealized in movies like 1937’s Lost Horizon, as their own.

But times have changed. Beginning in October, Tibet — with the help of the entertainment industry — is finally hitting hard. Two movies — Annaud’s Seven Years and Martin Scorsese’s Kundun — a concert album, documentary, and TV special will tell the story of a devastated country and a vanishing culture. More than 1.2 million Tibetans have died under Chinese oppression since 1959, and, in China’s attempt to secularize the country, more than 6,000 ancient monasteries and temples have been torn down, according to the International Campaign for Tibet.

Can Hollywood save Tibet? Richard Gere, who first embraced the Tibetan cause almost 20 years ago, is hopeful. Gere, Harrison Ford, and Ford’s wife, Kundun screenwriter Melissa Mathison, have been working on behalf of Tibet longer than most in Hollywood, but now they have company: everyone from Oliver Stone, Paul Simon, George Lucas, Ethan Hawke, Uma Thurman, Bernardo Bertolucci, Lisa Henson, and Goldie Hawn to musicians like the Beastie Boys’ Adam Yauch, Philip Glass, Natalie Merchant, Michael Stipe, and Bjork. And many in the Tibet movement, including U.S.-based Tibetan refugees, American activists, and Tibet House founder Robert Thurman, say there is little downside to the wave of Tibet chic. ”After working in the trenches so long, we’re thrilled that Tibet’s become so big,” Thurman says. ”And it seems like more than a fad. A lot of celebrities are giving their time to this.”

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