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Dreaming of Tibet

Distributed by Bullfrog Films, PO Box 149, Oley, PA 19547; 800-543-FROG (3764)
Produced by Mill Valley Film Group
Directed by Will Parinello
VHS, color, 60 min.
Jr. High - Adult
Religious Studies, Sociology, Asian Studies

Reviewed by Charles J. Greenberg, Cushing/Whitney Medical Library, Yale University

Date Entered: 1/9/2007

Following the 1959 Chinese invasion of Tibet and the 14th Dalai Lama Tenzin Gyatso’s flight from Lhasa to Dharamsala, India, the Tibetan diaspora has spread from Nepal outward to both convenient and far-flung places that welcome refugees from political and cultural persecution. Just as many oppressed groups find welcome and acceptance in America, Tibetans have also benefited and prospered in diverse urban communities that offer prosperity and tolerance for alternative beliefs and cultural expression. For refugees, immersion in American culture does not always support passing on the cultural inheritance of political activism to younger generations.

Dreaming of Tibet focuses on the Tibetan immigrant population of Los Angeles, California and Kathmandu, Nepal. A spokesperson for L.A. Friends of Tibet, Ms. Tseten Phanucharas, describes her own remarkable childhood that included Chinese invasion, the destruction of her parents’ livelihood, her enrollment in college in America, and her family’s exile and eventual re-settlement in California. Ms. Phanucharas narrates a visual montage of still photographs, old newsreel photographs of the Chinese military invasion. The arrival of her parents in California helped Ms. Phanucharas to rediscover Tibetan customs and the moral and ethical basis of Buddhism. Compassion and caring always extends to the entire group, a perfect compliment to individuality in their new world.

In America, Ms. Phanucharas understands the importance of media and public relations to leverage political activism and the dilemma of the absence of public political awareness for native Tibetans, so she herself has assumed the role of a public relations coordinator for welcoming the Dalai Lama and continuing to ferment protests against Tibetan occupation. Seizing on the occasion of the tenth visit by the exiled 14th Dalai Lama to Los Angeles and a series of public appearances, Dreaming of Tibet records the public reception and press coverage of the engaging and humorous Tibetan Buddhist leader, as well as Ms. Phanucharas’s narration of her own community-based culture juxtaposed against her contemporary life in a media-dominated city.

There are recognizable celebrities at the Dalai Lama’s lecture (e.g. Goldie Hawn, Richard Gere), unabashedly unapologetic about their own opposition to Chinese Tibetan policies, and Ms. Phanuchara’s narration makes it clear that these visible supporters are essential when the natural inclination of Tibetans is to discount individualism. Indeed, she cites the fact that the 14th Dalai Lama himself does not engage in public diplomacy, while she herself has struggled to overcome her natural reticence and shyness. She states unequivocally that silence is complicity, and you sense her steely determination and years of calmly explaining the nature of injustice for her country and her culture. Ms. Phanuchara actually has the audacity to slip in a political jab and suggest that trade with China trumps concern for human rights violations.

Dreaming of Tibet switches continents several times to feature some intimate interviews with Tibetan Buddhist monks, permanently exiled in Nepal, who provide a brief description of their Buddhist tenet to accept their predicament as a result of karmic retribution and causality they made in the distance past. During a narrated tour of contemporary Nepal, the Tibetan Refugee Center in Kathmandu, Nepal, and recitation of continuing Chinese persecution, the author and Himalayan climber Jon Krakauer is inserted to provide his own first-hand observations of Tibetan refugees in Nepal.

Dreaming of Tibet features a second dreamer, Ms. Tsering Lhamo, a nurse and Health Coordinator at the Kathmandu Refuge Center for the “Tibetan Government in Exile” (as a caption labels her). With a sister still in Tibet, she narrates the determination to be united spiritually with a family scattered throughout India, Nepal, and Tibet. Ms. Lhamo also fills an ombudsman role in helping Tibetan patients and homeless persons to communicate with Nepalese doctors and social services offices. She is also a single parent while her husband searches for work in Dharamsala and works for a better future for her children. Her selflessness is on display as a Buddhist tenet.

One Buddhist monk in Kathmandu describes his arrest, torture and five months of Chinese political indoctrination which led to his eventual escape and exile. He also expresses the optimism he finds in Buddhism to know that the world is always changing and offering opportunities to make better causes. He also feels that renewed interest in Tibetan Buddhism from the outside will ensure the preservation of his culture. There continues to be expressed concern that proximity to China remains a threat for both the Nepalese and the exiled Tibetans, who compete for limited Nepal resources.

Dreaming of Tibet ends with a Tibetan Festival sponsored by the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC, which included a protest aimed at the World Bank for supporting a Chinese loan proposal. The Tibetans take credit for the heightened publicity and eventual failure of the loan proposal on the same weekend as the Dalai Lama’s appearance in Washington at the Festival. The 14th Dalai Lama speaks to the crowd at the Washington Mall, reiterating the mutual human identity we share and our common goal of happiness. He switches into Tibetan language at the end, and there are English captions for his warm encouragement to his fellow Tibetans that even the Chinese have a better understanding of native Tibetan culture.

Dreaming of Tibet has been edited to maximize the appeal of the Tibetan refugee story to a variety of audiences, and in the case of younger audiences there must be a musical soundtrack layered under many local scenes and all narrated portions. Careful professional editing and blending of audio and visual elements is apparent. While I think the music is unobtrusive, there still tends to be a heighten dramatic punctuation with music in certain scenes that may turn off some documentary purists hoping for the natural sounds of silence for some of these dazzling natural Nepalese settings. Once the setting shifts back to the Los Angeles and Washington street-fair scenes, musical buzz is certainly what younger audiences expect. Some audiences will actually enjoy the on-camera star power enlisted for the Tibetan cause.

Dreaming of Tibet is recommended for any secondary school or adult audience that has never seen realistic examples of Tibetan culture and the stresses encountered by refugees.


  • Audience Award, Amnesty International Film Festival