Cheers & Jeers

Kundun: When Does a Prayer Become a Lie?

Revolutionary Worker #944, February 15, 1998

Serious jeers to director Martin Scorsese for his latest film Kundun--on the life of the Dalai Lama.

"I always wanted to make a series of films on the lives of the saints," Scorsese told film critic Roger Ebert, "To try to understand their choices....The greatest one is Rossellini's `Flowers of St. Francis' (1950), which is daunting because of its simplicity and compassion and heart. I've been watching that film for 25 years, and I always wanted to make something like it, about a human being who by exemplary action shows us how to live. Where nonaction becomes action; where a decision not to make a decision is the decision. It may not be what Western audiences expect, but I believe the Dalai Lama and Gandhi and Martin Luther King, people who stood on the line for passive resistance and got hit for it, have a lotta guts."

Kundun is an unusually partisan work for Scorsese. Interviews reveal that it was based closely on the Dalai Lama's own personal version of events, and that the entourage of the Dalai Lama was deeply involved in every aspect of the film: "Some of the older ones had been part of his retinue back in 1949, before they left Tibet. So they understood everything, and very often in the picture I'd walk onto the set and they'd be meditating and it was like a painting out of the Renaissance. There was a reverence and a spirituality that pervaded the set, which was interesting. I wanted to be part of that world. Whether I took something away with me, I'm not sure, but I think I have."

Art is higher than life. And we do not expect a work of art dealing with history or the lives of political and religious figures to be a like a documentary.

But if Scorsese sees Kundun as a kind of visual "prayer," then doesn't he have to take some responsibility for the meaning of this prayer?

If Kundun is a visual poem about a man who by example can "show us how to live," then doesn't Scorsese have to deal with what the example of the Dalai Lama really means for the people of Tibet?

And if he chooses to show us the evolution of the inner life of the Dalai Lama, doesn't he bear some responsibility for showing us some truth about this man? Doesn't it matter that in reality the Dalai Lama does not represent the poor of Tibet but a feudal ruling elite trying to repackage their project to get a share of power in Tibet?

If Kundun chooses to emphasize some memories of the Dalai Lama and not others, how do we understand these choices? For instance, nowhere in the mystical portrayal of the Dalai Lama's flight to India are we told of the relationship between the Dalai Lama and the CIA--which began in the mid 1950s, when the CIA was looking to destabilize revolutionary China--or that his entourage included a CIA cook and a CIA radio operator. Clearly this would have disturbed the mood of the film, but the fact that it was left out is even more disturbing. Is this a case of exemplary action...or inaction?

And if the filmmaker chooses to portray the Chinese revolution as a debacle for Tibet and a deep thinker like Mao as a weird caricature--doesn't he have some responsibility to know what he's talking about?

In When Serfs Stood Up in Tibet Anna Louise Strong describes a scene of life in Tibet:

"In the late 1950s, as the first waves of liberation swept through Tibet, a 39-year-old ex-slave, Lando, rose in front of an audience of former serfs and slaves to testify.

"When Lando was only eight years old, her father was whipped until he was paralyzed. The overseer came to his bed to order him back to work. When Lando's father couldn't get up, the overseer whipped him to death for `faking'--right in his bed!

"The overseer turned away from the dead man and grabbed Lando, taking her with him as a slave. She slept in the barn together with the sheep she was ordered to herd. She was repeatedly raped by her master and beaten into unconsciousness by the master's jealous wife. Eventually she became pregnant, and was sold to another owner to hide the `shame.' For 28 years, Lando lived in this torment.

"She was never allowed any contact with her family. Often she prayed for death, but was afraid to commit suicide because she feared this would cause her to be reborn into an even worse reincarnation. When liberation came, teams of revolutionaries went out among the slaves and serfs to organize them to overthrow their oppression. But Lando had never heard the word `oppression,' and at first didn't understand what it meant. Her suffering, she had always thought, was her own fault--her inescapable karma. Hearing Lando's story, the gathering of liberated serfs wept and shouted `Down with serfdom!' "

Does Scorsese really believe that Lando--and the millions of poor peasants like Lando all over this planet--can achieve spiritual evolution by learning to live with this oppression or blaming it on themselves? Because leading the masses of people to "put up" with oppression by his actions and inaction is exactly what the Dalai Lama is about and always has been about.

Contrary to the assumptions of Kundun, it was the revolution led by Mao Tsetung which helped women like Lando stand up, and for the first time in their lives, to live like human beings. And the fiction perpetuated in Kundun that the Dalai Lama would have made great strides in doing away with oppression in Tibet--if only the Maoist revolution would have left Tibet alone--is not supported by a single historical fact about the actions--or inactions--of the Dalai Lama before, during or after the revolution.

Today, there are millions of poor across the planet who really need to learn from the revolutionary philosophy of Mao. And this vision of how to "serve the people" is one that the U.S. powerstructure has been working to bury--because it poses a serious challenge to the dog-eat-dog high-tech nightmare that passes for life on this plant.

The repackaging of feudal philosophy as selfless humanitarianism that surrounds the Dalai Lama--and has enchanted far too many progressive artists--only contributes to this oppressive effort.

It is really unfortunate that Scorsese--who can bring such powerful images to film--has, despite his intentions, added Kundun to a very negative trend.

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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