Friday night’s premiere of Martin Scorsese’s Kundun, which traces the Dalai Lama’s journey from childhood to exile, culminated another journey – screenwriter Melissa Mathison’s seven-year trek to produce this film.
Mathison introduced the film to a nearly full house and was greeted by Tibetans and activists waving flags. Addressing a handful of press personnel, including representatives from Radio Free Asia, Mathison said, “If people are enlightened and want to help Tibet, that would be wonderful. But this movie is really about looking at yourself in a certain way.”
Mathison stressed her determination to present the Tibetan culture without the shackles of mainstream filmmaking.
“(I) was not trying to make a conventional Hollywood movie. We were trying to make something very different from that, which I think we succeeded in doing,” she said.
“We went through the movie with His Holiness (The Dalai Lama), and he was incredibly helpful and fun.”
Inside the theater, Mathison was introduced by Lodi Gyari, executive director of the International Campaign for Tibet, a Washington-based organization in which Mathison is a board member. “This is more than a story about His Holiness, the Dalai Lama. This is a story of the Tibetan people,” Gyari said.
Mathison briefly introduced the film to a receptive audience. “We were trying to make an impression of Tibet more than a movie about Tibet. The film slips into feeling like a documentary,” she said.
After researching for the initial screenplay about seven years ago, Mathison submitted the work to the Dalai Lama, who invited Mathison and her husband, actor Harrison Ford, to a retreat in Northern California. Here she began a string of nearly 15 interviews with His Holiness which formed the framework for Kundun.
The crowd that gathered outside the theater before the screening reflects the recent surge of Tibetan activism spurred by movies like Kundun and Seven Years in Tibet, in addition to Chinese president Jiang Zemin’s recent state visit to the United States.
GW’s Students for a Free Tibet was the largest activist group present at the screening. SFT treasurer Brenda Prinzing said, “We’re helping the International Campaign for Tibet hand out action kits at other theaters, and in general trying to garner some more support and awareness.”
“We want to tell the local people that there is a Tibetan population over here that has a rich culture,” said Jamphel Lhunup, a Tibetan exile living Washington. “The support for Kundun shows interest in the Tibetan cause, not only from the side of government – but from the people as well.”
Under economic pressures from China, Disney confined Kundun’s release to the top 50 U.S. media markets, according to a spokesperson for the International Campaign for Tibet. The group said it believes Disney released the movie as an art film as part of an agreement with China to keep publicity low.
Disney hired former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger as a consultant to China to ensure its economic ties were not severed, according to the spokesperson.