The Lost World of Tibet Review
A surprise hit for co-producers the BBC and the BFI, their Lost World of... documentary series here reaches its third instalment, albeit with a slight twist. Previous entries had a firm filmmaking focus: the first was dedicated to Edwardian duo Mitchell & Kenyon, whilst the second gave its time to colour pioneer Claude Friese-Greene, specifically his 1920s travelogue series The Open Road. Film plays an integral part once more, yet whilst these earlier productions have prompted a number of spin-off DVDs (also released by the BFI), that is unlikely to be the case here. The visual content is predominantly amateur footage shot by British, Chinese and Tibetans during the thirties, forties and fifties, but it does not provide the subject matter. Rather, in a very timely fashion given the Dalai Lama’s recent trip to the UK, the upcoming Beijing Olympics and its surrounding controversies, not to mention a focus on China across many media, it is a Tibet as whole – its culture, its history and its people – which takes centre stage.
Nevertheless, the format remains much the same. Although a single documentary as opposed to the three-part structure of previous Lost Worlds, we once again have the ubiquitous Dan Cruickshank as on-screen host and narrator, plus the personal testimonies of those present in the amateur footage as they avidly – and occasionally tearfully – watch on a portable DVD player. Amongst the participants are the 14th Dalai Lama himself, his sister-in-law and various members of the government in exile (all shot in India as discussion of pre-Chinese rule Tibet is banned in the country), although we only learn many of their identities during the end credits roll. Indeed, the Dalai Lama is the key figure here and the central narrative is very much his. As with Martin Scorsese’s Kundun, we follow him from his “discovery” as the 14th incarnation through to his eventual exile in the fifties via the key events in his life: his education, the political turmoil, his meeting with Chairman Mao etc. Yet digressions are surprisingly common, especially in this ‘Director’s Cut’ edition (the initial television screening ran to only an hour). Thus we also have a wide-ranging discussion of Tibet taking in its geography, its culture and society, the everyday and, of course, its religion. Moreover, the present day footage similarly allows ample coverage of modern day living as Tibet effectively lives on, for some, outside of its own country.
What’s particular pleasing is the fact that the sheer abundance of amateur material (all of which has come from the BFI’s National Film Archive) means The Lost World of Tibet never has to pull its punches or cut certain subjects short; it’s all there, from the expected footage of the Dalai Lama’s childhood to odder instances, such as his bodyguards wrestling half-naked or a performance of the distinctive “sky dancing”. The anecdotage is therefore likewise all encompassing, moustaches getting as lip service alongside the more important political issues. Furthermore – and this is no doubt the documentary’s main selling point – the vast majority of this footage comes in glorious colour; indeed, it is 82 minutes in before black and white film is necessarily employed. Otherwise we are treated to a dazzling array of reds and gold as this land “frozen in time” and unvisited by modernisms (excepting the cameras themselves or so it seems) comes beautifully to life. It’s worth noting that the makers of The Lost World of Tibet have opted to crop the footage to a widescreen TV-friendly ratio, though interestingly this never really has a detrimental effect. Those behind the lens were of the point-and-shoot variety – the material is surprisingly similar in nature to the actualities of Mitchell & Kenyon, in fact – and hardly concerned with artful composition. Compare it to the newer footage of Cruickshank in which he’s always carefully framed against India’s architecture or its landscape and this becomes immediately apparent.
(Also a quick note on Cruickshank himself: his presence here is less markedly overt than in the earlier Lost World instalments. There’s none of the mock enthusiasm as he supposedly views old film for the first time or intermingles with those viewing the portable DVD player, both of which blighted the Mitchell & Kenyon and Friese-Greene docs. That said, for those who do find him at times trying, the disc also includes the international version which does away with him entirely, both onscreen and off.)
The Lost World of Tibet is, however, very much aimed at beginners. In contrast with, say, Graham Coleman’s 1970s doc Tibet: A Buddhist Trilogy, which was so solidly embedded in the culture of its subject that it, at times, risked alienating the audience, here the makers assume only the basest of prior knowledge. It’s an aspect that, for some viewers, will allow this to serve as perfect introduction. For others, however, there’s always the wonderful footage to marvel at and the resulting insights to be had. Either way, it is very hard to deny the very obvious qualities on show.
Easily the match of its television presentation, there’s little, if anything at all, to quibble about The Lost World of Tibet’s DVD rendering. The 1.78:1 original aspect ratio is presented anamorphically and the Dolby Digital DD2.0 soundtrack is free of any distortion or other complaints. Similarly, the archive material is presented as well as could be expected allowing a full appreciation of, specifically, its wonderful colours. Backing this up we also have optional hard of hearing English subtitles (though these are not present on the ‘international version’) and approximately 29-minutes worth of additional footage. Split into two sections - one made up of the amateur material, the other of present day footage – the two mirror each other surprisingly well. Both do without voice-over (the silent footage is aided by snippets of the main documentary’s score) and opt for an observational approach as they detail, however briefly, Tibetan flora, the lives of modern day monks and much more. As already noted, the ‘international version’ of The Lost World of Tibet is also present doing away with Cruickshank’s onscreen presence and switching the narrator (although the narration remains the same). As a result, its runtime is considerably shorter at 60-minutes.