Blog: Strange days - China, Hollywood and the real Tibetan superheroes

Doctor Strange Movie - Tilda Swinton to play The Ancient One
Doctor Strange Movie - Tilda Swinton to play The Ancient One

28th April 2016
Post by Andrew

I have recently started as the new digital officer at Free Tibet, which means I get to look after all the great work we do online, including the lovely website you are reading right now. Part of my job is keeping an eye on any Tibet-related chatter happening on the web and this past week my newsfeeds have been dominated by one topic in particular: The new Marvel Comics film “Doctor Strange”.

I must say that, as a huge comic-book nerd, I don’t at all mind spending my day reading about a new superhero film and Doctor Strange was already well and truly on my radar. I watched the trailer with anticipation when it was released two weeks ago and had already noticed the brief shot featuring Tibetan prayer wheels. I thought to myself this was an interesting connection to my new position at Free Tibet and looked forward to what else might feature in the film. In the last few days a very different conversation about the film has arisen and this is why it keeps coming across my desk.

For those who haven’t seen the story, the issue surrounds the portrayal of the character known as The Ancient One. In the original comics, The Ancient One was a wise, old Tibetan man who trains our titular hero in the esoteric arts of magic and sorcery. So it came as a surprise to many when this role was played by Anglo-Scottish actress Tilda Swinton in the trailer. One of Marvel’s screenwriters, C. Robert Cargill, has since come out to say that the decision to change the character so dramatically was, at least in part, so as to not risk upsetting China:

“He originates from Tibet, so if you acknowledge that Tibet is a place and that he’s Tibetan, you risk alienating one billion people who think that that’s bullshit and risk the Chinese government going, ‘Hey, you know one of the biggest film-watching countries in the world? We’re not going to show your movie because you decided to get political.’ “

It comes as no surprise that Marvel (and other Hollywood studios) might change their films to appease Chinese cinemagoers, now the second most profitable audience in the world. In fact, another of Marvel’s recent films, “Iron Man 3”, specifically shot extra scenes in China and released this altered version there to help boost box-office figures. It is rarer, however, to have someone admit that they would change a film globally, specifically for fear of being banned by China because of their position on, or portrayal of, Tibet/Tibetans.

It should be noted that there were other factors influencing the decision to change the role so dramatically - one being that The Ancient One character was something of an outdated stereotype. Created in the 1960s, he reflected the West’s ideas of the exotic, mystical orient and was in desperate need of an update for modern audiences. But to hear the screenwriter acknowledge that China’s extreme censorship is a concern and is at least taken into account shows just how much sway their policies have internationally.

Some would argue Marvel has reason to be worried. While there doesn’t actually seem to be any precedent to show that China would ban a film simply because it depicted Tibet or Tibetan characters, China has in the past banned musicians and bands from touring China (such as Oasis, Maroon 5 and Bon Jovi) due to even the slightest past association or affiliation with the free Tibet movement or the Dalai Lama. The most recent case of this was just last week when Selena Gomez had her Chinese tour cancelled due to a years-old picture of her with the Dalai Lama (picture: right). Mr Cargill was providing a personal opinion rather than speaking for the studio but it does seem plausible that Marvel was unwilling to run the risk of saying or doing the wrong thing and upsetting the Chinese government, so decided to side-step the issue entirely.

This whole story just underscores how difficult it can be for us to gain traction on this issue and how hard it is to get support from people with the power to make change. How do we get a major politician or business to support us when doing so means potential blacklisting from one of the biggest economies in the world? How do we convince musicians or film-stars to shine a spotlight on Tibet when doing so could cause major backlash to their career?

I think the answer is that we just need to keep shouting about Tibet until we can’t be ignored anymore. So, while the controversy around this story is something of a shame, let’s use it as an opportunity for us to talk about the real Tibet, and what is happening there. Tibet does indeed have an ancient, rich, spiritual tradition, deeply rooted in Tibetan Buddhism, and many of its monks are pretty heroic! The image many people have of Tibetan monks being silent and passive is often not true - read through our Robed Resisters campaign to see just how fearlessly bold they can be and let’s talk about the real Tibetan superheroes.

About the author: Andrew is the new Digital Officer at Free Tibet. He works across our website and other online channels - including our 140,000-strong Facebook community - helping to make sure as many people understand the truth about Tibet as possible. When he manages to come offline and spend time in the real world, he enjoys playing guitar and performing with his band.