The beskop in Tibet

Jigme Taring

Bioscope is a word with many meanings (which is why it was chosen for the title of this blog). Bioscope can mean a view of life (its original dictionary definition), a cinematograph camera, a projector, a fairground film show, a cinema, a make of microscope, a film trade journal, and a science-based visitor attraction in France. The term was commonly used for a place to see films in the early years of the twentieth-century, and that term persisted in some countries, notably India and South Africa. What I hadn’t know before now is that it also also adopted in Tibet – albeit in the local pronunciation, beskop. I have just come across two detailed and fascinating articles on the history of film in Tibet, ‘The Happy Light Bioscope Theatre & Other Stories’, written by Jamyang Norbu for the Tibetan news website Part one is here, and part two is here. It can also be read on Jamyang’s Shadow Tibet blog. He has quite a story to tell.

Film had come to Tibet by 1920. Jamyang tells us that when the “first (invited) British mission reached Lhasa” the head of the mission, Charles Bell, was entertained by Tsarong Dasang Dadul, commander-in-chief of the Tibetan army, with some film shows held in his private screening room. Tsarong operated the projector himself. Jamyang doesn’t say what the films were, but reasons that it was probably one of only two projectors in Tibet. The Dalai Lama is likely to have had the other one.

Tibetans however were not unaccustomed to screen entertainments. Jamyang traces the history of puppet shows with special visual effects and the magic lantern shows exhibited by British visitors at the turn of the centiury. But after 1920 subsequent British political missions brought film projectors with them. Jamyang says that Frederick Bailey (political agent and spy) showed newsreels in Lhasa in 1924, including King George V opening parliament, while in 1933 Derek Williamson showed Charlie Chaplin and Felix the Cat films to the 13th Dalai Lama. His wife Peggy, in her memoirs recalled:

In Lhasa, Charlie Chaplin was the great favourite; we had one of his films called The Adventurer, in which he played an escaped convict. The Tibetans renamed this film ‘Kuma’ (The Thief) and everyone wanted to see, including His Holiness, who laughed heartily throughout the performance.

Tibetans called Chaplin ‘Chumping’, from Charlie the Champion, the word entering the language. Rin Tin Tin was another great favourite. The cinema came to be known as beskop, adapted from bioscope, though now Tibetans use the term ‘lok-nyen’, a translation of the Chinese ‘dian-ying’ (electric shadows). Jamyang stresses that there is little evidence of Tibetans having viewed the cinema superstitously. The first cinema in Lhasa may have opened before 1934, managed by two Muslim brothers named Radhu, Muhammad Ashgar and Sirajuddin, though the details are uncertain. It seated around a hundred, with a balcony for twenty or thirty paying higher prices, from which a Muslim translator would narrate the story to the Tibetan audience.

Much of the evidence for all this comes from accounts written by British political mission members and explorers. The Austrian adventurer Heinrich Harrer, author of the celebrated Seven Years in Tibet, wrote that talkies were being shown in Lhasa by the mid-1930s. Sir Basil Gould, who headed the British mission of 1936, reported that:

Monks were amongst the most ardent of our cinema clientele. There is nothing which Tibetans like better than to see themselves and their acquaintances in a frame or on the screen.

Gould was among those who supplied that need, because as well as bringing projectors with them the British brought cine cameras.

Extract from Sir Basil Gould’s films of Tibet (1940), from the BFI’s YouTube channel

The first film shot in Tibet was probably film taken by J.B.N. Noel, cinematographer with the 1922 British Everest exhibition, whose footage is included in the documentary feature Climbing Mt Everest (1922). It is included in a new BFI National Archive touring programme, The Search for Shangri-La: Tibet on Film 1922-1950. The bulk of the programme is (silent) home movie footage shot by British missions and explorers iin the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s. They include the botanist George Sherriff, the aforementioned Frederick Bailey and the Williamsons, Charls Bell (on his return to Tibet in 1934) and Sir Basil Gould, who brought a cameraman with him to Lhasa, Frederick Spencer Chapman. These films feature ceremonies, landscapes and Tibetan flora and fauna. Shot for the most part in colour they form an extraordinary archive of Tibetan life before the Chinese takeover, and were used in the 2008 BBC television series The Lost World of Tibet (now available on DVD).

The first Tibetan filmmaker may have been Tsarong Dasang Dadul, who acquired a camera at some time after the projector with which he entertained Charles Bell in 1920. Actuality films were made by Tsarong’s son Dundul Namgyal, while Tsarong himself filmed Anglo-Tibetan football matches outside Lhasa in 1936. Heinrich Harrer reports that the young 14th Dalai Lama was a keen filmmaker and knew how to dismantle a projector and put it back together again. Jamyang Norbu writes that another filmmaker in the 1940s was Tibetan official Jigme Taring (shown at the top of this post) who filmed festivals and street life in Lhasa, and the 14th Dalai Lama’s official tour of Sera, Drepung and Ganden.

Jamyang goes to to write about films and cinema exhibition following the Chinese occupation, including Tibetan fiction films (the first is believed to have been made in the mid-1970s). He also writes about his personal experience of exhibiting world cinema classics to Tibetan students in the 1980s, including Nosferatu (1922). It’s a fascinating history, showing how film was not just the harbinger of modernity for Tibet but how it fitted into (and documented) established traditions. Film was never simply about the shock of the new; it complemented the old as well, and was shaped by every society that encountered it.

The Search for Shangri-La tours Britain until May 2010 – details of screenings are here; while the Everest films of J.B.L. Noel will feature at this year’s British Silent Film Festival in April.

A war film

From time to time the Bioscope lifts its eyes from the screen, looks wistfully out of the window, and turns its mind to poetry. And when it does so it adds another poem to the select list of those works which touch upon the subject of silent film.

I’m ashamed to say that ‘A War Film’ is a poem that is new to me, though I now discover that it is a much-anthologised and popular work. It was written by Teresa Hooley (1888-1973), a British poet from Derbyshire who in private life went under the name of Mrs Frank Butler. The fascination behind ‘A War Film’ is her reaction to seeing a film of the First World War, and then trying to determine which film it was:

I saw,
With a catch of the breath and the heart’s uplifting,
Sorrow and pride, the “week’s great draw” –
The Mons Retreat;
The “Old Contemptibles” who fought, and died,
The horror and the anguish and the glory.
As in a dream,
Still hearing machine-guns rattle and shells scream,
I came out into the street.

When the day was done,
My little son
Wondered at bath-time why I kissed him so,
Naked upon my knee.
How could he know
The sudden terror that assaulted me? …
The body I had borne
Nine moons beneath my heart,
A part of me …
If, someday,
It should be taken away
To war. Tortured. Torn.
Rotting in No Man’s Land, out in the rain –
My little son …
Yet all those men had mothers, every one.

How should he know
Why I kissed and kissed and kissed him, crooning his name?
He thought that I was daft.
He thought it was a game,
And laughed, and laughed.

The event to which she refers, the British retreat from Mons in Belgium, took place in August-September 1914. However, there was no film made about the retreat at the time, as officially-sanctioned films of the war were not being produced at this date, and in any case no film at this date or later in the war would have included the word ‘retreat’ in its title. So commentators have speculated that the film could be The Battle of the Somme, made in 1916, or one of the other British official war films. However it would seem unlikely that the poet would confused Mons with the Somme, and a more likely candidate is the 1926 film Mons, made by British Instructional Films. BIF produced a series of dramatised documentaries in the 1920s which recreated key conflicts from the First World War. The films (all feature-length bar the first) were The Battle of Jutland (1921), Armageddon (1923), Zeebrugge (1924), Ypres (1925), Mons (1926) and The Battles of Coronel and Falkland Islands (1927). They were all produced by H. (Harry) Bruce Woolfe, generally with Army or Admirality assistance, and combined official actuality films of the war with recreations, models and animated maps. The films gained the remarkable triple of popular, critical and official acclaim, and while they were characterised by a certain amount of dogged literalism, the best sequences merit comparison with the Soviet documentaries of the twenties. Many a dramatised scene from them has ended up being used in television documentaries which take the scenes to show actual warfare. Mons itself was directed by Walter Summers and was given the re-issue title of The Retreat from Mons, which adds further credence to the theory that it was the film that triggered the poem.

It is unclear when Hooley wrote ‘A War Film’, though it was first published in 1927 in her volume Songs of all Seasons, which again suggests the 1926 film is the right one. That would make her reaction to the film one of the fear of another war that would engulf her child rather than a war that was then raging. Its tone is in any case a retrospective one – few on the home front thought of corpses rotting in No Man’s Land in 1914. Such grim visions came to haunt the public only as the war dragged on and as the enormity of the sacrifice made shook society in the years immediately after the war.

It would take cinema a while before it felt able to depict the war in terms of futility. Ironically, Mons the film was a sober minded drama-documentary with more of a mind to demonstrate military procedure and heroic achievement than to make its audience think of the horror and anguish. Hooley’s poem was perhaps inspired not so much by the film she saw as by the memories it triggered. It was a silent film, after all – no machine-guns rattled and no shells screamed. Hooley saw the film in her mind, while a plainer account unspooled itself on the screen.

Mons is held by the BFI National Archive and in incomplete form by the Imperial War Museum. You can get an idea of the BIF style, however, by seeing Ypres, which is available to view from the British Pathe website (the link is to reel one of seven on the site).