There is hardly a film showing how important it is to achieve gender balance and include women more convincingly than this – included in everything, in particular in documentary filmmaking. In their film Shangri-La, Paradise under Construction, directors Mirka Duijn and Nina Spiering reconsidered the most basic premises of documentary filmmaking – truth, evidence, and interpretation. Not with a prior certainty guaranteed by the authority of their position but with the curiosity, doubt, and patience of someone who needs to make an effort to be heard and provide good arguments to be listened to. Through an apparently ephemeral topic of Shangri-La as the earthly paradise, they presented some basic and acute issues of today in a new light, such as the reliability of what is offered as truth and the importance of point-of-view. They made these appear less fixed but, for this reason, more suitable for today’s human condition.
Hard times require dreams more than anything else. It probably happens to everyone, from time to time to desire to be somewhere else. At a certain point in the history of the western world, everyone desired to be at the Shangri-La. British novelist James Hilton invented the word in his Lost Horizon, a novel about a plane crash in an imaginary paradise-like place. He described the moment when he wrote the novel, the winter of 1932, as a hard winter for the world, «the lowest point had we then know it of the depression», dark with the threat of war to come. Today, the times are no less dark. Nevertheless, the word Shangri-La, obviously from other times, can still be recognized for what it once was, a universal, globally known paradise on earth. It gave name to a series of different things in its’ times, from cocktails to haircuts, from bars to songs and music festivals. There was a complete lifestyle called Shangri-La, we learn from an old publicity video screened in the film.
An invitation to think about the power of beliefs within the realm of the material world
Director Mirka Duijn, the film’s narrator, introduces herself through her love for archives, but the richness of the visual material used in this film is still amazing. To give a few examples, it features the archival footage of western explorers, military men, clergymen, and others, from the cities of Zhongdian and Diqing, wider Yunnan and Tibetan region, wider China, and even Bhutan. It spans from the footage that Joseph Rock, an Austrian botanist, filmed during his expeditions in China from 1920 to 1933 to the films of celebrated director of the golden years of Hollywood, Frank Capra (fiction Lost Horizon from 1937 and documentary The Battle of China (1944) from Why We Fight series). The material comes from archives of renowned universities such as Washington University Libraries Medical Archive, Pitt Rivers Museum of Oxford University, and Harvard-Yenching Library of Harvard University, as well as Pan Am historical foundation, City of Vancouver Archives, Rijksmuseum, The Metropolitan Museum of Art and Prelinger Archive. This, however, should be of no surprise. Even if the fantastic nature of Shangri-La might indicate that this documentary will be about fantasy, it is not. The key theme of Shangri-La, Paradise Under Construction, is the reality and the mysterious ways of its construction.
What is truth?
At the very beginning was the invention. In a radio interview given to NBC, that we hear in the film, James Hilton openly admits he never saw Tibet. The paradise on earth, Shangri-La, was a product of his fantasy. The film traces the re-elaboration of this fantasy, of what initially was an invention, into something that works as a material reality in the life of the people. An event, for example, that older citizens of the town that today carries the name Shangri-La remember to participate in. They recall that, as kids, they saw a plane with western passengers crash nearby and that their grown-up fellow citizens open-heartedly accepted the survivors.
The newspaper article, published in 1997, reported that the real Shangri-La from the novel Lost Horizon had been found in a Tibetan place in China and that this discovery had been confirmed by scientific findings. This is the initial point of the explorations covered by the film. At first, the director, the documentarian, rather predictably expresses her doubts: «How can scientific proof have been found for something fictitious?» What follows, however, is not predictable. It is neither linear nor unequivocal. Rather, it is a meticulous reconstruction of a complex net of historical events, coincidences, occurrences, and their occasional, predictable, or incidental collisions from airplane manufacturing to the botanical explorations of Joseph Rock to the air shipments of the U.S. military supply for the Chinese army over the Himalayas, Christians living in Cizhong, the monasteries, the beauty of the landscape, and kindness of the people living in Tibet.
On the margins of the modernist belief in positivism and practically verifiable theoretical truths, the opposite views abound. Lacanian psychoanalysis conceives reality as composed of the real, the imaginary, and the symbolic realms. The epistemologists claim that scientific progress would not be possible without imagination and creativity. Historians ascertain that the mentality and people’s beliefs are much more durable than the material world. This film adds a quiet voice to these views without indignation over the falsity of fantasy and far from claims that the truth is relative. An invitation to think about the power of beliefs within the realm of the material world, about the knowledge as local and embedded.