Shangri-La, Paradise under Construction

In Southwest China, a Tibetan prefecture recently presented scientific proof that it is Shangri-La, a fictitious place in the novel Lost Horizon, written by James Hilton in 1933. The filmmaker travels to this town, to discover that its reality is more complex than merely fake versus real. and that she herself plays a crucial role in it.

Exactly twenty years ago, news spread around the globe that Shangri-La was found. Diqin, a small Tibetan area in the south-west of China had found scientific evidence to be the real Shangri-La. But this was quite impossible, since Shangri-La is a fictional Tibetan paradise devised by James Hilton for his 1939 novel Lost Horizon. It is not real. James Hilton himself had written the novel in a basement in London, he had never been to China. Director Frank Capra successfully made the book into a film a few years after the book appeared, after which the story became world famous. Many hotel chains, restaurants and resorts were named after the book. The scientific evidence that Diqin had delivered was therefore controversial … Yet Diqin’s name was changed to Shangri-La, after which tourism flourished. 

Filmmaker Mirka Duijn is fascinated by the influence of tourism on cultures. What particularly interests her is the dynamic between the tourist’s demand for the ‘authentic experience’ and the way a tourists’ host responds to this, whereby the local culture is used as a commodity. Due to this dynamic both the communicated culture and the place itself often changes enormously, creating a grey area between real and fake, authentic culture and folklore. The director therefore wonders about the new Shangri-La: What has been going on with this name change? Has there really been evidence? Or was it really only a tourist farce? And what has been the influence of the name change on this place? Does such a place become a dream landscape for visual consumption? Or is it ‘made real’? With those questions in mind, the director travels to the area.

She finds out that the city has been largely renovated (read rebuilt) in Tibetan style. It is fake. The story of Lost Horizon is already completely interwoven with the local culture: in attractions, theater shows and in literature. The filmmaker even finds residents who sincerely believe that the Lost Horizon story is a historical fact that has taken place in their area… But she is also very often used, because her camera is a useful tool to reach a larger audience. Finding out ‘the truth behind the name change and its influence’ is therefore an impossible task. She realises that with her wish to discover the truth she has inadvertently become the biggest tourist of all… Where she first asked questions about ‘the truth’ about the name change and its influence on the area, her view therefore shifts to a more general question about the power of the camera and the image – and our relationship with it as filmmakers, tourists, and spectators.

70 minutes, in development

Produced by: Momento Films, IDA|IDA and De Productie

Director: Mirka Duijn

Funded by the Dutch Film Fund