Aspen Shortfest entry explores remote Himalayan region |

Aspen Shortfest entry explores remote Himalayan region

John Colson
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
Courtesy Aspen FilmHistoric preservationists head over the rough terrain of northern Nepal and into the isolated district of Mustang on the way to help save a remnant of classic Tibetan culture from extinction in the short film, "Mustang " Journey of Transformation." The film will be featured as part of Aspen Shortsfest.

ASPEN ” Will Parrinello’s “Mustang ” Journey of Transformation” combines stunning Himalayan vistas, only rarely seen by the world at large, with a story about a place that time has literally forgotten until quite recently.

The short film, narrated by actor Richard Gere, with an appearance by His Holiness The Dalai Lama that was filmed in Aspen, will be shown first on Friday in Aspen, and again on Sunday in Carbondale as part of this year’s Aspen Shortsfest.

The film features a country known as Mustang, which is pronounced moostahng, at one time an independent kingdom but long linked culturally and economically to Tibet, until Tibet was forcefully annexed by China. Mustang now is a political district of Nepal.

Situated along a vital Himalayan trade route, Mustang was once central to the economy of Tibet and to other nations. Tibetan salt traders would pass through on their way to Nepal and India, where they would trade for grains and other goods, and the region’s economy thrived along with the classic Tibetan culture.

But in the 1950s, when China took over Tibet, the borders of Mustang were slammed shut, although China never occupied the country as it did the rest of Tibet. Neighboring nations, worried about angering China, were afraid to deal with Mustang, meaning the trade route withered and the economy and culture stagnated. Monasteries and other sacred sites deteriorated, little used by a disenchanted population.

The borders were opened to tourism in the early 1990s, and over the past decade or so, a revival of sorts has taken place, started by the royal family that still holds sway in the tiny country, known as the Forbidden Kingdom because for years outsiders were not allowed in.

Tibetan scholars from other regions of the world took an interest, including the American Himalayan Foundation, and started planning a campaign to renovate and rebuild Mustang’s Buddhist monasteries and other holy sites, which the king believed would spark a broader reinvigoration of the nation.

Into this picture stepped Will Parrinello, a filmmaker whose award-winning credits include “Dreaming of Tibet,” a portrait of three Tibetan exiles.

Working with historical architecture expert John Sanday of England and art restorer Luigi Fieni of Italy, the American Himalayan Foundation has been training locals to restore the Buddhist paintings, shrines and other antiquities, and to care for them so they do not again begin to fall into ruin.

And Parrinello has captured this rebirth on film.

“True Tibetan culture is on the verge of extinction inside Tibet. And now, it is disappearing in Mustang,” declares Gere early in the film, but by the end he is describing the renewed interest of the young locals, and the pride of the nation in its resurgence.

Parrinello, speaking by phone from the San Francisco Airport as he prepared to fly to Aspen, said his long-standing interest in Tibet led him to Mustang.

“Here’s this culture that’s been virtually untouched, and hasn’t changed that much over a couple of hundred years,” he said. “I wanted to just take a look at Tibetan culture as it might have been if it hadn’t been touched by China.”

He said that Mustang was the staging area for a short-lived guerilla war against China, from 1960 to 1971, funded and organized by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, but the effort ended when the late President Richard Nixon normalized relations with China.

“We basically cut them off,” Parrinello said, which further isolated the tiny country.

Currently, he said, China is building a road to Mustang, which Mustang’s leaders see as a necessary avenue to progress.

But, Parrinello added, the people of Mustang are cautiously emulating the kingdom of Bhutan, which he said limits tourism as a way of preserving its culture and environment, and he is optimistic about the prospects of the country and its people.

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