Review: Kokonor

Kokonor follows a Tibetan doctor around the territory near Lake Kokonor (a Mongonlian name) which is currently known as “151” due to the frequency of name-changes. The doctor treats nomads in the ‘traditional manner’ by visiting their houses, though he does use a Red Cross medical kit. While visiting their homes and treating them, he asks their opinions on their treatment by the Chinese and on how the lake itself has been treated. These interviews, occasionally broken by commentary from the doctor and several brief interviews with tourists and people in the tourism industry, comprise the film.

One of the things most commented on by the Tibetans in the film is on the substantial increase in tourism at the lake over the last decade.

Interestingly, the tourism industry over the last decade has also shifted from being government controlled to being largely in private hands. The picture to the right is from a private Chinese tourism company which advertises the lake as an excellent day trip from Xining. This shift to private control of the tourism sector is indicative of China’s push to modernize or, at the very least, Westernize.

What ends up happening to the native Tibetans in China’s push to modernize and become more capitalistic is summed up rather dramatically in this statement from the White Papers: “Historical development has proved that the modernization tide is enormous and powerful, that those who go with it will prosper while those who go against it will perish” (2001: II). This is a fairly graphic depiction, but an effective one nonetheless. The nomads in this film are absolutely portrayed as being “crushed” by modernization. Due to fencing and deeds being updated without warning, many of them no longer have access to their traditional lands. This has, as the film points out, severely altered their way of life and has increased the poverty rate.

Screenshot from "Kokonor" (2008)



In order to help ameliorate their rather dire financial situation, many nomad families dress their young children up in traditional Tibetan dress to have their pictures taken by tourists. The small amount of cash that they can earn doing this enables their families to survive (the picture to the left is of one of the children from the film). It was painful for me, at least, to watch the children pose for the tourists because of the way that it commodifies traditional Tibetan culture. The principal of the school in the area specifically termed it an exploitation of the culture. Most painful for me, perhaps, was the fact that young boys were dressed as young girls because the tourists prefer pictures of girls rather than boys.

While watching the film, I was also horrified by the comments of one tourist from Beijing. The screenshot to the right shows him (and the appropriate subtitle) from when he claimed that he really wanted pictures of himself and that the children were just a part of the scenery.  However, after reading Huber’s article about “Green Tibetans”, I wasn’t quite as upset by this statement.

Screenshot from "Kokonor" (2008)

He emphasizes in the article that traditional Tibetans are “…in harmony with nature and non-exploitative of their natural resources” (1995: 103). This tourist seems to have thoroughly absorbed this representation of Tibetans to the extent of making them physically a part of the scenery. While it is still a rather lamentable turn of phrase, the sentiment behind it is fairly in line with the concept of the ‘Green Tibetan’.

The entire film, in fact, is extremely supportive of the concept of the Green Tibetan in contrast to the exploitative Chinese. It ends on the rather ominous note that, if modernization occurs at the current rate, Kokonor will disappear within 200 years. It implies that, if it were left to the Tibetans, the lake would not be as awfully polluted as it is today. However, I wonder if this implication would play out. The film also notes that the nomad Tibetans have modernized in certain ways. Many of them drive motorcycles now rather than ride horses. How long, I wonder, will the concept of the ‘Green Tibetan’ be a valid representation?


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