Give us your opinion of Shangri-La, paradise under construction
Director: Mirka Duijn, Nina Spiering | Time to play: 94 minutes | Year: 2022
A long time ago, when Imagine was still called the Amsterdam Fantastic Film Festival, one of the festival’s volunteers made her own documentary. It was never published because, despite many attempts, she never managed to weave a worthy story out of all the beautiful images. If Mirka Duijn and Nina Spiering had been so modest, they would have Shangri-La, paradise under construction never seen the light of day.
In 1997, China claims to have found the real Shangri-La based on scientific evidence. Strange, because British writer James Hilton completely invented the idyllic Himalayan spot for his book Lost Horizon. Mirka Duijn wants to know the details and investigates on the spot, and she finds out that she has finally collected more material than this so-called Chinese report.
But it’s really not that exciting. That place in Tibet is a completely manipulated attraction for Asian tourists who want to visit the mythical place from a Western novel. Mystery solved, you didn’t even have to leave your house because when you hear China claim to have found a fictional paradise, you already know it’s nonsense.
Duijn pretends she needs the time and travel to come to that conclusion, and when she’s there and can’t find that report anywhere, she decides to dig herself. But to what? What is the motivation for the viewer to get hooked and want to know more? Shangri-La does not exist. Finish. Point. End.
If you have already received money from financiers, you cannot return empty-handed. And the viewer pays the price for it. What you get is an extremely slow search for a reason for the existence of this documentary, filled with mostly archival footage. Yes, you read that right. Some original footage here and there, and not even of that mighty landscape, but some buildings and people, but mostly movies shot by other people in the distant past.
It does not stop there: some images pass two or three times. Look, there’s that naked man washing himself again in a stream. Ah, there’s that lady again trying to feed a deer. Again that boring black and white shot of a man next to a huge book with the word ‘Report’ on it.
And that’s not all. In addition to the plot of why I’m looking here and the repeating images, you hear the insincere and slow voiceover of Duijn himself, inserting endless pauses not only between sentences, but also in every sentence. At one point, he shares a monologue from Shangri-La creator James Hilton, and also stretches his words by inserting silence between and within his sentences.
Finally he discovers that in 1928 an Austrian traveled through that region with a camera. Duijn “imagines that James Hilton saw these images and then based his book on them.” You can also imagine Mirka Duijn in the editing room thinking ‘I have to do something, right?’ And yes, the images of the Austrian also serve at that moment to stretch time. Possibly not even the original footage, but random, fitting the diary’s description of her.
The documentary begins with a short introduction from Duijn herself, who wants you to know two things about her. She loves archival material (which soon becomes superfluous information) and she has always loved to travel. Not just any trip, but nice ‘I’m so different from most people’ trips to non-touristy places. She always knows that she is awake enough to understand that her Western presence sometimes upsets sensitive foreign culture.
In the long run, Duijn accidentally receives the so-called scientific report in which the Chinese government justifies why the specific location is the real Shangri-La. And guess what? With this documentary, Duijn herself has collected more information than this (according to the super thick) report of her. So in this one she’s the winner here. She has done better. She has found all those stories of all those people to share with the world through this film. So people have been to Tibet more often. Who would have thought that?
For China to have turned an existing city into a tourist attraction and hired some residents to work, that is certainly an interesting fact. One you share at a birthday party. Not one that you make into a documentary, because then you have to fill an hour and a half with a lot of hot air.