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Images of a People Who Once Were Free

May 10, 2009

By Kate Heartfield
The Ottawa Citizen
May 8, 2009B

In the 1940s, Ernest Reid was a young man working
at the National Film Board in Ottawa, when he got a wild idea.

He’d shared an apartment in New Edinburgh with
another NFB employee: George Dunning, who would
go on to make the movie Yellow Submarine.
George’s brother, William Dunning, was a Royal Canadian Air Force officer.

William Dunning and Ernest Reid decided it would
be the adventure of a lifetime to travel to Tibet
and make a documentary. They wanted to go all the
way to Lhasa and meet the 14th Dalai Lama, who
would have been about 13 years old at the time.

They made it to Tibet. But they never made it to
Lhasa, never met the Dalai Lama.

Last week, Ernest Reid’s son Norman finished the
journey ­ in a manner of speaking. He travelled
from his home in Ottawa to New York City, where
he met the Dalai Lama, who is now 73. Norman
Reid, with his mother and his sister, presented
the Dalai Lama with some of his father’s photographs from that 1947 trip.

"It’s extremely exciting to be able to do this
for my father," Norman Reid told me, over the
phone from New York. It’s been especially
poignant for his sister, who was an infant when
her father left for a journey of several months
to a country most Canadians knew very little about.

If you’ve read the book or seen the movie Seven
Years in Tibet, you’ll know that only the most
intrepid of foreigners made it to Lhasa in those
years. And what Reid and Dunning could not have
known was that they would be some of the last
travellers to visit and document free Tibet,
before the Chinese invasion in 1950.

Reid and Dunning travelled through the Himalayas
on donkeys, loaded up with Kodak film and
equipment. They’d made it into Tibet when the
cameras broke down. They waited for months for
the replacement cameras to arrive, but they never did.

"One of the things my father would say ­ because
he didn’t talk very much about this trip at all ­
was thank God it was a donkey going through those
mountains, because sometimes the path was only
six or eight inches wide, not wide enough for a human to walk.”

Ernest Reid seldom spoke about the journey
because he hadn’t accomplished what he set out to
do. At least, that’s what his son suspects. "He
was never proud of it. He had a goal and he thought he had failed."

The film that Reid shot on that journey has been
lost. But for decades, a box of photographs sat
underneath a bathroom sink. Around the time
Ernest Reid died, in 1999, his family began to
sort and digitize those photographs.

I’ve seen a few of them, and they could have been
taken yesterday. (The photos are available above,
and at ottawacitizen.com/worldnextdoor.) There’s
a colour Kodachrome photo ­ from 1947, remember,
when colour photos were still unusual ­ of a
group of young Tibetans in front of a brilliant blue sky and white peaks.

Hindsight is painful: the young people in that
photograph had no idea of the half-century of
torment that was about to be visited on their
country. Their faces are open, curious, happy.

The meeting in New York was to allow the Dalai
Lama to meet the families of people who travelled
to Tibet before 1950. Theodore Roosevelt V was there.

So was Anne Thomas-Donaghy, the daughter of
Lowell Thomas, Jr. She took the photograph of the
Reid family with the Dalai Lama. Lowell Thomas
Sr., her grandfather, was the man who made
Lawrence of Arabia famous. With his son, he
travelled to Tibet around the same time as Reid
and Dunning, and did radio broadcasts back to the United States.

The Canada Tibet Committee is planning a
cross-Canada exhibit of the Reid photos, the
launch of which might coincide with the Dalai
Lama’s planned visits to Vancouver, Calgary and Montreal this fall.

The Dalai Lama has lived in exile since 1959. He,
like most of us, gets his information about
modern Tibet from witnesses. He said recently he
wants more non-Tibetans to visit Tibet, to test
the Chinese government’s assertion that Tibetans are happy under Chinese rule.

Nowadays, the Dalai Lama himself is not a
mysterious, faraway figure, the object of difficult pilgrimages.

He’s an honorary Canadian citizen who travels
here frequently, and you can see him just by
buying a ticket to one of his talks.

Aspects of Tibetan culture, especially of Tibetan
Buddhism, are familiar to Canadians now. There
are excellent Tibetan restaurants in Montreal.

Indeed, some say Tibetan culture lives mainly in
the diaspora, as Lhasa itself becomes less
Tibetan every year. The stories and rituals and
paintings that explorers like Lowell Thomas and
Ernest Reid went to find in Shangri-La ­ they’re available to us, here, now.

But contemporary life in Tibet itself can seem
just as mysterious today as it was in the years
following the Second World War, when the National
Film Board was still fairly new, when a young man in Ottawa had a wild idea.

Kate Heartfield is a member of the Citizen’s editorial board.

Blog: ottawacitizen.com/worldnextdoor.
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