Tibet in the desert of Argentina

Sun Journal

Movie: The sleepy town of Uspallata was galvanized when Hollywood arrived to film "Seven Years in Tibet." Then it dozed off again.

July 07, 1999|By Sebastian Rotella | Sebastian Rotella,LOS ANGELES TIMES

USPALLATA, Argentina -- The Tibet Cafe appears like a mirage on the mountain road.

It is a long and lonely road that climbs into the Argentine Andes past red rock formations, an abandoned cliff-side railway, sprawling shrub lands. Uspallata, a wind-swept outpost near the Chilean border, offers little to distinguish it from any other half-asleep South American town. Except the Tibet Cafe.

Buddha statuettes, Tibetan prayer drums, bows and arrows, photos and paintings of Tibetan scenes fill the cafe -- all scavenged from the set of the movie "Seven Years in Tibet," which was partly filmed here in late 1996. The filmmakers were barred from shooting in the real Tibet by the Chinese government, which took over the remote Buddhist land in 1951 and has been widely criticized for suppressing Tibetan culture.

The cafe is a shrine to two far-off places: Tibet and Hollywood. The 5,000 residents of Uspallata recall the three-month occupation by actor Brad Pitt and the rest of the cast and crew like an invasion of benevolent extraterrestrials.

For a moment, Uspallata awoke. There were jobs, money, excitement. There was the outlandish and startlingly realistic spectacle of bona fide Tibetan holy men in the miniature Tibet that the filmmakers painstakingly re-created in the desert valley outside town.

"When the lamas saw the set, they broke down and cried," recalls a wistful Rosanna Gonzalez, the cafe's owner. "They said it was so similar to the real Tibet. It was beautiful."

To the chagrin of Gonzalez and others, the cafe is one of the few tangible mementos of the biggest event in the town's history. The experience brought short-term benefits, but the aftermath has been more bitter than sweet. The brush with Hollywood created hopes and expectations that were mostly too high to be fulfilled. The good times evaporated like the dust clouds blown down unpaved side streets by the Andean wind.

"Life here is still very difficult," says Gonzalez, adding that her cafe, like the rest of the community, scrapes by.

The countryside of South America is full of hamlets like Uspallata. These remote and fragile places recall a phrase in "The Honorary Consul," a novel by Graham Greene that takes place in a northern Argentine province: "This land is really too vast for human beings."

In Argentina in particular, many towns once enjoyed artificial booms as a result of government paternalism. Today they long for a providential spark of rejuvenation connected to tourism, which along with prisons is a rare growth sector.

In the southern Argentine region of Patagonia, for example, the privatization of the state oil company in the early 1990s almost shut down the town of Plaza Huincul. Leaders recently tried to capitalize on the discovery of dinosaur fossils in the area by building a dinosaur sculpture out of rusty oil-drilling materials in hopes of attracting tourists.

Uspallata does not have dinosaurs. But its location halfway between Mendoza, Argentina's third-biggest city, and the Chilean border makes it a rest stop for truckers and other travelers. The proximity of the border, once a potential flash point of armed conflict with Chile, also brought the two military bases that supply the bulk of the population.

The wilderness around Uspallata supposedly exudes a spiritual aura, an energy that explains occasional UFO sightings, natives say. Perhaps that played a role in its choice by the makers of "Seven Years in Tibet."

The film recounted the adventures of Heinrich Harrer, an Austrian mountain climber who escaped from a British POW camp in India in World War II and made his way to Tibet, where he became the tutor of the Dalai Lama. The $65 million production spared no effort or expense.

In addition to priests and other Tibetan exiles from locales such as India, Brazil and the United States, the filmmakers hired Korean immigrants living in Argentina and Asian-looking members of Bolivian indigenous tribes to populate sets that re-created the holy city of Lhasa, with the Andes doubling as the Himalayas.

It was a windfall for Uspallata. Families rented out their houses at exorbitant rates and slept in garages. Gonzalez's catering business served as many as 1,000 people a day. Townspeople got jobs building sets, driving vehicles, providing security to ward off the mobs of photographers and teen-age fans who pursued Pitt across Argentina.

"It was madness," Gonzalez says.

Most remarkable was the story of Fernando Martin, now 22. He showed up at the production's headquarters in the once-grand Hotel Uspallata hoping to find work related to electronics, his area of expertise. Instead, he was discovered. Make-up artists dyed his hair and beard blond and transformed him into Pitt's stand-in. The small-town youth shared photo spreads in gossip magazines with the Hollywood legend.

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