Shangri-La, Paradise under Construction
Research, 2015 - 2025

The documentary ‘Shangri-La, Paradise under Construction’ (2023) is part of a longer research trajectory. 

When it comes to believing things without actual evidence, we all incline to what we find most attractive. - James Hilton, Lost Horizon, 1933

The research is rooted in the field of documentary filmmaking and centers around the concept of the representation of reality, particularly within the context of post-colonial discourse. Operating as documentary filmmakers in the contemporary post-truth era, which is characterized by the prevalent discussions regarding fake news and the decline of factual accuracy in media, our objective is to investigate the various approaches that documentary filmmakers can employ to participate in a realm of representation that extends beyond, and sometimes challenges, the dynamics of mass media. This endeavor is guided by the aim of decolonizing documentary practices, focussing on a.o., polyvocality as cinematic strategy.

Within this broader context, our study focuses on mass media in relation to tourism. It acknowledges the concept of the tourist gaze, as articulated by John Urry in 1990, as a contemporary extension of the colonial gaze. our research focuses on a specific case study, namely, a marketing campaign designed to promote Shangri-La, a Tibetan town in China, as  a prominent tourist destination. This campaign has been constructed upon the political and cultural legacy of the colonial gaze directed toward Tibet. In the pursuit of this research, we have traced the historical evolution of the image associated with Shangri-La and Tibet, commencing from the contemporary era and meticulously retracing it back to the colonial depictions in film as well as photography. This exploration highlights how the contemporary image is intrinsically linked as a legacy of the colonial representations.

The outcome of this research has been multifold: Mirka Duijn and Nina Spiering have given lecture performances, have written publications and exhibited installations (see below) in the context of this research, while at the same time working towards the final documentary essay. 

The documentary film was completed in the fall of 2022, and its TV counterpart in the spring of 2023. Mirka Duijn is currently finishing her Ph.D. thesis, the focus is on advancing towards the finalization of the written component of the thesis. In line with the polyvocal approach of the film, the written component will be based on a series of conversations with specialists in the field of documentary film, artistic research and archival practices.

Aim of this research

We live in a time in which rhetoric about fake news, the death of facts and even ‘the collapse of reality’ prevail. As a documentary maker, concerned with the representation of reality, we think it is more important than ever to be the one who critically and actively seeks to engage in a sphere of representation beyond – or even in opposition to – mass media and its dynamics. Starting from a process-relational (performative) take on reality in relation to the act of filmmaking, questioning the representation of reality and subsequent interaction with/appropriation of the image, I try to understand the image not as the neutral picturing of reality but as a way of coming to terms with reality through images and narrative. Being documentary makers, this research starts from within the cinematic practice, thinking through images and sounds, using the filmmaking practice as a conceptual framework, a methodological vehicle (filming, editing, framing) and as a means of dissemination. 

Installation in Eye Museum, 2015
Publication in I Experience as I Experiment, I Experiment as I Experience, KUVA, Denise Ziegler (2019)