NEW YORK – China’s recent attempts to halt production of Martin Scorsese’s Dalai Lama biopic have prompted more than 40 Hollywood notables to sign a letter of protest that has been sent to the Chinese ambassador in Washington, D.C.

The letter applauds the Walt Disney Co.’s decision to distribute “Kundun” despite pressure from the Chinese government, which claims the film about Tibet’s exiled religious and political leader constitutes interference in its internal affairs. The company’s stand could hurt efforts to gain access to China’s vast consumer markets for Disney theme parks and other entertainment products (Daily Variety, Nov. 27).

One in a series

“We note that the Disney episode is only the latest in a series of efforts by China to censor the film industry,” said the letter to Ambassador Li Daoyu, which was sent Tuesday by the Human Rights Watch organization and signed by Jonathan Demme, Richard Dreyfuss, Nora Ephron, Barbara Kopple, Spike Lee, Sidney Lumet, Paul Newman, Alan Pakula, Tim Robbins, Susan Sarandon, John Sayles, Barbra Streisand and Oliver Stone, among others.

Among the examples of creative censorship by the Chinese government outlined in the letter:

* The banning of the Chinese film “Farewell My Concubine,” which shared the top prize at the 1993 Cannes Film Festival, until an international outcry cast a shadow on China’s attempts to win the bidding for the 2000 Olympics;

* the 1993 refusal to allow Stone to make a film in China about Mao Tse-tung;

* a request to cancel a screening of the Tiananmen Square documentary “The Gate of Heavenly Peace” at the 1995 New York Film Festival and the subsequent refusal to permit director Zhang Yimou to attend the fest, which selected his film “Shanghai Triad” for its opening night feature;

* and the banning of five films earlier this year, including one – “Relations Between Man and Woman” – which was only in the production stage.

“We, the undersigned, believe that these efforts by China to restrict the right of producers, directors, distributors, writers and others to freedom of expression are wholly unacceptable,” the letter states. “We are urging Disney, other film companies, and all those involved in the industry including actors, producers and directors to actively and publicly oppose any and all attempts by your government to censor or intimidate them.”

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