Two British producers had a strong desire to bring Chinese directors to Europe to present China to Western audiences. They started out with a workshop in Beijing in 1999, which resulted in a four-part series entitled “Interesting Times”, and which is being shown by a number of European broadcasters this spring. The production process demanded close cooperation to make the authentic Chinese voices fit Western TV reality. ULLA JACOBSEN talked to producer Mark Frith, Decameron Films, and director Duan Jinchuan.
Thanks to some of our documentary film festivals in Europe, we have been given a glimpse of authentic Chinese life as told by the Chinese filmmakers themselves. Films like Old Men / Lao Tou (1999), by Yang Li Na, have won critical acclaim for their observational presentations of ordinary lives. However, very little from China has been shown on television, and the little that has been shown has been presented as an outsider’s (Western filmmakers) view marked by limited access. Therefore the Chinese-directed, Western-produced Interesting Times series – showing this spring on a number of European TV Channels, including BBC and Arte – is most welcomed and remarkable. The four parts are directed by some of the notable independent Chinese doc directors, Jiang Yue (Catholics in Tibet 1992, The Other Bank 1995), Duan Jinchuan (The Square 1995, No. 16 Barkhor South Street 1997) and Wu Gong. The series is produced by executive producers Mark Frith and Jacqueline Elfick of Decameron Films, a British production company. The project was initiated by Mark Frith after he saw some of the works by Chinese filmmakers while he was in Beijing to cut a film:
“We met up with a group of documentary directors in Beijing, and it was apparent that they were very committed filmmakers who understood everything like their Western colleagues about documentary filmmaking, but had no outlet for the films they were making. So together with Jacqueline Elfick, who is my co-producer, we came back to Nick Fraser [BBC, ed.] and said, ‘Look, there are these filmmakers, and we think they are very exciting. They have made a whole bunch of films that haven’t been shown anywhere.’ They weren’t very polished films, they weren’t very well finished, but were very interesting, and the filmmakers absolutely understood the process of observational filmmaking.”
Instead of just straight away commissioning films from the directors, Frith and Elfick took another approach as a starting point for the cooperation. They suggested to Nick Fraser that initially a workshop could be made with the directors that could result in a series. Christoph Jörg (Arte), Jane Balfour, some of the Nordic commissioning editors and Marie Natanson from CBC, Canada, got involved. Jacqueline Elfick, Christoph Jörg, Jane Balfour, Marie Natanson and Mark Frith went to Beijing with a number of Western docs that they showed to the Chinese directors. During a week they ’argued furiously’ about documentary filmmaking and after that put together a proposal for the commissioning editors that was well received:
”They were all very excited about the idea. We have seen quite a lot of films by Western documentary filmmakers going into China, but none of us felt we had seen an authentic voice coming from China, and this is what we really felt the series is on.”
The next step was to choose which stories should be told, and Mark Frith explains how that happened:
”We gave the directors development budgets. The first criteria they should use was stories they felt passionate about. And the other criteria that goes for observational films was that they should use very good casting, so that the people who would get on film would be interesting on the screen. There would be some narrative event that would go on in their lives that would help the filmmakers bring in a strong observational story. So they went away, came back, we looked on a number of ideas, went back to the Western broadcasters, we talked about them, and in a process of real cooperation, we hit on subjects that we liked. They turned into the four films that you saw. We did lose some films on the way, there were other directors involved. We set them very high standards, and because none of them had worked for the broadcasters in a way a Western commissioning editor would expect, it was a very tough process for some of them. We did set them very high standards to aim for, and they reached it.”
The stories all deal with how the developments and changes in modern China affect ordinary people. The Secret of My Success by Duan Jinchuan follows the newly introduced democratic elections of a local village government. But as the film reveals, it is not as democratic as it should be, the candidates are using dirty tricks to gain votes. This Happy Life by Jiang Yue deals with the life of two state employees working at Zengzhou train station. Mr Fu is living in an unhappy second marriage after his first wife died, and his son is now about to leave home. His colleague has taken the risk to buy his own flat, and the film deals with the insecurity that follows, especially when state employees are frequently being laid off in China today. Zhao’s Long March is about the limited possibilities for a destitute Chinese youth from a provincial town. As the highly competitive educational system makes it difficult to get a good education, Zhao is pushed to join the army. The War of Love is about Hu Yanping who is a divorce counsellor and runs a free dating service together with a friend in her spare time. She herself is trapped in an unhappy marriage.
The films are observational and have an intimacy and nerve that characterize good auteur, observational documentary and bear witness to a close relation between director and subjects. The films possess a lot of tension; however, they are also formatted with a BBC-style commentary that makes sure nothing is left un-explained. They are the result of a production process in which directors and producers were constantly in close contact. Mark Frith explains how the production proceeded:
”My idea for the project was that these would be authored films by Chinese filmmakers. They would choose the subject, they would go away and make the films and then cut them themselves. My dream was that they would be able to make their own films. Obviously with a lot of input, we would give them a lot of advice on the way. But these films would be their own voices. And this is what they did, they went off, and they spent a long time shooting. The Secret of My Success, I think, was shot over a twelve-month period. There was a lot of getting to know the people, the subjects, which you can see pays off in the intimacy that they gain. The same with the station film: a long time was spent with the people.
“Jacqueline Elfick and myself went to Beijing, frequently looked at rushes and talked about it. I think we did about fifteen trips to Beijing. We would look at rushes and we would just talk about anything that we felt, any points that we could bring on that would help them to succeed with their films.”
Mark Frith tells that the discussions during this period could be very heated, but what exactly were the differences in how Chinese directors and Western producers wanted the films to be? He explains:
”They are passionate filmmakers, and they have very strong ideas, and I suppose the single most interesting debate that ran through the workshop and right up to the end was the difference in storytelling styles. Chinese filmmakers have a very subtle approach to telling stories, very indirect and very understated. The reason that became an area of heated debate was that we were trying to make these films accessible to Western audiences, and therefore we argued and talked a lot about storytelling styles. The Chinese liked very long films, they tended to want them to be two to two and a half hours, and we would be saying that the reality of the broadcasters that commission you is that they are in a highly competitive broadcasting environment. Keeping audience loyalty is very important, two hours is not possible and a strong narrative structure is important.”
Duan Jinchuan found few differences in storytelling and narrative structures between Chinese and Western doc traditions. Even so, he chose to make two versions of *The Secret of My Success. He explains the difference between the two:
” One is 59 minutes for broadcasters, which is what you have seen in Amsterdam, another one is 75 minutes without narration for myself, and I always show this version to Chinese audiences.
“Another difference is that the second is more complicated, more sensitive and more exquisite than first one. The reason is that Chinese audiences can understand and are interested in more details, but I am afraid these details might faze and confuse a Western audience.”
The other film he co-directed, The War of Love, is in his opinion not a pure documentary, but more like a reportage.
Jiang Yue also made his own longer version (94 min.) without narration of This Happy Life – this version was presented for a Western audience, as it was shown at the IDFA last year.
Nevertheless, the making of a festival version and a broadcast version is not unfamiliar to any production, be it pure Western or, in this instance, Chinese-Western. So even though the directors’ own versions are more authentic than the broadcaster’s version, it is not necessarily an east-west issue, but a question of the general standardization TV channels are imposing on documentaries, and Frith states, ”I am aware in saying that we would of course in some sense have westernised them, but I think there is still an authentic Chinese voice there. The westernization would be in shortening them and giving them a very narrative structure.”
Personally I would have preferred much less or no commentary, as I believe it would have offered a stronger impression and not necessarily disturbed the understanding. Anyhow with or without commentary, I am looking forward to the next series as Mark Firth can tell that the broadcasters were so delighted with the result that they went on straight away and commissioned them to do the same thing again.
© EDN/ModernTimes (previously published in DOX Magazine).