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American Filmmakers in China, Part VII

by Bart Weiss 19 Dec 2011 12:42 PM

In the final installment of his series, guest blogger Bart Weiss reflects on his trip to China.


Guest blogger Bart Weiss is the Artistic Director of VideoFest. He will be blogging from China during his trip for the American Documentary Showcase. Read his previous post here.

My last day started with the must-do tourist thing – a trip to the Great Wall of China. During the spring and summer, it’s packed with tourists, and indeed there are whole towns that cater to those tourists. On this somewhat cold, wintery day it was mostly empty – there were more vendors trying to sell us beer and souvenirs than there were walkers. Like Tiananmen Square, it is hard to describe how large the Great Wall really is. Walking up and down and looking around, one can’t help but think of contemporary walls being constructed in Berlin, Israel and the U.S./Mexican border. Robert Frost said that “good fences make good neighbors,” but have they? One wonders what these walls have done to the societies on both sides.

The Great Wall took more than 100 years to build, and many people died in the construction. On the way down, there were so many people trying so desperately to sell us souvenirs, I felt bad for not buying.

Heading back to town, we had a workshop and screening in the afternoon. The first was at the Tsinghua School of Journalism and Communication. This was a nice program supported by Bloomberg and other U.S. corporations.

Tsinghua School of Journalism and Communication

The class was small, but that let us get into more details about documentary filmmaking. After talking about Automorphisis, we got into talking about the students’ work and how they could make it better. All of these students understood English, so the program flowed more smoothly. The students were receptive and eager to hear our thoughts on expanding their work and looking for ways to find more meaning in it. We moved from the classroom to their editing room, where they are using Final Cut Prow (of course with Chinese characters). It was a great class, and I expect great things from these kids.

We then went on to the Tsinghua School’s arch rival, Renmin University. This was a larger classroom, and I was thinking it was going to be a disaster. The back half of the room had the lights on, and the students in the back seemed to be checking the Chinese Facebook instead of watching the film. But when it was over we had a very spirited discussion. This film really struck a chord with these students. They were asking if all Americans drive the art cars shown in the film and whether it was safe. Harrod Blank, who directed Automorphisis, told the crowd that there have been some accidents with art cars but that they are mostly safe. The students also asked about our image of China and talked about the ads that the government placed in Times Square.

I told them it was their job to make documentaries that showed the real China as they see it, and that people around the world would be interested in what they were seeing. I gave them my e-mail address and told them to send me what they make. We will see what happens. There was lots of discussion of expression and conformity. We went way over our time limit, but it was our last program, and all we had was dinner after.

After all questions were asked, I asked them to all come down in the front and take a group picture. But I told them that I wanted them to think about how they would express themselves to the world in this picture. It was really fun, and they were into it (as you can see). And for us, it was a perfect end to this tour. The film we have been showing is about people expressing themselves, a message that the Chinese students were interested in hearing. In China, there is so much pressure to conform, and I think the fresh message of the film will be long lasting. Our group picture says it all.

After the session,  we had a nice and spicy Chinese dinner, and when we were ready to leave we got the coldest weather of the trip. And, of course, we could not find a cab. It was a bit too far to walk, and way too cold , so we got in a pedicab, which was cold but not quite as cold as standing around. It was more dangerous than a New York cab ride with less protection, but we got there only half frozen.

On the plane home

I got a few hours of sleep (they came to take me to the airport at 4:15 a.m.) and started the long journey home. While trying to sleep (unsuccessfully) I watched a few films, including Soderberg’s Contagion, which was somewhat disheartening. If you haven’t seen it, it’s about a virus that comes from China that infects the world. I thought perhaps we have infected China with some quirky individualism that could hopefully also spread like a virus.

I had a great time and enjoyed getting to know Harrod. I have to say the folks at the embassy were really great: Mr. Song (who taught us a Chinese drinking game, sort of like Rock, Paper, Scissors, and a the card game Beat the Landlord) . Miss Pan (who would make a great production coordinator) and Erika Kuenne, who really took care of us and made this happen. And I have to thank Betsy McLane (the documentary diva) at the American Documentary Showcase for changing the lives of people all over the globe.

So what do I think of China? I loved it and would love to go back. It is a country on the rise, and a place where anything is possible.