Sunday, March 02, 2008

What if?

A friend of a friend who's a well-known British TV journalist and presenter has been commissioned by this foreign broadcaster to make two long and five short documentaries. He asked if my film partner and I would like to make one of the ten-minute short. We jumped at the opportunity.

We proposed to follow three university seniors of different social and economic background for a day and see how their class background affects their lifestyle and outlook of the future. It is simple, risk-free (both my partner and I hold Chinese passports), and easy to execute, compared to the TV journlist's ambitious plans to examine China's present cultural landscape, evolution of political structure, rise of Christianity, growing citizen unrest, and many other hot-button issues in his other six documentaries.

So we thought.

Three weeks later, the TV journalist has come back with more than half of his filming done. He has interviewed Christian pastors, citizen groups protesting to protect their rights, cold miners in Shanxi, and dissidents from all over. Local dissidents helped organized their interviews and his crew were dully followed and harrassed by the police. Going forward, he has lined up many big names in the Beijing social and cultural scenes for yet more interviews.

In the meantime, our little pre-production has generated only one and half candidates. The cooperative lower-middle-class kid is an intern at a friend's company. The poor farmer girl from Qinghai is seeking big-city experience before she graduates. But the girl's sister, who lives in Beijing with her cab-driver husband, repeatedly asked how she could trust us. She said God knows what you'll do with the footage, and what the heck is XXXXXX (the name of the broadcaster). She refused to let us film her apartment where the Qinghai girl stays.

Even more difficult is to find a rich kid graduating from college. Our facebook friends are either rich but too young, or solidly middle class. The only bona fide rich kid introduced to us by a friend is only a junior and has scary government connection.

So we settled on a upper-middle class kid introduced by a friend of a friend at an international consulting firm. The kid was extremely considerate and cooperative at first. When he realized that we are doing the documentary for a broadcaster and not for the consulting firm, he very carefully expressed his many concerns which basically summed up to a "no."

That left my partner and me desperate and flabbergasted. How is it possible that the TV journalist could access so many dissidents yet it seems impossible for us to find a straightforward rich kid who enjoys touting his/her wealth?

We had a long lunch with the upper-middle class kid. He said in his generation few care to discuss and comment on contemporary political issues. Most are focused on improving their lives, and they are careful not to leave any mark that could come back and bite them in the future.

"I know you two are nice," he said. "But how could I be sure that there won't be any risk associated with the footage. What if the broadcaster does something with it? What if it gets on the Internet? What if someone uses it against me? You never know right?"

It dawned on us then that unless one could “benefit” somehow from talking to the media--either to voice their grievances or to broadcast their views--few in China are willing to share their minds publicly. The endless What-ifs. There’s our political reality and also thousands of years of mandarin culture in which one verbal slip could send the entire family to the gallows during a political turmoil.

What if… What if we all realize the depressing inhumanity of worrying too much about too many what ifs?


Michael said...

Is there not a Chinese version of Paris Hilton you can interview?

Anonymous said...

I'm not surprised. I'm surprised that you are surprised. For one thing, even if your episode was innoccuous, it would surely suffer by association with the more contentious episodes.
More generally, I'm surprised that you should not have had anticipated that anyone without some kind of agenda to push would hesitate, if they were in their right mind, before becoming the subject of a documentary. The situation in China just presents a more extreme version than usual of the fears of subsequent retribution/embarrassment which might give any potential subject pause (not to mention, manipulation by the documentary maker, etc etc). 2 examples of this which come to mind are Michael Apted's 7 [etc] up series, and Dennis O'Rourke's Cunamulla, but there must be many many others.

Beijing Loafer said...

I'm surprised that I was surprised as well, to some degree, especially considering what I have experienced myself and through people I know.

Still, these are common folks who have no idea what the other episodes in the series are about. I guess what strikes me time and time again is the widespread distrust among people in this society which manisfests itself more prominently btw a doc filmmaker and his subjects of desire.

It's not a surprise per se, but a deep sigh...

Anonymous said...

how do you feel about the tibetans rebelling? i don't quite understand what china is doing that can be considered "cultural genocide". are the han chinese forbidding certain aspects of their religious or social practices?

if china is so draconian in its treatment of people, why don't they learn from the americans -- round up all these tibetans into reservations and slowly wipe them out by extinguishing their hopes.

Wangbu said...

On matters of flexibility of a society to deviate or not to deviate from what the world has been expecting it to be, China has proven itself to be the greatest upon its sudden economic boom. Considering such, future changes in the Chinese culture in general would not suprise me. Anything can happen.