FEATURE: Putting creativity in the frame

BEIJING (China Daily/ANN) - A project launched by Beijing Normal University invites foreign filmmakers to visit the country and use film to focus on activities that foster understanding and create bonds.

The documentaries zoom in on those who make a difference. The Looking China Youth Film Project, organised by the Beijing Normal University, shows ordinary people doing extraordinary things or the bond between humans and nature. Their passions are documented by domestic and international filmmakers who portray the inspirational activities of their subjects.

Ge Yuxiu’s story puts both beauty and danger in the frame. Crouching, waiting, ready to shoot, his military training comes in handy but the shot he takes will be with a camera. Wearing a brown wide-brimmed hat, a khaki vest and faded overalls, Ge is camouflaged in the high grass. At one with nature. He recognises the high-pitched chorus of wild birds and insects such as bush crickets and katydids. The wind rustles a scattering of plants on the flat, monotonous and desolated land in Northwest China’s Qinghai province.

The 65-year-old is waiting for a moment to shoot, to click his long-focus camera and capture a breathtaking image of rare wild animals.

In the early 1970s, the Shandong native moved to Qinghai for military service and first picked up a camera to record life in the army.

However, in 1995, after retiring from the military service, due to his obsession with the diversity of wildlife and the spectacular views around Qinghai Lake, Ge, literally, focused his work on celebrating the harmony between humans and nature. The veteran photographer has camped in secluded places around Qinghai Lake more than 200 times and survived perils such as falling into icy water and being attacked by wolves.

“Without shelter and fresh water, I only ate dry food,” says Ge, recalling a seven-day trip to an isolated island on Qinghai Lake. “To be honest, I did feel lonely. However, I also enjoyed listening to birdsong and gazing at the starry sky.”

Ge’s passion for nature has been documented, as part of the project, by Or Itzhak Ben Zrihen, 28, a student from Israel’s Tel Aviv University. He recorded Ge’s activities in a short documentary.

Aiming to build an international bridge of friendship, the project has invited 610 young filmmakers from 60 countries and regions since its launch in 2011, including the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, India and Australia, to travel to different places, interact with people and experience Chinese culture.

By the end of the trip, with one-on-one support from local volunteers, most of whom are also university students, each foreign participant is required to produce a 10-minute documentary. The film exhibition of this year’s project was held on July 7 in Beijing.

For this year’s project, themed on “Moments, Seasons and Time”, Zrihen chose to film how Ge, carrying heavy photographic equipment, spends his time near the lake, on desert dunes and in the grass from dawn to dusk.

“For this specific topic, I tell a story and at the same time present the beauty of Qinghai’s landscapes,” Zrihen says.

Being thrown together with Ge in the wild, Zrihen also felt a two-way chemistry between them.

“For what he loves, Ge risks his life and steps out of his comfort zone. Similarly, I would also spare no effort to make high-quality films,” he says. “Although there are language barriers and a generation gap between us, when we look into each other’s eyes, I feel we have things in common.”

Seenae Choi, 34, from York University in Canada, puts cultural heritage into focus for the project. She documents how the art of traditional paper-cutting is passed down from generation to generation in an Inner Mongolian family to illustrate her understanding of the project’s theme.

“I am a dance filmmaker, so I’m really interested in movement. I initially wanted to capture the craftswoman’s meticulous movements as resembling a dance between paper and scissors,” says Choi.

After she visited the paper-cutting artist Zhao Meiling’s studio in Ordos, the Inner Mongolia autonomous region, Choi was deeply touched by the connection between Zhao and her granddaughter, an outgoing and clever primary school student who relishes learning the intricacies of paper-cutting and serves as a guide for visitors to the studio. Choi highlights the bond between the grandmother and granddaughter.

“It’s not just about the expertise of paper-cutting, it’s also about the value of human connections,” says Choi. “Zhao perfects a craft and then passes it down. I think that’s something people should know about.”

Apart from paper-cutting, other traditional activities like folk dance, embroidery, local operas and martial arts have also been covered by the 102 documentaries generated by the project this year.

Huang Huilin, a professor at Beijing Normal University who founded the project-as well as being a director of the Academy for International Communication of Chinese Culture-encouraged young participants to observe how customs and values have changed as society has evolved in the 70 years since the founding of the People’s Republic of China. She added that their critical thinking and various interpretations would be presented, illustrating the theme of “time”.

Filmmakers from 38 universities have stories to tell. These included the reconstruction of Shougang industrial park (originally Shougang steel mill) and its impact on the lives of former workers, and a female villager’s 34-year dedication to tree-planting to tackle desert encroachment. They also included a hairdresser’s efforts to help maintain the popularity of a long-standing barbershop.

Irene Rui Nabinger, a participant from Boston University in the United States says that the key word to describe this experience is “rewarding”, and that she has learned a lot about the Chinese culture at the event. Her documentary Behind the Chair, explores the bonds between a hairdresser and an old barbershop.

Joon Nie Lau, who once taught in the communication department of Nanyang Technological University, has been involved in the annual project as a supervisor from 2014 to 2016. “I commend the organisers for the vision and ability to pull off such an ambitious theme to showcase the wide and colourful diversity of China’s ethnicities. There is certainly more room to explore this theme with more time for research and production,” says Lau.

She points out that it’s a quite challenging work for students to scout for suitable characters to interview, film the story and edit the work within 10 days, especially in ethnic areas where they have to transcribe and translate the local dialects that even the Chinese volunteers are not so familiar with.

In this sense, Lau tends to select applicants with adequate relevant work or production experience to take part in the project.

She adds that the project has got her closer to Chinese people and culture by taking the NTU teams to Changsha, Hunan province, Lanzhou, Gansu province, as well as Chengdu and Kangding in Sichuan province. This paved the way for her series of 3-minute short videos focusing on “guardians of traditions” in Yunnan and Guizhou provinces, which was later broadcast on Singapore’s Channel NewsAsia in 2017.

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