Filming in China

I’m still waiting to do my first Q&A for “The China Question” but I’m already getting a sense through e-mail of what the popular questions will be–for any film there are always a couple questions that come up over and over. One of the most common so far is, How hard was it to shoot in China?

The short answer is: Not that hard.

When I first flew over in May 2009 I wasn’t sure what to expect. Would they confiscate my camera? Surveil my movements? Hack into my e-mail? I thought they might. Many of us have those impressions, in part, because western journalists and filmmakers are sometimes eager to play up the danger of their work–it makes it seem more impressive. (One account I read described sneaking in camera equipment by using villagers to create a misdirection).

But there was also another reason I operated fairly freely in China and its the same reason some Chinese endure harsh repression while most have hardly any difficulties at all. China is a massive country and until you’ve shown up on the government’s radar you are remarkably invisible. As a no-one you can do quite a lot but as a known troublemaker (or muckraking reporter) life quickly gets difficult. That creates a real incentive to remain unknown; not coincidently, encouraging people to stay out of trouble also results in a smaller pool of troublemakers to police.

So as a no-one with a video camera the restrictions were few. I was able to bring in my equipment without special permission the same way I’ve brought it into 40 other countries. Since Chinese love taking pictures themselves having a camera rarely made me stand out, except that it was a bit bigger–“Is your camera very old?” people would sometimes ask.

Getting Chinese to speak on camera wasn’t always easy because there is reluctance to drawing that wrong kind of attention. “The pigs are afraid to be fat, the people are afraid to be famous,” one woman told me. But she was telling me this in the middle of an interview; she wasn’t that afraid.

This isn’t to say there aren’t significant restrictions on the media in China or that I didn’t take steps to maintain a low profile. There are and I did. But I shot over 100 hours of video for the project and was only stopped from filming once. It wasn’t in Tiananmen Square where a military officer asked to see my passport but then said it was fine to film. It was on a regional train, where a conductor got my attention and said it was against the law to use my camera. The train was rumbling through Newark, NJ.

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