Q&A at Vagablogging.net

Marcus Sortijas just posted the Q&A we did about ‘The China Question’ over on Rolf Potts’ Vagablogging site. It’s a pretty good summary of what went into the film.

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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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The first question

Two years ago this week I sat with a pile of books and started reading about China. I hadn’t been to China or even studied it. But I have a simple test for documentary ideas and China quickly passed: Am I willing to spend the next two years of my life on this subject?

The fact that I didn’t speak Chinese or have connections–personal or professional–in China was, of course, a handicap. But in the months that followed it also proved a surprising and powerful advantage. I came to the subject with fresh eyes, truly uncertain about the prevalence of human rights abuses or the threat to American interests. I didn’t seek out evidence to support a preordained thesis–and I won’t make you watch the movie to reveal I found no simple formulas or pat answers.

As a China outsider I also came to enjoy another freedom: Unlike those who commit to China as a life’s work, I was unhindered by potential threats from the Chinese government. Would you risk being banned from a country you spent years planting roots in? The Chinese government has accomplished a kind of soft censorship by denying visas to Americans who write the wrong things. Since I hadn’t spent years learning Mandarin that was a risk I was willing to take.

And if there was a need for greater knowledge about Chinese history it was amply filled by the authors of all those books I sat down to read. So many of them contributed to “The China Question” through lengthy interviews and off-camera guidance and I owe them a debt of thanks.

In the coming weeks I’ll use this space not just to post news about the film, but also to explain how it came to be–how a stack of books about a country my mom vowed to boycott led me on a truly amazing adventure through both China and America. My hope is the documentary will be a way to share some of what I learned in those two years since first picking up those books.

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