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.