China From the Inside

Power and the People
Women of the Country
Shifting Nature
Freedom and Justice
Interactive Map
China-U.S. Quiz
About the Series
Behind the Scenes
- Photo Slideshow
- Filmmaker Q&A
- Chinese Crew Q&A
For Educators

Crew member holding mic in greenhouse

Filmmaker Q&A

China from the Inside filmmaker, Jonathan Lewis, has made over eighty films from drama to documentary to current affairs, for the cinema and television. His many awards include an International Emmy for Best Documentary, the Japan Prize and the George Foster Peabody award.

In this "off camera" interview with Jonathan Lewis, he shares the lessons learned about the complexities of filming in China, the need to win support at varying levels and the unique challenges of revealing contemporary China through the eyes of its people.

Was it difficult getting permission to film in China?
Chinese military official


From the time when the idea first came up to the time when we finished the series was about five years, which is a lot longer than a television series normally takes. Quite a lot of that time was spent getting permission from the Chinese and winning trust to go to places and meet people and talk about things that are off the beaten track for the kinds of films that normally get made in China. We made a decision right from the beginning that we weren't going to sneak around making this series in secret and that we were going to go in the front door speak to people in broad daylight and film openly. We worked to win a lot of trust at every level and for that we needed good connections to make our case and to win approval.

You have some striking interviews in the film where people are surprisingly candid about their feelings of frustration, despair, as well as their disdain for the Chinese authorities. How were you able to capture that level of candor on film?

I was surprised by how candid people were. I thought that we would have more problems with the people looking at the minders who were accompanying us and clamming up. But, in some interesting way, they regarded the presence of the minders as having given them permission to say what they felt. They weren't, after all, speaking unofficially in that sense, even if they were themselves not official people because there was a minder from Beijing standing with us who wasn't stopping the interview, who wanted the interview to take place. The minders might not have been one hundred percent happy with all the things that were being said, but they let it go on. And given that framework of permission that the minder from Beijing represented, people felt uninhibited in speaking about their lives and about their problems. I think the film shows they feel passionately about their lives, they feel very passionate about China and how they want China to improve. I didn't meet anybody there who I felt was disloyal or unpatriotic or a traitor by raising criticisms of the way in which their lives were affected by the country's problems. Their passion, their intelligence, their ability to understand the predicaments they were in fueled the passion with which they spoke, and took them into areas that I was very surprised to find them going. Bear in mind that we were careful not to speak to people in an underhanded fashion. It was paramount to us that the well-being of the people we were speaking to would be safeguarded and that they wouldn't get into trouble for opening their mouths a little bit too wide.

There was a very potent scene in the film that evokes this. It's the scene where you are talking to the wives about their opinions on working, and though they don't speak openly in front of the men, once their husbands are out of ear-shot, they do.

This is one of those scenes which happen once in a blue moon, where you as a filmmaker don't know what's happening. This was a gathering of Muslim women in Xinjiang being invited by the party officials to go out and pick cotton, to get out of the house, to have a job for themselves.
Woman at Kashgar market, Xinjiang.

A woman is surrounded by vegetables at the Kashgar market, Xinjiang.
The party official was very eloquent and asked them what they thought about this idea of having some money in their pockets, obviously for the first time. The women wouldn't say anything and I didn't know why they wouldn't talk. As a filmmaker I was thinking, "What's going on here?" They were fine before we switched the camera on, they were just talking away among themselves, they didn't seem to be inhibited, but once the camera was switched on something seemed to happen. The more I thought about that, the more it seemed to me that it wasn't actually to do with the fact that the camera was switched on, but there was some outside reason why these women didn't want to talk about becoming independent of the family in any way. I told the crew to switch the camera off and just stop and think and look around, and when we looked around we saw that on the other side of the courtyard staring at their wives were the husbands.

This Muslim society in Xinjiang is a culture in which the men are very, very dominant. A woman is answerable to her husband, to her father, to her brother, to her brother-in-law, even to her son, and as long as they behave themselves and stay in the family home, cook and look after the children, that's fine, but the idea that they'd have a life of their own -- they could be independent and they could earn money for themselves -- that's entirely alien to the way in which the menfolk think. So the key element really was to get the men out of the courtyard and let the women talk freely among themselves. It was an extraordinary moment.

How do you think the government will view your film?

Other Interviews
with the Filmmaker

Forum Radio Call-in Show
Listen to an interview by Spencer Michels, recorded on 1/8/07. (at

Up Front Radio Transcript
Read the interview with Jonathan Lewis, published on 1/12/07.

The Tibet Connection Show
Radio interview with Jonathan Lewis by a magazine show about Tibet, on 3/2/07.

I don't know how the Chinese government is going to view this film. I do not think they are going to tell me. I think the Chinese government takes the long view of history and won't report back to me whether they are pleased or angry with me. I think I will find out whether or not they like me next time I request a visa to go to China. I also think that the truth of the matter is that the Chinese government is not a monolithic entity, no more so than the American government. Even if we found out what the government thought, I think we would be finding out lots of different opinions about this series, as many opinions about the series as there are people.

What do you hope viewers will take away from this series?

I hope we've been able to put the viewer into China. Not to peer at it like outsiders or as a tourist, but as a sort of invisible observer or participant. So we filmed at a wedding, we filmed in churches, we filmed in party meetings, we filmed in marketplaces, we filmed in people's homes, and the viewer is put in there watching, listening, feeling, learning, understanding, laughing, crying. We try to keep out of the way of this relationship between the viewer and the people of China. We let the lives of the Chinese people unfold in a way that the audience can engage with directly. And there is something else that I would like people to get out of the series, which is the idea that they can watch television and make their own minds up about what goes on. What's happening here? Is this a good thing or a bad thing? Are they like us or are they different? All these questions are posed by the series and it's up to the viewers to come to their own conclusions.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

There is an interesting element to the series I hope viewers attune themselves to, which is what's going on in the frame, because there are lots of things happening. For example, there may be somebody talking, but in the background of the shot there will be something else -- a couple of children wandering by, people having a joke. We came to regard this as being important to see people in context talking. One of the people who saw it when it was shown in the U.K. wrote about it to one of the papers and said that his favorite scenes were the scenes in which the camera is out among the people and catches them off guard. He says, "We saw people chatting, sharing a joke, a small boy peering over a voting board at an election, three sisters talking in turn, taking their cues from one another, a pram full of toddlers wide-eyed with wonder at everything." He wrote "that race means nothing, differences between humans are cultural and culture is something humans impose on themselves or have imposed on them." And he felt that that's what we had caught and I felt very pleased with that. That was how I saw China -- not as one person talking under a spotlight, but as a whole lot of people doing their thing.

back to top


page updated 1-16-07   |   © 2006 Granada/PBS/CPB. All Rights Reserved   |   Privacy Policy   |   Terms Of Use