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I Wanted to Show Americans How Ordinary Chinese Live An interview with Sue Williams, producer and director of China in the Red.

Williams, together with Kathryn Dietz, her co-producer and partner in Ambrica Productions, has produced three previous feature-length documentaries exploring the history of modern China: "China in Revolution (1911-1949)," "The Mao Years (1949-1976)," and "Born Under the Red Flag (1976-1997)."

How does this film fit with your earlier films -- the China trilogy?

The China trilogy explored the history of 20th century China, ending in 1997 with the death of Deng Xiaoping. "China in the Red" starts in 1998 so, chronologically, it does follow. But it is very different in style from the earlier ones. It is a contemporary piece -- we shot it as events were happening -- and we have a more narrow focus: our characters are the story. In the trilogy, our interviews functioned more as a means of telling history, and the sweep and scope was much broader. In "China in the Red," we made a conscious decision not to try to explore everything that is going on in China in politics, the economy, the environment, etc.


faces of a new era
photos of the faces of people profiled

Filmed over the course of three turbulent years, "China in the Red" follows 10 Chinese individuals -- from Beijing factory workers to rural villagers and a millionaire entrepreneur -- caught up in China's sweeping efforts to transform itself from a communist society to a global market economy. Here is a glimpse of six of these people.

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We made the first research trip for this film in March 1998, looking to explore how the path from a rigid communist economy and social structure to a more free-wheeling market economy was being experienced by ordinary people. At the time we were there, Premier Zhu Rongji gave this famous press conference in which he said the state-owned companies had to modernize and stop losing money in just three years. So we decided to look for our characters in this area of Chinese society -- people who worked in or had worked in the state sector.

...we haven't shown anything that they don¼t acknowledge. In fact, these problems we show in the film are widely, openly discussed in Chinese media ‚ often very critically.

At the same time, over the years of going to China, I was more and more struck by how little Americans know about China, and, in some instances, what negative perceptions they have about it. They do not seem to differentiate between the Chinese and the government, and they see the Chinese as somehow fundamentally different from us. This troubled me because the people I met -- the ordinary people who don't get much attention from politicians and the media -- were people I could connect with. They have had very different lives and experiences, but the people I met had similar interests and concerns to me -- jobs, family, making a living, housing, healthcare, bringing up their children. And I really wanted to show Americans how ordinary Chinese live. So it seemed that if we followed people over a period of time, we could let an American audience get to know these characters and relate to them.

Why is the film's title "China in the Red"? We always hear how China's economy is booming ...

You are right. There are parts of China's economy that are really booming, especially in the south and eastern coastal areas. A lot of attention has been paid to the new millionaires and the spectacular development of Shanghai and so on. That is not a new story and not one we wanted to tell, although we do mention the upside of the economy several times in the film.

I got the idea for the film's title from conversations we had with Chinese officials, who say the country's problems -- from the state-owned companies to the problems of the laid-off workers, peasants without health care, education, the environment -- are all because of the old command economy of the 1950s through the 1970s. These problems are the legacy of the communist command economy.

And of course the title is sort of a pun -- China in debt, "Red" Communist China, etc.

What was it like to try to get close to the individuals featured in your film? What about the leeriness of people to talk?

It was pretty much like getting close to people here. You get to know them, you win their confidence slowly, you talk a lot about their concerns and what you are trying to do. Some people, like Tian Xiao-Wei in Chestnut Flower Village, took no time at all. All we said was, "Tell us about your life," and she spoke non-stop for 40 minutes. The pent-up feelings, all the "bitterness" of a lifetime just came flooding out. It was amazing and moving. And I'll never forget that the very first words out of her mouth were, "I'm a good-for-nothing woman."

Feng Hui-Xiu, on the other hand, was much more reluctant at first. She really made it clear that she didn't want to talk. But I really wanted to have a character at the Beijing Machine Tool Plant, and I could see very quickly that she was a good talker. At one point, we were walking around the factory and I asked her if she had kids. She said she had a son about 16 and asked if I had children. I showed her a picture of my daughter and that softened her up. She wanted to talk about her son, Gu Feng, who clearly is the center of her life and heart. They had just had the huge fight that she describes in the film and she was still upset. She told me about it and asked how Americans deal with teenagers. So we chatted about that and she then agreed to think about getting involved.

Eventually she said OK. It wasn't until our last trip that she told us she had still hesitated and it was Gu Feng who had persuaded her to participate. She knew we wanted to film in her home and she was doubtful about allowing us to, but Gu Feng told her they had a nice apartment and she had nothing to be ashamed of about it -- and to just relax about the whole thing. So she did and I'll always be grateful to Gu Feng!

I should stress here that I had two wonderful associate producer/translators, Shenyu Belsky and Larry Guo, working with me there, and they are extremely persuasive people. They deserve a lot of credit for the easy way in which people talked to us, and for not just translating words, but ideas, attitudes, emotions, and so on.

What was it like dealing with the various levels of authorities -- the local and the regional Chinese officials? In general, what are the constraints on the media there?

You need official permission to film in China, especially if you want, like we did, to film over an extended period and to film in the state-owned factories, which have guards at the entrances. And even with permission, it is very, very tough filming in China.

The Chinese authorities want all reporting to be positive, except when they want to have something or someone criticized. So they are not used to "non-positive" reporting, and as our film didn't fall into the category of "positive" reporting, they were very cautious with us.

The result is, you have to devote more than half your time and energy to dealing with officials, to getting access to people and places, and persuading officials to leave the room when you film interviews. It is exhausting. But again, largely thanks to the work of Shenyu and Larry, we did win most of the battles.

But the Chinese are changing. Some -- especially in big cities like Beijing -- are more liberal. Even in Shenyang, Mayor Mu said, "Film whatever you want. We have nothing to be ashamed of." Of course, they are right. Every country has problems of injustice, poverty, corruption, corporate malfeasance, and so on.

But at the provincial level, things are still pretty conservative and cautious. Local officials only wanted us to film positive images of their areas and at first they always tried to show us new economic development zones, model workers, happy farmers. That wasn't what we were interested in and it was a real battle of wills. But when they finally realized we weren't interested in them, they got rather bored with us -- we couldn't do anything for them. So during filming, they would show up, but they were easily distracted by big lunches and cigarettes and they didn't sit in on the interviews.

In China everyone knows what they can say and what they can't, so they self-censored themselves very easily. However, over the years of our trips there, our subjects really did relax with us and became more open, certainly about their personal lives.

No one dared talk about demonstrations. We knew that in the villages there had been serious confrontations with the authorities because of local officials demanding unfair taxes, but no one would talk about it on camera.

One day, at the Shenyang Machine Tool Plant, we were watching a demonstration out the window. Old people were blocking the intersection, asking for back wages and pensions. Cars and buses just turned around and cyclists stopped to watch. It looked like a very peaceful event, something the authorities and police were used to. The police were just standing around letting the old people block the traffic. I said to the official "minding" us that I was amazed that the authorities allowed them to demonstrate this way. I said, "You should let us film this. It would be a revelation to people in the U.S. that you allow people to demonstrate and block traffic like this." And the official just shrugged -- as though the demonstration certainly was no big deal, but there was absolutely no way we could film it.

Toward the end of the film, the narration notes that you returned to the Shenyang Machine Tool Company to talk with Zhang Shu-Yan, but the public relations department didn't want you to film her. You say that after a two-day stand-off, you finally managed to meet her. How did it work, getting around this kind of obstacle?

Persistence, stubbornness, determination, persuasion. And a long dinner with a lot of discussion and alcohol -- and without me -- so they could vent!

We had permission to film at the SMTC. The managing director was always helpful and so was everyone else. But the man in charge of the propaganda department was very conservative and cautious, and sort of out of touch with how the world is changing. Throughout the whole film, he tried to block our access to workers who were about to be laid off. He did his best to prevent us from seeing or recording anything negative about the company. This had led to lots of arguments and confrontations on earlier trips. By the time we came to the last one, relations with him were really not good. So when we wanted to arrange to meet with Zhang Shu-yan, he simply said he didn't know where she was. She wasn't at work and she had moved and they didn't know to where. It was never openly discussed, but we learned that he knew we only had three or four days to spend in Shenyang, so he just decided to stonewall us for the duration of our stay.

The Foreign Affairs Office of the city, and others, tried to persuade him. And we tried. We filmed a lot of the arguments and in the end we said that if we couldn't see her, we would just have to use this material to explain why. So, reluctantly, he found her.

Could you ever engage the officials in an open talk about China's ecomomic reforms and the social pain and tumult it was causing? Was this completely off-limits?

I think you see it in the film. Wu Jing-Lian, a top government economist, talks very candidly on camera about this. He is a very influential man in China. (In 2001, a magazine named him one of the 10 most influential men in the country.) People like him who advise on policy -- academics, intellectuals -- all are very aware of, and critical of, certain costs of the reforms.

And the Chinese Communist Party discusses these problems. There is not a single issue in the film that is not discussed by them. People at the policy level are different from the earlier Communist Party officials. Many have studied abroad, are highly educated, and have international colleagues. But they are caught between a rock and a hard place. The road to economic modernization is a long and painful one and presents immense, complex challenges and pain for many. But the reforms have to continue if China's economic growth is to continue. So they are in a very tough situation.

What was the biggest obstacle, the most politically sensitive areas you had to confront with the authorities?

The whole subject of reforming the state companies was very sensitive. In a way, it is a tacit admission that the earlier core policies of the Party -- the planned economy, quotas, and the communist dream of the 1950s and '60s of jobs and security for all workers -- had failed.

Also, as Mayor Mu's corruption case unfolded, that obviously became extremely sensitive and no one would talk at all about it. Some in the West have wondered, "Why was Mayor Mu singled out when corruption is endemic at all levels of the Party?" And probably we will never know all the reasons why.

In a way, you've told this story as much through the places as through the people. Can you talk about that?

I chose each place for a reason: Beijing because it is the capital and relatively prosperous; Shenyang because it is in the industrial heartland; Guo Village because it is a very typical, average income village; and Chestnut Flower Village because I wanted to go to a very poor area that is typical of much of central and western China.

Chestnut Flower Village is physically very deceptive. It is so beautiful that it is only when you spend some time there that you see the poverty, the very basic level of physical comfort that people have, the back-breaking toil needed to eke a living out of the land. Tian Xiao-Wei is prosperous -- especially for that village -- but you have to remember what she compares her new prosperity to. She and her family were so poor during the Cultural Revolution, they barely had clothes to wear. They were hungry much of the time. Today their house is solid, but it is very simple by our standards.

In addition, I'm always interested in how different places feel -- not just the geography, but the smells, the touch of the air, the intangibles that give each place their unique feel. Shenyang is so gritty and industrial; not an attractive city. While Beijing is dusty and dry, more and more it looks like an attractive, international capital. You can see in the film how much parts of the city changed just in the four years. In each trip, we filmed the Oriental Plaza construction site. It forms the corner of one of the main shopping streets, Wanfujing, which was literally transformed and is full of shops that could be in Paris or Rome.


How much did your mini DV camera help you in making the documentary?

It was great. It is so much smaller than beta cameras and you need so much less equipment. We could really carry everything between us, which was fantastic when we took trains or cabs. We were just easily mobile. And although our camera was a little bigger and fancier than a home/personal DV camera, it was also less intimidating than other professional gear. We shot a lot of interviews without lights and could go into places like nightclubs and just start filming.

And in those nightclubs and elsewhere, was it easier talking to younger people than to their parents? Were they, like young people everywhere, more open with you?

Yes, they were more open. With Nie Zheng and Gu Feng, we could talk about anything, but we didn't really talk about politics much with them because they simply are not interested. They have no connection to the Communist Party, something that was unimaginable in their parents' time. Like most people, they are mostly interested in their own lives and politics doesn't enter into it. They can do whatever they want -- Nie can take his photos, Gu Feng can do sports. They can talk with their friends about whatever they want. And they are pretty well-informed about what is going on in the rest of the world.

At the same time, everyone knows what the limits are. You don't make trouble for the government. And as long as you don't, you can do pretty much whatever you want.

The music in "China in the Red" is a strong and compelling presence. And the music of Cui Jian is in most of it. Talk about the music.

I didn't want this film to have traditional Chinese music, which is what everyone expects to hear. Frankly, when I hear that in a film, it puts me to sleep; it is stereotypical and plays into this idea of the exotic China that is so "other." I wanted to use the music you hear on the radio in taxis, that you see on Chinese TV, in clubs, and it's a variety of syrupy Canto Pop, Cui Jian's rock, Western rock, and so on. And the music we used reflects the energy, and sometimes the rawness, of the situations we were seeing.

We wanted to use different songs by different artists, but we also wanted a score that fit together. We had areas where we needed specially composed music, so we hired Jason Hwang -- a very talented Chinese-American composer -- to help us tie it all together. It was a tough request! I think he did a wonderful job of writing rock music sometimes with a slight Chinese feel -- a feel he achieved partly through the sparing use of Chinese instruments.

We also wanted to include Faye Wong, who is a huge star in China, and we use three of her songs. Sometimes she takes a Western song and does her own interpretation, like with the Cranberries song "Dream." The other two -- "Decadence" and "Sky" -- are written by Chinese composers and I think add a lot to the film.

There are a lot of talented young bands working in Beijing. We also used tracks from the Beijing Band 2001 compilation, Tang Dynasty, and the singer Tian Zhen. And finally we used music by Cesarius Alvim, a Brazilian who lives in France who writes very powerful instrumentals with percussion and string bass.

And tell us about Cui Jian.

Cui Jian is China's most famous rock musician and he has been around since the 1980s. I think of him a little like China's Bruce Springsteen. His song, "Nothing to My Name," became like an anthem for the 1989 Tiananmen student movement. We interviewed him and used some of his music in our last film "Born Under the Red Flag." And I've seen him play in New York a couple of times since then. He and his band are fine musicians and have this mix of Western and Chinese influences that I really like.

Video of your film will be streamed in full on FRONTLINE's Web site. What are the chances that China's citizens will be able to access the Web site? What can you tell us about the Internet and China?

The PBS Web site is blocked in China. However, the Internet is clearly having a huge impact on a very small number of citizens (relatively speaking for China, that is!). And these people are educated and infuriated when, for example, Google and Yahoo get blocked. But I'm sure there is a trickle-down effect, especially in areas like news and popular culture, that will make itself felt over the years.

[Editor's note: Read more about Internet censorship in China.]

How do you think the government will view your film "China in the Red"?

I think if they watch it all the way through, they will have no problem. I think we have made a very compassionate film about the challenges facing ordinary people and the Chinese government.

To the extent that they don't like discussing their problems in public, they might prefer that this or that not be in it. But as I said earlier, we haven't shown anything that they don't acknowledge. In fact, all these problems we show in the film are widely, openly discussed in Chinese media, often very critically.

Are you essentially optimistic or pessimistic about China's economic and social progress?

As many China experts say, you can make equally strong cases both ways. With its success in parts of the economy, its huge growth, you can see China emerging as a modern, prosperous, stable society. Or you can see disaster ahead because of its huge problems: unemployment, the growing gap between rich and poor, falling peasant incomes, massive environmental problems, and government corruption. What I do know for sure is that you should never predict what will happen in China!

And what are your thoughts on the prospects of Western-style democracy, an open society, in China?

I think there are a lot of really smart, decent people working for really good things in China -- a more independent, equitable justice system, more official accountability, less corruption, more freedom of the press, expanding local elections, and allowing non-Party candidates to run. And very positive, hopeful things are slowly happening.

At the same time, it makes me uncomfortable to assume that the system we have developed is the one all other nations should aspire to. Freedom and democracy mean different things to different people; they might use the same words, but not mean the same thing as we do. In the West, it took hundreds of years and much bloody upheaval to develop our democratic system and there is little in the history of China's political, cultural, or belief systems upon which to build a similar one. So, as I said above, I think it is impossible to predict.

[Editor's note: Read more about the prospects for democracy in China in FRONTLINE's Web-exclusive roundtable forum with top China experts: Minxin Pei, Orville Schell, Anne Thurston, and Suzanne Ogden.]

What would people be most surprised to know concerning what you encountered or learned in the course of making this film?

I was very struck by some of our personalities, at the incredible difficulties and suffering they have experienced and their candor. Tian Xiao-Wei's life in Chestnut Flower Village has been so constrained by traditional prejudices against women. Another reason she was looked down on in the village was because she "could only make girl babies." So this was a huge disappointment to her and to her husband, and something which she perceived as a huge personal failure.

I found the young photographer Nie Zheng's irreverence delightful and his pain over his unsatisfactory relationship with his parents very moving. And I think the openness of Nie Zheng and Tian Xiao-Wei in discussing these things shows the level of trust people gave us. And this has happened in all our China films. People have really told us their own truths. I find it moving and very courageous.

"China in the Red" is a rich and ambitious report, and it's a view of China rarely seen in the West. As an independent filmmaker, how easy was it to get funding support?

It was extraordinarily difficult. Few foundations fund films, let alone films about China. Corporations with business interests in China, and even their corporate foundations, were very leery of supporting us. They were nervous that the film might somehow offend the government in Beijing, which would harm their business interests there.

Is there another China film in your future?

We have a couple of ideas we are exploring. Our next film, however, has nothing to do with China. It will be a complete change of pace: a biography of the world's first international super star, Mary Pickford.

 

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