john avnet
Avnet directed the film

interview
q:  What is your film about?

avnet:  The film is the story of an American general counsel to a large conglomerate that goes to Beijing to close a large telecommunications deal which is the forerunner of a satellite deal with the Chinese government. It looks like he's going to be successful. It's played by Richard Gere and of course, it will be successful and he celebrates with a beautiful Chinese model. And in the morning he wakes up and she's dead. He's thrown into prison and he becomes charged with murder and rape. And he's given a Chinese lawyer that's sort of the equivalent of a court-appointed lawyer who believes he's guilty and the story is basically his attempt to survive and the relationship between this Chinese female lawyer and Richard as they sort of go through the labyrinth that's known as the Chinese judicial system ...

q: In simplest terms, are you telling a story of an American who gets caught up in an inscrutable system or a system without rules?

a:  I think it's more a story of the difference between the Chinese judicial system and the American judicial system and a relationship that develops by two people who embody the two different systems.

q:  And what are you trying to say about the Chinese and how they view human rights?

a:  Well they view human rights differently than the Americans do and they view legal rights differently and this is an American who's caught up in the Chinese criminal justice system. He's treated well. His being 'treated well' would make most Americans sick because we take certain things like due process, habeas corpus, you know the right to have an attorney of your own choosing for granted.

q:  How hard was it to get the film made?

a:  The studio was supportive of the film. I think as things started to heat up and the "Kundun" incident, if you will, emerged -- they became aware that there might be some consequences. But I think ultimately they were quite supportive and you know at this point we still don't know what all the repercussions are. But it's difficult to be a major studio who will want to sell your product to China to do a film like this. So I praise them for that.

q:  Was casting Richard Gere -who is known and associated as being an activist on issues for Tibet- asking for it?

a:  On a political level, yes.

q:  Did you do it on purpose for that reason?

a:  No, not on purpose, but I wasn't unaware of it. I was quite happy.

.... Richard Gere is someone who's interested in China. So one dimension of him might be his outspoken support of the Dalai Lama, another may be his spiritual beliefs, but he's also knowledgeable about China. So he brought a lot to the package for me and I didn't want him in the movie as a flashpoint for criticism, but I didn't shy away from it.

q:  You're filmmakers, artists, why are you turning your attention to China now?

a:  China needs attention turned to it and there are things that are happening there that people should be aware of. I mean major decisions affecting our lives and the lives of the people of China are being made and in a democratic society, you're supposed to be aware, not ignorant. I think that's why the attention is being focused.

q:  And what are you trying to say?

a:  What I'm trying to say is, here is a situation as it exists. This is a hypothetical situation in our film. I am extremely knowledgeable, courtesy of many legal experts in America and many more in China about the judicial system in China. If we're going to talk about MFN, we're going to talk about WTO and membership, if we're going to talk about treating China as an equal, then these things have to be factored into political decisions. It cannot just be you know the laissez faire capitalism of the early 1900s. You know and nor should we support a regime anymore than we should have supported Hitler in Germany or you know what was going on in Bosnia with silence or with economic aid to one party.

We must be aware of these things. I think it's incumbent on all of us and I think obviously the artist should be speaking out and should be speaking out early and they should be speaking out loudly.

q:  How is China going to react to these films?

a:  ...clearly they're not going to be pleased. They don't want the attention on this stuff. They like to dominate the economic decisions as they have in the last couple of years on the simple merits of cutting a great deal for themselves and excluding people who won't compete on levels they want to compete on who won't do what they want. You know but the pressures are brought to bear on the studios.....

q:  What kinds of pressure could China put on the studios?

a:  There are many things.....depending what the studio is -- let's say Disney. Disney has theme parks -- they sell enormous amount of merchandise you know. They can just make it difficult to have a theme park open.....The film studios want to license their movies and sell them. So the easiest way is to just in one way form or another keep the American studios out. Right now, there isn't large amounts of money to be made in China. There will be and that's what everybody is doing. I think for most industries, you know the deals that are being cut are very favorable to the Chinese. But everybody wants to get a toehold in because they don't want to be left out.

q:  What do you sense the studio's reaction to the kind of pressure they're likely to get --

a:  I think they want to be cautious, they want to protect themselves. You know they have an obligation to their shareholder to make money. They're not out there as do-gooders. I mean the fact that Michael Eisner stood up to the Chinese government, something that our government couldn't do or most corporations wouldn't you know was a very unusual action. You know he stood up in the face of you know some real pressure, there will be additional pressure. Will he stand up? Will Disney stand up? We'll see. You know they have both more to lose than most studios and they also have more leverage. It's tough to kick Mickey out of China.

q:  Some in Hollywood seem to be reticent to talk about it for fear of hurting the marketing of their film. What's going on?

a:  Well, if these filmmakers are being coerced or suddenly pressured not to speak, I hope it's not the beginning of a sort of new black list. You know where political agendas are no longer part of free expression. I mean Hollywood is here to make money but it also has made films that occasionally has some content. And some of that content can be political as well as moral, ethical, whatever. But I feel that you know it's daunting when you're looking for financing and you're dealing with material that's not conventional. Somebody like Marty Scocese is a national treasure, he should be protected you know. I hope he will be. He should be allowed to make films that are important,and I hope pressure is not being brought to bear on Marty not to speak.

q:  Your film, and the films about Tibet -- is there a kind of collective message you're sending to Washington about how they should respond to the human rights issue with China?

a:  Yes. Pay attention. Pay attention. Don't let this stuff go unnoticed you know. Don't sweep it under the rug to make another deal for Boeing. Why? Let Boeing be there but don't play weak with the Chinese government, they'll just bowl you over anyway so if you're strong you'll get a better deal. ...You can't just hide about this. You can't say --there were 6100 people executed that we know of last year in China, more than all of the rest of the executions in the world -- and just say 'well fine. '

q:  What is this growing connection between Hollywood films and Washington policy on an issue like China and how it treats Tibet in human rights?

a:  Well I think that just some people speak out.... Hollywood happens to be louder perhaps in some ways than other places, but journalists and writers and novelists and musicians .....there's an outrage about some of the things that are being done and there only are so many ways to express them. Most people feel powerless because they don't have a voice and the few who have it don't use it. .....Now, I am not a politician, a diplomat -- which makes me more qualified than most politicians and diplomats to say the truth because I don't have the constituency that I have to go back and say please I didn't really mean that. I don't have to tiptoe around and that is the role of the arts. That is the role of the journalist. That is the role of people who write songs or do paintings. And it's also not to ignore history.

You know we just say 1989 didn't happen. What do we say to those dead people? To their family? Just ignore it. You know even in our own country when four people killed in Kent State, it was a big deal. Do we forget it? Why should they forget it?

q:  But if Hollywood has the loudest voice and we're in an era now where trade is perceived as paramount - is Hollywood going to be afraid to use its voice?

a:  Perhaps but Hollywood is not one person and there are a lot of people here. Talented people, people with tremendous conviction and there are a bunch of jerks still - like every place else. The only difference is that the people in Hollywood who make the movies have a voice. Richard Gere has a voice, whether he's using it for Tibet or he's using it about the Chinese judicial system here, it is heard. There is a price for it. There are consequences for it. You know, as I say I hope there's not going to be a blacklist you know on topics -- I don't believe that will be the case. Certainly for just silly economic reasons. I mean do we have to just duplicate the failures of the past over and over and over again with no consciousness. Are we really doomed to that kind of stupid cyclical ignorance? I hope not.

q:  But there is a black list, isn't there of people who aren't allowed into China?

a:  Yes.

q:  Why you didn't film in China?

a:  Well, for starters, the Chinese government will never give Richard Gere a visa. They wouldn't let him get in. Second of all, the content is such, that if you can't photograph the intermediate court in Beijing, you think they're going to let you film in it? You think they're going to let you sit there. There was no way whatsoever that they would allow us do anything there. There was even fear we were initially going to shoot in Hong Kong. And I think the studio got a little spooked about shooting in Hong Kong. I mean I think we could have done it. It actually ended up better for us to be able to shoot here because we have a building that's more accurate than what would have been in Hong Kong. But ultimately we had to go there and shoot you know undercover because they would never let us shoot in the day light. And I want to shoot in Beijing and I wanted it to be authentic and it is.

q:  What do you think your film, or the films about Tibet, really have the power to do?

a:  I think that the films as a whole could break them out of policy circles, could make them a focus for some national debate. I mean Tibet has been around for a long time, only recently has it been getting serious attention in American and that has a lot do with some celebrities - which isn't a dirty word.

Richard Gere is a good person, Harrison Ford is a good person. The fact that they're using themselves for the cause of the Dalai Lama you know which all he's asking for is to sit down with the Chinese government, have some discussions, you know. What's wrong? Why can't they discuss it? I mean certainly there's legitimacy to his claim. Yes, of course taken together they will have enormous impact whether they actually tangibly move the moral ball two feet farther forward I don't know.

q:  What were you doing that was ground-breaking in terms of being able to shoot a feature film in China?

a:  To my knowledge no feature film has shot in China in Tianemen Square. We have our principal Bi Ling on a bicycle in Tiananmen Square.... it's a historic moment. It adds legitimacy to the movie. I think is important to tell other people that you can do things that may be difficult or you know prescribe not to do to have a value and even though everything was done with permits and so on, we didn't go in there and say to the government, here give us permission to shoot this. You know, we knew they would never say yes you know unless there was some political consideration.

So I think it's very very important to the film that it have a certain kind of validity that all the effort in the film to be accurate, to be incredibly accurate with the judicial system. To get the facts you know that people just don't know. I'm talking about professors here. I mean we were granted access to information that people simply don't have. I'm talking about the people who teach law here about the situation in China.I actually went to a criminal court myself, not in disguise, you know I'm anAmerican, big nose.

I think that sometimes you have to take a certain amount of risk so that the voice will be loud, clear and truthful, you know, and I didn't do this by myself. I want to stress that there were a lot of people who felt this was very important that this story be told you know. It's a story that's a hypothetical situation. It's not a piece of history. But just because of what it deals with, the fact that the silence is so pervasive in China, a country so large is so silent but someone's got to speak for the people and the Chinese filmmakers are not allowed to do it. So therefore it falls on the rest of the world to do it I think.

q:  What is attracting people of that level of celebrity - Brad Pitt, Richard Gere - and talent to these projects and why is Hollywood even bothering to consider these subjects if they know on some of it it will just bring them attack?

a:  Well, I think some people in Hollywood know it's important. I think the actors you mentioned think it's important and I think the studios think maybe they can make some money off it. I mean you know on the simplest level, I think there's a certain amount of courage from the studios to release these films because they're putting some economic interests at, at risk. You know, on the other hand, I feel it's incumbent upon them to allow filmmaker to make these kinds of films and I think it's great that certain celebrities are using their drawing power to help make these films happen and let these voices be heard.

q:  As a filmmaker, an artist, what is it you're saying in essence to President Clinton about what he should say to the summit with the Chinese?

a:  I think that President Clinton should play it strong with the Chinese and you should say he has a full house, he's got a good hand, cannot be pushed around, this is his last term and he wants a place in history. He shouldn't just cave in so he can get through a summit.

It should be substantive. There should be some real ground rules. I mean there's no reason whatsoever that major concessions can't be made by the Chinese in the area of human rights. I mean I would love to see coming out of the summit you know a meeting between Jiang Zemin and the Dalai Lama. Start a discussion. How does that hurt? How does it hurt the Chinese government to have a discussion. And I would also tell President Clinton to pay when he sees this movie so it makes some money so I can do another one like this.

q:  What is your dream scenario for the film's impact?

a:  My dream scenario for the film's impact is that it helps to spur a real debate over human rights in China and the other issues that are on the table such as the Dalai Lama and Tibet. I would like to see this go to the front burner. I would like not to give MFN and entrance to the World Trade Organization to the Chinese government unless they behave and they will and I think we should just take a tough tough position. This film is not a political film, it's an entertaining film but it deals with the subject that is highly political. When you see it, it is distressing to watch the way the criminal justice works with an American in China. Can you imagine what happens to people who have no names? Who're just Chinese citizens? One of the 6100 who are executed this year that we know of. Come on. These are not names that we know about, no one is carrying for placards for them. I would like an actress in China not to be afraid to make a movie like this in America. I would like to see filmmakers in China be able to make films about this subject matter. They can't. So we have to.

q:  And do you think Hollywood can make that kind of difference?

a:  I think Hollywood can make a difference. Hollywood is the largest publicity machine in the world. You know Hollywood and music travels. It's very difficult to keep it out. When I was wandering around the American Embassy in Silk Alley in Beijing, I was offered laser disks of my film -- pirated versions of my films. They're there. You know my films are not playing in China right now because they only select 10 American films a year. But they will travel. Word of "Red Corner" is in Beijing. All the filmmakers know about it. It will have an enormous impact. Whether it airs or plays in Beijing now as I imagine it will not immediately but it will get there, sooner or later it will get there. I hope sooner. I hope it really shakes up a few things. I think it's criminal not to be able to photograph Beijing intermediate court. I almost got arrested photographing the American Embassy by the Chinese guards outside. What the hell am I doing? I'm shooting with a camera. A 35mm camera, I get arrested and I get thrown in jail for shooting a picture. Ridiculous!

q:  What drove you to make this film? What about the subject matter affected you?

a:  The reason I wanted to make this film is because I've always wanted to do a film on China and I felt that the story allowed me to go into an area that interested me which is the justice system. It also had a great female part and the relationship between the man and the woman, between the lawyer and the accused. I felt really went somewhere in a positive direction where you could see how people from a different culture could relate which is the future if we have one -- people abandoning basically racist territory and looking beyond the color of someone's skin and saying you know something we have more similarities than dissimilarities. And I felt this was just a unique opportunity. It was sort of like also I've got to make a foreign film with some subtitles. Since I grew up watching them, I thought this would be a kick.

q:  Would your film be seen as anti-China propaganda by the Chinese?

a:  I love China. This is not an anti-Chinese film whatsoever. More Chinese actors work in this movie than probably any movie in the history of Hollywood.. The film is not anti-China whatsoever. It's actually in many ways a love song to the Chinese people. It's anti certain elements of the government - certain practices that are part and parcel of this government, sure, yeah.



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