Speculations on Openings, Closings, and Thresholds in International Public Media
Monday, December 10, 2012
A red banner bedazzled with gold words in Mandarin hung beneath the white screen, announcing the Guangzhou International Documentary Film Festival (GZDOCS)with a little sign in English, “Director Meet and Greet.” Chinese pop music played loudly from a computer at the lectern.
About 35 students and some unidentified adults sat in the small classroom with fixed long tables and fixed metal chairs in a very large building with a huge open atrium at Sun Yat Sen University (SYS), the most prestigious university in economically booming Guangdong province in south China. Jim Bigham and I were there as part of the American Film Showcase, an initiative between the US State Department and the University of Southern California for people to people exchanges to foster greater understanding.
Jim Bigham , the voluble, charming, and open director of the feature length documentary For Once in My Life, Esther, our patient escort from the consulate, and myself finally found the screening/classroom room after our driver got lost on the vast SYS campus at night. He and Esther, who spoke Mandarin, had stopped three different groups of students strolling around campus at night to ask for directions to the building.
It took nearly 45 minutes to get from the Garden Hotel to SYS. The traffic in Gaungzhou, known as GZ, clogged the expressways no matter what time of the day or night. With the intense pollution and constantly gray skies, I resorted to daily doses of Zyrtec and shots from my Albutorol inhaler so that I could keep my voice, stay alert, and breathe.
Two “interpreters” greeted us. Emily and Leo (their English names) were students at another university volunteering for the festival. Emily studied law, Leo, economics. They were interested in the festival as a way to expand their “cultural skills” beyond their studies. We thought they needed to translate. We were wrong: they told us the people in the room, mostly students at SYS, spoke English.
Jim and I were not sure what our role was. Noone official beyond the “interpreters” guided us. Jim asked a man at the computer to do a sound check, thinking that he was technical support. Later, at the end of the post screening Q and A, we discovered, much to our embarrassment, that he was the professor of anthropology and that the assembled students were enrolled in his class.
Echoing the tradition of hand-held direct cinema that fashions characters and a narrative, For Once in My Life lovingly chronicles 28 disabled musicians who form a band. They all work at Goodwill Industries in Miami, Florida. The film focuses on seven characters in their attempts to learn the music for a big concert for a conference of U.S. mayors—and to navigate their own independence as they deal with blindness, autism, down’s syndrome, physical disabilities.
Structured like a backstage musical, with dramas and romances ensuing between characters and struggles to mount the show, For Once in My Life places the audience into the rehearsal room and in the characters apartments and homes, immersing us in a world of disability that asks us to dispose of our preconceptions about our own able bodies. The film coincided with the 20th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (1990). According to Jim, it was screened in Washington,D.C.
I parked myself in the back of the room during the screening so I could watch the audience. I expected non-stop texting. Instead, I witnessed uninterrupted rapture. Not a screen or smartphone in sight.
Jim, who has enjoyed a high profile, three-decades-plus career in the commercial media and indie sectors, skillfully started the discussion by stating “ I need you to know, I have a disability. I can’t play music.” After that, the post-screening discussion percolated with some surprising questions and insights.
First, it was a lively discussion, with non-stop questions about the film, about disabilities in America and China, about the characters. Jim pointed out that in the US, most feature-length documentaries only focus on a maximum of three characters. He emphasized that his style of documentary is character-centric, a way to expand the audience for documentary through narrative framing techniques. But his ethics of documentary reveal a deeply humanistic and ethical grounding: Jim not only drove many of the characters to and from rehearsal, but keeps the characters in the film continually informed of the response he receives at screenings. His dream: to take the band on tour.
For Once in My Life sustains a complex weave of seven characters and a behind-the-scenes story about rehearsing for a big concert. Many in the audience expressed their interest in Goodwin, the Chinese American autistic pianist. Jim pointed out that the characters all represent the ethnic and racial mix of Miami: Cuban, Latin America, African American, Asian, caucasion. One young man wanted to know what the characters in the film thought of the film. Jim said they loved it, and were honored to have the film and their work screened in China.
Another young woman wanted to know what people in the United States knew about Chinese film. That’s where I morphed from my role as moderator to my role as screen studies professor, sharing that I taught the works of Zhang Yimou, Chen Kaige, Jia Zhangke, and more emerging contemporary Chinese independent documentaries, called d-cinema or the Chinese new documentary movement.
One young woman in the audience then shared that she really liked the music, prompting enthusiastic head-shaking from most of the room.
Another young woman said that the film confused her. She thought documentaries were always boring. Instead, she found herself absorbed in For Once in My Life. Jim thanked her. He explained he seeks to blend difficult, activist content with entertainment values to reach a larger audience. One young man asked how he might make a film about disabilities in China. Jim replied with a simple statement: find a character.
Jim ended the public discussion with a moving statement: “We all need to remember that in the space of one second, any of us could move from able-bodied to disabled.”
The “interpreters” wanted their picture taken with us. A young man who identified himself as a professional photographer for GZDOCs placed us in front of the banner which was at knee level and not easy to see..
In the hallway, a different, more driven, much more intense exchange occurred. The young students swarmed around Jim, who is over six feet tall with curly reddish blond hair and an open, engaging, generous manner. I heard one question repeated: “How can I make a documentary film?” And another question: “How did he shoot these people? How did they respond to the camera?” Jim pointed out that some characters “hammed it up” while others were shy.
A group of five young women, smartphones clutched in one hand, bookbags in the other, pulled me away from the larger group. One asked “How can we be trained to make a documentary in the proper way? How can we make a documentary if we do not have good enough equipment? “
I replied there is not just one way to make a documentary. The route looks different depending on age, history, politics, place, nation. I suggested that watching as many films as possible, going to art museums, and engaging the world without preconception through questions yielded more than “training,” which might produce a standardized vision. Documentary is about learning to see the world with new eyes and to ask hard questions of that world.
I then pointed out that they had the best equipment imaginable.
I pointed to my head. They queried “your brain?” I said yes.
Then I pulled out my iPhone. Holding it in the air, I whispered: remember, we all have cameras. These small amateur cameras are powered by ideas, not specific training or electrical outlets.
With bluntly cut bangs and bright purple blouse, one young woman smiled shyly. She replied "Oh, I think I understand. It is about us, not you or copying this film."
Note: If you look at the image with this blog, you will notice that as soon as the screening ended, the GZDOC festival banner was removed.