Speculations on Openings, Closings, and Thresholds in International Public Media
Monday, December 10, 2012
23 students sat in a room with gray tables at the Guangzhou English Training Center for the Handicapped (GETCH). The night before, they screened Jim Bigham’s For Once in My Life, a compelling documentary following seven disabled adults working at Goodwill Industries in Miami, Florida, who form a band.
Jim and I had left the Garden Hotel lobby at 10:20 in a cab with Esther Yang, our escort from the US Consulate in Guangzhou. The cab inched forward slowly on massive expressway arteries crammed with trucks, cars, and cabs and rimmed with endless high rise apartment complexes shooting 30 stories high into the constant umbrella of gray skies. We were in Guangzhou, China, as film envoys for the American Film Showcase, an initiative between the US State Department and the University of Southern California to foster international dialogues through film and conversation.
Then, the scale shifted abruptly. Our driver snaked through a neighborhood with three story, older buildings, the street level bustling with small shops selling roast pork and chicken, noodles, or bottled water. Shirts and skirts hung out to dry on poles from windows flapped overhead from the second floor.
We walked down a quiet street lined with small shops selling plastic buckets and brooms. A man riding an old blue bicycle with fat tires rolled by. Esther pointed out that these smaller scale areas were called “villages.” I imagined that before the development fueled by China’s rapid growth in its Reform and Opening, post-Mao period, this area—which felt much more manageable than other parts of Guangzhou-- might have been a stand-alone village. With its 25 million people and rapid industrialization in the last 30 years, Guangzhou is the second largest megacity in the world.
Crossing a concrete threshold, we walked into the open courtyard of GETCH. A student on crutches moved slowly across the open space. “Hello”, he said in English.
A two by three foot picture of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the US President struck by polio, hung on one wall and on another, a similarly-sized picture of Stephen Hawking, autographed for the school. GETCH trains young adults between 18 to 23 to learn English and computer skills such as Microsoft Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and other computer program so that they can join the booming Chinese economy, one of the most high growth and powerful economies in the world. Tuition is free. Students pay for meals and the dormitories.
Jim and I entered the room. It was simple: white walls, a fan, gray metal tables, a beat up wooden lectern with a computer, a white screen pulled down from the ceiling. Rae Zhuang, a professional translator, greeted us. However, the students wanted to speak English.
Jim turned on his camera, holding it at waist level. Jim Bigham has vast experience in the feature film industry, commercial television, advertising, documentary, and indiewood. I noticed he made constant eye contact with the students, only glancing through the viewfinder sporadically. He asked the students, all of whom had various disabilities, their names. They all shared their English, rather than Chinese, names: Helen, Serena, Bessie, Max, Victoria, Sophia, Ben, Cherry, Sky. Annie, from Shanghai, proclaimed that she lived in the school and “loves it here.”
“Did you see the movie?” Jim asked. “Yes” the group shouted in unison. “Have you ever wanted to play a musical instrument?” The students just smiled. They asked “What difficulties happened when you made the movie?” Jim answered “ I wanted to make a story about people with disabilities without statistics, about the hearts of the people.”
Drawing its title from a song by Stevie Wonder, who is blind, For Once is My Life deploys the structure of a Hollywood musical, with frequent breaks from the narrative to immerse in the music.
Another student queried “How did you communicate with members of the band when they speak different languages, like Spanish, Creole?” Jim pointed out that some of the band members featured in For Once in My Life could speak but not comprehend. He revealed that all band members could communicate through music.
Another young woman probed further. “Are there any companies in the United States willing to accept people with disabilities?” Goodwill Industries, Jim said. He also explained that in the United States, we have an Americans with Disabilities Act (1990) that prohibits discrimination based on disabilities.
“For Once in My Life is a love letter from them to you,” Jim added. The students smiled, and then clapped.
At that point, the session transformed from a q and a with a film director into an interactive, engaged community. One student shared she really liked one of the band members because he was “so cute.” Another student pointed out the Goodwin, the Chinese American, played piano well. Camera running, Jim then asked the students if they would like to send a video letter to band. They all shouted “YES!”
His camera at eye-level with the seated students, Jim asked each student to send a video letter to a member of the band. He kept eye contact with the students, as though the camera was invisible. Jim had mentioned in an session the day before that his direct cinema style was directly influenced by his mentor, D.A. Pennebaker, one of the originators of direct cinema who adhered to becoming invisible as a filmmaker. I saw Jim’s style in action: the camera and his technique became invisible as he focused on his interactions with the students.
Bessie said to the camera “I like your music. I like one boy in the band,David. He plays the horn. You are very handsome.”
Serena pronounced “ I am so moved at the moment. No matter what kind of disability we can succeed.” Jim asked her what her disability was. “ I have an artificial leg.”
“ I learned a lot from this movie,” Sky shared. “I was impressed by Javier (the able bodied band leader) because he acted like a father to everyone. Will you bring the band to China?” Jim explained that the band leader, Javier, lost his full time job. He was leading the band part-time. He is now in Memphis, Tennesse, doing the public relations for children with cancer.
“To Melissa (a young woman with Down’s Syndrome whose father deserted her and her mother), you father missed out on an opportunity,” shared Sophie.
After shooting video letters with several more students, Jim announced that he would put each of the GETCH students video letters up on Facebook. The students started to laugh. “Facebook is blocked in China!” a student noted. Jim replied he would then have to figure out another strategy to post the videos.
He then queried the students: “What would you like me to tell people? What advice would you give Americans?”
A student raised her hand. “Why don’t Americans learn Chinese?”
As the session ended, Jim asked the group if they could sing a song he could film. Encouraged by their teacher, the students inched slowly to the front of the classroom. They sang a Tiawenese pop song by Chang Yu Sheng called “My Future is Not A Dream.”
Jim filmed with his small black camera.
He moved around the group as they sang, softly at first, and then gaining volume as confidence grew. He shot in very close range, maybe 18 inches from each face.
Jim own eyes rarely looked through the viewfinder.Smiling, he always looked straight into the eyes of the students.
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.