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.