Feature Story: Mission Beijing
The challenge: Film a documentary on any subject, in a country you’ve never been to before, in a language you don’t speak—in 10 days.
By Lara Ehrlich
Above photo: Looking Beijing participants—including Joe Peicott (CGS’03, COM’05), in sunglasses, and Scott Rosenkrantz (’12), in hat and glasses—on a group location check in 2012. Photo by the Academy for International Communication of Chinese Culture
The cobblestones jolt Lizhi Chen in his seat, making his teeth clack as he concentrates on pedaling and directing the lens at the same time. He has never ridden a tandem bicycle—much less while holding a video camera.
“Hold on!” Yuanhuan Zhang calls over her shoulder. She maneuvers them down one of the cramped alleys of the Beijing hutong, a labyrinthine neighborhood formed by ancient courtyard homes. Zhang jerks the handlebars, narrowly missing a rickshaw in the bustling street, and Chen keeps his camera trained on another tandem bicycle just ahead. Trevor Hall Joyce (’07, ’09) perches on the back of this second bike, also gripping a camera, his attention zeroed in on the lone rider leading their strange caravan.
“What are you doing, crazy boys?” an old man shouts from the gateway of a nearby home. Chen laughs, then gasps as his bike hits a rock.
This is just the start of a long day for Chen. In the afternoon, he will head to the Beijing Normal University dance studio to shoot Augustina Zito (’11) as she studies classical Chinese fan dancing. The next morning, he’ll wake up at four to follow Chris Messina (’07) to the Bell and Drum Towers, which have been striking the time since 1272, then spend the afternoon with Brandon Todesca (’11), who will film a tea ceremony at the Laoshe Teahouse. Chen’s hours upon hours of footage will come together into a behind-the-scenes documentary about the making of eight Looking Beijing films.
Now in its third year, Looking Beijing is a nonprofit foreign exchange program founded by award-winning journalist, venture capitalist and film producer Hugo Shong (’87) in partnership with Beijing Normal University (BNU) and International Data Group (IDG). Through Looking Beijing, 8 Boston University film majors travel to Beijing for 10 days, all expenses paid. Each student is partnered with a BNU communications major, and the teams are set loose in the city to film short documentaries on the subjects of their choice.
“The US students take the lead in the creative part, and the Chinese students are producers,” says program coordinator Roni Zhang (’08). “The BU and Chinese students work one-on-one, so it’s not just about making a movie in the end. The process of making the movie itself is interesting.”
When Shong first arrived in the United States as a COM graduate student, “people asked me if I felt the so-called culture shock. Of course, I found a lot of things quite different from China.” Now, when the BU students first land in Beijing, Shong tells them, “Guys, I want to give you a culture shock!”
Megan Lovallo (CGS’10, COM’12) found the shock “terribly invigorating.” Upon arrival at the Beijing Capital International Airport in August 2012, the students loaded into a van destined for the city center. Though they were groggy after the 14-hour flight, they “chatted and got to know each other,” as they pulled away from the terminal. “When we started to enter into the main part of Beijing, a hush fell over the van,” Lovallo says. “The overwhelming sense of being somewhere unique was thrilling. I had an instinctive feeling of excitement about the potential for adventure I’d discover in a place I had never even dreamed of seeing in real life.”
Like many of the American students, Lovallo “had a Westernized view of the country—you know, the Great Wall, the Forbidden City and tons of people.” Her preconceptions amused her BNU partner, Wenqi Xu: “Megan thought that Chinese always wear a bamboo hat; in fact, just people in rural areas of southern China wear that, but just on rainy days. She also thought that every house in China has lanterns. Maybe the Chinese films that Americans see show these scenes.”
Looking Beijing encourages the filmmakers to look beyond the stereotypes. In return, their films often highlight aspects of Chinese culture that natives take for granted.
“It’s the first time for the students from Boston to come to China and everything is fresh for them,” Xu says. “Sometimes I am too accustomed to China to find many nice things, but Megan can find some interesting details in life that I used to ignore.” Lovallo’s film, The Sound of Beijing, explores the city through the music of buskers and professional musicians, and everyday sounds like the chirring of crickets in wicker baskets and the whisk of a street sweeper’s broom. “Music is a personality trait of every city,” she says. “There’s a heartbeat to it.”
Lovallo and Xu paired up naturally, as did most of the participants. For the first day and a half, the BU and BNU students toured Beijing together, getting to know each other and discussing their documentary ideas. On the afternoon of the second day they returned to their home base, a classroom at BNU, where the BU students pitched their concepts to the group. Though the teams were formalized during this meeting, most of the students had already found their partners. Xu immediately connected with Lovallo’s idea. “It’s magical to make a film about sounds,” she says. “I like music and I am learning a Chinese traditional instrument called a guqin. People rarely can play it today in China, though it has wonderful sound.”
Lovallo and Xu spent three days simply experiencing Beijing. “Just because we had a certain amount of time didn’t mean we had to film everything we saw,” Lovallo says. “That would have been a disaster later when we’d have to go through hours of footage. And it takes more than a day to really get comfortable with little things like riding the subway and dealing with currency.”
Xu was key in helping Lovallo navigate the city; she arranged impromptu appointments with the musicians who would appear in the film, like two accordion players who perform a vigorous street concert, the guqin professor who lovingly revives a dying art, and in one striking scene, a pair of buskers entertaining overheated subway riders with their makeshift music.
The scene opens with a jumble of station announcements, machinery beeps and exhausted voices—and then a drum patter rises through the noise. A guitar joins in as the train pulls away from the station, and a reedy voice begins to accompany the train announcements. The camera pulls back to reveal the musicians, a wiry young guitarist and a drummer whose instrument is decorated with spangled wrapping paper and secured around his neck with a ribbon. They balance effortlessly in the rocking train. The subway riders’ faces gleam in the summer subway heat. A man drums his palm against his thigh and a young woman films the concert with her phone. The drummer begins to sing along. Their voices are strained but passionate, and the cords of their necks stand out. Capturing this footage “was organized chaos,” Lovallo says. “We had to find them first, and then shoot them on a moving train. That, to me, is live music in its element.”
Through such everyday moments, The Sound of Beijing immerses the viewer in the “feeling of the city,” says Paul Schneider, chair of COM’s Department of Film & Television. “There’s no commentary, there’s nothing artificial—it’s like a little window into another world.” And at the end of the program, the inhabitants of this world looked through the windows the filmmakers had opened. The films were screened for a sizeable audience that included the vice mayor of Beijing; the BNU president, professors and students; the directors and board members of the Academy for International Communication of Chinese Culture (AICCC); many of the Beijingers who appeared in the films; and a select group of Chinese filmmakers, producers and critics.
A compliment from renowned film scholar Peggy Chiao made a lasting impression on Lovallo. “She said that some people come to a new city and focus on how things are different. But my film was more of an observation of how maybe we’re not so different, how people in China carry themselves in a way that’s very similar to the West. When you go somewhere different, you don’t always have to focus on the differences.”
Beijing by Bike
But those differences can be revealing, too. When Trevor Hall Joyce arrived in Beijing in August 2011, he was struck by the city’s immense population. “It’s so large that it dwarfs our notion of large cities in the US. You can’t fully understand it until you immerse yourself in it,” he says. “With this many people, not everyone can have a car, but a vast number of people still need to get around the city, and bicycles are a convenient way for that to happen. The city is built for it.”
A self-proclaimed “bicycle enthusiast,” Joyce rides bikes and works on bikes, and his BU thesis even featured a bike. “Bicycles have a kinetic energy that lends itself to filmmaking. I didn’t want to make a documentary with talking heads—I wanted to make a film that showed how I saw the city in a short window of time. The trail of the bike messenger was an interesting through-line to the whole city.”
And he did mean the whole city. The concept for Joyce’s film, Rider, hinged on filming a bike messenger’s journey through Beijing—and he needed a partner who was up for the challenge. “Some films could be handled in one location in a couple of days, whereas mine was going to cover a ton of locations throughout the city. It was going to be go, go, go from start to finish.” During the initial meet and greet, BNU student Yuanhuan Zhang “sparked very quickly to the bikes. She was very shy, but we had a good conversation, and then when I pitched my idea to the group, she raised her hand.”
Joyce had a producer, but still needed a star—a bike messenger who would be willing to commit to the program’s intense schedule. Through Roni Zhang’s network, Joyce eventually met bicyclist Tao Man. To Joyce’s relief, Man said yes.
Joyce always saw this film as a collaborative process. “When we were mapping out all the routes we would travel, I asked Tao to tell me the places he would like to represent his city, and he was key in sorting out the road map for the film. He wasn’t just an actor for hire. There were three of us making the film, and no one role was more important than the others.”
Their partnership was tested by long days of riding, with Man pedaling more than 30 miles through Beijing’s crowded streets, often in the rain. Joyce and Zhang filmed their rider from a taxi, and from a tandem bicycle in streets too narrow for cars. “We had to practice because it’s a balancing act for two people to ride in tandem, especially if the person in back is filming!” Joyce says. “We fell over the first couple times.”
Shooting in less-precarious circumstances proved equally challenging; a security guard turned the team away from the Olympic Village, where Joyce had planned two crucial shots. “Yuanhuan asked me how badly I wanted these shots, and I said very badly,” Joyce says. So she spoke with three different people and led the group back to the base camp, where she wrote a formal letter. “Then all of a sudden, we had a permit that covered us for filming the next day. Yuanhuan was so dedicated to making this idea happen that she just wouldn’t take no for an answer. She didn’t know how the film would come together, but she believed in what we were trying to do.”
Ultimately, the film did come together into a visual “poem” of Beijing. Through the hutongs, past the Shichahai Lake, across the Olympic Village, the rider’s journey is silent but for the sounds of the street: bicycle bells, spinning wheels and rain. At the screening, the Chinese audience “said that bikes play an important role in the culture of their city as it develops from the past to the future,” Joyce says. “They said it was nice to see someone understand how key bicycles are to the identity of Beijing, and they felt that I was trying to understand the city, as opposed to being a gawking tourist. It’s great to be a tourist, but it’s also nice to try to have an understanding of the place you’re visiting.”
“The American participants are so sensitive, and they filmed Beijing from unexpected angles,” Shong says. “China has a long history and a lot of stories that have never been appropriately told in the US. I would like to do more movies to get the Chinese story told to American audiences.” To that end, a selection of the 2013 Looking Beijing films will be screened at the Chinese American Film Festival in Los Angeles and the China-France Film Festival in Paris this fall. But first, the films need to get made.
The 2013 filmmakers will head to Beijing in August, and COM Film Professor Sam Kauffmann (’77) will accompany them. Not only will Kauffmann contribute expertise gained through years of international documentary filmmaking, but he will help connect COM’s administration more intimately with the program. “Looking Beijing is still in its formative stage,” says Schneider. In coming years, “we’re going to be able to publicize it a lot sooner, and we’ll be able to recruit more current COM students.” As the films are screened at international venues and more BU students discover the program, Shong and his COM counterparts anticipate that Looking Beijing will expand. “We are looking for ways to expand to other cities,” Shong says. “Maybe we will launch Looking Shanghai!”
As yet, there is no plan to bring the BNU students to America, but they are up for the adventure. Chen, who likes the Houston Rockets, says he would travel to Texas. “Since Yao Ming and Jeremy Lin play basketball in Houston, many Chinese start to like (it) there,” he explains. “So, if I get this chance to make a film in Houston, I will focus on Chinese people loving basketball.” In addition to making a film about Americans’ thoughts on the Super Bowl, Xu would turn her camera on BU film students. “I want to know something about their classes, how they practice to make a film and what they learn,” she says. “Everyone knows that BU is a very famous university in the world.”