York filmmakers document Looking [at] China

Eight rising filmmakers from York University’s Department of Cinema & Media Arts enjoyed an extraordinary experiential learning opportunity this summer. An invitational trip to China allowed them to extend their professional skills and deepen their international and intercultural experience with a new understanding of the most populous country on Earth.

Looking China group
The Looking China group with their instructor Professor Barbara Evans (centre)

Looking China, a project of the Academy for International Communication of Chinese Culture (AICCC), Beijing Normal University and the Huilin Foundation, invited 100 young film students from 20 universities in 19 countries to visit China. Over the course of three weeks, July 17 to Aug. 6, each student made a 10-minute documentary on the theme of “Individual, Family, Nation.”

The York student films will be featured in a free public screening on campus Oct. 13, from 12:30 to 2:30pm in the Nat Taylor Cinema, Room N102 in the Ross Building.

Recruited for the project by Cinema & Media Arts Professor Tereza Barta, the York participants were undergraduates Samira Darbandsari, Sonetta Duncan, and Cristian Gomes, MFA students Mehrtash Mohit, Nikita Mor and Mahsa Razavi, and recent graduates Rani Naser (BFA ‘15) and Vladimir Paskaljevic (MFA ‘15).

The Chinese organizers arranged round-trip transportation, accommodation, filming and editing facilities, per diems, prepaid phone cards and a pair of local volunteers to help as translator and production assistant for each student. In exchange, the young filmmakers shot and edited their productions and prepared synopses, stills and behind-the-scenes photos of their experience.

The York students travelled to China with Professor Barbara Evans, who supervised their work on-site. They were based in Kaifeng in east-central Henan Province, a city of some five million people which sees very few foreign visitors from Europe or North America. The trip culminated with two days in Beijing, capped by a screening ceremony featuring six films, including one York production, selected by the Looking China jury.

“Visiting a country in this way took the students off the beaten track of tourist destinations and gave them a unique immersion into local culture,” said Evans. “We all found it a perception-altering experience.

“The schedule was very compressed and we worked incredibly hard. I’m so impressed with what our students accomplished in such a short period of time.”

Mohit’s documentary, More vivid than sculpture: a visual journey into Chinese generations, was one of the six films screened in Beijing. He used poetry and video clips to demonstrate differences and similarities between three generations in China, and to highlight the importance and value of family in Chinese culture.

A film still from Mehrtash Mohit's poetic More vivid than sculpture: a visual journey into Chinese generations
A film still from Mehrtash Mohit’s poetic More vivid than sculpture: a visual journey into Chinese generations

“It always feels great to see your film on a big screen,” said Mohit. “It gave me a sense of accomplishment to be recognized in front of my peers, the media and attending officials, and I really enjoyed seeing the audience reaction.

“Even before leaving Canada, I knew I didn’t want to do a traditional documentary. With very little prior knowledge of Chinese culture and no idea what Kaifeng and its society would look like, it took a few days on location to find my inspiration. I learned that poetry and the value of family are inseparable parts of the society across all generations, and I tried to show their obvious differences with the visuals I captured by spending time in the city and with its people. It definitely was not an easy film to make; however, the challenge itself made it a superbly fun project.”

A film still from Vladimir Paskaljevic’s observational documentary The Cicadas
A film still from Vladimir Paskaljevic’s observational documentary The Cicadas

Paskaljevic named his short The Cicadas, as the insects’ loud song can be heard everywhere in Kaifeng. He opted to shoot his film in the observational documentary style, in the vein of the late, legendary Canadian documentary filmmaker Allan King.

“I had studied the observational style, but this was an ideal first opportunity to practice it,” Paskaljevic said. “We spent a few days with a Chinese family and filmed their rituals without interacting with them. It was a fascinating insight into everyday Chinese life.”

Originally from Serbia, Paskaljevic has been living in Toronto for the past three years.

“In Canada the population is so spread out – it takes a long time to travel anywhere, which requires more advance planning,” he said. “Maybe that’s why European and Chinese people seem more socially spontaneous. But Chinese youth are just as focused on their online social networks as we are, so despite the differences, there are similarities too.”

Working with his Chinese volunteers was a highlight of the trip for Paskaljevic. “It was a tight working relationship and friendship, and it made me want to learn Chinese. Maybe there will be a Canada-China co-production on the horizon!”

Duncan’s documentary, titled Art of Tea and Music, explores the relationship between tea and music and their significance in Chinese life.

“I come from a Scottish-Canadian family and tea has always been central in my life,” said Duncan. “In this project I learned so much more about tea and tea ceremonies than I ever thought possible. I’m even considering continuing my documentary here in Canada to show the parallels of the tea culture from country to country.”

For Duncan, too, the trip was more than an opportunity to shoot a documentary.

“I was drawn to Looking China by my passionate interest in culture and travel, but I had no idea how life-changing this experience would be,” she said. “It’s an amazing way to build global awareness and support young artists. I met filmmakers from all over the world and I left with a fresh perspective on filmmaking.”

Beijing Normal University Professor Tiger Zhenhu Sun served as the Looking China project assistant with the Academy for International Communication of Chinese Culture and as the primary liaison for the York team. His recent email to the York University Looking China group poetically describes the goodwill generated by the project: ” ‘Mountains are green forever, rivers are flowing continuously.’ This Chinese idiom means that we will always have the chance to meet again. The project ends, but friendship is forever.”