The man who loves China

(chinadaily.com.cn) Updated: 2018-10-18

The man who loves China

Oscar-winning director Malcolm Clarke shares his experience of making documentaries at a recent event in Beijing. [Photo by Feng Yongbin/China Daily]

Since his first visit to Beijing in 1981, the country has had a special place in the life of filmmaker Malcolm Clarke.

On his latest trip to Beijing, Oscar-winning director Malcolm Clarke recalled the first time he visited the Chinese capital in 1981.

At an event held by China International Communication Corp to announce a series of projects that will be coproduced with foreign partners, Clarke was invited to speak about, and share his experience of, making documentaries.

Since starting his nearly 40-year-long career as a filmmaker at the BBC, Clarke has traveled to 86 countries to shoot numerous documentary films.

In 1984, he won a best director Emmy for Soldiers of The Twilight, and followed that up with two Academy Awards for best documentary (short subject) for You Don't Have to Die in 1989 and The Lady in Number 6 in 2014.

For Clarke, however, China has been an important chapter of his life. Back in 1981 when Clarke had just moved from his native United Kingdom to New York to work for the American Broadcasting Company, he was assigned to the Chinese capital to carry out research for a new documentary project that was intended to examine the changes that had occurred in New China since it was founded in 1949.

"Lots of things were happening in China then. The country was just getting back on its feet," he recalls.

Like most foreign guests who visited China in the early 1980s, he stayed at the Beijing Hotel, which faces south toward Chang'an Avenue.

Every morning he would wake up to the ringing of bicycle bells and was astonished to look out of his window and see the street flooded with hundreds of locals biking their way to work.

Over the following nine months, Clarke traveled deeper into the country, from far-flung mountain villages in Sichuan province, to regions alongside the Yangtze and Yellow rivers, and he talked to people from many different walks of life.

The man who loves China

Clarke's Chinese-themed documentaries include In My Eyes, a story about China's first known blind global backpacker Cao Shengkang. [Photo provided to China Daily]

"Once I got into the countryside, the locals were shocked and surprised at the unusual sight-in those days, my hair was still brown and I have blue eyes-yet, they were so incredibly kind and hospitable to me.

"I never saw anyone unemployed. Everyone seemed to be working really hard, and it was very clear to me that if somehow all this energy could be harnessed and driven in the right direction, China would become a country with colossal potential," he says.

Clarke was disappointed when ABC aborted the production of the documentary due to changes in the relationship between China and the United States, but nearly 30 years after his first Chinese tour, Clarke returned to the country in 2013 to direct Better Angels, a documentary suggested by former US secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, and Nobel Prize-winning economist, Robert Mundell.

Directed by Clarke and coproduced by American producer William Mundell and Chinese producer Han Yi, the documentary-which looks into the future of China and the US through the eyes of ordinary people in the two countries-took nearly five years to complete.

As well as Better Angels, which is scheduled for release in China and the US in November, Clarke has also recently produced another Chinese-themed documentary, In My Eyes. Directed by Han Yi, the feature film follows the journey of Cao Shengkang, China's first known blind global backpacker-who has traveled alone to 34 countries on five continents.

Speaking about modern China, Clarke acknowledges that the country has completely changed since his first visit three decades ago, and Beijing has become an impressive international metropolis full of hope and opportunity.

The man who loves China

Clarke's Chinese-themed documentaries include Better Angels that looks into the future of China and the United States through the eyes of ordinary people in both countries. [Photo provided to China Daily]

"Some people call China's transformation the rise of China, but for me, it's actually the renaissance of China because, for many centuries, this country maintained the most sophisticated culture on the planet.

"It's really only in the last 200 years, under pressure from Western colonial powers that China's progress was thwarted. I think that now, however, China is rapidly re-establishing its rightful place as an innovative, exciting, technologically advanced country," says the filmmaker.

"One of the things I think China has yet to achieve, though, is a balance with the rest of the world, because the world still misunderstands China and, where misunderstandings exist, there is a place for fear to grow."

As a veteran storyteller, Clarke believes that finding an emotionally engaging way of telling stories about the Chinese people can help the rest of the world better understand the country.

"What is interesting about the Chinese way of making documentary films is that filmmakers often start with the written word, a script. Only after the script is written do they venture out and shoot images that fit what has been written." Clarke believes this approach inevitably excludes what to him is the richest aspect of documentary filmmaking: the spontaneity of events that happen on location "in the moment".

The man who loves China

Clarke's Chinese-themed documentaries include Better Angels that looks into the future of China and the United States through the eyes of ordinary people in both countries. [Photo provided to China Daily]

The things that could never be anticipated can often become the most powerful scenes in the final version of a documentary, he adds.

Clarke describes the country as "a gold mine" for documentary filmmakers and he says he plans to shoot two new features in the coming months.

After helping Chinese director Lu Chunqiao with her directorial debut-a film on some teenage survivors of the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake, he has used the true stories of the survivors as the inspiration for a film, which will be set in Sichuan province, during the disaster.

His second project will be a docudrama based upon the 2009 book, The Man Who Loved China, about British scientist Joseph Needham, who chronicled China's scientific achievements over the millennia in his masterpiece, Science and Civilisation in China.

The man who loves China

Clarke's Chinese-themed documentaries include Better Angels that looks into the future of China and the United States through the eyes of ordinary people in both countries. [Photo provided to China Daily]

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