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Documentary Film Reviews, Making Documentaries, and Nonfiction Storytelling

Documentary Conference In China by James R (Jim) Martin

Opening Morning at 22nd Annual China Documentary Academic Conference in Shenzhen, China – November 2016

It is 14,120 Kilometers (8,774 miles) from Orlando, Florida to Shenzhen, China. Despite the distance and travel time it was an honor and great experience to be at the conference.  I was invited to attend by The China Documentary Academic Association (CDAA) to speak about documentary storytelling at the Twenty-second Annual Chinese Documentary Conference held in Shenzhen. While I was in China I was invited to speak at Beijing Normal University and Beijing Film Academy.

Chinese Documentary Classics 2016

My talk was focused on Actuality Documentary Storytelling Techniques, a method of documentary storytelling based on traditional documentary concepts and nonjudgmental recording of events and interviews to create a narrative structure with little or no use of third-party narration.

Presentation and Talk by Jim Martin on
Actuality Documentary Storytelling

Documentary films in China seem to have evolved with strong third-party narration components. With third-party narration, a voice over narrator explains the action to the viewer. With Actuality Documentary, there is usually no voice over narrator. The subject tells the story, visually and with first person interviews, both on-screen and at times  voice over to narrate action on the screen. This may sound fairly straight forward but the approach demands a degree of mindfulness, awareness and listening to go beyond subjective reactions.

Giving presentation with the help of Interpreter.

I have used actuality documentary storytelling concepts for my own documentaries. I also have taught and wrote about these ideas in a book titled “Create Documentary Films, Videos and Multimedia,” being translated into Chinese. There appears to be a strong interest and growing tradition of documentary storytelling in China.

One of the people greeting at Shenzhen Airport

After thirty hours of flying time it was a pleasure to be greeted at Shenzhen airport by a group of volunteers, one holding up a sign, for the conference, with my name on it.  The people I met in Shenzhen and later in Beijing were cordial, friendly and sincere including the sponsors of the conference who welcomed me when I finally reached the hotel at midnight.

I enjoyed meeting all the participants and volunteers I met in the next few days. I felt right at home. My hosts at the conference in Shenzhen were supportive and caring in every way possible. Hotel and dining accommodations were excellent. This area of China is known for it excellent food and favorite Chinese soups.

 

 

Dr Hongyun Sun, Assoc. Professor, Beijing Film Academy and Huiqing Niu, Assoc. Professor of Communication University of China

At the conference I took part in a panel discussion about the state of the art of documentary in China and was a presenter in the Documentary Filmmaker Awards Ceremony at a major TV Network facility in Shenzhen honoring Chinese Documentary Filmmakers.

Presenting Awards to Documentary Filmmakers.

One thing that occurred to me during the conference is that this event could have happened somewhere in the US; a film festival and/or conference with enthusiastic people involved in every way.   The energy was similar.   I enjoyed meeting fellow documentary storytellers and other people at the conference. I learned that there is a strong documentary film community and interest in making documentary films. There is a similar type of human personal energy in China and the United States that I experienced on my first trip to China and two of its largest cities, Beijing in the northeast and Shenzhen in the Southeast.

Host of Award Ceremony and Jim Martin

As the only American documentary filmmaker participating in the conference I felt privileged to be there. During the panel discussion about documentary filmmaking, questions and answers from the panel were thought-provoking and interesting. It appears documentary filmmakers worldwide share many of the concerns and issues we discussed.

The cities of Shenzhen and Beijing are regionally as different as New York City and Orlando, Florida. While Orlando’s sister city in China is Guilin, a three-hour bullet-train ride Northwest, Shenzhen and Orlando share some similarities aside from population, possibly a relative issue. Metro Orlando comes in at around 2.5 million since Shenzhen metro area is much larger, about 18 million. Still both are large cities built up in recent times. Shenzhen has a manufacturing and high-tech base, with a large young population.

Beijing is a huge city of 20,000,000 people. After meeting students at the universities, I spent time seeing a little of Beijing. With the help of Dou Sun, a grad student studying Film Archiving, I saw some special places in the city including Temple of Heaven Park, Forbidden City and park overlooking it, Panjiayuan Market, the film production area in the city and other places. I got to ride on the Beijing subway, it was efficient and very clean. I also had some very good food at a few typical Chinese restaurants, including a noodle shop and a hot-pot restaurant.   The Chinese have good reason to love their food!

Card players and bystanders Temple of Heaven Park, Beijing

One of my favorite places was Temple of Heaven Park on a clear day, where people were doing everything from exercising and Tai Chi to playing cards along the railing of a very long porch or veranda. It’s great when a historic site is also a contemporary gathering place for people. I would love to do a short documentary about this park and the people there.

In Beijing I met students who were studying film, and making documentary films of

Talk at Beijing Normal University

their own. The students were enthusiastic and passionate about their work just as students are in the US. Doing the talk for Beijing students made me feel like I was back in a classroom in the US. Most of the students in the classes were also studying English so I did not need an interpreter. Also, as I did in Shenzhen, I added Chinese subtitles and graphics wherever possible. Afterward many students asked me questions about documentaries they were making.

 

There are plenty of movie theaters these days in China.  The cinema is alive and well and people go to the movies.  I saw and excellent film by Chinese Director, Feng Xiaogang  titled, I Am Not Madame Bovary.  It was a satirical story presented in a classic Chinese cinema format but with some experimentation about the shape of the cinema frame. Much of the film was presented in a circular mat.

 

Student Journalist Jean on right.

 

A first year journalism student, interested in documentary and the idea of actuality storytelling requested an interview. She was assigned to write an essay for a journal by the course she was taking. We did the interview at a local coffee and tea house near the campus in the University district. I enjoyed some ginger tea and the company.

China is a large country with many provinces and cities. The culture and terrain in China varies as much as it does in Texas and Maine,  or Florida and Washington State.  The two major cities I visited, Shenzhen and Beijing each have their own culture and traditions.   The US and China both share ethnic diversity.  The people of China include many ethnic histories over the centuries.  I am grateful for the opportunity to spend time visiting China meeting some of its people. I look forward to future visits.

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