Capturing Beijing through the viewfinder

Updated: 2013-07-18 05:46

By Deng Zhangyu (China Daily)

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Capturing Beijing through the viewfinder

A scene from the short film You, Me and Beijing, written by Crosby Selander. Photos Provided to China Daily

American screenwriters take on the challenge of knowing the real China in an international competition, Deng Zhangyu reports.

Is it romantic for an American boy and his brand-new Chinese girlfriend to meet at Tiananmen Square or at the Forbidden City? Foreigners say yes but the Chinese wrinkle their foreheads, whispering it's weird. That was what screenwriter Crosby Selander and his Chinese film team faced often when they sat down to discuss the script in Beijing last month - collisions of ideas between two different cultures.

Selander is one of the participants of the just-finished 2013 Beijing International Screenwriting Competition. The 29-year-old is among seven winners in the short-film category who will be financed to make their scripts into movies in Beijing.

Starting in March in the US, the screenwriting competition called for the US-based writers to submit scripts of either short films or features themed on Beijing. There were 861 scripts offered, including many submitted by writers at top universities like Harvard, Princeton, Yale and MIT.

In recent years, efforts to push Chinese culture onto the international stage have expanded greatly - in arts, music and films. But this was the first-of-its-kind competition held by Beijing and it got good feedback, based on the international public exposure and number of participants.

"We hope the young Americans know more about the culture of Beijing and China by taking part in the contest. It's also a good way to strengthen the exchange and communications between the young generations of China and America," says Kevin Niu, chairman of the competition.

So how do the contestants feel?

"The experience in Beijing has opened my eyes to a culture and a country that I'd never truly known," says Selander, a freelance writer and director in Hollywood. He graduated from Carnegie Mellon University in 2010.

Like other winners, Selander stayed in Beijing for one week with his Chinese shooting team from the Beijing Film Academy. The seven-day trip and countless discussions with his Chinese partners gave him a deeper sense of Beijing. Selander has reworked his script to "make it more authentic to Beijing".

"The original story is like an adventure. The hero has explored all those famous tourist spots in Beijing. It looks more like a promotion film for the city," jokes Gao Cao, director of Selander's script You, Me and Beijing. Gao is now at his second year for his master degree at Beijing Film Academy.

Selander's script follows a boy who left his American mother to live in Beijing with his Chinese father. Floundering in his new life in Beijing, the boy established a friendship with a Chinese girl through games and misadventures. Finally, he also eased the rigid attitudes of his father.

"It's weird for people living in Beijing to date at Tiananmen Square or the Forbidden City. We won't do that," says Nian Jianlun, the producer of You, Me and Beijing, also a student from Beijing Film Academy.

Selander had never been to China before. Most of his impressions of Beijing were based on what he had read. So there's no wonder he could write anecdotes like having the kids of his film eat tanghulu - a traditional snack of candied fruit on skewers popular in winter - while the story happens in summer.

Among the 15 winners at the competition award ceremony, Selander is one of the few who had come to Beijing for the first time; most others already had connections with China, including Cameron White from Princeton.

White has studied Chinese for eight years. His fluency makes it easy to communicate with his Chinese producer Huang Han, also a student from Beijing Film Academy. "He knows China so well that I have no difficulty talking with him," says Huang.

White writes of a talented flutist who comes to Beijing to pursue her music dream. The girl from a regional city finally finds that a life spent in a practice room will not ensure her success.

Huang says she is reduced to a Chinese stereotype of a girl struggling from a life transition from a poor town to a big city at first. But White says it has nothing to do with where the heroine comes from and whether she's poor or not. It's a story about a girl opening her mind to a new life.

Capturing Beijing through the viewfinder

"It's very usual for Chinese to shoot the conflict between the poor and the rich. But the international audience can identify more with White's idea. That's what a story on Beijing should be," says the 25-year-old producer.

During the one-week stay in Beijing, the US script writers and Chinese video teams have compromised, exchanged ideas and been inspired by each other. Selander says the biggest impression was made by the people in Beijing. Their hard work and talent makes him think of people he worked with as a screenwriter in Hollywood.

"There are cultural differences: the food, the language, but these are surface distinctions," Selander says. "The Chinese I met all have the same concerns as Americans: job, school, family and traffic."

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(China Daily USA 07/18/2013 page9)