Fan Lixin: Presenting China through independent lens

Updated: 2012-10-12 12:19

By Wei Wei in New York (China Daily)

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 Fan Lixin: Presenting China through independent lens

Director Fan Lixin garnered two Emmy awards with his first documentary, Provided to China Daily. Last Train Home (left), on Oct 1. File Photo

Chinese-Canadian director Fan Lixin recently took home two Emmy awards, Best Documentary and Best Long-Form Business and Economic Reporting, for his first documentary, Last Train Home.

The film debuted on screen in 2009 in 19 Chinese cities but aired in the United States on the Public Broadcasting Service in September 2011.

Last Train Home spotlights the annual phenomenon of 130 million Chinese migrant workers journeying home during the spring festival.

Filmed from 2006 to 2008, the documentary focuses on a couple working in a denim factory 2,300 kilometers away from home, a poor village in Sichuan province where their two children are being raised by their grandmother.

"Even though you have read the Wall Street Journal report saying that 20 million Chinese workers were laid off in the financial crisis, you won't really know what it looks like until you see it," said Fan, 35, who previously worked as a cameraman for State-run CCTV.

"When I cut down the 350-hour footage to 85 minutes, I tried to avoid scenes that might confuse those with little knowledge of China," he said.

The film is structured so that foreign audiences will easily relate to the material. In one scene, a factory worker holds a pair of jeans bound for the US market and says with a laugh, "No one has a waistline of 40 inches in China."

In another scene, someone comments that while an American worker might save one-tenth of his paycheck, his Chinese counterpart would save nine-tenths.

Last Train Home has been honored at several major international film festivals, including Sundance, the San Francisco International Film Festival and Amsterdam's International Documentary Film Festival.

To make the film, Fan raised $100 million from sources including the Canadian government, private foundations and TV networks such as PBS, ITVS and NHK.

"It's a pity that this Chinese story didn't get any funding from China," he said.

Financing and distribution are the biggest headaches for any independent Chinese filmmaker working outside the official framework, he said. Until he received sponsorship from abroad, he drew on his own funds.

The lack of a more structured financing system has crippled development of creative documentaries in China, he said. Since the 1990s, Chinese documentary-film makers have given a voice to those living on the edges of society, he said.

On the other hand, government-funded documentaries featuring traditional Chinese culture have flourished in recent years. A Bite of China, a beautifully shot series focusing on the country's cuisine, became a top subject of discussion on the Chinese Internet when it aired earlier this year. It is also slated to be shown in 20 countries including Germany and the US.

"If we don't document this time when massive changes are taking place, there is no way back," Fan said.

In 2011, he served as a judge for the International Emmys in recognition of excellent TV programs produced and initially aired outside the United States. Very few Chinese documentaries were short-listed. Though well made, most of the pieces submitted from China were either too long or lacked a human touch, he said.

"The Discovery-style documentaries are like postcards, while creative documentaries are like life photos. How can we stuff our family photo book with postcards rather than our real pictures?" he asked.

But he noted that CCTV began funding independent companies this year, including his documentary studio in Beijing.

"This is a golden time for documentaries in China, as society is developing," he said. "The economy is going up and down, and the rising middle class are facing challenges. All the changes are creating a lot of drama, which is great for story-telling."

For China Daily

(China Daily 10/12/2012 page11)