A Slice of Chinese Life and Culture

By Mona Malacane

Last year, Steve Krahkne was approached by Living Earth Television (LETV), which seeks to share films from different countries with global audiences, for his assistance in its efforts to bring Chinese films to the United States and American films to China. (A process that sounds simple enough, but trust me, it ain’t.)  Steve helped LETV negotiate contracts with PBS World to air four hand-picked documentaries in the spring. And by hand-picked, I mean going to the source for authentic Chinese films.

Steve K visit3In November Steve and others working on the project traveled to Chengdu, a city in southwest China, for the Sichuan International Film Festival in search of documentaries that would appeal to an American audience. They viewed some fascinating films at the festival, like one about female sterilization in rural areas under the one child policy. “There are government quotas for women to either be sterilized or to abort children … And I don’t know how this film maker did it but he is everywhere. You’re in this woman’s bedroom where these government officials are trying to convince her to go in and get sterilized.” Another was a “beautiful, bittersweet documentary” about a family which hand makes paper umbrellas. At the end of the film, the son proposes that he start designing the umbrellas on his computer and, as Steve describes, “that’s where the poignancy comes in. Because right then you know, this is a dying industry as soon as you brought out that computer. If we can design them this way then we can make them this way. End of that.”

But ultimately they decided on four films. The first one is from a food show titled Bite of China, which showcases staple foods like rice and wheat. Steve described it as “food porn,” and less like a “process film like we would watch on the Discovery Channel … It’s about the food and the interaction with the food, so it’s very tactile and beautiful.” Another documentary is about the one-child policy (One Child). The other two documentaries, Horseman and Kindergarten, document a love story between two owners of a horse touring company, and a “slice of life” view of a Chinese kindergarten. Sorry, no reality TV shows.

A lot of work needs to be done before the films are ready for a broadcast in the US, explained Steve. They need to determine the quality of the film, verify ownership and rights to the film, see whether it can be adapted to an American broadcast platform, edit it to the right length, add subtitles, change the narration … The list goes on!

The whole process is, in Steve’s words, “expensive, time-consuming and difficult.” But absolutely worth it. While some of the work needs to be done on the east coast at PBS World, much has already been done here at our facilities. For example, Senia Borden (MS student in Telecommunications) and Xiaozhuo Lv (MA student in Journalism) have been working long and hard at sub-titling the films. Moving forward, Senia will also be “managing the process of formatting these films for PBS World,” essentially acting as a coordinating producer.

The other part of this project involves workshops to teach Chinese film makers how to produce shows for American audiences, which would make the process of bringing films here much easier. Our tastes for entertainment are obviously very different from those of the Chinese, Steve explained. “Americans like stories. Some of these Chinese films … are much more experiential. Almost like you’re wandering around a museum, just kind of randomly looking at things. Which can be extremely beautiful but it’s not really what Americans are looking for on television. We need to know who the characters are, what the conflicts are, we need to know what’s at stake.” So the workshops would teach film makers how to edit, narrate, and package films for American audiences so that less work would have to be done here to get the films on TV.Steve K visit2

Steve’s long term goals for the project are two-fold: to bring over a series of films each year, and to turn this into a long term opportunity for graduate students. He hopes this project will be a “long and fruitful opportunity for our grad students to work with Chinese film makers, visit China, and to welcome Chinese filmmakers to IU.” Anyone who is interested in getting involved with this project should contact Steve. (Both Senia and Xiaozhuo are graduating this year, so he needs help!) You do not necessarily need to skilled at production techniques, or be an MS student. With the new Media School integration on the horizon, Steve stressed that this opportunity is available to all MA, MS, and PhD students.

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