Global Atelier – Filmmaking in Suzhou, part 2

By David C. Mahler, Bachelor of Fine Arts (Film and Television)

Like all good filmmakers I know the audience loves drama; I think I’ll start with it.

My Chinese filmmaking partner/translator Wang Yutong and I had been developing our project for three or so days already. Props had been bought, specific costumes purchased, locations scouted, the whole shebang. To be honest I was surprised our project was given approval when I pitched it on day one. The idea was set almost entirely on a boat, drifting down a river through various parts of the Chinese landscape. Boats, on water, with actors, sound gear, cameras… and a film crew of one, moi. OK, on reflection we were a little ambitious. Unfortunately foresight is not my forte – after those three days of prep we gathered our young actors to read through the script and begin shooting.

Photo: David C Mahler

A little lesson, when an actor reads your script, looks you in the face and says ‘you’re never going to make this’, you might want to take a moment to reflect. Awkwardly laughing and giving a reassuring pep-talk may not be the way to go. By that afternoon, after struggling through 40 degree heat, a stinking, rented garbage barge and an uncomfortable amount of gawking onlookers I finally accepted it was time to go back to the drawing board.

I met with Siobhan Jackson, our supervising producer, at the Soochow University bubble tea cafe. I was lucky to have spent all of the last year under her expert tutelage in my second year of the VCA Film and Television course. Our relationship meant we could speak openly and truthfully. As I rattled through all of my production worries and woes, the truth set in; maybe it was time for Plan B. We discussed a few possible new directions, realistic projects that would suit both the program’s criteria (a ten minute film, preferably documentary, relating to our location of Suzhou, China) and my interests in filmmaking. An hour, and many more delusional/over-ambitious ideas later, we found my new direction.

Photo: David C Mahler

The impetus actually came from our Chinese partners. All but one of the ten volunteers were young women. To be completely transparent I had a very misguided understanding of what modern China would be like before visiting Suzhou. Our Western media definitely paints this incredibly diverse country in a specific light. Unfortunately, it is quite often an unjustly negative one. Meeting these young women and hearing their hopes, ambitions and goals for the future affected me deeply. On reflection I think the deciding moment came in a conversation I had with Siobhan’s translator Jessy. We were waiting for a cab one night after having explored the historic, beautiful Ping Jiang Road. Most of the group managed to score cabs back to the dorms, but we’d been left behind.

The image of Jessy’s smile is still vivid in my mind – she was happy to discuss her aspirations as a business woman and producer. I was surprised but glad to hear she had such ambitious goals. I asked her if there were many opportunities for young women such as herself. I explained to her that in the West equality is not a word strongly associated with China. She laughed. I felt embarrassed, and of course rude. She explained it’s true that men are more favoured in a business environment than women. If she managed to find a job working for a company she expected to be paid less. But, she asked, is it not the same in Australia? She had me there.

Photo: David C Mahler

She explained that her hopes for the future were high because the younger generations seemed to be developing more liberal mentalities. The unavoidable influence of the internet meant new perspectives were being introduced to the collective consciousness. China was changing, has been changing for decades now. Advances in equal rights and opportunities, and acceptance of minorities were progressing day by day. Her openness and bright energy filled me with warmth. I had made a strong connection with a new friend. Perhaps there was something I could do to help spread the message?

My film ‘Dig a Little Deeper’ follows a day in the life of a young Chinese woman: waking up, grabbing breakfast, a bit of shopping, meeting friends for a day on the town. A reality of freedom, independence and normality that many of us in the west are oblivious to. Over these visuals are placed the seven interviews that Wang Yutong and I conducted with young women. They discuss their aspirations, situations, pasts and futures. We touch on a dark history – condescension and scorn towards young women from an older generation, specific derogatory words which were once commonplace – but overall, the film’s message is one of a hope, strength and pride.

I was given an incredible opportunity, the chance of a lifetime to create a film in China. Ten young, naive Australian filmmakers were met with warmth, kindness and generosity, and we all came home changed for the better. Our entire experience was an adventure in positivity and wonder, and I look forward to revisiting the inspiring new friends I am grateful to have made.

This article was first published on VCA & MCM Channel in 2015.