Saturday, 19 November 2016

Time Passes

Winter beach, Jinshatan (Jeanne Pope)

It seems a long time ago since October 1st, since my last swim.
It is now November 20th, and the world has changed. However, we tend to forget that the only permanent thing in life is change…as my friend* Stanley Lewis, the Montreal sculptor, would say.
 *See appendix.


For us Montrealers, Leonard Cohen died. It is at times like these we mourn together, an old friend. He was our Main Mascot. Our legend. I was sent this poetic photo of his house on Marianne, Montreal, by my daughter, Alyosha:

Cohen's magic (Alyosha Pope)

I met him once, in 2006. After Stanley Lewis’ death, we celebrated with a show on his life as artist, in the Lambi Club, on the Boulevard St. Laurent*. Cohen had been asked to attend, as he was in town, and an old friend of Stanley. He didn’t show up. 12pm, we were packing things away, and I went down stairs to have a breather. A small rain fell, a squeegee punk* lent against the lamppost on the corner of St. Laurent and Mount Royal while an oddly rainbow haze fell from the midnight lamp light. It was very filmic . . . then I saw him walking slowly towards me, arms behind his back. I asked him if he would come and join us, and he said very quietly, “No need to come up, there is no need.” He was doing his remembering outside, on a quiet wet pavement on October 13th 2006. It was soulful. 
Leonard Cohen took my hand, bowed slightly, and bade me good night. And went on slowly down the road.

Here in China, although we are isolated from many things, within two hours of his death being made public a WeChat bio - our equivalent to Facebook - was made of his songs and shared around the country. If China didn’t know him before, 1 billion people know him now.

Fish drying (Jeanne Pope)
We follow the seasons as time passes, and now it is almost winter. 
Fish hang up to dry on the beach, and the old men’s club still gathers on the beach for their ritual swim and gym.

Men's club (Jeanne Pope)

Men's club (Jeanne Pope)
The Monkey Dancer finds the slither sun, and a mere weekend now to perform his martial arts for the local tourists who have almost disappeared.

Monkey dancer (Jeanne Pope)
The world is calm on the beach. It settles down for the oncoming winter months, into hibernation. I walk more quickly to school these days. I do not have much time to sit and reflect. I have so much work. Yet I still look for special signs as I walk. Today’s theme is hearts:

Jellyfish heart (Jeanne Pope)
Heart cloud (Jeanne Pope)

Punk heart and white aura (Jeanne Pope)
There are two months left now before school ends. Deadlines are underlined in red, and the anguish students go through when trying to choose a subject for their graduation film is real. No film, no pass next year.

The Lightstar awards happened last month. One of my students, Ti-luian - Anna - was shortlisted for her touching work on a Buddhist minority tribe and their monthly horse race. She will graduate next May and wants to go on to Canada. Sadly, her work cannot go far here. Documentary is still the underdog, and certainly not theatrically distributed. It would be hard for her to work in the industry uniquely in documentary, unless reporting for CTTV.

Anna is a Lightstar, October 2016 (Ming Lee)
Anna and I talk a lot about this. I understand her dilemma and desire to leave China to experience something else.  This is as natural as me being in China, from Canada, to experience something else. However, I remind her how vast the subject matter is here, and how much access we have. We do not need clearance papers, or signatures. Yes is yes, and no means no. Simple as that.

People are not camera-shy, they open easily and mostly happily to the camera. Faces light up wide and doors open into people’s worlds in a way we would not be able to enter so quickly in the West, unless of course we were Kim Longinotto.* So, it is up to us to find the way to present our documentaries. That is the issue, not to find the subjects - subject matter is omnipresent.

Jinan University of the Arts (Jeanne Pope)
I was invited to give a conference a few weeks ago at Jinan University of the Arts on docu-fiction and mixed media with one of our professors. We illustrated our talk with films we love in this genre, and our own work. It was exciting for the students as Direct Cinema is still the norm in the documentary classes, and what Chinese are more familiar with. However, new forms are encouraged and cross cultural exchanges more and more on the rise. Steps are being made, small but sure and solid steps, to explore new ways of seeing and expressing, as the current IDOCS forum from Beijing showed. * (November 12 – 17th 2016.)

My own work

Finally I met the director of Qingdao’s municipal archives with the purpose of finding film footage for my work on my mother’s story, Anne Patricia, who was born in Shanghai, 1930, and was brought up by her Amah. Her family fled due to the encroaching Sino-Japanese war; while her father remained in China. He left for Vietnam in the early 50s, where he died. Mr. Koln, the director, asked us to come by for tea and a chat to see how he could help us. 

Archives and Mr Koln (Jeanne Pope)

Being in his office was an archive in itself, and like stepping back in time, from the video camera they still sometimes use to the editing machines.

In the old days (Jeanne Pope)

We viewed German memorandums, letters from lovers, Chinese workers’ pay slips, early films of Qingdao being built, maps, the creation of the world famous Tsingtao beer,* and the big dream the Germans had to make a home away from home, and did well till the Japanese came along. 

During tea he asked us if we were interested to join him in his quest to archive Qingdao’s German quarter.

Teatime (Jeanne Pope)

Mr. Koln has been documenting Huangdao Lu, the old quarter in Qingdao, where the demolition of homes has been going on for years. These are German buildings from the early 1900s where the Chinese elite would have lived. Due to the fact no one knows really knows how to repair in the European style, and lack of care, they have since become slums. Many of the people will be relocated.

Orion window (Jeanne Pope)

Home (Jeanne Pope)

Entrance (Jeanne Pope)
He proposed we help him interview people in their homes before demolition or renovation takes place. Eventually to use for an interactive website of the old city. This poses four advantages:

  •  A gateway to understand Qingdao's history.
  •  A great way to practice Chinese. 
  •  An innovative and useful way for the students to do research and gain experience interviewing and finding a story. 
  • The chance for us all to learn how to use the complicated Chinese archival system.

Resident (Jeanne Pope)

Yard (Jeanne Pope)

The residents who live in the labyrinthine homes are divided in their feelings he told us. Some want to stay; and this is understandable because, despite disrepair, these are their homes, their identity - past, present and possible future. While others are quite happy to leave for a more modern and comfortable life with a nice hand-out from the government.

Mr. Koln wants to preserve the memories, and use those memories alongside the website to persuade the municipal government of the importance of preservation in the wake of relocation. Jinan old railway station* is an example.

Washing time (Jeanne Pope)

We were taken into the old yard of one community. This was once the best in Qingdao. Much had already been emptied. Walking into empty homes  where people had left only fleeting moments of their lives - furniture, letters, discarded toys - pushed me to take photos, before these domestic imprints could be scraped up and burnt. These photos are the only witness to a lifetime's existence.

Suddenly the power of the camera and Mr. Koln’s idea becomes important and as fundamental as when I was in Montreal and a student at Concordia’s Film School, documenting my neighborhood the Boulevard St. Laurent*, joining other painters, animators, writers and photographers in our need to remember and keep those alive. Today, the Boulevard has changed and all the Main Mascots have died. But many of us captured the legacy in our way, preserving a place, a time and its people through the lens. 

Window ledge (Jeanne Pope)

Mr Koln explained that as archivists they have to preserve their history, yet cannot romanticize it. If you still have to use the outside toilets, do not have proper running water, are old, sick and disabled, maybe it is better to go into a new home where the bathroom is inside and water runs freely.

Abandoned room (Jeanne Pope)
I will go next week with Anna to hunt out some characters and their stories. The plan is once a week for the next year or so.

(I have also been shown footage of Shanghai, 1931: street scenes, domestic scenes, business  and some smart Russian ladies about town, to which I will have access.)


Beijing Film Academy, Multi Creative Media College, Qingdao Campus.

Our film school is divided into 7 disciplines: Direction & Drama, Cinematography & Photography, Management, Performance, Sound, Literature, Animation.

Each department works separately, teaching a 4-year specialty. Ying and I are in the cinematography department and teach documentary to first year, third year and graduate students.

The four years are nose to the ground, intense, dedicated, and the incredible savvy technophile teachers teach at an incredible speed; their knowledge gobbled up by the students. However, like grammar lessons and rote learning, the students are only allowed to make small, ambitious steps in the first three years, and some subject matter is contentious.

In the fourth year, all that has been learnt is put into practice. Our students’ camera work by then is mostly extraordinarily beautiful; however their creative ideas lack. As cinematography is their craft, much emphasis is placed on them not only mastering the camera, but being able to walk away and work as a camera person immediately, no matter what the job, from wedding videos, to assistants on full-length features, to commercials and TV.

Four departments - Direction, Sound, Cinematography, and Literature - join together for the final graduation show with 6 to 8 fiction films. Film pundits come in to headhunt the most talented.

Cinematographers are revered at school, and there is a common joke that the directing department has words but no eyes. Fiction is still preferred above documentary for the glamour, the money, and the fact that fiction gets to the big screen and rules the TV with numerous soaps and TV dramas. The less aggressive student, the lone wolf or poetical thinker, usually chooses documentary.

Student life

Anna lives her life via Chinese social media, like most Chinese young people. She is thinking of opening an online company - these are popping up like mushrooms - selling short films, one minute long, targeting youth and youth issues. The whole of China is connected to their phones, an extension of their arms and hands, where a terrible snobbism exists on the type of phone you have - and what access you have.

I let Anna navigate for me. Cellphones are thicket deep with layer upon layer of sites. They open, they crash, then fall, then resurface. If you don’t have a phone in China, you basically cannot exist. It is your life. The cell is also a platform to be who you are. You can break out a little, break loose a little, and break wilder a little more than in public, or in a group, or with friends.

We walk and watch the waves break. The sea has changed in such a short time. The skies chiseled with silver lined streaks, reflecting to the water, echoing a near-solemn sadness as winter approaches.

Nearing school we meet this image:

Beauty on the beach (Jeanne Pope)

“I think she is beautiful, but marriage is not for me, not like this.” Anna pauses, “I will have to leave Chen Yu, it will break our hearts, but I have to fight for my dreams - to finish my film, improve my English and get to Canada.”  Her words fall, her personal mantra, and knowing Anna like I do, she’ll do it all, and really well.








Tuesday, 11 October 2016

October 1st. The Last Swim and Beijing Film Academy

October 1st 2016

On this day 67 years ago, Mao Zedong - 泽东 - officially proclaimed the People’s Republic of China.  A new country was born, a new era, a new philosophy.

Mao addressing the nation (Wikipedia, public domain)
Woken up by firecrackers at 6am. Skies half open as crimson flares, like shrapnel-sculpted rose petals, pound upwards in the skies.

Across the street, in the flats opposite mine, there is sudden morning activity. I see into kitchens and living rooms, as they can see into mine . . . like a living dolls’ house, and oddly, rear windowesque, active voyeurism, is not intended, but one cannot divert one’s eyes.

Flats (photo by Jeanne Pope)
For some reason, like the Dutch, the Chinese do not seem bothered about shuttering up their homes. A few children smudge noses against the windowpanes, watching the puffy residue that stretches out smoky fingers, this way and that. The effect of entire neighborhoods celebrating National Holiday with firecrackers. The effect of the whole country celebrating National Holiday with firecrackers.

The tail end of a firecracker falls to the ground.

I get ready to go and greet the day.

The Chinese call this Golden Week – seven days holiday from the 1st -7th. Time to be with family. To travel, to eat wonderful meals, see pageants, myth-full and happy with song and dance routines, and drumming girl bands dressed in China-Red.

At sunrise, In Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, troops lead the opening with flag raising.

Throughout today, all over China, fireworks explode. Today China will get through thousands of fireworks.

I saunter past our favorite fish restaurant that sells abalone the size of a large open palm. The workers have eaten early and sleep on the makeshift beds under the shade of the trees, ready for the lunchtime masses.

The fish sellers have gone home already.  Our road is almost empty, and though the sun is up at, it will wane by 2pm, as it is a fragile autumn sun, and its sunglows fickle.

Today will be an epic swim. Swimming in China on October 1st. Now that is something.

I amble on down to Jinshahtan – Golden Beach - to have one of the last swims of the year. I am happy to see hordes of people bustling with the holiday gait. The beach is awash with joyful folk and their buckets, spades, umbrellas and food. I am reminded, once again, of Dylan Thomas’ Holiday Memory:

 I remember the sea telling lies in a shell held to my ear for a whole harmonious, hollow minute by a small, wet girl in an enormous bathing-suit …Children all day capered or squealed by the glazed or bashing sea and the steam-organ wheezed its waltzes in the threadbare playground and the waste lot, where the dodgems dodged, behind the pickle factory (Our dodgem cars dodge behind the old beer brewery.)

Happy Beach (photo by Jeanne Pope)
I join a gang of youth from Qingdao at the east end of the beach. We race the waves, ducking and diving, pulled by the swell. Trying to cheat the sea, but never can beat it. Then I swim away, to the calm, beyond the breakers, to lie and think as I drift along.

I think of the Sino-Japanese war that shattered much of the coast. Of the revolution, and of passing time. I reflect on my mother’s childhood, Anne-Patricia - to whom I am dedicating my first experimental Chinese film - 阿媽 - Amah.  She used to play in the waves in a beach further up the coast. That was in 1935. She was then five.

My mother had to leave due to the impending war, leaving behind her Chinese Amah, more a mother to her than her own mother. It broke her heart. Her father, a Frenchman, Roger Felix, stayed behind in China and got caught up in the hell that resulted: genocides, massacres and the eventual death of 14 million Chinese soldiers.

He was based in Shanghai in the French concession. Our family does not know what really happened to him after the war. I recently found information that he was among thousands of refugees, prisoners of war and displaced people trying to get visas out of China in 1948.  He loved China with a passion and never wanted to leave. He finally went to Vietnam and is buried there.

Yet waves are the same, the games are the same; time cannot erase those feelings or those sensations.

War cannot take that away.

Mum would have laughed and fallen knees deep in the wet sands, like we do now, chaffed and itching, to then lie in sun-parched sand.

What if?

Another wave breaks.

I can see our school in the distance, sitting majestically on the shores of the beach. School officially begins in next week.

Beijing Film Academy, Qingdao campus (photo courtesy B F A)
We had our open day at the beginning of September, where organized mothers and slightly confused fathers ushered their kids to register. Afterwards, all the professors for our department of cinematography met with the parents and introduced ourselves. Next year I have a contract with myself that I will give my speech in Chinese.

Open Day (photo by Jeanne Pope)
The heads of our cinematography department, Madame Qing and Madame Gong Rumei, along with other professors from the Academy who arrived especially for this day, are called the famous 5th- Generation. They were members of the first class of students, in 1978 at the Beijing Film Academy, who were able to study just after the Cultural Revolution.This was a very special, small and eclectic class, and its alumni went on to become accomplished directors, educators, screen writers, actors and producers. 

Jeanne and Ying at Open Day (photo by Jeanne Pope)
This interesting articleInternational cinema, and Chen Kaige and Zhang Yimou’s school days,’ by Daniel Garrett, from Off Screen online magazine, is really well worth reading to get a deeper understanding of the school and its history:

(With thanks to Daniel Garrett and Donato Totaro)

I often come and listen to their lectures. I grasp the Chinese words, pulling them from the sky before they disappear like snowflakes. I understand so little, but once I see their work I do not need language. One needs only eyes and soul to feel and see the beauty of their films, their cinematography, their editing. It is a privilege. I am learning as much as I can, scraping every moment I can from the day, like meat from a bone.

The school backs all professors and younger teachers and assistants. They expect us to create our own works. There is inspiration and interest in the other.We exchange our work, our ideas. There is collectivity.

Mao said: Women hold up half the sky. And no man refutes this. Not at school anyway. To every one man at work there is a woman.

Lightstar Awards, with Gong Rumei, head of cinematography department (photo courtesy  Lightstar)
What if?

I am suddenly dragged to the shore tangled with other bodies, laughing, loving, and sun-riddled-living.

Jeanne with flag (photo by Jeanne Pope)
And so, by next week we will begin the next semester.

School starts.

I will go later today and eat at the canteen to see the new first year, excited and impatient students wanting to run before they can walk.

Of course…

Naturally they will run first… of course they will…

Students (photo courtesy of Directing department)

Tuesday, 20 September 2016

Fish Tales and Film

Chinese mid-Autumn Festival – zhōng qiū jié - started with the fat full moon on 16th September in Pisces, and fire crackers on each corner, exploding. Then China eased into moon cake festoons and family rituals for the next three days.

Some stay at home, but many Chinese people like to travel, and many come to Shandong province in eastern China, where I have the great luck to live - at the far edge of town, by Jinshatan Golden Beach – to get the last of summertime and the still warm sea.

Jinshatan, 1935, courtesy of Mr Mountain-Shan

On the16th as the party opened, the waves were breaking madly, having eaten part of the fishing village up the road in one huge bite; gone. I went to film that night, and all that was left of the three small homes were baby pumpkins clinging to the sand and earth, their roots like tiny veined fingers burrowing down into the flimsy soil, as if they knew that, yes, their time was up too. Everything washed away, washed clean. Tomorrow the pumpkins will have gone too.

But the sea was warm on the 17th, and inviting. We all ran on the still hot sands, scaling Golden Beach, looking for our favourite spot, arms heavy with food hampers and frilled umbrellas.

I had to do it, I couldn’t help it. I bought a huge rubber ring like the Chinese - the size of a child - and joined the riders bobbing like bouys in the water.

Bobbing along watching lovers curl around each other, cheek to cheek, fingers locked, bodies bound forever to eternity. I spy, not far off, new-mother-in-law watching from the shoreline, tapping gently the present and possible future against the ample heart which beats within her tiny frame.

There are the selfie gangs of youth, arrogant and tasseled, tattooed and modern, hip slim, sexual and casual.  Fisher-folk, and loners, solitary idlers, secret drinkers, happy businessmen letting their hair down, and women wearing clinging silk beach wear – eat your heart out Victoria Beckham - more like models ascending a catwalk, then sinking to our sea, discarding flimsy rhinestone sandals and delicately holding white lily flowers to the wind, to have their photos taken. Lily is the festive flower. The local toilet cleaners, armed with sprays and nets, stand admiring all of us, like kings and queens in front of their '4 star tourist toilets.' We grab, like greedy children, this last flush of summer, squeezing out the very last drop and lolling long till night falls.

Eating, drinking, making merry.

Some of us are quite drunk by nightfall, staggering slowly back to home or hotel. Sun-licked and sand bitten. And under our fish-tailed Piscean moon which plays hide and seek with the clouds, lovers kiss in dark corners and fishermen wait the night long: no work tonight my friends, out there the sea is far too rough !

I am still on holiday. I have forgotten that I am really back at school. I forget time, here on the beach. I forget about films and teaching film English, and documentary, and eager students, as I bob outwards, towards the heads, heart pounding, a bit scared; waiting for the biggie to come – that wave – which will drag me back to the shore, once more.

Once more…