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 10.am, 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)