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A Mirror Covered in Dust

By Jakob Sergei Weitz

The movie China's 3Dreams, screened in New York as part of the Brooklyn Film Festival, is a documentary filmed on location over 10 years by Australian filmmaker Nick Torrens.

According to Torrens, in the 1970s the "Chinese Dream" was “a watch, a radio, and a bicycle.” Today, the new generation's dream can be summed up in a short sentence a young girl says to her boyfriend in the film: “I'd rather cry in the backseat of a Mercedes than laugh on a bike.”  

Does the rabid pursuit of wealth, prestige, and progress blind China's youth to the covered-up sins of the Cultural Revolution? Is it better to forget the past and only look forward? What will happen when these young people take control of the country without knowing its past and how is President Xi Jinping's government addressing these issues? World Policy Journal sits down with writer and director Nick Torrens to find out more about the "Chinese Dream," the relationship between the older and younger generations, and the process of filmmaking in China.      

WORLD POLICY JOURNAL: Is “China's 3Dreams” all about the new dreams of young people in China?  

NICK TORRENS: Partly. But it is more about what is being lost in knowledge for the young people about their history, and what that means for the future of China.

WPJ: So is there a “Chinese Dream” like there is an “American Dream”?

NT: Since Xi Jinping took over there has been a lot of talk about the “new dreams” in China. Xi Jinping has a dream for China the country, but not for the ordinary people. They have their own dream that is very similar to the “American Dream.” It’s not the same, of course, but they really want capitalism, a secure future, and things. Material security.

WPJ: Do you think the government has a different dream for the people than the people do for themselves?

NT: It’s hard to generalize, but I would say that yes, I do believe that. Everybody I spoke to over the many years I was filming and researching, no matter what age they were, felt that what the government wanted and what they wanted was somewhat different. How a lot of them feel, particularly the younger ones born around 1990, is that China is wonderful. But because of the Internet and changes in technology and fashion, as well as their ability to pick and choose from different cultures and other parts of the globe, they think they are in a better world, but not the best world. These are opportunities and thought processes that their parents and their grandparents never had, and were not allowed to have. Young people think China is good because it is better than their grandparents and parents had it, but they also see that it could be great. There's a tension there.

WPJ: What inspired you to look at China?

NT: I’ve lived in many countries. I have been seduced by China over the years because I never found any place like it, a place that is such a political and social experiment, a laboratory of human endeavor and control. For me, every 15 minutes I’d have a new idea for a film. Every street corner I’d find a new idea. It’s very different from our lives in the West. The more you look at it and the deeper you go into it, the more fascinating it is. Just being able to look at how people live in such enormously different ways than we do. I found it—and continue to find it—fascinating.

WPJ: What effect do you think that the unreliability of China’s official history has on young people in China?

NT: That’s a question I ask them. This film is not a polemic. No Western presenters, no narration. It's trying to go for the idea of the true documentary. I wanted the people, the subjects, to speak for themselves, to be able to speak for themselves. I asked them these questions over years and years.  There are many sayings for us about our history. The most common one for the West is, “Those who do not learn from mistakes of history are doomed to repeat them.” But I learned that that’s a very common Western thought. In China, the saying is “history is a mirror.” To understand and see yourself, you have to look into the mirror of the past. But China’s leaders aren’t interested in looking at the past or opening it up to their people. They say there’s no benefit. They say, You in the West may think that it's very good for us to investigate and analyze the past, but for us, there is no benefit in looking back. We must only look forward. It's a very Chinese perspective. But of course, as long as they don’t look back, there are skeletons in the cupboard.

WPJ: What is the Chinese government’s attitude toward art, filmmaking, and documentaries? Did you have any issues trying to make this film? Would a Chinese person be able to make this film in China?

NT: I didn’t have any trouble. I keep a very low profile. I worked entirely alone, no film crews, no trucks. This was a little gray plastic camera and being alone.  I felt that was really important. I never asked permission to do anything from the authorities. I wasn’t filming demonstrations, protests, or furious fights in the street that get journalists locked up when they cover them. There are many independent Chinese filmmakers making wonderful films, but they are not seen in China. They get to film festivals in the West. We can see them, but they can’t see them there. And I couldn’t show my film in China because it would compromise the subjects. They would get in trouble.

WPJ: Could you speak more about why these Chinese films aren't seen by Chinese people in China?

NT: There is a lack of freedom of speech, a lack of all sorts of freedoms that we take for granted. But there is actually similarity here between China and the West. For example, take the way America treats Edward Snowden or Julian Assange. For anyone who is actually trying to blow a whistle or investigate, there is not a lot of difference between the Chinese government and the American government. They are regarded as traitors the same way that they would be in China. But there is far more of that in China than in the West. More people, more things covered up, more government pressure. Chinese filmmakers might not even be doing something that is actively against the government, but they show slices of life and deep, deep incisions into the meaning of society. Those aren’t the sort of films that the government wants to encourage people to go and see, so that’s why they can’t see them.

Mind you, there have been many changes in China over the years. Lately, though, Xi Jinping has been cracking down on people who really do want to challenge authority. But the country has actually opened up a lot. For example, the Cultural Revolution is still not taught or analyzed properly or thoroughly, just a four line historical event that isn't talked about at all.  However, in the last few years there was a film about it that was allowed and was opened in cinemas. People went to see it. People are free to speak on the Internet, too, as long as they are not celebrities or too extreme. If you’re well known, it’ll be cut out immediately. They’ve got thousands of people monitoring, working for the department of propaganda. An extraordinary amount of people .  Still, Chinese people can find a bit more online now than even a few years ago.  

WPJ: How did you get these people to speak so candidly to you? How did you get these interviews and testimonies?

NT: The freedom of filming only comes about through trust in documentaries. You are borrowing reality, you are renting a reality, putting it in a camera, doing what you like with it. Once I found my subject, this young lady and gained her trust, which took about eight months, we were on the same path. She introduced me to her family and people she thought I ought to see or hear from. It's like an ever-widening circle of trust. As the years go by, more people suggest other people—people who were Red Guards, people who were the leaders of a rebel sect, somebody who killed 16 people for the Revolution. Once they trust you, it expands.

WPJ: Which moment in the film is your favorite or the most meaningful to you?

NT: It's toward the end. The main subject's grandfather was declared to be a counterrevolutionary and was locked up for 22 years. All his family grew without him. I’m following these people who are trying to find things out about their past for the first time. He’s celebrating his 90th birthday and all the family has come from different cities, and I’m filming him from the middle of the room with a long lens. They ask him, How did it come about that you were accused of being a counterrevolutionary? Who told you that you were a counterrevolutionary? How did they know? What did you think about it? He starts to explain a little, but then gets very angry at his granddaughter, and says, “This is so irritating, you shouldn’t do this.” And that moment, for me, is great because it brings a whole lot of threads together:  the fact that the older Chinese generation doesn't want to talk about the past; the fact that it is hard for the younger generation to learn about the past; the fact that the people involved in the movement had such pain, and were either the perpetrators of pain or the victims of it. They were either guilty or the pain is too much to remember. They don’t want to talk about it and the kids don't want to hear it. So they all conspire to keep these secrets.

WPJ: How many of these young people’s “dreams” actually come true?

NT: Young people in China want to have a better life through money and prestige, status and wealth.  A girl in the film says, “I’d rather cry in the backseat of a Mercedes than laugh on a bicycle.” The dream now is really about wealth, status, and comfort because they have had generations of their families telling them about the torture of being alive. The older generation just wants freedom, and freedom of expression. The younger people want the money and status.

WPJ: Does the government represent that? That sounds like a very capitalist dream.

NT: Well, sure! For China, it’s not capitalism against communism.  Capitalism there is controlled by the state. They can sell their state-owned banks if they want, but they can keep them if they want. The market is also open in so many ways. It's more like capitalism versus state control. And those kinds of thorny issues come up all the time in regional, local, and national politics.  

WPJ: What would you want the audience to take away from your film?

NT: What I wanted to find out was the implications for all of us—not just China—when the young people in a few years take over running the Chinese government. What will happen when they are responsible for this political economy and massive influence in the world if they have no idea of their past? If they don’t know what happened in their history, truly, what are the chances that things may be made worse or better when that generation is in power? I wanted people to think about that when they see the film. What will happen in the future if a nation doesn’t open its history, its freedom of expression, its understanding of its past? What is the future of the young people who will be in control of the country, and in a way, in control of the world?

*****

*****

This interview has edited and condensed for clarity.

Jakob Sergei Weitz is an editorial assistant at World Policy Journal.

[Photo courtesy of Jakob Sergei Weitz]

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