Cracking China

Even though he's filmed in China for five years, British producer Jonathan Lewis is still surprised by its diffuse and complex nature. While many perceive the country as monolithic, Lewis is quick to argue otherwise: 'Actually, it's not. It's a great big, messy place.'
April 1, 2006

Even though he’s filmed in China for five years, British producer Jonathan Lewis is still surprised by its diffuse and complex nature. While many perceive the country as monolithic, Lewis is quick to argue otherwise: ‘Actually, it’s not. It’s a great big, messy place.’

Nevertheless, producers are flooding into the region to document its evolution and, of course, the upcoming 2008 Beijing Olympics. Take Lewis, for instance. He’s currently editing a 4 x 56-minute Granada and San Francisco-based KQED production for PBS, Granada International and the BBC entitled China Inside. Think there were any challenges that outweighed his drive to film in China? Nope. The same goes for fellow doc producer Uwe Kersken, who’s currently shooting five docs in China with Gruppe 5 Filmproduktion for ZDF and ZDF Enterprises.

Here Lewis and Kersken outline their most recent experiences filming there, and offer advice to others doing the same.

Uwe Kersken, Gruppe 5
Finding the right contacts in China is not as easy as thumbing through the yellow pages, warns Kersken, who is managing director at Cologne-based Gruppe 5. He went into filming his current projects with an advantage: ZDF already had a strong relationship with CCTV and Shanghai Media Group, two key players in China’s broadcast world.

Kersken recommends approaching CITVC, the international department of CCTV, as your first link to China. ‘They are very efficient and speak English fluently,’ he says. CITVC attends MIP, so you can introduce yourself there in person.

CITVC will do paperwork for shooting and permissions on your behalf. Depending on the number of people you’re bringing, they normally charge US$100 per person, per day.

The group that CITVC approaches to ask for shooting permits is SARFT, the ministry for radio and TV in China. They’re essentially at the top of the Chinese filming food chain: they make decisions on passport and visa issues, so if you want to step onto Chinese soil as a journalist or filmmaker, SARFT decides your fate. As Kersken notes, general permission to enter the country can take six months. He advises against approaching SARFT yourself – leave that to CITVC or a part private/part state local prodco.

Some of these prodcos exhibit at MIP. ‘In the past few years, there are plenty of them that have appeared like mushrooms,’ says Kersken. They can supply cameras, production managers and even camera people. ‘It’s very capitalistic. You go there, tell them what equipment you need, your budget and how many shooting days, then they come back with an offer that is often very expensive, and then you have to cool them down a bit.’

Kersken says your best bet is to be upfront. ‘Explain that you are not a millionaire compared to Volkswagen or DaimlerChrysler: we are regular filmmakers and the prices have to be reasonable.’

As soon as SARFT grants you general permission, Kersken advises hiring a fixer – citvc may be able to recommend one – to travel with you to get local permissions. Be prepared to wait months to get permission to shoot in locations held in high regard, such as the grave of the first emperor.

Jonathan Lewis, Granada and KQED
When Lewis did his first doc in China, the process was misleadingly simple compared to his current work on China Inside,. For starters, the film was about a contained story that the Chinese wanted to be told involving the 1988 Nanjing massacre. China Inside is more wide ranging – it covers issues of freedom, the Communist party, pollution and women. When producing such controversial content, Lewis says filmmakers may be tempted to take some illegitimate routes into the country, such as posing as tourists.

But he immediately made the decision that he wasn’t going to ‘skulk around the country’ on false pretenses, so his team approached well-connected contacts in China who work in an advisory capacity. Those people then provided Lewis with introductions to officials at the Ministry of Information who helped arrange a meeting with the minister himself. ‘We’re still in an era in dealing with China where you have to know somebody who knows somebody,’ says Lewis. ‘You have to find people who can weigh up who you should approach, and know how to make those approaches.’ In addition to finding connections at CCTV, Lewis recommends visiting the press secretary at your local Chinese embassy.

In April 2004, after raising money from coproducers for two years, Lewis applied for formal filming permission with assistance from the Ministry of Information. It took roughly four months for approval. ‘I was summoned to the embassy in London and asked to talk to them further about the fourth film, which is the one that deals with freedom,’ says Lewis. ‘I think they also wanted to check me out. They wanted to see if I was going to be unfair or lie or cause trouble.’

Although there are many ways to permeate China’s film structure, it shouldn’t discourage producers. And from what Lewis has observed recently, it hasn’t been. ‘China seems to be full of film crews,’ he says. ‘Everybody thinks it’s horribly difficult to film there, but actually you bump into film crews in the street, and there’s bits of camera tape stuck to trees and things. Everybody and his kid brother in certain cafes in Beijing seem to be making a film about China.’

About The Author
Barry Walsh is editor and content director for realscreen, and has served as editor of the publication since 2009. With a career in entertainment media that spans two decades, prior to realscreen, he held the associate editor post for now defunct sister publication Boards, which focused on the advertising and commercial production industries. Before Boards, he served as editor of Canadian Music Network, a weekly music industry trade, and as music editor for As content director, he also oversees the development of content for the brand's market-leading events, the Realscreen Summit and Realscreen West, as well as new content initiatives.