A boy in Montana determined to learn Chinese, Dexter “Tiff” Roberts eventually became one of Businessweek’s first China correspondents. For two decades he explored how government policies affected everyday people. His new book, The Myth of Chinese Capitalism, tells the story of China’s hundreds of millions of migrant workers.
Q&A With Fu Hongxing, Director of "Mr. Deng Goes to Washington"
Originally published by USC US-China Today on September 29, 2015. Written by Freya Chai and Catherine Wang.
In advance of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to the U.S., audiences in the U.S. are getting a chance to see the popular and critically acclaimed Chinese documentary “Mr. Deng Goes to Washington.” The independently produced film, which explores lesser known details of Deng Xiaoping’s landmark 1979 visit to the US, attracted big audiences when it was released four months ago in China. The University of Southern California hosted the film’s U.S. premiere and US-China Today sat down with Fu Hongxing, the film’s director, to discuss his career, the challenges of producing this film, and his plans for the future.
With undergraduate and graduate degrees in Chinese literature and law respectively, how did you make the leap to a career as a film director?
While I was in university, I had already developed an interest in film. At that time, a lot of films were based on literary works. In fact, I loved watching films since I was young. I was born and raised in Shanghai, and there used to be quite a few theaters near my home. I could ride my bicycle for 10 minutes around the neighborhood and see more than 10 theaters, so I developed a hobby of spending my pocket money to watch movies.
After I graduated from college, I went to a film studio in 1985 to work. At that time, many experienced filmmakers came to the studio to teach us about film production, and I started learning filmmaking in a practical, hands-on environment from these teachers.
Literature and film production are both about expression: one through words and the other through the camera.
Did you encounter any challenges when producing this film?
The first big difficulty we had was funding. Because my wife, Lu Muzi, and I are an independent production team, we had to raise the money by ourselves. The process of finding capital was very tough. Our hardest moment was probably when our production manager sent us to the U.S. for the first time for the film, and we could not even afford tickets back to China. He even mortgaged his property to make this film.
The second challenge was to find sources and evidence for historical facts. Truth is the basis of documentaries and there can’t be falsifications. We had to find a lot of people who were involved in the trip, such as the sisters in Texas who carried flags and rode horses at a rodeo for Deng. They were extremely hard to find, since few people knew who they were or had ever tried to contact them. Meeting the leader of China was a huge experience in their lives, so I think it was important to find and interview them. We couldn’t track them down at first, but I did not give up. Though it felt like a very hard process, in hindsight it seems quite doable, and it’s the sort of challenge that all filmmakers must go through. Filmmaking is like culinary arts: finding sources is like finding ingredients for a meal, and it is the production techniques -- the presentation of the meal -- that determine the audience’s level of satisfaction.
Compared to your 1998 documentary about Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai, what are the improvements/innovations of this new documentary in terms of directing and production?
This time I used animation in the film, which was a very bold move. A Hollywood director who filmed many documentaries and advertisements and worked with MTV complimented the animation as very creative, audacious, and perceptive. I think that artistic creativity requires constant personal breakthroughs. We cannot always walk the old paths -- repeating ourselves is not art. Art is innovation; it is to be different from other people and different from yourself. These two documentaries were produced 17 years apart. I have become a different person myself, and because I am changing, my films changed, too. This time I used different introduction, voiceovers, and interviews.
How did you ensure the factual accuracy of the film?
Fact itself is absolute. However, we had to do a lot of verification because many historical events are blurred and mysterious. We had to resolve the lack of clarity by doing a great amount of research, identification, and comparison. Sometimes we needed to invite experts to do these things, and other times we had to find evidence ourselves. For example, if there is an authentic photo that is consistent with the statement of the witnesses, we are able to say that it is factual. We cannot claim a fact based on only a single statement without verification. I think my field work as a journalist trained me for this. After the verification process, I know it is the truth, so I’m not afraid when people or even witnesses examine the contents of my film. I also read a lot of materials from the United States Department of State. Maybe the memoirs can only serve as references, but the profiles in the State Department are definitely factual. Much of the voiceover script comes from my research into these materials. If directors of documentaries are found to fake anything in films, their reputations would be destroyed and would be very hard to restore. I am confident for my film to be examined by worldwide audiences.
Since you began your work as a director, what changes have you seen in the Chinese film industry?
I have witnessed the Chinese film industry falling from a peak to a slump. It was very prosperous 30 years ago because TV and communication industries were still developing. A lot of people would love to go to movies back then even though there were not many theaters. Watching films was one of people’s few sources of entertainment -- it was cheap and could bring them a lot of pleasure.
After I started working, however, the film industry started going down gradually. Before 1979, people had a balanced life of work and entertainment, but after the visit of Deng to the U.S. and the implementation of his reforms and opening-up policies, they became busy at work so recreation was largely overlooked. People did not realize this change in lifestyle until many years later, when the influence on their lives was already enormous and irreversible.
In the 1990s, the Chinese film industry reached its lowest point. Very few people still watched films, theaters were converted to furniture malls and film workers left the field. This situation endured for about ten years, but around 2002 or 2003, the industry started growing again. It was very hard at first, but eventually it managed to rise.
Ten years after the revival of film industry, Chinese film is now developing and expanding at a very high rate. It is the beginning of a new age, and we are even expecting China’s total domestic box office to be higher than that of North America in a few years. The size of audiences in China is rising dramatically, and so is investment into the industry. Every day there are more than 10 new screens being added. We used to be very behind in the cinematic technologies, but we are learning quickly.
Nowadays, many Chinese students studying abroad are bringing high-tech methods back to China after they graduate. In the meantime, people work in western film industries are coming to China to teach their knowledge. [For example,] I invited Professor Drew Casper from USC’s School of Cinematic Arts to come to Beijing and give lectures to our cinema students there, bringing his expertise to China. Moreover, I worked with a few foreign teams in the production of my documentary this time and the process was more globalized. Although foreign teams are usually more professional than Chinese teams, we’re learning and making fast progress. We are behind in technology, but not culture. Our ideas and creations are all derived from our five-thousand-year history, but we are just not as good as putting our ideas on the screen with technology. However, we do not want to completely copy US films -- we have to make films that cater to our domestic culture. I believe that the upcoming decade will be a golden period for Chinese films.
The use of animation in documentaries is already very mature in European countries. Some documentaries there are completely animated. However, using animation doesn’t mean compromising on the factuality of the film because everything in the documentary is still substantiated. The use of animation in documentaries there has been accepted aesthetically. However, in China, there is still little innovation like this. Documentary makers in China are afraid to use animation in something significant or serious, like a documentary.
However, times are changing, and now we can even see Chinese people drawing cartoons of President Xi. On the contrary, there is still no one doing the same thing for Deng or Mao. I wanted to use animation in my film to try something new. I think watching a film is an aesthetic process. While we need to ensure factuality, aesthetic considerations are necessary, too. A grave, 1.5-hour-long documentary will easily make people fall asleep. Animation, on the other hand, is a very elegant art form. It is usually used to create cartoons for children because it is not heavy; it is very beautiful, pleasant, pure, and easy to be accepted and absorbed. The third reason is that animation reflects the Deng’s inner world. When he visited NASA in the film and saw the United States’ advanced spacecraft, Deng had a dream inside him, a dream for his country. The best way to present this was through animation. As his wife said in the interview, Deng looked like a child when he was in the space simulator. Though he is a significant political figure who came to the U.S. to discuss important diplomatic issues, we cannot deny that he had a dream inside him. In addition, animation was used in some places to tell the story where physical videos and photographic footage were unavailable.
What unexpected discoveries about Deng Xiaoping did you have during the production of the film?
All the file footage and still images that we purchased were never before seen broadcast. We got one-third of the sources shown in the documentary from U.S. resources. We had not seen any of these before we bought them, so they were all new discoveries to us. The videos and photos were taken by Americans, but few American people had seen them, either. This was because they were put in storage right after they were shot. This documentary tells a story that media has rarely reported before, such as an assassination attempt against Deng. I see Deng as a person, whose disposition is clearly shown through his visit to the US. When he was in the US, he was exposed to huge pressures every day, but his behavior was always genuine and instinctive. For instance, the reporters from big TV channels asked him many sharp questions aggressively, yet he answered them calmly without any planned script. He was honest in speaking about China’s economic situation. He admitted frankly that China was very poor, but that he’d love to thank people who showed kindness to the Chinese. This was an important reason why the U.S. wanted to support the modernization of Deng’s China, and the success of today’s China is closely related to US support. Through the production of the film, I saw a Deng who is more real, a Deng with a more benign personality, and a Deng who was admired even by many Americans.
What message do you think American (or international) audiences will take away from the documentary?
I hope more people enjoy my film. I’m glad that the documentary has won the favor of American audiences of different generations. I also hope that the film will bring enough income for me to return money to my investors. From the reaction of the audience at the screening last night [at the American premier], I feel it was similar to what I saw in China. One reason for this might be the consistency of history. Second, it’s the similarity of humanity. The power of human emotion is universal for all audiences. The story of Deng, and his friendly interactions with Jimmy Carter and Zbigniew Brzezinski, made them realize that diplomacy and politics are not always cold -- they can be warm, too.
What are you future plans as a director, and what are your ideas for future films?
I have a goal to eventually produce a documentary about Chairman Mao. This might be my next step, or even the next step after that. I really want to film one about Mao, and I’ve had this idea for over twenty years. I’ve collected a lot of resources and read many documents for it. Mao and Deng are the two men who had the largest influence on China since 1949 and this means that they also had a considerable impact on the world. Many people from other countries want to know Mao. What was he like? Was he like what they imagined, or a completely different person? Not a lot of people have access to sources and materials about Mao, so I want to present a real Mao on the screen.
This interview was conducted in Chinese, it has been condensed.
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