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BRICS-Side Story
Leading emerging economies eye films as a tool to forge closer bonds
By Sudeshna Sarkar & Xia Yuanyuan | NO. 27 JULY 6, 2017

A traditional Chinese opera performance at the opening ceremony of the BRICS Film Festival in Chengdu (XINHUA)

As vice president of China Alliance of Radio, Film and Television, Zhang Pimin has attended many cultural events at home and abroad, but an incident at the Second BRICS Film Festival in Chengdu in southwest China's Sichuan Province was so unique that it caught him completely off-guard.

On the penultimate leg of the five-day event, when an Indian delegation of directors, producers, actors, government officials and other film personnel were interacting with the audience on the occasion of Indian Film Day, Mohan Agashe, a veteran Indian actor, activist and producer, came down from the dais in a gesture outside the official script.

Agashe went straight up to where Zhang was sitting with a Chinese delegation of senior officials and draped a traditional Indian woolen shawl around his shoulders, saying it was a token of appreciation of China's role as the perfect host of the second edition of the film festival.

"It was completely out of my expectations," Zhang said. "I am glad to be the recipient of the kind gesture that shows the friendship between the filmmakers of our two countries. Thanks to the film festival, we have had the opportunity for close contact with our Indian friends."

The brief interaction was a symbol of what the BRICS Film Festival seeks to achieve: closer contact between the people of a bloc of diverse countries whose combined population accounts for over 40 percent of the global population—Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa.

Mohan Agashe (right), a veteran Indian actor, activist and producer, presents a traditional Indian woolen shawl to Zhang Pimin, Vice President of China Alliance of Radio, Film and Television, as a token of appreciation during the BRICS Film Festival in Chengdu, Sichuan Province, on June 26 (COURTESY PHOTO)

People at the heart

It was put into words by Nie Chenxi, Minister of State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television, and Director of the BRICS Film Festival Organizing Committee.

"The BRICS Film Festival is a significant consensus achieved by the leaders of the five countries for strengthening cultural exchanges," Nie said. "Via this platform, we can pass on our common cultural proposals and film dreams… so as to make positive contributions to promoting the diversity of world film culture, international cultural communication and mutual learning."

There were various pointers to indicate that the cultural communication and mutual learning have already taken hold. One major development since the First BRICS Film Festival in New Delhi, India, last year is the completion of the first BRICS coproduction film, Where Has Time Gone?—an anthology of five short films by five BRICS film directors on the theme of time—coordinated by acclaimed Chinese film director Jia Zhangke. It premiered in Chengdu at the inauguration of the film festival, giving the audience a taste of the diverse flavors of the five member countries.

"I had never seen films from South Africa and Brazil before," said Andrey Shalopa, co-director of Panfilov's 28, a 2016 war film about the heroism of Soviet General Ivan Panfilov and his soldiers, who defended Moscow against German invaders during World War II. "Now I am interested in seeing more of such films. The film festival has been an experience with new emotions and new acquaintances." Panfilov's 28 fetched Shalopa the Panda Award for Best Director at the festival.

Brazilian director Marcos Jorge, who won 16 international awards with his debut film Estomago (Stomach), which he says is about power, sex and food, is optimistic that the BRICS filmmaking community will be able to effect change. "We have ample potential to make a difference in the contemporary world with our economy, culture and vitality," the 52-year-old said. "We hope to be able to contribute to making that difference with our films."

With the arrival of digitalization in films, the film industry can become more democratized and films more accessible. "While going to the cinema is prohibitively expensive in some places, we have on-demand Internet streaming, like Netflix. We could introduce videos on demand," Jorge said. "I think something will change in the next few years. I hope so."

Andrey Shalopa, co-director of the Russian movie Panfilov’s 28, speaks after winning the Panda Award for best director at the BRICS Film Festival in Chengdu on June 27 (XINHUA)

Language of cooperation

"This forum is most valuable because it has an economic aspect, a policy aspect and people-to-people connections," said Marcos Caramuru de Paiva, Brazilian Ambassador to China. "It creates the design of future cooperation."

One pillar of this cooperation is making films based on issues or values that are universal and strike a chord among all audience.

"BRICS films need to go out of their national borders," said veteran Chinese film producer Han Sanping at the BRICS Film Cooperation Forum, where directors, producers and government officials discussed how to take coproductions and market sharing forward. "Currently, they tend to follow the 'Hollywood model plus locality' formula (which simply transposes a Hollywood story onto a local scene), which is a barrier to the growth of the local film industry."

Han, former Chairman of China Film Co. Ltd., suggests films should be based on shared values along the lines of the common values affirmed at the 2010 UN World Summit. They include democracy, happiness, peace and prosperity. "Find a story that everyone likes and a way of telling it that everybody loves," he said, giving the example of Dangal, the 2016 Bollywood film that has been a hit in both India and China with its tale of a wrestler father who teaches his daughters wrestling, essentially a men's game, and they win over male rivals, inspiring other young women to turn to wrestling.

"Loneliness, despair, love… these are [also] eternal topics around which good films revolve," added Lu Chuan, director of the acclaimed, multiple award-winning 2009 film City of Life and Death. "Good films, the most precious gift ever, are those that have a message, spirit quality and good performance."

Cooperation has economic and policy-related aspects as well. "China has the largest market and a lot of resources," Han said. "For any film [screened in China] you have tens of thousands of viewers."

In 2002, China's box-office revenue was 49.2 million yuan ($893,000). In 2016, it jumped to 1 billion yuan ($146.4 million), thanks to over 70 million viewers. By May 2017, there were over 45,000 screens nationwide, an exponential jump from the modest 1,845 in 2002. Today, the Chinese film industry boasts nearly 2,000 investors with over 500 venture capital firms.

There is a new synergy in the BRICS film community, with the members signing coproduction agreements. China and India, two of the three most prolific filmmaking nations in the world—the former making over 700 films a year on average; and the latter, about 2,000—have signed a coproduction agreement which has seen the production of films shot in both countries and using actors from both sides, such as the Jackie Chan-starring action comedy Kungfu Yoga and Xuan Zang, a 2016 historical film on the eponymous Buddhist monk who spent 17 years in India.

India also has a similar agreement with Brazil and is negotiating an audiovisual coproduction pact with South Africa and Russia, which will include TV coproduction. Besides, the Indian Government has set up a film facilitation office in New Delhi to act as a single window for all clearances and approvals for foreign filmmakers and has begun issuing a film visa to production teams.

An important cooperation agreement will be signed next year, the birth centenary of South African anti-apartheid icon Nelson Mandela, when China and South Africa, the youngest nation in the BRICS fold, celebrate 20 years of the founding of their diplomatic ties.

Makhotso Magdeline Sotyu, South African Deputy Minister of Arts and Culture, applauded China's plan to provide 40 scholarships to other BRICS members from 2018 to 2022 for the sustainable development of film industries in the group. A bilateral coproduction agreement with Brazil is also ready for signing, she said.

"In 2018, South Africa will be the guest country of honor at the Moscow International Film Festival," Sotyu said, adding that the rainbow nation was offering its picturesque locations and expertise to international film projects, especially with nine provinces having their own production facilities. Hollywood has been shooting frequently in South Africa, with the portfolio including films like Avengers: Age of Ultron and Mad Max: Fury Road.

Coming out of apartheid

When Jahmil Qubeka grew up, he lived in the Republic of Ciskei, one of the many homeland states, "mini countries" that the then-apartheid South Africa was carved up into, where different communities were sequestered and needed "passports" to go outside their areas. He made films in his head to escape from the repression.

"So our world view was very small," the 38-year-old South African director added. "People had no idea of their place in the world. BRICS gives us a place at the table."

Qubeka, who has made three feature films, said the announcement about the Chinese scholarships was music to his ears. "We are such a small country, and we are also new to the game," he said. "We will grow and be stronger for it."

Though the South African film industry is very young and produces a limited number of domestic films annually—in 2016, South Africa made eight feature films and 11 coproductions—its remarkable achievement is the significant presence of women, as directors and producers and at other levels, and the emergence of black directors and artists.

Thabo Philip Molefe, CEO of the National Film and Video Foundation of South Africa, attributed it to the ongoing democratization in all sectors of South African society. "It is not just a display in China, there is equality in representation at all levels and in various sectors of society. Gender equality is very important because we come from an imbalanced past," he said.

South African producer-director Xoliswa Sithole, a British Academy Film Awards and Peabody Award winner who also attended the First BRICS Film Festival, said while the inception was marked by excitement about a new start, the Chengdu film festival has seen the organizers working together to build on it. "There is a seriousness, focus and continuity in working together," she said. "We have taken off."

(Reporting from Chengdu)

The New Flag Bearers

The presence of participants like Vladimir Kladov, Pedro da Natividade Jorge and Zhang Jie at the festival showed the emergence of a class of people from the BRICS countries who are learning one another's languages and cultures for better mutual understanding and trans-border cooperation.

Kladov, who has Russian and Polish parents, grew up in Uzbekistan and works in Chengdu as a Russian-Chinese translator. "China is a big country with a big economy," the 28-year-old said, explaining what made him learn Chinese in Russia for five years and then polish it in Urumqi in northwest China's Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region for another four years. "There are so many opportunities if you know Chinese, Russian and English."

Fourteen-year-old Pedro is the son of Brazilian producer Claudia da Natividade and director Marcos Jorge, who are co-founders of Zencrane Films, a Sao Paulo-based production house founded in 2000 which has since made films that have gone on to collect over 50 awards.

"In the last three years, Pedro has been studying in the Chinese school in Sao Paulo, where he is learning Mandarin," da Natividade said. "China is a very important country, both in the past and the future, and learning Chinese will provide him with a very good opportunity in the future."

While non-Chinese BRICS citizens are learning Chinese, Chinese are embracing the languages spoken by the other member countries. When Zhang Jie joined China Radio International (CRI) in 2005, the organization was recruiting for its Tamil language division, Tamil being a language spoken in southern India, Sri Lanka, Singapore and Malaysia.

"I had heard of other languages, like German, French and Portuguese, but I had never heard of Tamil before," Zhang said. "I had been wanting to learn a foreign language ever since I saw the Hollywood film The Lord of the Rings. It has a scene where the good guys have to pass through a foreign country where, if they didn't speak the local language, they would be killed. But their leader does, and so they survive. It drove home the point that language is very important to communicate with strangers. And so I chose to learn Tamil."

As a Tamil speaker in CRI, Zhang is among the probably fewer than 20 Chinese on the Chinese mainland who speak Tamil, and it has unlocked people's hearts to him. When the 33-year-old traveled to Tamil Nadu, the southern state in India where Tamil is spoken, people's first reactions were of amazement.

"They would say, 'Oh my god, you can speak Tamil!' and touch me and shake hands with me and take photos with me," Zhang said with a smile. "It was in 2009, and at that time many people didn't have smartphones. If they had, there would probably be videos of me, a Chinese, speaking Tamil, which would then circulate on social media channels."

As a Chinese Tamil speaker, Zhang hopes that Tamil movies will be shown in China some day. "India is complex, and the cultures in north India and south India are so different," he said. "Tamil Indians share similar values as Chinese. Like us, they love their language. And like us, they are family-oriented."

Copyedited by Dominic James Madar

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