Director Stanley Nelson on Bringing ‘Freedom Riders’ to China

I did not know what to expect as the plane approached Beijing. I had last visited 16 years ago, so there was no way I could have anticipated the massive changes that have occurred. One of the most striking first images was seeing cars everywhere and smog to go with it. Our hotel, surrounded by American and European stores, is more modern then any I have seen in the States, and women are very, very fashion conscious. When I remarked to a Chinese person about the changes, they replied, "Oh you must have been here when it was still 'the time of the bicycles.'"

In Beijing, I did double-duty working with the Sundance Institute-CNEX Documentary Workshop as well as the Sundance Institute Film Forward program. At CNEX, we advised 11 Chinese filmmakers who were selected based on the strength of their documentary projects. For three days, we worked with the filmmakers in groups and individually to help them sharpen their ideas and to improve their proposals and work samples. As a filmmaker myself, it was inspiring to see the wide range of their projects and the quality of their productions. It was three extremely long and tiring but rewarding days.

Through the Film Forward program, Freedom Riders screened at both Tsinghua University and the Beijing Film Academy. Going in, I was a bit apprehensive and had no idea how it would be received. Freedom Riders is about the beginnings of the civil rights movement in the United States and there are some cultural references that I knew the Chinese audience would not understand. I wondered if that would ruin the impact of the film.

I was surprised after the first screening where the very first question asked was about ex-governor of Alabama John Patterson, which is also always the first question we get in the States. I knew I was okay. Perhaps the hardest question was "Why was there racial segregation in the USA?" I did my best with this one. I was also surprised many spoke about the relevancy of freedom rides and the possibility of a nonviolent movement in today's China. The second screening was packed and also had a stimulating Q&A.

It is incredible to travel with the film and to watch it with a Chinese audience of filmmakers, students, and others. To see them understand, laugh along, and become inspired by Freedom Riders is an amazing experience.

Lead photo: