Patricia Riggen, Director, Under the Same Moon (La Misma Luna)
1. China on my mind.
One of the first things I notice on my arrival in China is the tiny fragments of white cotton swirling through the air of Beijing’s airport terminal. I wonder what they are as they sweep up to my feet and get trapped in the handle of my suitcase.
I‘m visiting China for the first time. I’ve been invited by Film Forward, a program sponsored by the US Cultural Federal Agencies and Sundance Institute. My first feature length film, La Misma Luna (Under the Same Moon) which premiered at the Sundance Festival in 2008, has been selected for this program of intercultural exchange.
La Misma Luna is about Mexican immigrants in the United States. I have come to realize that this film speaks to people all around the world. I’m thankful for that. Will it speak to the Chinese?
China has been in my imagination for many years now through Chinese cinema. I confess I am a junkie for Chinese period films. Zhang Yimou’s movies in particular have infused my mind with bright colorful landscapes, fierce warriors and traditional oriental drums. I make a promise to myself to maximize every hour spent in China during my two-week stay and I rush to visit the Forbidden City in between round tables and screenings.
I stand in the center of the vast imperial courtyard of the Forbidden City, transported back through ancient Chinese history. But the reality is somewhat different. I am in the heart of Beijing, possibly the largest and most polluted city on earth. There’s no getting away from it. The Forbidden City has seen better days. It’s clear that maintaining or restoring this once magnificent landmark to it former glories is not one of the Chinese government’s most pressing priorities.
The old grand palace feels dirty, empty, abandoned. It’s a shame. Luckily I can recreate its splendor through the imagery of Zhang Yimou’s movies… and it’s wonderful! I’m excited to learn that tomorrow I’ll be speaking to students from the same film school that this uniquely–talented film director attended.
2. Female takeover.
Beijing is truly polluted. I didn’t want to believe it. And I didn’t want to admit it. But it hits you in the face constantly. I try to counter criticism of the situation: “The Chinese people will fix it”, I assure everyone. Other nations have cleaned up their countries. China is proud and competitive and organized. They can achieve this, I tell myself. My friends and colleagues are more skeptical. My first audience of students clears my mind of any doubt. They have the capacity to turn things around.
Chinese students are amazing. They’re inquisitive, smart, well-read and friendly. Each of the venues we visit is different, but all of our audiences have the same commitment to education. We screen La Misma Luna to the students, who look more like actors than directors. The audiences are comprised of communication students, English majors and budding television journalists to name but a few. The one thing they all have in common is a genuine desire to discuss my film in depth. Through the course of our conversations they learn about filmmaking and life in the US.
I myself learn why the students in front of me are so special. Take the film students for example. Out of 7,000 that applied for one school in particular, only 25 were selected to attend a four year program. The students explain to me their application process. Their first exam requires them to recite a poem. No wonder they’re so eloquent and charismatic. Then they’re expected to perform scenes themselves as a prerequisite for passing the entrance exam. It’s a far cry from the skills sets required by film schools across the Americas.
There’s one thing that thrills me at every venue we visit. The majority of the students that I see are female! This makes me smile. I’m proud. I see and hear the same questions, doubts and desires that I once experienced when growing up in Mexico. How can I break into a world that is primarily dominated by men?
It makes me realize that young modern women around the world are facing a similar struggle. The students ask me how to juggle life and a career. Can one have a career and a husband? They’re all very young and mostly unmarried. I tell them that both a career and marriage are possible, but they’ll need to choose their life partners carefully! Choose a partner who will support your career. It takes commitment and heartfelt respect.
I see the young women in the audience hanging onto every word I say. They’re hungry for answers, for role models… to convince them that their dreams can become reality… to convince them that they no longer need to be in the shadows of men and have every right to succeed… to convince them that they too can tackle challenging careers that were once only the preserve of men.
I see the desire in these young women, but I also sense their fears. Is it truly possible to realize such goals? I remind myself of the fact that only 5% of the world’s film directors are women. I feel responsible as I stand before them. I realize I am one of this shamefully small minority. I am humbled by the thought, but determined to show these women that it is possible.
3. The future.
Here they are again… the tiny fragments of white cotton that drift through the streets of Beijing like snowflakes. My extremely limited Chinese vocabulary has proved ineffective when trying to discover the source of the “snow.” I open the car window. It now becomes clear. The “flakes of snow” are blossom from the trees; pure and white against the smog and fumes of Beijing. A metaphor in fact for China today. The beauty of nature against a backdrop of man-made pollution. I trust my students will recognize this metaphor. I trust my students will turn things around.
As I’m driven to the airport I ponder the number of bright young Chinese students fluently conversing with me in English. I wonder if the same can be said of American students speaking fluent Mandarin. I pause for thought and think of the future.