Patrick Creadon, Director, If You Build It
Though I’ve never been to one, I imagine a “dream lab” would be a pretty cool place to visit.
I was recently asked to take part in Film Forward in Taiwan and China. Film Forward is a program of Sundance Institute and The President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities, and three federal agencies. The local partners were CNEX, an innovative and groundbreaking documentary consortium based in China, Taiwan and Hong Kong, the American Institute in Taiwan and the US Embassy in Beijing. The purpose of Film Forward is to create a cultural exchange throughout the world using the universal language of film to communicate with others. Documentary films are a key component of the program.
Our documentary If You Build It, which received a Sundance Documentary Film Program (DFP) grant in early 2012 and was invited to the DFP Edit and Story Lab in the summer of 2012, spends a year in the life of one of America’s most innovative classrooms. Through the power of design thinking, two high school teachers and their ten students design and build a solution — a local farmers market — that addresses many of the problems the community faces. Along the way, they prove to themselves and others that a great education can happen anywhere, regardless of financial resources and other limitations.
Shortly after arriving in Taipei on the first leg of our five-city tour, a young Chinese student came up to me and said “Mr. Patrick, I’m so excited to see Dream Lab!” Say what? “Your new film, about the two teachers — Dream Lab.” It turns out “Dream Lab” is the literal translation of “If You Build It” in Mandarin. Frankly, I liked the Chinese name so much I was a little bummed out we didn’t use it in America, too.
Unexpected translations and cultural disconnects occurred almost everyday during our trip. The food was delicious, though we often found ourselves asking “what is that?” It’s hard to find a taxi driver in Beijing that can get you to the Forbidden City, even if you’re pointing to it on a map. And surprising to many of us, sixty-five years after Chiang Kai-Shek and his followers were exiled to Taiwan, relations between the Taiwanese and Chinese mainlanders are still, uh, “frosty” at best.
Yet the screenings made you forget all that. Theater after theater was packed with students, artists, local activists, fellow doc filmmakers, parents with their kids, and local elders. The audiences devoured our films (which had been translated into the local language), and stayed afterward for lively conversations and debates. One high school student came up to me fighting back tears, telling me “this was the best movie I’ve ever seen in my life.” It turns out the story we found in rural North Carolina resonates as much in coastal Taitung as it does throughout America.
Luckily, while in mainland China, we were also treated to several Chinese films by local filmmakers. China is experiencing an explosion of documentary films and filmmakers, and many of their stories are becoming a catalyst for real change on the mainland (though unfortunately there is still a long way to go before Chinese filmmakers experience the kinds of freedom we enjoy in America and other parts of the world).
The challenges that exist within the documentary film community are as pressing as ever: funding remains a serious challenge, distribution is as complex as ever, and legal challenges are ever-increasing (as seen in the Joe Berlinger v. Chevron case from a few years back, for instance). Yet there’s never been a time when we needed these stories more. With all the complex problems we face today, and as our world becomes more and more interdependent, documentaries have an ability to bridge almost any gap and make us all feel more connected to our world and to each other.
Film Forward is an overwhelmingly effective program that takes films further, into venues and communities that wouldn’t normally get to see the work of independent storytellers. It’s also a powerful way for people from different cultures to discover just how much we all have in common. And if you’re lucky, you may even get to see what dream labs are all about.