Matt and I were supposed to be the official guests of the iDocs conference taking place at the Beijing Film Academy immediately after GZDOC, but something went wrong along the way. Fortunately, Warren Chien from Channel Zero Media, who organized the event, found a way to sneak in a screening of “Forgetting Dad,” followed by a case study.
I was pleasantly surprised by the vastness of the Beijing Film Academy, and mighty impressed by how many dedicated viewers sat through not only the film but the 2 1/2 hour case study that followed despite the arctic temperatures in the room. Not even the spotlights on stage did much to heat up the place. But that aside, this was one of the seminal events in my filmmaking career so far – one of those moments that made me reflect long and hard on my craft and what motivates me to keep going despite the economic and other hardships involved in making creative documentaries. Despite all the Chinese faces in the crowd, I kept having to remind myself that I was indeed in China, and that “Forgetting Dad” touched these complete strangers halfway around the world in ways that I never could have dreamed of.
The discussion was moderated by Chinese-Canadian producer Melanie Ansley, who did an excellent job of keeping things going and asking insightful questions. Prof. Situ Zhaodun, a distinguished old professor from the film academy and documentary expert joined us on stage. He was in the jury at GZDOC, and I had the pleasure of meeting him after the award ceremony there. I took an instant liking to him, and was very touched by how much FORGETTING DAD moved him.
Although the audience asked many of the typical questions, they were also very curious about the ethical issues involved in making a film about one’s own families. Apparently invasion of privacy is a hot issue in contemporary, (TV-driven) Chinese documentaries, and the viewers were interested in how I knew where to draw the line when probing into my family’s pain. I don’t have a magical answer. I was simply following my gut feelings, and am very thankful Axel and Matt so beautifully captured the emotion of the moments in images. Many of the tough ethical issues, such as whether or not to include the scene where my step-brother Steve talks about my father’s violence, didn’t emerge until in the editing room, where it took me weeks to decide what to do with this scene. After all, I knew it would be something I’d have to deal with for the rest of my life. But it would have been a distortion of the truth to leave it out, and I was happy to have someone else in the film raise the issue so I wouldn’t have to and risk coming across as the embittered son trying to deface his father. In the end, I followed my intuition and left it in. Now it’s one of the scenes people talk about most.
I was caught quite off guard when someone in the audience asked me about the ideology of my film. I had to think long and hard about that one and remind myself that I was in what is officially still a socialist country. How could anyone see any ideology in FORGETTING DAD? Fortunately, Prof. Situ came to my rescue and discussed the lack of ideology in the film, and how it didn’t need to have any. I felt thankful for never having been put in the awkward position of having my work misused for ideological purposes or being made to tow someone else’s ideological line. I hope I’ll be fortunate to never been put in that situation.
It was cold and I was tired, but I couldn’t stop feeling some magic in the moment, a mesmerizing sensation that’s been accompanying me throughout my travels in China. Despite the sometimes unsurmountable language barrier, it felt like this was exactly where I was supposed to be at that moment.