(For tons of photos from my trip to China, check out my Facebook page. I only accept friend requests from strangers if you write why you want to connect.)
It was hard to turn down the offer of a free trip to Shanghai, even though I felt a bit like I was leaving my baby behind in Germany only days after the theatrical launch. But after all the excitement of my first trip to China last December, I couldn’t say no.
This time around, FORGETTING DAD didn’t win the main prize (I found out later that it was disqualified from the competition for being two months ‘too old’), but it was still a lot of fun being there.
As it turns out, FORGETTING DAD was playing in the Magnolia International Documentary Awards section of the Shanghai TV Festival, which is somehow organized by the same people who put on the Shanghai International Film Festival one week later. It was all rather confusing, but at least the documentaries, unlike the TV series and TV movies also showing in the festival, were given public screenings.
The first surprise upon arriving in Shanghai was that I was given an escort, who was under strict orders to keep an eye on me. She was a nice student named Sandra, who spoke broken English, and was very nervous. Before I’d even gathered my bearings, she was eager to know where I wanted to go when, so she could book the car service, which had to be arranged a day in advance. It was too much organization for me. As soon as I hooked up with some other filmmakers, we all joined forces to liberate ourselves from our escorts in order to explore the city on our own.
As the other documentary filmmakers and I experienced first-hand, and as we were told by the festival organizers, it was a huge deal to be showing documentaries in movie theaters in China. Such screenings are unheard of, largely because documentaries are considered strictly a television genre in China. Most are historical and very formulaic. One viewer after my screening, which was in a multiplex on the top floor of a luxurious shopping center, expressed her amazement at seeing a ‘real movie.’ I’ve heard that one before in one form or another. People are often surprised at the cinematic imagery, orchestral score, and narrative drive of FORGETTING DAD, and sometimes feel like they’ve walked into a narrative feature.
The questions were nothing out of the ordinary. I was, however, touched by a woman who came with her mother. She approached me afterwards to tell me how her mother had some questions for me. The mother never said a word, and I’m assuming the daughter translated what I said afterwards. Basically she wanted to know why I wanted to make a film about my own family, and why I felt the need to share our story with complete strangers. When I hear this, I sometimes don’t know whether the person asking the question is aghast at my presumptuousness at assuming someone might care about the fate of my family, or impressed by what some call my ‘courage’ in telling such a story.
Later in the week, I had the honor of being one of only two filmmakers selected for an extensive interview at Shanghai Television Station SMG. The delightful moderator, who introduced herself as ‘Bella,’ interviewed me for about an hour. The interview will be cut together with excerpts of FORGETTING DAD into a 45-minute portrait, which will be broadcast in a few weeks. (Watch Part I and Part II) It was all kind of surreal how she looked me straight in the eyes and popped one dead serious question after another in Mandarin, and I didn’t have a clue what she was saying. So I just nodded politely, and waited for the translation. Even after a year and a half of giving interviews and answering the same questions over and over again, it’s still sometimes difficult to fight back emotions, especially when the conversation drifts toward my brother Justin. ‘Bella’ was very interested in hearing more about him and his ongoing struggles with heroin, intermittent homelessness, and all the fallout of having to grow up too fast with a father who was more interested in being his play buddy than an adult role model.
Although I spent an entire week in Shanghai, I never really felt like I got my bearings. The city is big and loud and crazy, and I found it much more difficult to find little charming spots to retreat into for some peace and quiet. I found those places in Hong Kong, Beijing and Macau last December, but didn’t have as much luck here. But I did spend half a day wandering around the Expo, which has some fabulous-looking pavilions. The lines were outrageously long, and I managed to see only the ground floor of the Chinese one from the inside.
I also got to ride the MagLev (Transrapid) to the airport. At peak times of day it travels at speeds of up to 430 km/h (267 mph). But when I was on board, it went ‘only’ 300 km/h (186 mph). Still, it was pretty impressive. It took two minutes to get up to full speed. Then we cruised for four minutes before decelerating for the next two minutes. Such a short ride. It would be fun to try it out over a longer stretch if another one gets built somewhere.
Spent some time at a couple of great bars along the Bund, and wandered among the skyscrapers in Pudong. It felt like I’d stepped into all these photos I’ve seen of the Pearl TV Tower and the Huangpu River.
On my 42nd birthday, I traveled to nearby Hangzhou to see the legendary ‘West Lake’. Unfortunately, it started to rain. So my Israeli filmmaker friends Noa and Rani and I hopped in a motorized rickshaw and cruised along the lake. It definitely looks like a nice place to return to in better weather someday.
I left Shanghai in a luxurious sleeping car with four beds (I was surrounded by women!), where we all had our own TVs. The ride was faster and smoother than any other train I’ve ever been on. When I arrived at the Beijing South Railway Station, I was completely blown away by the vastness of the place. It’s the largest railway station in Asia, and looks more like a monumental airport than a train station.
MORE TO FOLLOW …