We recently discovered a documentary short film titled 41 Degrees North, about China, produced and directed by Barry Wilkinson. We took the liberty to preview this film for this exclusive review and interview.
41 Degrees North is a documentary short film with a keen observational awareness and a humanistic touch. The director drew inspiration from various YouTube videos discussing social issues in China and spent seven weeks capturing random moments of life in Shenyang, Liaoning Province. Shot from the perspective of a British director, the film allows the audience to witness scenes in Shenyang as observers. Simultaneously, the director inserts a long sequence of scenic shots in the middle, providing viewers with time and space to immerse themselves in the tranquility between the contrasting urban landscapes.
The short doc will premiere online via YouTube on 15 December.
Recently, I had the opportunity to interview Barry Wilkinson, the director, cinematographer, and editor of “41 Degrees North.” Barry, an independent filmmaker from Bristol, took on these roles in the documentary, marking a departure from his usual commercial projects. The decision to create this documentary stemmed from Barry’s personal connection to China—his wife is Chinese, and he frequently visits the country due to his fascination with Chinese culture. During their seven-week stay in Shenyang, Barry aimed to capture his experiences in a place he holds dear, especially since many of his British friends knew little about China. Filming ten seconds of daily life each day, Barry later edited the footage upon returning to the UK, resulting in the creation of 41 Degrees North. Barry identifies it as an ‘Observational Documentary,’ uniquely incorporating two YouTube videos as voice-overs, complementing his own footage. These internet materials serve as narrators, discussing various phenomena in China, such as the economy and culture, offering a fresh perspective for foreign audiences unfamiliar with the subject matter.
Barry: visited China a lot because my wife is from China. Yeah. What I did just to fill in time, basically this summer because we were there for 7 weeks, I just wanted to film a lot of how I experience China, because it’s a place that I really love. And a lot of my friends don’t know what it’s like or anything like that. And so I wanted to capture, I basically set myself a challenge. I’m gonna capture 10 seconds bits of every everything that I think is interesting. So it might just be a street or it might be a person doing something. As I was putting it together, I was editing it while I was born in China. So just every day I go out and shoot something and then find what was my best shot from that day and then put that into the film. I didn’t really know what it was. When I was working on that,l didn’t know whether it was gonna be like a travel thing or whether it was gonna have a story or anything like that. When I was there, I was listening on YouTube to a few people that were speaking about like TED Talks and things about China and how it’s perceived differently in the West to what it is in China and things like that.
And I found the a clip from the lady who’s in the film that was basically just one thing that stood out to me that actually that’s that goes with my thinking of China. So it’s a more optimistic kind of look at China. So what I did I contacted the people who made that video and asked their permission to use kind of just the audio only of just a few segments for the film. So that’s what that’s what those bits of audio are. So I don’t necessarily have all the context of what it was. She said, and who she was talking to about things, but like to answer your question directly. But that was those were the things that I had that sort of basically jailed with what I thought. But what I wanted people to take away from watching the film is to just have this kind of open, more open, thought about China and stuff.
Lea: Why did you choose to apply voice-over instead of a traditional interview format? Is it because you were inspired by something specific?
Barry: Yeah, that’s right. So it’s not really, I don’t see it as like a documentary. I just see it as kind of an observational documentary, I think because I’ve never really done this sort of thing before. But again, this is just my way of showing my experience of that city, in particular. When I was there, I was listening to lots of people on YouTube talking about China and different relationships between different countries. There were just these two or three bits that I thought were quite interesting. So I asked for permission to use them in my film, just to help people who have a view on it, to give it a little bit more context. But the film actually works really well without their voice-over as well. I’ve chosen to use the version with the voice-over to kind of push out. It’s had a really good response from people who have seen it, making them think a bit differently about China, perhaps.
Lea : As a director, how do you see your relationship with the narratives in this film? Is it from a foreigner’s perspective? Do you think there were conflicts between them? How do you deal with these conflicts during the editing process?
Barry: Yeah. So for me, it’s I used clips that I think get across how I personally feel about China. So a lot of if you search for China on YouTube, you’re not gonna get the most positive things sometimes. So I found people that had a similar perspective to me. So really optimistic. You can see some things are perfect, some things aren’t the same as any other country. I think that was that was kind of where that came from, but I just tried to use something that was more fair and optimistic than the usual.
Lea: So, what do you think the audience considers when watching your films? What kind of viewpoints do you believe they can gain from this film?
Barry: Sure, I I’ve had one screening in public, which is in my local town, has done a few film festivals as well, just small ones. I’ve had some really good feedback. And the main thing that people have said is that it challenged that existent perception of China. They said, at the end of one of the screenings, I do the queue and anything.And one of the ladies she just said like from watching that film that’s not at all what I would expect. When I think about China. Based on what I’ve seen in the media in the last few years, I think of it as quite a closed country. And people might not be very happy or something. But when they watched the film, they said it’s actually the opposite. It looks like a really nice, positive, optimistic. I it is a fun place to be in. As I was really pleased that came across in the film, that’s the general comment is that it means it’s made people want to go and visit and go and see it for themselves. I think.
Lea: That’s really good feedback. Yeah, the next question is about the footage. I noticed that in the middle of this film, there are a lot of natural images, approximately 10 minutes or so. It feels like the beginning and ending are addressing the problems, but the middle of this film is like a gift, giving the audience space to think and feel. What do you want to convey to the audience? What kind of information do you want to spread?
Barry: The idea was that I have this nice, almost like relaxation bit in the middle where you have just nature and the environment and the sounds and things. And that’s kind of bookended by the sea. So you have the loud city at the start and the loud city at the end. That kind of thing. And then there’s a little bit of innovation that introduces how important nature, the relationship between nature and man is to China, to Chinese people. And what I really want to do is not just show a few clips of trees and birds and things, but I really wanted to show people going out into nature and just show some of the things that you see.It’s less like. When you think of China, you think of huge mountains or deserts and things like that. You don’t really think of just a general, a general kind of place I want to show it is actually like when you experience that. And I think it’s for me, personally, it’s really important to let that bit play out quite long. And just to let people kind of soak it up and almost forget what they’ve seen beforehand, so that there’s a kind of a clear, sorry.
This is a kind of a clear proof question through it.So they’re wild by China as what they think, and then they have a chance to kind of reflect and and kind of relax too. I I think I wanted my process quite a relaxing section. That’s how I feel when I’m there. Again, the music used, I didn’t use typical kind of Chinese music. I used something that I felt complemented how I felt when I was there. And I think that allows the end sequence, which is the kind of the nighttime series dove have a little bit more impact just to show how much of a fun place as well. It still has all the kind of the nature and all that sort of stuff, which I guess people when they think of China, they might not perhaps think of kind of natural, beautiful and environment straight away. I already want to show that it is. When you’re there it is very much prominent.
Lea: I remember the narrator mentioned Asian philosophy; is that one of the reasons?
Barry: Exactly it’s I think I use that just to tease what it was.The point that I want to get across that nature is really important, because when I go back to China, every time I go back, for example, this time we went on the new bullet train and we’re traveling from Beijing to my website and just there’s lots of wind farms and windmills and solar panels and things like that everywhere, which you don’t really think of China as having a lot of like green energy and things like that.But then when you’re actually there and you see it, you can see that they’re really trying to look after the environment and they really aren’t trying to do everything that everybody else is doing. So I just wanted to introduce that fact and then show it’s just like anywhere else. You have big, busy cities with lots of people and then you have like nice, beautiful open countryside with not many people. And that’s where that came from, I think. I did not play any narrative in anything to. To tell people how to feel I just kind of showed. And if people interpret the same way as I do, or they might interpret it differently, are things I think I find they might not like or things. I don’t like. They might think it’s fine. So it’s kind of open to the viewer, open to the audience, to perceive things, I think, without me. But lots of things that’s why I’m quite careful to describe as a documentary, because it’s not really, I’m just kind of observing if that makes sense.
Lea: I guess that you have hundreds or thousands of footage for this film because, like 10 seconds per shot, this film has a lot of shots. Did you have any previous plans when you were shooting?
Barry: Before I start, as I said, when I arrived in China, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do, but I knew that because I have my family with me as well. I have two small children and I I don’t like to put the camera down and be occupied for a long time.So I just basically give myself a rule that I’m just gonna fill in short 10 second eclipse. Hopefully that stops me from being on the camera all the time. I basically I have a lot of things and there’s a lot of ways that is kind of ruined because my child and what past inference are still in the beautiful fields and things like that. And I have like one of my children will run in front of the camera or something like that. I’m also very conscious of when I’m filmed in China as well, because I don’t speak very much Chinese. It’s quite tricky for me to work out if people are happy that they’re doing films on a so I was always trying to keep back away from scenes.And so whenever you see people, it tends to be a big wide scene where there’s lots of people instead of getting really close and personal to people because I didn’t want to seem too intrusive. If that makes sense, I’d rather observe and not. I think if I said to them, can I film you? Which I did once or twice? People might change what they’re doing, and they might act differently if they know they’re being filmed. So I tried to keep away from it.
Lea: I noticed that most of the shots feature people and items, a combination of individuals and objects. Do you have any specific plan for shooting these kinds of images?
Barry: Yeah, and I really want to show people in their environment. So if you ever see a person, there’s usually the focus might be on the person, might be on their phone or on the bike or something.But I framed in a way that you can see the scenes, so you can see where they are. You can see what’s around them and the same with the sound as well. I spent a long time recording lots of different sounds and things like that to build out the environment a little bit more.
Lea: Yeah. So you didn’t have any specific plan before you started shooting, right?
Barry: No, I didn’t know.
Lea : So it’s quite random.
Barry: It’s very random. So I’m quite, I think that’s why I’m quite happy with it. Personally, I feel it works quite well. When I’ve shown it to people, I get good feedback from it, which is good because I usually plan my films really well have a script in the storyboard and a short list and accrue and everything.This was kind of just me. So the fact that it exists, I’m really happy with it, but that people are enjoying watching it and it’s changing people’s minds about things. That’s I think that has been compliment really.
Lea : There is my favorite scene in this film. It was around 20 minutes in, showcasing square dancing. I think it’s a beautiful combination of music, the sunset, and images of the group of people. I really like it. How do you feel about the square dancing shot?
Barry: I think it’s really cool. I always try and capture it when I’m there. I’ve sent videos to my friends on my phone and things and like compared to England, China is very different on the evening. In England, everybody kind of comes in the house and sits and does things inside us.But in China it seems like the whole community goes outside and do the group exercises and dance and things like that. Yeah, and I think people are open to kind of enjoy themselves a little bit more way. In England. We are a lot more reserved. We tend less to draw attention to ourselves. I really like in China, you just see these big parties and things like that. So it definitely had to go on the end in the film.And again, that’s one of the things that people don’t realize about. China say that actually looks like a really cool from listed like what people said to me, what’s the was it like a festival or was it a party or something like? And I was like, no, it was just a Thursday night. This is daily life.
Lea: Not celebration.
Barry: Yeah, exactly. Just daily life.
Lea: What do you think about the images of groups of people? Because I know there are a lot of shots in this film. Is there a kind of philosophy behind it?
Barry: I just want to show that it’s all part of the community thing.
Lea: Yeah, it helps the audience understand the lifestyle of this city. When you’re editing them, do you have any plan for organizing the footage?
Barry: I wanted to follow that kind of daytime and night time.So I did it kind of a day in the life of the city. Obviously, it was filmed over 7 weeks. All of these could have happened on one day. If that makes sense, there’s so much happening. It’s making sense. And then again, as I started to film it more and more, I was really making an effort to shoot more of the nature stuff. I wanted to have that section in the middle. So I had a kind of a begin in the middle and an end, all feel quite different.
Lea : Why did you choose Shenyang instead of Beijing or Shanghai?
Barry: That’s my wife say that’s why I was. A it’s a say that nobody really knows. So like my friends have told them I go to Shenyang, and they don’t really know much. Because I a it’s a huge sea. But internationally you don’t really hear about it that much. So I think I’m quite lucky to have seen a lot of it and a lot of the countryside around that province as well. Obviously, it’s not all filmed in the city. And just explore that province is a place to average English persons quite unknown. But so for me to have the opportunity as somebody who likes film and things, I feel that I’m quite well placed to be able to capture and introduce the areas for a lot of people.And people might want to come visit there after seeing if they go to China. It might encourage people to go and go and see it, I guess.
Lea: The next question is about the topics in this film. I think I may categorize them into three main areas: the first is the economy, followed by culture, and the third is the young generation. Could you please share your concerns regarding these topics? Alternatively, do you have any other summary of these subjects and the way you choose to express them?
Barry: Yeah, I think that’s what I was aiming to do, and also the kind of nature, the relationship between people in nature as well. I don’t have any real political thoughts about China; that much, I’m quite neutral on things. But I think, for me, it is quite important to show it as an optimistic place. So I always think that’s one thing that China has that England definitely doesn’t really have anymore, as it’s very optimistic. Things are going to get better, opportunities are coming up to get better, and things like that. And in China, the world has grown and become a more exciting and important place. I think England is kind of almost the opposite way. We’re going downhill. So it’s important to get that across. And I think the bit of voice-over at the end has described that people in China, whether it’s not perfect, but they have the optimism, and they’re able to look forward to a better future. And I’ve been used for is that I feel that shows that you have the big cities; you have thousands of people out thriving. It shows the kind of thriving economy, and also you have all the lights and sounds and things like that, just trying to show that it’s a really interesting and exciting place to be. So I think I’m making it optimistic, but I’m also addressing the underlying problems and issues, as you said. I’m assuming that the viewer is more likely to be someone like Western, in England, and they have this preconception.
So I’m making the film knowing that people have these preconceived ideas about China. I’m trying to address that without directly saying anything but just kind of showing. I know for a fact people might think that China might be a horrible, great place that’s bad for the environment or something when actually I’m not saying anything the opposite, but I’m just showing that it’s like everywhere else. It’s not that different. The same about. People might have political things and feel that Chinese people don’t have any freedom or something. But then I’m like, look, people are happy, people are walking around on the street, everybody’s out dancing and socializing, and they’ve got all the big Western brands, they’ve got Chinese brands, and thriving technology and things like that. So I’m not really saying anything; I’m just kind of showing.
But, again, as I said, the audience for this is, as I imagine, primarily Western. So for me, I’m assuming that people think in a certain way, and I’m trying to change that perspective a little bit, perhaps.It’s just observational, and I’m not trying to make any judgments, just showing how it is. For me, there’s one or two things that when I was seeing it, I didn’t really like, but I still filmed it and included it in the film.For example, the shot with the panda—I didn’t really like being there and seeing the pandas. I love pandas, but I felt that it wasn’t in a brilliant environment. However, I didn’t express my feelings in the film because it’s up to people to watch it, and they can either like it or not. Does that make sense? But that’s not the only thing in the film that I thought was somewhat controversial for me. I really like everything else that went into the film. I didn’t specifically go and try to find things with an agenda behind them. I’m sure if I wanted to film power stations, I could go and film power stations everywhere, and I could do that in England as well. I just want to show what the average is like.
Through this interview, I gained a deeper understanding of the motivations behind the creation of this short film and the director’s creative intent. Using snippets from YouTube as narrative elements in a documentary short is a novel and daring experiment. While this approach might give the film a mosaic of perspectives from various creators, it perfectly mirrors the narrative landscape of the internet and aligns with the potential impact of online media on shaping people’s perceptions. Simultaneously, it emphasizes the director’s keen observational awareness and humanistic spirit, making the film stand out in its blend of observational consciousness and innovative narrative elements.
Barry hopes that, as viewers enjoy this short film, they will also adopt a broader perspective when looking at China, acknowledging the film’s contribution to both observational awareness and inventive storytelling elements.