On the 19th of August, before the closing ceremony of the 12th Beijing International Film Festival, as a jury member of this year’s “Tiantan Award”, Malcolm Clarke was interviewed by several major media. UK-China Film Collab was the only one independent international press. We asked Malcolm questions about the festival, the future of Chinese film market, the BBC, potential collaborations between the UK and China and beyond.

Special Correspondence from Beijing 

Zhao: As this year’s juror, have you seen any interesting films at the Beijing International Film Festival so far?

Malcolm: I’ve seen some great films. And the thing that was surprising to me. I didn’t really know much about the Beijing festival before coming here, I live in Shanghai, so I know more about the Shanghai festival, and I’ve been a juror the Shanghai Festival before. But I have to say that I was pretty surprised by how powerful this festival was this year. And when I say powerful, you know, you judge a film festival in two ways, really. One is by the films that they attract, and two is by the people that those festivals attract. Now, clearly, this is not a time to be attracting people to come to the Beijing Festival, because China is still under very stringent Covid restrictions. So, it’s very hard to come to China. People don’t want to do quarantine, and I understand that. But the films here are really impressive, and they are from all over the world. I mean, there are a lot of very small festivals around the world who call themselves an international festival, because they get one film from the Netherlands. This is really an international festival. And legitimately so, there are films from South America, North America, all across Europe, all across the Middle East, and some very good films from India. So, for someone like me who’s a film buff, I mean, I live and breathe film.

One the things that’s a little bit trickier in China is to see international films. To see sixteen movies that are in competition here of a very, very, very high standard, most of them (the films in competition) from overseas is both surprising and very, very gratifying. So, I think this year, the Beijing International Film Festival has taken a huge step up. What I look for now is next year, when hopefully Covid restrictions become historical memories and nothing more, so that people will come to China and come to Beijing and come to this festival, and they can continue their tradition of respecting and giving a voice to international filmmakers. Beijing deserves to be on the map. And this is a very good step, I think.

Zhao: What are your next Chinese stories?

Malcolm: We can’t really talk about me, we have to talk about we and I don’t mean this because there’s no false modesty in saying that. I don’t speak Mandarin, and I’m a filmmaker working in China, so obviously I need a huge amount of support and expertise around me, because otherwise I’m a pair of eyes, but I’m not a voice, and I can’t be a voice not knowing the language. So, I have a very strong team of people around me who help me to get through this society and kind of interact with Chinese society. What we have decided to do as a little company, we have a little boutique company is try to broaden the impact of our films. We’re not just making documentary films. We’re also now making theatrical feature films, which can travel abroad. It’s very important. One of the things I’ve been saying all morning to various kinds of interviewer, is that, the power of film is often underestimated. And the power of film is huge.

It’s soft power, but soft power is still power. And I don’t think you can change the world with film, but you can change people’s opinions and prejudices through film. If you think back ten years, who knew anything and who was interested in the culture and the kind of popular culture of South Korea? No one. Suddenly, South Korea is punching way above its weight because it makes terrific movies, because it makes terrific pop music, and it has global influence. And, you know, that’s not thanks to the South Korean government. It’s thanks to the popular culture industry, which is so vibrant and so creative and relentless. They just not that they make one good movie. They make three, four, five great movies every year. China is perfectly capable of doing that, but it’s not doing it yet. But that’s what I think I can slightly help with, because I can make Chinese stories, I can package those stories in a way that we can show them and have a receptive audience in the West. And I think that’s a kind of an important bridge that I’d love to see more people doing it.

I’d love to see more Chinese people doing it, Chinese film directors. So what we are doing now is we’re trying to take some of the Chinese stories that we’ve encountered, real stories from documentary research and so forth, and repackage them as feature films so that we can sell them in the West, and hopefully, foster more kind of dialogue, a more kind of tolerant, nuanced attitude from international audiences to take China seriously, and not to be suckered into believing all this kind of anti-China rhetoric and propaganda, which is utterly politicized and I think it’s very corrosive.

Zhao: You have spent many years in China. How do you view the Chinese film market now, including production, exhibition and beyond?

Malcolm: I think, the great golden years of Chinese film were in the nineties. I was kind of exposed to a lot of great Chinese movies, those early Zhang Yi-mo films,, which I still remember, and I think those years are behind us now. Obviously, things have changed, and I think there’s more of a kind of reliance on genre movies here than ever before. I don’t think that is necessarily a bad thing, but I do feel that there needs to be more oxygen given to young Chinese filmmakers. Because I think clearly there’s a huge amount of talent in this country, 1.4 billion people, means that you can find some great producers, directors, actors, cinematographers, but they need encouragement. And I think, I don’t see that they are being encouraged as much as I would like to see, I would like to have, I wish there was some kind of national program where, you know, young directors could be guaranteed an audience in a certain number of cinemas. I mean, lots of countries have those kinds of mechanisms for keeping their domestic culture alive.

But then you need to give the opportunities to Chinese filmmakers. And it seems to me that there could be more oxygen in the creative community, so that more films can be made. Because if you can make more films, you can send them globally. Film is an international language. What happens to Korean movies, now everybody in the world thinks Korea is kind of the holy grail of film-making and innovation. And God bless them for doing it. You know, there’s some terrific movies being made, but it’s a little country, and this is a big country. It’s got a very diverse population. I’m sure you could find lots of really interesting filmmakers, and that would help China.

And maybe some people say, we don’t need help. We’re all okay on our own. But I don’t think that any country that lives inside a bubble, even if it’s a huge country like China, I don’t think it’s healthy to have a kind of inward-looking ecosystem. We all exist in a global village, and I think it would be fantastic if people knew about, understood, appreciated and admired what the Chinese people have gone through, what they have achieved, and if they understood where China was headed by looking at stories of ordinary Chinese people. So, it’s just a personal opinion. I’ve no idea whether that could happen. I could be dreaming but that’s what I would like to see.

Zhao: And you have also spent some time at the BBC making films. In your opinion, how the can BBC reform and innovate for its future film production?

Malcolm: I don’t know enough about what the BBC does now or what they are able to, I mean, I could give you an opinion, but it would just be pulling kind of desperate ideas out of the ether. I do know that BBC films still do a fantastic job, and they do punch above their weight. They make some marvellous films, and they have great taste. But for me to express an opinion about the BBC, I think it would be presumptuous on my part, because I don’t have neither the education nor the standing, to really know what’s going on at the BBC these days. When I was there, it was in a different time, a long time ago.

Zhao: What do western audiences think of your films and how would you respond to certain criticism?

Malcolm: When I started making films in China, I came in 2013, I started shooting in 2014. As we were preparing that film, which was called Better Angels, Trump was campaigning to be President of the United States. Shortly after that, he was elected.

He had as one of his primary goals, the scapegoating of China as a nation and as a culture, and he did a very good job of it. I was making a film, coincidentally, at exactly the same time as his presidency, that was advocating a better relationship between America and China, a way that America and China could coexist, and not necessarily be friends or allies, but at least not be at each other’s throats. And we were looking at a lot of the similarities between China and America, and in so many ways, they’re much closer to being alike than being different. The problem was that there was a very viable anti-China propaganda campaign that never stopped. It was relentless for four years, and it did a very good job of poisoning the will of making China a threat, a global threat. And that has not changed. That is the kind of pervasive opinion held by the political establishment in most of the Western countries.

Notwithstanding that there is a lot of kind of anti-China feelings, some of it I’d probably deserved. I’m not a kind of staunch defender of China, right or wrong. I mean, every country makes mistakes. Every government makes mistakes. I happen to think that on balance, what the Chinese government has achieved kind of out balances any kind of any mistakes that they may have made. But that’s my personal view. What I try to do is tell the truth as I see it. And maybe I see it incorrectly. Maybe I’m just a kind of a cock-eyed optimist. I kind of, someone who is naïve. I don’t think so. I’ve been in this country for a long time. I see it for what it is. And I try to tell the truth about the Chinese people and what they’ve experienced, what they’ve gone through, what they’re living through, and what their hopes and dreams are in these present circumstances. And I don’t do it with a lot of data. I don’t do it with rhetoric. I don’t do it with statistics. I’m not a big fan of journalistic film-making. I do it through emotion.

One thing that I’ve said a lot, and I do firmly believe it, is that you watch a movie that moves you, if it reaches your heart, it doesn’t need to reach your head, you will remember it for the rest of your life. And I think that’s what I try to do with films. I try to kind of bypass this and go straight to this. And if we can do that in films, we can reach foreigners who may be skeptical, and they may be, you know, vitriolically anti-China, but when they see that the Chinese people, very much the same as they are, with the same hopes and dreams and fears and anxieties and aspirations. It’s very hard to hate people who you understand. You can’t shoot a bullet at someone who you admire or you think is very much like you, unless you’re a psychopath. And hopefully, not too many psychopaths are watching my movies. Because what’s happened here in the last 40 years has been historic by any metric. It’s a transformation of a nation which has never happened on the planet before. And whatever we may think about the Chinese government, they achieved it with the help of the Chinese people, 1.4 billion people, working hard every day to achieve something which was quite remarkable. And anyone who comes to this country, they’re here (for the first) 20 minutes and they look around and they get it. They get what has been achieved. And so, what we do is we just present it., it’s not a cliché, you tell it like it is.

You don’t gussy it up with a lot of kind of rhetoric and flourishes and grace notes. All you do is you show the unalloyed truth and it’s pretty remarkable. It’s not perfect. It’s not Nirvana. There’s a huge room for improvement. But that’s what I’m trying to do, trying to give more nuance to the conversation and balance things out a little bit so people are a little bit more open-minded.

Zhao: What are the key areas of film collaboration between UK and China?

Malcolm: I think film collaboration between UK and China is pretty close to non-existent, and I really regret that. I’m trying to do something about it, actually, weirdly, because there’s a chap who used to be a professor at Cambridge University, a man called Joseph Needham who lived for 99 years. His life spanned the 20th century. And he was a complete eccentric. He was like in the tradition of great British eccentrics. One of the things he achieved over the course of his life was a book that he wrote, with some help from couple of other people, called Science and Civilization in China. He basically wrote the textbook on what China’s contribution to science had been over the last 4000 years. And what’s very interesting is that, it’s totally because of his efforts and his work and his open mindedness to China. Needham discovered that a lot of things that we in the West think that we invented, we didn’t invent. The Chinese got there about hundred years or 500 years or a thousand years earlier. It’s a book written by an academic. It’s not a page turner, unless it happened to be interested in China. But he wrote this book, and he reset the intellectual communities understanding of China’s contribution to global civilization. And it was immense.

Because he was a lady’s man, and he was a bit of a devil, and he was an adventurer, and he came to China during the war. He lived this marvellous, larger than life existence with China at its centre. So, what we want to do is we want to make a series of films, a dramatic series of films about his life. Because he was an odd duck and a marvellous character, I mean, a fantastic character for an actor to play. But what he achieved during his life was also historic and so a great British writer, Simon Winchester, who is a kind of, for me a national treasure. He’s a wonderful historian, a writer. Simon wrote a book called The Man Who Loved China (about Needham). And we’re turning Simon Winchester’s book into a miniseries, which I think will be a great way to bring China and the UK closer together. And I would love to see more co-productions. That will be a co-production between the UK and China. We want to foster more. We all know the British film industry is kind of a law unto itself. And there are some absolutely great storytellers and filmmakers in Britain.

Britain, of all the countries on the planet is the one that punches far above its weight. And I would love to encourage British filmmakers to come here and look at it. And this is a country that hasn’t been photographed. It hasn’t been in popular fiction. It hasn’t been given anything like the attention that it deserves. And you can have so much fun and make such great movies in this country, so I would love to see that happen more.

I’m just a little voice in the wilderness right now, but hopefully that’s going to change in time.

Special thanks: Beijing International Film Festival, Malcolm Clarke, Han Yi, CAA, Sun Hongyun, Arthur Jones.