In May of 2012 the Committee to Protect Journalists approached me, asking if I would be interested in making a short film about a Chinese journalist.
Last month, the piece published. It would be my umpteenth video looking at free speech and cencorship in China. Although it only took two days to film, there was about 10 months of planning involved. Thats mostly because, no one wanted to be featured.
I emailed many dozens of Chinese journalists for months and was having zero luck. They were interested in being featured until they found out the topic was human rights and free speech. As soon as they heard these words, most would immediately stop answering emails. Sadly, I think these people are better examples of what the average journalist in China. They are part of the system, and not willing to shake it … or in this case, come close to the shaker.
I think the overwhelming response shows what type of pressure these journalists are under. As a western journalist, its in our best interest to grab high profile bylines. However, in China a byline or credit in the wrong place could get you fired, or worse …
For all of these journalists, participating in the video would only put them at risk of being seen in an unflattering report of the PRC. This of course, was true of all the people I talked to until I found one journalist who didn’t shutter in the face of the censors, but also had something to gain from taking that risk.
Liu has a mission to start a Chinese version of Pro-Publica. A non government and non commercially funded model of journalism. While this might be impossible in China, his fearless efforts to try to make it happen are something to be admired by journalists worldwide. While he never explicitly said this to me, I’m sure his decision to show up in this video and venue was in some part motivated by his attempt to find funding. Sadly, finding sources often involves trying to find someone who needs you as much as you need them.
I also believe Liu was willing to put himself in the spotlight for the betterment of his colleagues, who wouldn’t dare. I was an avenue to help him do that.
This is perhaps the lesson out of this sensitive scenario in trying to find a subject: they have to have something to gain from talking to you.
After finally finding Liu and then scripting a way to visually illustrate the guy’s life and the issues he faces, it actually only required one interview off camera, one interview on camera and one day of following him around with a camera. And thus is the equation of so many video projects I’ve become involved with recently: 10 months of prep, 2 days of shooting, 1 week in post. However, that planning period or preproduction, allowed me to make this video in such a way that I hope the 10-minute mark, doesn’t lull or become dull.
For those interested in freedom of the press and free speech issues, the video goes with a larger report from CPJ called “Challenged in China.” Its a great look at the current Chinese media environment showing some of the issues both the public and the journalists are facing here.
While I support the CPJ and their efforts to help imrpove the situation in China, it was very nice to see some of my colleagues, some of whom I know and some of whom I dont know participate in the project.
Extremely poverful still images from the Sichuan Earthquake were donated by collague Gilles Sabrie. Music creators Rhian Sheehan and Keith Kenniff graciously licensed music for the project. And of course, Liu himself. Beyond helping to promote his dream, he was willing to donate his time to help promote free speech. These people are all tremendously talented and I encourage you to check out their works.
Produced and narrated by JONAH M. KESSEL
Sichuan earthquake photography by GILLES SABRIE
Music by RHIAN SHEEHAN, “Still”
Music by KEITH KENNIFF, “Halving the Compass”
Production assistant and translation by ADAM WU
Wukan, Southern Weekend protest, Hebei & Beijing cinematography & photography by JONAH M. KESSEL