Published in Documentary magazine, July-August 2007

For many Western filmmakers the thought of filming in China proves to be quite a challenge. But with good pre-production and preparation it needn't be. After eighteen years as a Hong Kong-based sound recordist and producer I've learned a thing or two about the dos and don'ts involved in making documentaries in China.

 

I first started going to China regularly in the early nineties, as tech-manager of a weekly sports programme for Trans World International. Each week for four months I flew to a different Chinese city to cover a basketball game, using a local OB company to provide facilities. I'd arrive the day of the game, recce the stadium and wait for the OB truck to arrive. The game started around 7pm and normally the truck would only arrive around 5pm. This left very little time to rig and try as I might to get the truck to arrive earlier, it never did. The crew always preferred to leave things to the very last minute, trusting that the equipment would always work and that everything would be up and running by game-time. Oh, and did I mention that part of that 2 hour set up time included a 45 minute meal break? The first few weeks were certainly very nerve-wracking, but by the second month I started to relax and trust that things would just happen, which 9 times out of 10 they usually did.

 

OK, so the above story might sound a bit daunting for anyone planning to shoot in China, but it actually taught me a great deal about having the correct attitude whilst on the Mainland. Attitude is everything when it comes to filming in China.

 

Whilst permit applications and government approvals are both important, what is really going to make your production run smoothly is having plenty of what the Chinese call guan-xi. This isn't some kind of martial art, or herbal tea. Put simply guan-xi is rapport, or getting to know your Chinese colleagues. The Chinese are extremely sociable people and love to wine and dine at every opportunity - before, during and after shooting if possible. Nothing can be achieved before a meal has cemented the relationship. Refuse a meal in your honour and you might as well pack your bags and get the next flight home. A few years ago I worked on Discovery Atlas: China Revealed, a huge HD project looking at the incredible transformation the country is currently experiencing. Some of the places we visited had never seen a Western TV crew before. The only way in was by employing a government-affiliated co-producer, to negotiate for us, usually over a huge meal. On one occasion we endured a seven-hour dinner before permissions were granted. This involved drinking copious amounts of rice-wine, which might not seem the most appropriate way of getting permission to film, but in China, sometimes that's what it takes.

 

This brings me to another point. You can't set up a production in China from 6,000 miles away. Either get on a plane, or employ a good, local bi-lingual fixer to sort things out for you. Good fixers are more than just translators. They need to understand the Western mentality towards filmmaking just as much as the Chinese approach. Many of the fixers I use have been educated overseas or have previously worked with Chinese TV stations, meaning their attitude is more open and they're more flexible in their thinking. Giving your fixer ample time to set up is also important. China's a huge country and cannot be dealt with as just one single entity. Each province will have their own cultural and foreign affairs bureaux, so each one will have to be contacted individually. You may also need to employ a government-affiliated co-producer, to process the permit applications and gain access to certain locations. Some years ago I worked on the BBC natural history series Wild China, with the collaboration of CCTV (China Central Television). It proved to be a rapid learning curve for both sides, as the Brits had to learn about cultural differences whilst the Chinese had to learn about natural history filmmaking.

 

The more information you can provide in advance about your project, the easier it will be for the fixer and co-producer to help you (for more information please contact me on markrob@hkstar.com). A typical lead time of 1 to 2 months is needed when applying for permissions, although this may vary depending on where you plan to film and what the subject matter is.

 

A question I often get asked about working in China is 'What's the food and accommodation like?' There seems to be a misconception that China doesn't have any decent hotels or restaurants. On the contrary, some of the best hotels I've ever stayed in have been in China and although the staff might not always speak fluent English, they have a willingness to help that puts Western hotel staff to shame. Many of the top hotel companies are well represented in the cities and even in the more remote parts you'll find that hotels are on the whole clean and in good shape. Similarly, food is becoming more diverse now, and ubiquitous Western franchises such as Starbucks and McDonalds are commonplace in the big cities. But if you've never had real Chinese food before, then do yourself a favour and dive into the myriad of delicious treats China has waiting for you. Even a simple bowl of Yunnanese soup noodles steeped in fragrant herbs and peppercorns will have you going back for second helpings.

 

Whilst we're on the subject of food, another important point to mention is meal breaks. If you want to keep your Chinese crew happy, win friends and influence people, make sure you stop for lunch and dinner. In the West we're used to wolfing down a sandwich and carrying on with the filming as soon as possible. Nothing is more important to the Chinese than meal-times, as it's sometimes the only time in the day to get to know one another. So figure out a way of scheduling in a decent sit-down hot meal break, otherwise you might not get the co-operation with filming that you expected.

 

Another query I often get is about equipment. If you bring your own kit into China, then you must submit an equipment list together with your visa application to the fixer and co-producer. Carnets are not officially recognised for importing camera equipment into the PRC and may be rejected when presented at China Customs. Please note that Hong Kong is not Mainland China, and doesn't have the strict issues regarding equipment importation. Carnets are accepted as a valid means of importing equipment into Hong Kong.

 

Because of the complexity and cost of bringing equipment into China, many production companies now prefer to hire equipment locally. But what does China have in terms of the latest gear? More than 90% of my work in China is shot on HD and of that figure more than 50% is using locally hired equipment. Again, having a rapport with a local rental company will help enormously and I've built up a well-established relationship with various China-based companies who can get me anything from HD cameras to lighting equipment, Jimmy-jibs to grip gear. One thing to bear in mind is that it's normal for the rental company to send a camera assistant out with the gear (at an extra minimal cost), whether you want one or not. It's the rental company's guarantee that the gear will be looked after. He might not speak English but he'll usually be very eager to help.

 

Inevitably, at some stage during the production you'll encounter a problem with access to a particular location. Normally when this happens elsewhere in the world the producer will ask to speak to the guy in charge and after some negotiations access will be granted. In China however, there is a definite pecking order of who can approach whom, and just because you're top of the production food chain doesn't mean you can go directly to the headman. You first need to know the hierarchy that's in place on the Chinese side and then give that relevant person face or respect. That's where your fixer and co-producer will prove invaluable. I once worked on a Channel Four (UK) documentary where we planned to shoot a sequence in a restaurant. Having been granted permission by the restaurant manager prior to the shoot day, we arrived early and then waited for him before rearranging the tables and chairs for our benefit. Unfortunately the brash, young assistant producer began ordering the restaurant staff to move the furniture before the manager arrived. However, the staff were only used to taking orders from their boss, not some young upstart who didn't even say please or thank you. When the manager arrived, one of his staff explained the situation and understandably he was furious– he had lost face in front of his staff. It took my Chinese production assistant and myself all our powers of persuasion to convince him to let us continue filming. Patience and giving face will get you much more than screaming and shouting.

 

In the Far East, Taoist philosophy encourages people to go with the flow, like a river running its course, accepting the way ahead even if it might not be easy. It's an attitude that I've learned to embrace when working in China – tolerance, respect and politeness. Even though you may think you'll never come back to China, it's worth leaving with honour and gratitude both safely secured in place. It will make coming back the next time far easier and more enjoyable.

 

Mark Roberts is one of Asia's leading location sound recordists working regularly on documentaries for BBC, NBC, Discovery Channel and National Geographic TV. He also provides a full range of production services for overseas crews visiting Hong Kong and China.