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Becoming Better Angels

Can a documentary help regular Chinese and Americans understand each other? Two filmmakers talk to NewsChina about why they wanted to make their film, and what they hope it will achieve

By Xie Yi Updated Feb.9

The Sino-US relationship seems to be murky at best these days, overshadowed by the ongoing trade friction between the world’s two largest economies. Amid the doom and gloom comes Better Angels, a 90-minute documentary, made by a world-class director and producers hoping to project a beam of light on arguably what is the world’s most important bilateral relationship.

Directed and narrated by two-time Oscar-winning director Malcolm Clarke, and produced by William Mundell and Han Yi, experienced producers from the US and China, Better Angels, shot on four continents and produced over five years, aims to shatter the myths that the two countries have long had about each other. Not only did they interview the great and the good, such as former US Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and Madeleine Albright and former head of the Hong Kong government Tung Chee-hwa, but they also spoke to many ordinary citizens of the US and China, the “accidental diplomats” who are essential to underpinning and strengthening bilateral ties. By looking into the lives of these regular Joes and Zhous, audiences will realize that despite contrary perceptions, Chinese people and Americans are not that different.  

Director Malcolm Clarke, whose fascination with China began in 1981 on his first trip to the country for a film project that ultimately did not work out, and producer William Mundell, chairman of IKM, which provides web-based knowledge assessment and a frequent traveler to China, shared their thoughts with NewsChina on the bilateral relationship and how Chinese stories should best be told to be accepted by Western audiences.  

They pointed out that the average Chinese person understands the US and the American people much better than average American understands China and Chinese, thanks to the dominance of American soft power in a system that pumps out pop culture, movies, books and journalism. It is about time to help improve the average American’s knowledge base about China, they said.

The timing of the film’s release could not be better, as the two countries will soon be celebrating the 40th anniversary of formal relations in January 2019. The filmmakers are hoping that the “better angels” of the Sino-US relationship are still waiting in the wings. “We are better together than we are apart,” Mundell told NewsChina.  

NewsChina: What do you mean by ‘Better Angels’? 
William Mundell: In the interview we did with Henry Kissinger, he says that if the United States and China were to clash, it would be a disaster for the whole world, and so we must look at the relationship as an effort to make the better angels of our nature prevail amidst a maelstrom of events. When he said that, that resonated with the director and myself and we decided on the spot that had to be the name of the picture.  

NC: Is there a particular audience you want to reach with this documentary? 
WM: I wanted to make this film to make the American people and the Chinese people, as distinct from their governments, stakeholders in what is arguably the most important bilateral relationship in the world. Clearly right now we are at a pivotal inflection point in that relationship, so there’s no more important time than now to have an informed citizenry.  

I think if you look at the documentary, this was made by Westerners. My director is British and I’m American. If you look at the films historically that have been made on China, certainly over the last decade, they’ve been very focused on the human rights issues, natural disasters, and I felt there was a lot more that the American people needed to know about China and the Chinese people needed to know about America.  

To state the obvious, the American people know a lot less about China than the Chinese people know about America. There is a natural tendency to fear what you don’t know, and this is why people need to be educated, because if they are educated, then they can make an informed decision. Right now, the knowledge base is so low about China that I feel that fear takes up all the public space. And we have seen that in the last couple of years accelerate.  

NC: What message do you want to deliver to audiences of both China and the US through this documentary? 
Malcolm Clarke: I like to make films that apply more to the heart than to the head. I wanted to make an emotional film about China. [Chinese President] Xi Jinping has now become famous for the China dream. All the billboards when I came to China were full of the China dream. I kind of looked into what that really meant for President Xi, for the Party and for the people. It really is very, very similar to the American dream. I think both Americans and Chinese and probably people all over the world want the same things. They want to eat every day, they want to breathe clean air and be healthy; they want to live in peace. They want a good job, and they would like it if their children lived a little better life than they lived themselves. So that there was an incremental improvement in living standards. 

That’s the American dream. And when I looked into it, it seemed that it’s the China dream too. Right there, we see that these two great nations have aspirations that are very similar.  

NC: Over the four decades since your first visit, what are the most significant changes about China that you noticed or experienced? 
MC: If you want to know what the future looks like, you go to China now; you don’t go to America; you don’t come to England or France; you go to China. I think that is tremendously exciting. A lot of people are quite anxious about the rise of China. I like to say the renaissance of China, because for centuries China was the preeminent culture and power on the planet.  

When I was in China in 1981 and 1982, it was an extremely rural and underdeveloped country. The moment I got out of Beijing and Shanghai, it was like getting into a time machine looking at the way I would imagine people had lived their lives in Europe at the end of the 19th century. I traveled up to the Yangtze River and Yellow River and went into the mountains of Sichuan. Everywhere I went people were very friendly and they were very hard working. This work ethic that Chinese had could be harnessed and channeled. This was a country that would really change the world, and that is exactly what happened. I have been to China several times since, but this last time I went, it was an extraordinary revelation. It was an extraordinary transformation there. I think the renaissance of China is something which I don’t think anyone who hasn’t been to China can possibly imagine.  

NC: What are some common misunderstandings on both sides? 
WM: Let’s start with China first. I think the Chinese don’t truly understand that the America that Xi Jinping, your president, saw 30 years ago is an America that still exists today. It is an open America, accommodating America and an America that is interested in hearing solutions from people outside of their country. I think that’s one of the most important takeaways for the China side. Because I think if they understand that, the Chinese people will try harder in America. And I think that’s a good thing.  

On the American side, I think the most important myth that exists is that the economic relationship between China and the United States is a zero-sum relationship. Americans have seen the exodus of middle-class jobs and they have seen China gain middle class jobs as a result of that. That’s part of the process of globalization. And I think they haven’t been schooled or properly understood the fact that in the next phase of globalization that middle class that has developed in China will be the buyers of our goods. So the gift that Americans gave to China, which is its market, is the gift that China is about to give back to America. I think that even if China were not to open its market any further, in other words it would stay exactly as it is right now, which is unlikely, I think. I think they will open. It is almost a certainty over the next five to 10 years, as the roughly 600 million middle class Chinese consumers come on tap, that China will supplant both Mexico and Canada as the number one export destination for American goods. So for the first time in a generation, the American people have the real prospect of winning back some of the jobs we lost from China.  

NC: What can filmmakers do to eliminate the misunderstandings and promote dialogue between the people of the two countries? 
MC: The average Chinese understands America and Americans much better than the average American understands China and Chinese. That is attributed to American popular culture, propaganda machine, movies, televisions, books, journalism, open debate, all those things mean that pretty much everyone in the world knows a little bit about America. We don’t know that about China. We don’t know what the average Chinese is thinking. We don’t know the price that the average Chinese is paying for this extraordinary renaissance that has happened. Families separated because mom and dad have to travel across the country to go to a big city to earn a living. Kids are raised by their grandparents because their parents are not around. Young Chinese workers travel to Africa because they make more money to send back to their village. But they have to be separated from their wife and their kids for years. All these things that the rest of the world, not just America, doesn’t understand. And if they did understand a little bit more of the price that the average Chinese has paid for this progress, I think they would be much more empathetic and inclined to see that the Chinese were human too.  

NC: How has the Sino-US relationship changed in the five years since you began making this film? 
WM: I think things in general have deteriorated over the five-year period, especially in the last couple of years in the US-China relationship. And I think that just speaks to the importance of shattering the myths that do exist. We talked about economic myths. But there are a lot of other things that Americans don’t understand about China on the economic front. I think the average American doesn’t understand that there’s been a real dark side to globalization for the Chinese people themselves. China has experienced its own disruption of its labor force as middle class jobs have moved to Southeast Asia and Africa. So the exact same thing that has happened to America is happening to China. Secondly, way under-reported in the West is the concept of so-called unattended children [left-behind children]. There are over 60 million children in China, 20 percent of the child population of China that grows up without a mother or father because they move to the city or to in some cases another country in order to find work. This is a part that’s not really understood. People see the enormous wealth – they see the fact that China has lifted 600 million people out of extreme poverty, and in such a short period of time. It is a historic miracle. The renaissance of China. I think when that becomes the headline, the other parts of the cost associated with getting there are not well understood. If they were I think people would have more empathy for China. This is a message that needs to get out in order to prevent misunderstandings. I like to say that globalization is agnostic with respect to its victims. It gives and it takes with both parties and I think to the extent that more people understand, then I think there would be a basis for moving forward and cooperating.  

NC: How can we build a healthy relationship between China and the US?
WM: Critical is to increase the knowledge base and to specifically shatter the myths that America has about China and China has about America. I think if you don’t take the first steps, it is very difficult for the policy makers at the government level, the state-to-state level, to achieve the objectives that we want to achieve.  

As George Washington said, if you have public opinion on your side, you can do anything. Without it, you can do nothing.  

NC: Many directors use films and documentaries to tell stories about China. Why is there still a misconception in the West about China despite so many films being made every year? 
MC: I have possibly quite unpopular views on what Chinese media has achieved and is achieving. I don’t think the Chinese are terribly successful at depicting China. I don’t think Chinese movies really do tell what I would say were really interesting, good Chinese stories about ordinary Chinese people. Most of the directors I know in China – they’re quite good – but they are borrowing ideas from America. They make Chinese versions of American movies, action movies. There’s nothing wrong with that – Chinese obviously like it, but I don’t think that’s all it should be. The American pop culture machine means everyone understands America. China should take a leaf out of America’s book. They should do the exactly the same thing. They should be proud of what they have achieved. Because what they have achieved is extraordinary. And put more money, in my opinion – and I’m not the one spending the money – into Chinese popular culture, into Chinese films that tell good honest stories about the experiences that Chinese people are undergoing today.  

I would love to see more Chinese directors focus on the stories around them, more realistic, emotionally honest stories about the struggles of Chinese and achievements of the Chinese. The problem is that I think much Chinese information that comes to the West, feels to a Western sensibility like propaganda. I think we are wise enough, generally speaking, to reject anything that feels like the information is being manipulated or controlled. Just a good, honest love story would be so much better for China than a good piece of propaganda about the fastest train, the highest bridge, the deepest tunnel. All these superlatives tend to frighten people. Because we say, oh, China is an extraordinary technological giant, this behemoth, that’s scary to people. If they just show ordinary people having ordinary lives, having something interesting happening in their lives that would at least bring the Chinese emotionally closer to the European and the American sensibility.  

NC: Where do you see the relationship heading? 
WM: I’m optimistic because if we can get around the misunderstandings, I think the fundamentals of the economic relationship are extraordinarily strong. We are better together than we are apart. We need to double down on the level of integration between China and the United States right now.