Old Version

In Defense of Dreams

Oscar-winning documentarian Malcolm Clarke talks about his latest project focusing on the ordinary lives that have been changed by China’s extraordinary transformation

By Luo Haibing Updated Nov.1

Stills from A Long Cherished Dream

As China puts its weight behind the drive to enable its population of 1.4 billion to lift themselves from poverty and build a well-off society, the country has been a target of accusations from the West.  

“China is not very good at defending itself,” British director Malcolm Clarke told China News Service.  

Winner of two Academy Awards for Best Documentary (Short Subject) You Don’t Have to Die (1988) and The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life (2013), Clarke has turned his lens toward China.  

His most recent series, A Long Cherished Dream, zooms in on ordinary people as the Shanghai-based director presents the real China to Western audiences. He shared his insights into why China is misunderstood by the West.  

China News Service: In your latest series A Long Cherished Dream, you depict the changes in the lives of ordinary people in China, and each story shows how ordinary people make great efforts in their lives. Why and how did you pick the featured places and people to tell these stories?  

Malcolm Clarke: A Long Cherished Dream was a way for me to explain China to a Western audience. I know it will show in China and I’m delighted that it will be seen in China. But the real heavy work is convincing people in the West to take China seriously and to appreciate what is happening. We decided on very simple organizing principles for the series. We would try to make a series of films that showed many different geographical parts of China. We start in rural Yunnan [Province], we come all the way to Yiwu [Zhejiang Province], and to Shanghai. We wanted the film to have a range of experiences from extreme poverty to, at least, middle-class life.  

We start in Yunnan with people who are very poor, who have to make some difficult decisions about being rehoused. Do they want to leave behind everything that they know and are familiar with for an uncertain future, but in better living circumstances? They talk about the difficulties of those decisions. From there we go to a young woman who is remarkable. She’s a poorly educated person from a country village, who is now driving a colossal, huge cross-country truck, making good money. And she’s become a kind of natural feminist. She believes in the old Mao Zedong doctrine of women holding up half the sky. She wants to be just as responsible, just as free, just as assertive and as successful as any man. She’s a tremendously admirable person, and I think a role model for many young Chinese women.  

Our third film is about a guy who’s living the dream. He started poor. Now he’s a kind of a world-famous acrobat with a Shanghai circus and a world-class performer. But to become a world-class performer, he had to leave his village, leave his family, leave his childhood behind and work very hard, very long, and suffer psychologically and physically, to be as good as he is. So now he drives a fancy car and he has a beautiful family and his kid is in a good school. He’s living the China dream and he deserves the real kind of appreciation for his hard work and his resilience. So, all these people started with nothing. They are slowly becoming kind of productive members of a new society, which is giving the nation, giving the people so much opportunity. And that is the same in the final episode. We have people who became millionaires by riding the wave of the renaissance of China, but not selfish, arrogant people who ride around in fancy cars and don’t care about anyone else. They’re not that kind of person. They are very responsible and very dedicated to putting something back into the community that they came from. These are all lovely stories about good people who have suffered a lot and now are getting an opportunity through this initiative called xiaokang (moderately prosperous society) to fulfill themselves. That’s when you have a community of people in the country who can dream, who have the freedom to dream, and dare to dream about a better future, you’re doing something right. And I think we can all applaud what’s happening.  

CNS: Do you worry these Chinese stories you filmed will be seen as propaganda for China in the West? Is there poverty there, and how did they eliminate poverty?  

MC: There was no real intention to make a film about how good the Chinese people are. We weren’t making propaganda at all. We were trying to really tell just how far China has come, and how China has created opportunities for so many people so quickly, that I think it’s noteworthy and admirable and that people in the West should understand what is happening here. Sometimes in the West, we attack China for all kinds of reasons which are not, in my opinion, legitimate. China is not very good at defending itself... in terms of convincing ordinary people that China is not an evil empire, which it certainly is not.  

What these films were designed to do was just to put a human face on China and Chinese people, to show that where poverty does exist, really horrible poverty, the Chinese government is doing something positive about it, and having extraordinarily successful results. There are anti-poverty programs in every Western country, but they’re not very effective. They’re not tackling the scale and the size of the problem in China. And in Western Europe and in America, while poverty there exists, it is not as appalling as it has been in China. People living in Yunnan that we talked to were living a kind of life we had in Western Europe in the 18th century. It was very ugly. It’s very beautiful to photograph, but it’s very ugly to experience it, and I don’t like to see people suffering like that. The interesting thing is neither does the Chinese government. They have actually done something very effective to change that.  

It’s not just about giving people a better circumstance to live in. It’s not just about putting money in their pocket or food on the table. It's something bigger than that. It’s giving them a good education and giving them the opportunities to get on to the same ladder – 200 or 300 million Chinese people have climbed to become middle class to have a better life, and to fulfill their dreams. That’s why finally we called it A Long Cherished Dream. You may want to be an explorer, or a teacher, or an Olympic champion, or whatever. But if you live in that kind of poverty, the only thing you think about is putting food in your belly and keeping your kids alive. The xiaokang initiative has done something a lot more profound of it. I think that it’s allowed people to be able to dream about fulfilling what they want to be, who they want to be, and how they want to live their lives.  

CNS: Why did you want to make such a movie?  

MC: A Long Cherished Dream is just another version of the movie I’ve been making all my life. What fascinates me is to open someone and look deep into who they really are. I’m not very interested in surface, the face the people present, because it’s never really who they are. In a sense, you diagnose them in the way that a doctor would diagnose an illness. You look deep, and you hope if you that they will trust you and then they will tell you things. Sometimes I’m successful, and sometimes I’m not. It’s more difficult in China for two reasons. First of all, I don’t speak Mandarin, which is a big disadvantage. But I have a fantastic team of people who work for me, who understand the philosophy behind what we do and how we do it. When we finally selected content for this series, we must have examined 100 different stories, 100 different kinds of people, to find the four stories.  

And then I come in and I’m a little bit strange, because I’m Western, I’m old, I’m kind of a little bit odd in these people’s lives. But it’s very important that they see that I respect who they are. And in a sense, being Western is a kind of an interesting advantage on one level, because I can be inappropriate. I can ask questions that no Chinese person would ask another Chinese person. So, I can ask very searching questions. And I hope that people trust me because I will respect who they are, what they say.  

You see in these four films, people are talking about very intimate experiences in their lives, things that they probably don’t talk about very much. They certainly don’t share with strangers. I’m a stranger, but they shared with us. That’s because they trusted us. That’s what we have to do. That’s how we work. If we can establish trust, we can make a good film.  

CNS: You’ve been following China for a long time. You made the documentary Better Angels (2018), which tells the story of China-US relations and people of the two countries. You also went to Wuhan to shoot during the pandemic last year. Why have you been so interested in the development and these changes of China, and how you see these changes?  

MC: I say it all the time. I’m here because I think China is the single biggest news story of the 21st century. The renaissance of this nation and the civilization is a historic event. It’s not going to stop. In 100 years, it’s going to continue. This is a nation and civilization to which the world owes a huge debt of gratitude, because China has contributed so much to science and technology over the centuries. And China isn’t getting credit for what it is achieving. There are lots of reasons for that. Geopolitics that we don’t need to get into here. But China is victimized I think and unfairly judged.  

This xiaokang initiative is just one more brick in this extraordinary wall, this new wall of that building, this new great wall of achievement. I’m here because I think there are 1.4 billion stories to be told, because history is being made in China. It’s stimulating and exciting to be a part of that. So I want to document it if I can.  

CNS: As a documentarian, how do you think China should be presented to global audiences?  

MC: It’s actually a very simple answer. China tends to talk about itself in statistical terms. You bring some millions of people out of poverty. You educate millions of people. You create extraordinary technological achievements. You build more kilometers of railroad around the country than any other country. Your trains are faster, your tunnels are longer, your bridges are higher... it’s all statistical, it’s all superlatives. Never talk about the Chinese people. When you do talk about the Chinese people, you paint a happy face on them, smiley faces, and people’s lives are all smiles. There are very rarely threedimensional portraits. That’s what we do. We try to show the good and the bad: the triumphs and the failures. So people in the West can relate to them, and say I’m like that.’ Friday comes around and I have no money because I spent all my money and I have to wait to my next paycheck: ‘That’s the way I live.’ My daughter’s having a relationship with a guy. I don’t approve of it: ‘That’s what I do,’ you know to show that we’re all kind of living the same experience in different social systems and in different political systems. But human beings are human beings. They’re messy creatures. And the more you can show that Chinese people are just like Americans and French people and Australians and Indonesians and Brazilians. We all have the same lives to lead, and our lives in many respects are similar, but whether you are rich or you are poor, you still have anxieties. You still want your kids to live better lives than you lived. And the more you can draw attention to those similarities. You see people striving for a better life, you see people making mistakes, you see people making decisions that they regret. And then there’s a kind of commonality of experience and commonality of purpose that people in the West can say ‘they are just like us.’ All we’re really doing is providing the stage. We put them on the stage and we say, okay, now, tell us, we’re listening. We respect what you said. And It can be very strong.  

CNS: What are your plans for future projects?  

MC: I’ll stay in China until someone kicks me out (laughs). I enjoy the experience of being a fish out of water. Yes, there’s a big project I want to make. And it’s about a guy a little bit like me, but from the 20th century – a man called Joseph Needham, who was a professor of Cambridge, a scientist.  

Through an accident of history, he was introduced to China through his girlfriend who was Chinese. He started to look at some of the kind of Chinese scientific inventions that have been in his field. And slowly this interest in China, what China had invented grew and grew into his life’s work and he wrote a monumental book about everything that China had contributed to global civilization, scientifically, technologically. We realize in the West that, a lot of the things that we thought we invented, we didn’t invent, Chinese did, and sometimes hundreds of years earlier. This guy was a marvelous man. He was very eccentric. He was a very strange, interesting, unusual man. And I want to make a film about his life because I think by making a film about him, again, we use him as the medium to look at China. We see China through his eyes. He lived until the late 1990s. He was 90-something years old when he died. We can tell the whole of Chinese 20th century history through his experience.  

What I hope is that I can, by example, by doing what I do, encourage more Chinese artists and filmmakers to look at their own culture and their own country a little more. Because it really is an extraordinary place and it has been for 5,000 years. So, draw inspiration from it, tell Chinese stories and tell them the Chinese way. Make a Chinese movie and be proud of what’s here, because there is a lot to be proud of. 

Malcolm Clarke