The “Dangers” of Documentary Filmmaking

It’s final year! Though I should be working on my final film and not attending classes, due to bad planning and whatever other issues there might have been, our class has 6 weeks of classes before we can officially start making our final films.

From left: me(Jamaica); Sylvian (Madagascar); Mahmood (Afghanistan); Britney (England); (Hong Da Ae (Korea); Rachel (Kenya); Ina (Korea); Xu Ya Ping - Teacher (China)
From left: me(Jamaica); Sylvian (Madagascar); Mahmood (Afghanistan); Brittany (England); (Hong Da (Korea); Rachel (Kenya); Ina (Korea); Xu YaPing – Teacher (China)
Our last Film Production class. Our teacher is in the middle in orange (Taken today)
Our last Film Production class. Our teacher is in the middle in orange (Taken today)

One of the classes is Documentary Filmmaking and we have to make a 10 minute documentary. I am working with Sylvian and Brittany to find out why Chinese men are not attracted to Black women and vice versa. To do this, we interviewed some  Chinese men and some Black women. Plus, I did a few experiments including going to a crowded area holding up a sign  asking guys if they want to go on a date with me.

Holding up a sign to see how many Chinese men will approach me.
Holding up a sign to see how many Chinese men will approach me.

We left our relatively quiet area on the outskirts of the city and went to Wudaokou, a very crowded area where a whole lot of universities are located. We got there about 6pm and were filming for about 2 hours. *Spoiler alert* the venture wasn’t very successful. Anyhow, we decided to wrap up filming and went to the subway station to film my final thoughts on the experiment. Before I could get one word out, a police man came up and looked at the sign. I thought he was just curious, but it turns out it was more than that.

He asked us for our school ID cards which we gave to him and were explaining (Sylvian and I) that we were just students doing our homework. Then more and more police kept coming and eventually school IDs weren’t enough, we had to show them our visas now. None of us had our visas, so we called our teacher, asking them to explain the situation.20141013_204225

The police were on the phone with our teacher for a long time, so I went and got us some steamed corn (it was my first time eating steamed corn in China and it was delicious).At this point Brittany whispered that since I had a camera strapped on, I should record what was happening. While I whole heartedly agreed with her, I chose not to since whenever the camera was recording, a flashing red light would come on. Finally the police decided to take us to the station.

On the way to the police station
On the way to the police station
Eating sweet corn while the police are deciding whether to take us to the station or not
Eating sweet corn while the police are deciding whether to take us to the station or not

The station wasn’t far away. When we got there, the police that drove us to the station, showed our sign to the policemen at the station and they all laughed. Then they printed all our information from the visa system and kept analysing it and asking questions. Sylvian did most of the talking. They kept mulling over our papers and asking us the same questions over and over and over such as:

What school do you go to?

How long have you been here?

Where do you live?

Are you all in the same class?

What’s your major?

Did any guys agree to go on a date with you?

After 1 police would finish asking us questions, another more senior looking police would come and ask the same questions. There was especially this one young policeman who could speak English and I think because of that he kept trying to be intimidating, by fiercely moving his eyebrows up and down. But, at the same time he would try to joke around with us. He was extremely irritating.

They watched and recorded all our footage, took something similar to a mug shot of us and just kept looking at our information and talking amongst themselves as though they were trying to find some flaw in what we were telling them. We stayed there for about 2 hours in total and when the last policewoman came downstairs, she told us that someone had reported us for disturbing the peace. That’s when the English speaking policeman’s eyebrows became especially violent.

The police recording all our footage
The police recording all our footage
Taking our "mug shots"
Taking our “mug shots”

He kept telling us we better not do it again. This made us all confused because we didn’t know what exactly we had done and how we could avoid doing it. But they kept persisting that we shouldn’t do it again.  Sylvian kept saying, “But we’re film students, we can’t promise we won’t do it again, and if we do happen to have to do it again, is there some permit we can get?” The English speaking policeman’s eyebrows nearly flew off his face. He kept saying, “No theres no permit. You just better not do it again.”

When they finally took us back to the subway station, we got there 4 minutes before the last train so we had to run to catch it. If we had missed it, we would have had to take a taxi back to where we live on the opposite side of Beijing, about 100 RMB. In the scheme of world prices, it isn’t much, but in Beijing it’s a bit expensive and as a student, we try to avoid taking taxis when you don’t have to otherwise, it will add up.

I learned a few very important things that night:

1. In a country that is not your own, always have your passport, even a copy

2. Always have some kind of permission if possible when you plan to film (our teacher had written a letter for us which none of us had thought to carry with us)

3. Disable the red flashing lights on your cameras, it may come in handy one day

4. It’s useful to be able to speak the language in a country whose native language isn’t the same as yours

5. Policemen arent heartless people (I had to go to the bathroom at one point and of course one of the policemen had to go with me. On the way back he told me not to worry because we would be able to leave soon and they just had to do some standard checks. And he told me my Chinese wasn’t that bad 🙂 )

6. I don’t know what I will do after graduation, and while it will be hard to leave and I will miss China, I don’t think this will be the place where I will start my career. I think that experience made that decision for me. But then, I will never say never.


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