Last summer acclaimed documentary filmmaker Tan Siok Siok headed out into the streets of Beijing with a rather ambitious goal of capturing the essence of the city and its people the summer before the Olympics.
The result is Boomtown Beijing, a film that paints a picture of not just a city or the sporting event that it will play host to – but rather how a singular event has inspired people to do what in the past was so difficult and dangerous – dream.
The documentary follows the story of three Beijingers – an 11-year-old boy who hopes to be an Olympic torchbearer, a street sweeper looking to put together a mass Olympic countdown performance and a blind athlete that wants one last chance at a Paralympics medal before retirement. The three otherwise disjointed stories come together in the film to tell the tale of a city and a nation that has become intensely ionized by a sporting event, not for the event itself, but for the dreams and imagination it has stirred to the surface.
I had a chance recently to ask Siok Siok some questions about the film. Here’s our conversation:
Lost Laowai: What were the circumstances surrounding your decision to take the plunge and make this film?
Tan Siok Siok: I had this wonderful opportunity to guest lecture at the Beijing Film Academy during the Spring Semester of 2007. The focus of my lectures was documentary production for the international market. Documentary film production does not make the sexiest topic for lectures. So the film started off as a humble means of making the lessons come alive for my students. More than 40 students applied to be part of the project and we picked 4 to serve as assistant producers of the film. The students have an opportunity for hands-on experience of the entire production process from pre-production to filming, and eventually, the distribution of the film to broadcasters and film festivals.
LLW: In what ways did the students add to the creation of the film – and how much did they affect or change your initial vision of it?
TSS: The students helped a great deal in finding the key characters of the film. They also generated visual ideas for the film. Some of the most well-loved segments in the film, such as the scene with military police learning English, came from their suggestions. They were my eyes and ears on the ground.
I don’t think they changed my initial vision of the film but I definitely think they had a big influence on how that vision is realized in its nuances and details.
LLW: You’ve had a successful career working for various large production houses, notably Discovery Channel, how was the process of making your first independent film different from the projects you have done in the past?
TSS: Working outside the paradigm of mainstream TV allows me to break out of conventional narrative moulds. This accounts for the unusual form the film takes.
It is what we, in our jargon, will call an “essay film”. Although the film is often described as a film about three Beijing residents and their Olympic dreams, it is really a film of ideas instead of a conventional story. The central idea of the film is “the city of Beijing the summer before the Olympics.” But my extensive experience in TV has helped make me to make the film watchable and enjoyable despite taking an unusual form.
LLW: What was the largest challenge in making this film?
TSS: The biggest challenge is to find stories that will transcend cultural boundaries visually and emotionally. To find people who will open up to us took a lot of legwork and persistence. I have my students to thank for unearthing interesting characters and finding fascinating scenes.
LLW: Anyone that’s lived in China since the country won the Olympic bid has endured massive amounts of publicity/propaganda about the event this summer. Where does Boomtown Beijing fall in that torrent of information?
TSS: Given the deluge of news about the Olympics, I have been surprised by the warm response to the film. Quite a few individuals have said to me that the film has changed their perception of China and the Olympics. Others have said it has filled a gap in the media portrayals of the Olympic games.
“Watching Siok Siok’s Boomtown Beijing yesterday suddenly gave me a brand new perspective on what the “average” man on the street of Beijing is feeling about their upcoming Olympics, and more importantly how what we feel about China has been largely shaped by what we hear/see what the media has wanted us to hear/see” – SPUG Forum: Hootie
Boomtown Beijing is an attempt to depict the Olympics on a human scale. In making the film, I hoped to encourage a more open and variant perspective on China and the Olympics, beyond the polarized points of views of East and West.
LLW: There’s certainly been no shortage of polarization regarding China and the Olympics lately, largely due to various protests along the Olympic Torch relay route, and the ensuring surge in Chinese nationalism. Have your showings weathered any heated debates?
TSS: Yes, we have had some pretty extended post screening Q&A sessions. One session after the Beijing Film Academy screening went on for more than two hours, more than twice the length of the film itself! I welcome these discussions as they often challenge us to reconsider our own preconceived notions about “film”, “documentary”, “China” and the “Olympics”
LLW: Speaking of screenings, it seems every couple weeks I get a notice of a showing of the film somewhere in Asia. Where are some of the places the film has been shown to date – and where will it be heading next?
TSS: We are doing a series of charity screenings in the final 100 days counting down to the Beijing Olympics. All proceeds will benefit the Library Project, a charity that donates libraries to rural elementary school children in China.
Since the film’s debut in Beijing on April 20, 2008, we have had three events in Beijing and Xi’an close on the heels of one another. In the month of May, we’ll do more screenings in Beijing, Guangzhou, Singapore and possibly Shanghai. In June, there will be a tour of major US cities.