Nearly a year ago I posted about a documentary film being made by ChinaGeek‘s founder (and one-time Lost Laowai contributor), Charlie Custer.

The film, now titled Living With Dead Hearts, explores the issue of kidnapped children in China and how it affects the parents, the children and the whole community. And it needs your help to finish being made.

Earlier this week on his blog Imagethief, Will Moss wrote a poignant and humorous post that couldn’t have summed up better why, as a new father, this issue touches me deeply. So rather than rehash that point here with half the quality of Will’s post, please go read it.

After you’ve done that, please take a moment to watch the following trailer for the film, read my interview below with Charlie and consider giving what you can to help this film be made.

Lost Laowai: What originally moved you to pick up this cause and build a documentary around it? Was there a catalyst or specific moment that made you feel this had to be made?

Charlie: After we made Kedong County, which is not good but showed us that we probably could make a good documentary if we put more time and work into it, I was actively looking for a topic to make a longer and more serious film about (Kedong County was just something we did kinda for fun over a weekend, basically). I had been interested in the topic of street children ever since I first moved to China, and I had learned about kidnapping and how that connected from an ex-cop Chinese friend of mine when I was living in Harbin. So I was thinking actively about the issue, and how we could approach it in a way that would be meaningful and at the same time (hopefully) not get us arrested.

When I read this article by Austin Ramzy in TIME last year, I realized that the angle he took–focusing on the search and personal stories–might work well for a film. We were researching and raising money for the film that is now called Living with Dead Hearts within about a week of my reading that.

Lost Laowai: How has the project changed since last year’s round of funding and starting filming? Any unexpected challenges or obstacles?

Charlie: Well, we’ve obviously learned a lot over the year, both about kidnapping and about filmmaking since this is our first time, and that has changed our outlook a bit. The original structure we had in mind for the film has been changed a bit, although we haven’t settled on a final structure yet. And we’ve come across new subjects whose stories are too interesting not to pursue, so where we once planned to mostly follow one family, now we’re already following two and making plans to go shoot a third when we have time. It may elongate the filmmaking process but ultimately their cases are very interesting and very different from each other, so we’re going to follow them and see where they go.

Practically speaking, things have gone fairly well. The biggest challenge we’ve found thus far is that several places our subjects live seem to be enforcing a regulation that requires foreigners to stay in at least three-star lodgings — we’d been planning to stay in fleabag joints, so that’s raised our travel costs quite a bit from what we had planned for. Other than that, it’s been about what we expected. Travel with so much heavy gear is exhausting, of course, and our subjects have gotten a little harassment from the police for speaking to us in a couple cases, but we knew that would be the case from the outset.

Lost Laowai: In what ways has being a foreigner affected the production and how have you handled it?

When she told them about the film and asked if there was someone who we could interview, they told her that not only would they not grant us an interview, but that she couldn’t continue to volunteer for them as long as she was associated with a foreigner working on this project.

Charlie: Aside from the housing issue, there’s just the general issue of access, which is pretty key in the documentary field. People want to see films that can take them a place they couldn’t go themselves, metaphorically speaking, and that means getting people to trust us and open up to us and tell us these intensely personal stories. Needless to say, my being a foreigner can be an obstacle to that, because people are extra suspicious. I should note that at least in some cases, they’re right to be nervous, as this is a pretty “sensitive” subject and talking to foreigners with cameras can definitely attract attention you don’t want.

So, I’ll give you two examples of this. For example, prior to our filming my wife had been a volunteer with Baby Come Home for a little while. When she told them about the film and asked if there was someone who we could interview, they told her that not only would they not grant us an interview, but that she couldn’t continue to volunteer for them as long as she was associated with a foreigner working on this project.

More or less the same thing happened when we got in touch with Yu Jianrong, the CASS professor who started that Weibo campaign to help street children. We never spoke with him directly, but his assistant was very willing at first but every time we spoke with them we couldn’t seem to nail down an actual time to shoot the interview. Eventually, I realized we were getting the run-around, and then someone forwarded me an interview Yu had done in the Chinese press where he said he doesn’t ever talk to foreigners associated with the media. That’s really frustrating, although I understand where it comes from. For people with some power or position, there’s not much they can gain from talking to someone like me, and quite a bit to lose.

Lost Laowai: Aside from donating to the film’s production, are there ways that the expatriate community can get involved and help?

Charlie: Yeah, there are lots of ways! The easiest is just to help us promote it by sharing it with your friends, family, and followers online. Maybe you can’t afford to donate right now, but some of them can. Beyond that, of course, there are a million other ways to help too. Last time we raised money, the publicity also led a bunch of people to get in touch with us and offer their help with everything from research and translation to photography.

It was also through a connection from the last round of fundraising that we got to know the folks at the Xinxing Aid center, who we’re donating 20% of the money we raise to this time around. As of the time of this interview, we have already gotten an offer from one person to help us out with the production any way he can, and a number of other people have offered help with promoting the film or have offered their expertise as interview subjects; we’ve already found two new experts to interview.

So there are lots of ways people can help. A little simple promotion is the easiest way, but we’re obviously on a shoestring budget so we’ll accept all kinds of help, all people have to do is send us an email and tell us what they can do! One of the things we will need going forward is music, so musicians especially can help by donating us songs assuming that (1) they own the copyrights to every part of the song and (2) they’re willing to grant us legal rights to use it in the film and the film’s promotional materials. Obviously, not all music is going to fit — sorry, death metal guys — but we’ve already gotten some music and we’re going to need quite a lot to score a full-length film.

If anyone out there is a composer, especially a composer who can work with Chinese instruments as well as more modern ones, donating that kind of talent (for example) would be invaluable to us!

Lost Laowai: How has producing this film, and being involved with this film, changed you and the way you look at China?

Making a film or doing any project kind of like this just forces you to get out of your daily mindset and routine and look at things from someone else’s perspective for a little while.

Charlie: Well, it’s forced me to go a lot of places I wouldn’t otherwise go. For example, we spend a lot of time in Taiyuan — the city once described in GQ magazine as “a fucking shithole” — and while I can’t say that characterization is wholly inaccurate, it has a sort of special significance for me now just because of some of the experiences we’ve had there shooting, and the kindness that we see from these people who invite us into their homes and just open up for us in a way that’s quite remarkable and moving.

Of course, if you just visited Taiyuan the way a tourist does, you’d never see any of that, and you’d never see the places we see, down these back alleys, the places where people actually live. It’s good to have something to remind yourself of that, because traveling in China can easily become about the public transportation and hotels and tourist sites or bars or whatever. The film forces us to travel, but to completely ignore all of that stuff and focus very intensely on people. And then of course you see that behind this modern city there are these tiny tragedies that are just everywhere. For us it’s kidnapping, but if we were making a film about forced demolition or the problems of rural-urban migration or anything I imagine it would be the same. Making a film or doing any project kind of like this just forces you to get out of your daily mindset and routine and look at things from someone else’s perspective for a little while. In our case, that’s often really depressing, but it’s also important.

It’s especially important for me because I get into routines very easily and have to work very hard to force myself out of them. What’s great about this film is that it’s now so much bigger than just me that I can’t back out or make excuses; I have basically forced myself to get out there and talk to people and learn something.

Lost Laowai: When do you expect production to wrap up, and any word on distribution?

Charlie: We hope to finish it up before the end of 2012, but I’m not making any promises at this point. It’s our first real film, and I expect we’re going to hit some points in editing where we go “Oh crap, we didn’t get a shot of this…” or “We really need to get more of this…” and then we’ll have to go out and shoot whatever we’re missing. Ultimately, I’d rather spend 2 years making a great film than 1 year making a crap film. But there does have to be a balance between that and just working on a project with no end in sight, and a deadline forces you to make decisions and think about what’s really important. So, our deadline is by the end of 2012, but I reserve the right to push that back further if need be.

… our main focus is to get it in front of as many eyeballs as possible and we’ll ultimately go with whatever we think can best accomplish that.

As far as distribution is concerned, we don’t have anything nailed down yet. The goal is to get it in front of as many eyes as possible, and we’ll do whatever it takes to do that. We’ve already had a few representatives from schools reach out to us to say they’d like to invite us to speak and hold screenings there, and we plan to submit the film to some festivals as well to see what kind of interest and reaction there is. We’re also considering digital distribution options of course, and donors [of a certain level] will get a DVD copy of the film as soon as it’s done regardless of how it’s being released. But beyond that, we’ll have to see how things go as we get closer to that point; like I said our main focus is to get it in front of as many eyeballs as possible and we’ll ultimately go with whatever we think can best accomplish that.

Within China, of course, things are a little different, because there’s no hope for any independent documentary to be screened commercially, and certainly not one like this. But there are some small independent festivals, and some filmmakers also organize screenings on their own. In China, we’ll probably try to combine some screenings in major cities with some kind of digital distribution options, probably that would allow people to watch it for free because especially in China, it’s more important that people see it than anything else really.

But we’re still a ways away from all of this, so I can’t be sure about anything yet. First, we’re worried about making a good movie and doing justice to these people and their stories. If we can accomplish that, then distribution is the next major hurdle, but while we’re still filming, our focus is basically 100% on trying to get good footage and true stories.

For more information, check out Living With Dead Hearts (and this page on ChinaGeeks), and if you’re able, please consider helping this film get made with a donation.

You can follow Charlie on Twitter.


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  5. It’s been a few months since Charles has returned from China, and it’s been a few months since an update has been posted. Time for an update, please.

    Xia Xia Ni!

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