By Emma Brown
Better take a photo now before it’s gone is one of the objectives of Australian filmmaker Georgia Wallace-Crabbe’s film: to capture old Beijing before it’s demolished.
New Beijing: Reinventing a City will be screened next month at the Sydney Film Festival where it is likely to receive a better reception than it did at the Guangzhou film festival, where it was banned earlier this year.
“The film was withdrawn by local officials in Guangzhou out of concern it might offend Beijing,” Wallace-Crabbe said.
One character’s description of the Grand National Theatre as a “grave mound” prompted the festival organiser’s to pull the film over concern that it may be “profoundly offensive” to the Chinese government, as well as symbolically unlucky, she said.
The film will be screened at alternative venues in China if further trouble erupts.
“It is currently being submitted to the authorities for permission for a festival screening at Beijing International Film Festival,” she said. “They have plans to screen it in an alternative venue if they have trouble like in a bookshop or such,” she said.
The documentary features interviews with activists, architects, evictees and locals to chart the modern face of Beijing.
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Filming New Beijing: Reinventing a City
The juxtaposition of new architecture and critical commentary about what happens to a culture that is swept away, also proved to be a challenge to filming in the nation’s capital.
China’s national broadcaster also wanted a high level letter from the Australian government approving the production. A letter from Screen Australia wasn’t high enough – the filmmaker suspects they were hoping for a letter from the prime minister.
Footage was eventually shot over eight weeks – spread over two years – in Beijing with a crew of around four. Wallace-Crabbe directed and Gregory Miller co-produced the film.
One of the main story elements follows the Memory of China group which are constructing a virtual city through photos of what is lost, exploring the heritage districts of the old city, which are soon to be demolished, juxtaposed with the biggest construction boom in history.
To overcome the problems of shooting in China, the director employed innovative strategies whilst working with a Chinese-speaking crew.
“It was all a little tricky but I had advice from friends who were Beijing-based, producers of overseas productions, and my crew were Beijing-based Chinese and foreign Chinese speakers, so they all helped a lot,” she said.
The crew took on multiple roles: the production manager was also a translator, the director recorded sound, and the cinematographer also drove the car.
The filmmakers hope to attract the interest of a local TV network and plan to release on DVD following its festival run next month.
They plan to film another Chinese documentary, this time about Australian artists doing a cultural exchange, later this year in Beijing as part of a government program called Imagine Australia.