Jonathan Kalafer’s Report from Wuhan, China

Jonathan Kalafer traveled as a film envoy to Wuhan, China with the American Film Showcase. Below are a series of daily reports from his time there.

February 22 – Somewhere over the Pacific

On the long plane ride from New York to Hong Kong I feel that great feeling that I usually feel at the beginning of a vacation. I love my life, but the prospect of days not spent on my teaching duties at Dickinson High School, not spent commuting to and from those duties, not spent paying bills, not completing paperwork, is exhilarating. In this case, however, I have to keep reminding myself that this isn’t a vacation and that I am embarking on a mission. I’m on a mission for the American Film Showcase and the United States Department of State and it will include teaching duties, epic commutes, and plenty of paperwork and bills.

I contemplate what my objectives and goals are here and hope that I can in some small way contribute to peace and goodwill between the U.S. and China. I am a little nervous and I know I have my work cut out for me from the start. But now, looking down at the newspaper included in the flight’s reading materials, there seems to be a fresh source of tension. President Obama is meeting with the Dalai Lama. Great timing! I hope this doesn’t lead to an international incident. I can so see myself being involved in an international incident.

I am also a little worried about my father. He has wanted to visit China for years, so when I was invited by AFS, I asked if he could come along. This isn’t completely out of nowhere, since, after all, he is the Producer of the film we are screening. They agreed, though he is paying his own way. I am thrilled to share this experience with my father, but also a little concerned. He is not used to this kind of traveling and they have a very ambitious schedule for us.

February 22 – Wuhan

We finally arrived after a very long commute in Wuhan. We are joined on the last leg of the flight by Jennifer Phan from AFS and it is great to see her again. We arrive at our hotel and I take a heavy dose of melatonin to reset my circadian rhythm.

February 23 – Wuhan to Ji’An City

I guess the dose of melatonin worked because I got a full night’s sleep and awoke fresh and ready to go. All of my senses are alive and ready to devour every sight, sound, taste, and smell in this very new and novel land. All of my observations so far have me suspecting that things here are a lot more similar to things at home than I thought they would be.

After a delicious breakfast of “Wuhan Local Dim Sum” we all meet in the lobby. We catch a cab to the railway station and board a very crowded train. Watching my dad navigate the dirty and very crowded train makes me worry that having him along might be a mistake. It also doesn’t help that the air is very polluted here and he is coughing a lot. After some pretty impressive luggage Tetris we are on our way.

The view from a train window offers a unique portal to the country. Things don’t seem as distant or oriented as they do from a road. We travel bullet fast so I am just seeing snapshots as we go by; people fishing, working gardens and rice paddies, riding bicycles, lots of graveyards with beautiful memorials. There are some unexpected sights as well: a brand new road that ends abruptly, a strange abundance of both deserted housing and new housing construction, and some interesting billboards featuring what appear to be Chinese celebrities. The train ride allows us all to really get to know each other. Andrew (Wuhan consulate chief), Kelly (Andrew’s local assistant), Jennifer (AFS co-coordinator), Steve (my father and producer), and myself Jonathan (teacher and filmmaker) as we all sit in a single row.

The end of our train trip leads to a road trip. I thought I was happy to get away from commuting! I am reminded of lyrics from an esoteric band called G.F.E. that I am fond of—“Journey. Got to live the Journey. Cause the destination is just a gateway to another Journey.” After 6 hours we finally arrive at our hotel. We check-in and meet our local liaison for the project, Ji’an Yi. Ji’an Yi is both a filmmaker and educator, like myself, and has created an NGO (Non-Governmental Organization) called IFChina Original Studio. He has done some very impressive work helping to spread independent filmmaking in his hometown which is a mid-size city (in China this means pop. 500,000) in a relatively rural area. He seems a kindred spirit to both Gregg Breinberg (the subject/teacher in Once in a Lullaby) and to myself. After another awesome dinner of food that puts the best of Chinatown to shame we head to a cafe where I am to give an introductory lecture and partake in a Q&A.

There are about 40 university students, teachers, and filmmakers in attendance and it is intense! What an experience to see a film I directed screening in China with Chinese subtitles. The Q&A segment is fantastic as we learn about each other’s cultures and share filmmaking experiences. The challenges both of filmmaking and of answering the questions raised during a screening Q&A are eerily similar across cultures. There is one challenge they face which is new to me: I am humbled to hear about the censorship Chinese filmmakers face. The group is surprised to hear that although I created a documentary critical of the U.S. government (my directorial debut, a short documentary called We Love You), I am still allowed to participate in the State Department sponsored AFS program. To be honest, I too am also a little surprised that the U.S. Government has allowed me to participate in this program.

After the day’s events, many people ask me for my autograph which at first made me feel very uncomfortable. I can’t deny them however, and I force myself to relish the rock-star moment. I decide to also give them all my email which makes the awkward scene feel better. Overall I feel really lucky to have sat in this room and have this discourse. I’ll never forget it and hold it as one of the best experiences in my life.

February 24 – Ji’an City

Today is a whirlwind. It starts with my formal lecture at IFChina Original Studio, a very special place that Ji’an Yi and his crew have created. It has a decidedly Brooklyn loft vibe without the hipster cynicism. It also doesn’t have heat. My lecture is on the narrative arc and the 3 act structure as it relates to documentary filmmaking. I am very nervous about it and have been stressing it since we developed the schedule, but I am very happy that it goes splendidly and fits perfectly into the slotted time. It is attended by pretty much the same 30-40 people that attended the Q&A last night. This is new material for most of them and at first they seem a little resistant to the idea, but they ask the best questions, and by the end of the lecture I feel that they have a much better grasp on the topic than at the start. This group is a teacher’s dream. I am really happy: not only is this lecture over with but it is also successful.

After the lecture we are brought to a popular local restaurant known for its dumpling soup. It is delicious and I enjoy the fact that many of the other patrons stare at us. There are some polite giggles too. It occurs to me that I hadn’t seen anyone that didn’t have Asian genetics since I left the airport.

Before returning to the studio for one-on-one mentoring and work-shopping with individual filmmakers, Ji’an Yi takes us for a visit to his middle school. It is very impressive. First of all, it sits on a small island in the middle of the river. Second of all, it has been a Confucius academy for over 800 years! I thought that Dickinson High School (where I teach in Jersey City) is old because it was built in 1911. This age difference serves as a stark reminder of how young the U.S. and our experiment in democracy is.

After our tour of the school it is back to IFChina HQ. The projects we are workshopping are amazing. Not only are they great projects but they have serious implications for the filmmakers’ lives. The first one is a project about four of the filmmaker’s friends and their lives after graduation from University. She struggles with her objectivity and the fact that after she makes her film she feels she may lose her friends. The second workshop is a film about an elderly man who is Chairman Mao’s greatest fan. The young female filmmaker, although not a fan of the Chairman, has nonetheless grown to adore the old man over the year of shooting. She knows the old man will not be happy with the film she makes unless it is a pro Mao propaganda piece and she is really struggling with what to do. The final one-on-one session of the day is with the most earnest filmmaker of the bunch; and that says a lot because the group as a whole is very enthusiastic. He struggles with picking a topic and is entertaining doing an experimental film (“You know Baraka?”) and a documentary about his cousin who murdered someone. They are all so receptive to my input and I am having ridiculous fun working through the challenges they face on their projects. The time just flies by.

At this point it probably sounds like I’m being gratuitous. I’m not; it really is just too perfect. Even Andrew our consulate head is blown away and says that this is a very fun part of his job.

Dinner is at a halal noodle place popular with University kids. Here, I realize that many of the IFChina crew including Ji’an Yi are practicing Buddhist vegetarians. From my table I have an excellent view of the chef stretching and rolling the noodles by hand. It looks like a magic trick.

After dinner we head back to IFChina headquarters and screen my first documentary, We Love You, which is about the Rainbow Family of Living Light and the federal agents who love to harass them. This wasn’t scheduled, but was a last minute addition. Things get a little awkward since we are there as guests of the Federal Government and the film portrays a small group of Feds in a negative light. However, Andrew turns it around perfectly bringing up that as Americans we allow and value filmmakers who criticize the government, and that freedom of press and of speech is an important part of our democracy. The film goes over well with the audience (one of them shouted “I love nature too!” right when it ended) and a lot of them seem to have Rainbow tendencies. Maybe I planted the seeds for a Rainbow Gathering in China?

It is 10:36 now and I have been working all day but I am still jazzed by the amazing energy of all involved. Feeling blessed and blissed.

February 25 – Ji’an City

We start the day with a visit to Ji’an Yi’s Buddhist temple. When we arrive I am immediately blown away by the sublime beauty of it. I am in awe of the ancient arched architecture, water-filled moats, incense smoke, giant gold statues and zero other tourists. The monks at this temple have beautiful patchwork robes that bear an uncanny resemblance to the patchwork clothes popular with Rainbows.

Jennifer, the AFS coordinator who is a Chinese-American and of Buddhist decent, is clearly moved. Jennifer’s reaction to being reconnected to her personal history increases the power of the experience exponentially.

Here I feel a strangely powerful intimacy and affection for Jennifer, Andrew, and Ji’an Yi. The main chamber of the temple is devoted to Bodhisattva. I have always had a special affinity for Bodhisattva and I ask if it would be OK if I meditate. I do one of my Kabbalah chants but I keep my eyes open to soak in the splendor of the 30 foot high statue in front of me. The acoustics of the room are excellent and although I do not meditate for too long it has the full effect. I feel as though I have travelled to another dimension.

After the monastery there is more one-on-one mentoring and workshopping. Again I am blown away by the awesome stories that these students are developing. The first one is a story about a Buddhist monk who resides in a small temple. He has a dream of expanding the temple and making it larger, yet he struggles with this desire and its egotistical implications as a Buddhist. When the student mentions to me that there are no outlets for such films in China I get an idea. I tell her that if she finishes I will submit the film to Western film festivals and shop it around for her. Having committed myself, I offer to do this for all the IFChina filmmakers. I hope this will help inspire them to overcome the immense challenges and finish their films.

After I finish the one-on-one sessions the IFChina students interview me. I am very fortunate that I find the right words. It is here I realize that speaking through a translator forces me to slow down and be more thoughtful in my speech. This partly explains why I feel my lecture went so well. I’ll have to try to remember this when I return to the U.S. to teach. One of the topics they ask about is how to reconcile the choice to be independent filmmakers with the expectations and obligations of their families. This is hard enough for Americans, but here, they assure me, it is even more difficult within the Chinese culture and within the Chinese family structure. As I glance at my dad, I share my belief that as long as one person in a family loves the others, it is still a family. We must do everything in our power not to let ourselves become alienated from our families because family is essential. However, as someone who has witnessed the sheer power that independent documentary filmmaking can have, I assure them that it is essential too.

Later we have lunch at a wealthy developer’s private museum. It has many beautiful artifacts and a delicious vegetarian menu. A video monitor shows the man’s development projects and here my father sees his counterpart in this successful Chinese businessman. He is struck by the similarities between them. I am struck by how it is possible that the Chinese can even call themselves Communist when by my observations they are every bit as consumerist and capitalist as the U.S.

In the afternoon Ji’an Yi arranges a meeting to introduce us to his father. We end up at the end of a twisting alleyway where his father’s friend has been given a very small space to pursue his art. He creates these amazing portraits on porcelain tiles. We view some of his work and watch him create. The brief conversation doesn’t go much past the polite pleasantries but it doesn’t matter. There is something very powerful in standing in this alleyway with Ji’an Yi and both our fathers. It is somehow so reassuring of what I said during my interview at IFChina Studio. It is beautiful. Somehow, in that back alley I sense my father more. Maybe it is something mystical in the man’s portraiture. I am very thankful that AFS allowed him to come along; I don’t think I have ever felt so close to my father as I do on this journey.

I am told there is a change of plans: because of the extreme rain we will go to a local high school instead of the middle-school we planned to visit in a small village. I am so happy to trade middle-schoolers for high-schoolers because this is the age group I teach back in Jersey City and it gives me a chance to see a Chinese High School up close and personal. They watch Once in a Lullaby and afterwards I give a short speech and do a Q&A. Again I am thankful that I find the right words. I change my tone and communication to match their age level and share one of the themes of the film—that children have wisdom to teach adults. I share that young people know you can be friends with anyone regardless of race or creed even though some adults say Chinese and Americans shouldn’t be friends. We know that they know we can. At the end of each answer I give to their questions they clap enthusiastically. After the Q&A I go on a short tour of the school and have a wonderful conversation with two English teachers about education in each of our countries.

On the ride back to the hotel I have an excellent chat with Andrew. He tells me he is very pleased with the work I have done with the young people of China. I can hear the sincerity in his voice. He says that this is exactly the type of thing that he got into diplomacy for. I smile ear to ear as I listen to this official endorsement of a job well done.

February 26 – Jiangshi

Today, for the first time, we act like tourists. I have no teaching to do and perhaps it is good because I think the non-stop schedule is catching up with me. We have a long car ride to the area where Chairman Mao started his revolution. It is a tourist area and an obligatory pilgrimage for Chinese government officials. As we check out the museum dedicated to his revolution, I am struck by the similarity in the reverence towards the revolutionary roots that both China and America share. Both countries were forged by such change and treat their respective revolutions as sacrosanct, yet both countries would surely throw all their resources into suppressing another revolution today, even if it is for the same principles the original revolutions were launched to achieve.

The air in this rural part of China is fresh and clean and I am happy to breathe easily. It has been very disheartening, though, to see the effects of China’s economic growth on other parts of this ecosystem. My father was suffering from uncontrollable coughing fits in Wuhan and the air there looks, smells, tastes, and feels very polluted. I am told that the air in Wuhan is clean compared to many Chinese cities. We all will certainly take away from this trip a renewed appreciation for the importance of environmental activism and regulation.

Today is a day that the group really congeals as family; the bond is strong. I am astounded by the affection I feel towards other members of the group who less than a week ago were strangers. It has been a long time since I felt this way about new friends. We stroll around shopping for trinkets just as a family would. All of our interactions are fluid and easy. We stop in one of the stalls that sell the local green tea. The proprietor offers us a sample of her wares, so we all sit down to a traditionally prepared pot of tea. I am an avid tea drinker so I relish this experience. In this spirit, my father asks that he be allowed to host our final farewell feast that evening at the hotel.

Dinner is in a private room and everyone (including our driver) is present and takes a seat at the round table. My father breaks out some special scotch that he has brought along and each of us take the opportunity to make some very heartfelt toasts. I am happy to hear my perception of our closeness is not all in my head. We have a delicious feast and there are a lot of new dishes. The most interesting is a black chicken. The skin and flesh of the bird is naturally hued in dark purple and black. I am told the feathers are white. I also take the opportunity to try some of the local beer which is very sweet.

After dinner, everyone in the group moves the party into the lobby, but Jennifer and I linger around the table. She shares her opinions that this envoy is one of the most successful American Film Showcase ventures and I am again thrilled to hear some praise on my work. I return the sentiment and let her know how much I appreciate her leadership, support, and very effective planning. I feel like the relationship is not unlike that of a director and her actor; and that she has been able to bring out perhaps the best teaching performance of my life. We reflect on the long journey that it has been from when we first met one year ago at the orientation on USC’s campus to this hearty conclusion.

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