Cecília Mello: What kinds of China do young Brazilian filmmakers see?
An exclusive interview with Cecília Mello, Professor of Film and Audiovisual Media at the Department of Film, Radio, and Television at the University of São Paulo
The current edition of the 'Looking China · Foreign Youth Film Program Liaoning Province' for 2023 is currently underway. Cecília Mello, who serves as a Professor in Film and Audiovisual Media at the University of São Paulo's Department of Film, Radio, and Television, has facilitated a unique opportunity for a group of emerging directors from Brazil and Ecuador. Through the medium of cinematic content, these young filmmakers have been provided the chance to explore China through an engaging lens.
Initiated in 2011, the 'Looking China · Foreign Youth Film Program' has been an influential initiative. Across five continents, a total of 895 young talents from 101 nations have embarked on journeys to China as part of this program. Together, they have successfully produced 854 short documentaries and garnered an impressive tally of 166 international awards. Serving as a vital conduit, this program has effectively transported Chinese narratives to global audiences.
Over the years, Cecília Mello has actively engaged with this program, offering her guidance as an advisor. Driven by her profound affinity for the world of cinema, she has borne witness to the ever-evolving and enduring aspects of China's modernization process. Through the lens of the movie screen, she has discerned the intricate dynamics and potential for collaboration between China and Brazil. How does the emerging generation of Brazilian filmmakers perceive China? Professor Cecilia Mello exclusively shared her insights in an interview with the East meet West programme of China News Service.
On October 3rd, 2019, the 5th ‘São Paulo Chinese Film Festival’ was held in Sao Paulo Cultural Center. It showed the opening movie ‘Please Remember Me’. Photo by Mo Chengxiong.
China News Service Reporter: You remarked that movies serve as emotional voyages, allowing individuals to traverse diverse landscapes. Could you elaborate on a film that has significantly shaped your perception of China?
Cecília Mello: There are many movies that help me understand China. They encourage me to study Mandarin, feel the passion of Chinese movies, art, and history.
I will start with ‘Yellow Earth’ by Chen Kaige (1984) since it demonstrates its mature aesthetics and power, and even changed the Chinese movies in the 1980s. The picture of the scenery of loess plateau in Shaanxi province and its connection with the Chinese landscape painting leaves me a deep impression, especially the first scene of the movie, which shows a traditional wedding ceremony held in a remote and underdeveloped cave dwelling in the 1930s. In Chen’s movie lens, the smiling face of farmers who attend the wedding always brought tear to my eyes.
Modern buildings in the downtown and cave dwellings from afar in Yanan, Shaanxi Province. Photo by Zhang Yuan.
The second movie is ‘To Live’ (1994) by Zhang Yimou. It uses shadow play to connect family and history. Featuring the fantastic performance by Gong Li and Ge You, this movie interweaves the family history with major events in the 20th century of China. After experiencing great changes, the movie ended with the optimism on China’s future, foreshadowing the upcoming reform and opening as well as economic take-off.
The third movie is ‘Platform’ (2000) by Jia Zhangke. This movie talks about a group of artists from the end of the 1970s to the beginning of the 1990s. Their story related to the reform in the 1980s. I watched this movie when I studied my doctoral degree in London. It helped me understand the modern Chinese history, and made me want to be a scholar on ‘Chinese Movie’ after watching this.
On May 14th, 2015, Chinese famous director Jia Zhangke won the ‘The Golden Horse Car Award’, a lifetime achievement award of the Directors' Fortnight at the 68th Cannes International Film Festival. He is the first Chinese director who won such prize. Photo by Long Jianwu.
China News Service Reporter: You also mentioned that documentaries on Chinese urbanization transformation triggered your memories on urbanization in Brazil. Would you like to share more about this topic?
Cecília Mello: People saw the huge reforms in China over decades through documentaries, which was similar to the accelerated urbanization and social space reform in the second half of the 20th century Brazil despite its small scale. Both countries have vast rural areas and undergo urbanization processes.
Both China and Brazil experience rapid population growth in the 20th century, which stimulates the urban growth. Industrialization is playing a critical role in urbanization in both countries. In Brazil, Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and other major cities are the focus of urbanization while Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou are the center of Chinese urbanization.
Beach in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil Photo by Futian.
However, it is worth noticing that urbanization in Brazil and China are influenced by different historical, cultural, and political factors. The scale and the rate of urbanization are also different. In recent decades, China witnessed a faster urbanization.
I have the same feeling that changes in space can lead to the loss of memory. For example, great changes have been made in cities like Sao Paulo over five decades. Therefore, it is difficult to find traces of our memories sometimes in the urban environment. The same goes for the Chinese cities. And movies is a way of keeping the time from passing by documenting and storing these short periods.
China News Service Reporter: What is the current situation on China-Brazil exchanges in film and movie? Where do you see further cooperation between the two countries in the film and television industry?
Cecília Mello: On July 1st, 2017, Brazil and China signed the first movie co-production agreement as part of the visit of Brazilian president Michel Miguel Elias Temer Lulia to China. In April 2023, they signed another memorandum of understanding to strengthen the cooperation on audio-video production and distribution.
In April 2023, Chinese and Brazilian national flag are putting at the entrance of Peace Hotel to welcome President Lula’s visit to China.
Both China and Brazil have signed movie co-production agreements with many countries, promoting shared opportunities and development of the film industry for both countries. During the agreement, films co-produced by Brazilian and Chinese companies will enjoy national treatment in China and Brazil. Co-produced movies can use the public fund of both countries. It will be seen as the national products of respective markets. Chinese or Brazilian producers who signed the co-production agreement will be also involved.
Chinese movie, audio and visual market are very attractive to Brazil. China has the world largest movie, audio, and visual market at present. In 2018, the volume of audiovisual market (including gaming market) in China exceeds the United States. In 2020, Chinese movie market excels the United States. Since the 1980s, Chinese movie market has been constantly growing, which was in sync with the national economic development. There is no sign that the vibrancy of Chinese movie market is abating. In fact, it becomes more and more attractive among foreign producers.
Viewers are waiting in line to enter a cinema in Zunyi, Guizhou province. Photo by Qu Honglun.
It is also worth noticing that audiovisual market in China and Brazil are also transforming, featuring by the growth of VOD industry and the Internet content, as well as the stable decline in theatrical films and content productions. This shows the complex global trend in audiovisual industry, and both countries have more cooperation on this area.
China News Service Reporter: Looking China · Foreign Youth Film Program has been holding for many years. As the foreign advisor that attended several times, what are some of the deepest changes in the lens of young directors?
Cecília Mello: ‘Looking China’ is an initiative proposed by AICCC of Beijing Normal University. The program invites 100 movie major students around the world to China every year. Each person directs a 10-minute documentary in different Chinese provinces. Under the guidance of foreign advisors, a group usually constitutes by 10 youth filmmakers from different countries. The 10-minute documentary shall finish within 15 days, aiming to promote intercultural communication and cooperation.
It is our honor that Department of Film, Radio and Television at the University of São Paulo also participated in this program in 2016. Up to now, we have sent 21 students to China to film many movies that won the prize in China and Brazil. At present, more students start to study Mandarin. They have good understanding on China and Chinese movie. They believe we have the foundation to be united apart from differences.
The awarding ceremony of the 1st ‘My China Story’ International Short Video Competition was held in Beijing. Filmmakers of excellent work watched their films. Photo By Liurong.
Among some films directed by students, there are some works that touched me in particular, including ‘Portrait for You’ (Pedro Nishi，2016); ‘To Chopsticks’ (Arthur Rodrigues Ribeiro，2017), ‘The Stone Whisperer’ (Davi Pina Barros，2018),’The Ink of the Mongolian’ (Aline Rabelo，2018) and ‘Blessed Peaches’ Letícia Sillmann and Lígia Agreste，2020). All are available in YouTube ‘Looking China 看中国 - Lens of World Youth Filmmakers’
China News Service Reporter: Youth directors around the world travelled all across China including remote Western areas. How do they preserve their traditional culture and ethnic system in those regions in your opinion?
Cecília Mello: Preserving cultural heritage is an important aspect of China’s policy on ethnic minorities. Over several decades, China has been implementing many measures to preserve language and cultural customs in traditional communities.
I have such strong feeling on this when I travelled to Liaoning Province, Chongqing City and Ordos in Inner Mongolia. Local government supports festivals and other cultural celebration events, preserves cultural heritages, historical relics, and traditional handcrafts. Museum, cultural center, and research institutions in China are also playing an essential role in studying and promoting cultural diversity in the respective regions.
Cecília Mello holds the position of a Professor specializing in Film and Audiovisual Media within the Department of Film, Radio, and Television at the University of São Paulo, Brazil. Notably, she has authored 'Realism and the Audiovisual Media' (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009) and 'The Cinema of Jia Zhangke: Realism and Memory in Chinese Film' (Bloomsbury, 2019).
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