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The Making of a Chinese Documentary





           When I originally came to China, I never thought I would be involved with a TV documentary, telling the story of a man from Germany who came to China at the end of the 19th century seeking his fortune. But low and behold, that’s exactly what happened.


            The curious thing about coming to a city on the far side of the world is the expatriate community. Small as it is, people get to know you very quickly. One spring day out of the blue my phone rang and the caller proceeded to ask if I would be interested in starring in a TV show. I immediately jumped at the opportunity as I had given myself the task of saying yes to new experiences that might come my way.


           I met up with a woman from the filming company at a ridiculous hour in the morning. Off we went, first to another part of the city. Then transferred on to a bus with a collection of Chinese and western people. For the first time I experienced the amazing skills of a Chinese bus driver who I believe could have given Michael Schumacher a run for the formula one title, in his bus.


          Once we had safely come to a complete stop, I had been transported from the hustle bustle of a modern city of 13 million people to a quite, ancient looking town. You could that the buildings had been around for a very long time. I was later to learn this was actually the seat of power of a man who was very important during the late period of the Qing dynasty. In this house I was to play the very young German army officer who had been brought over to help the Chinese build their forts and train their men in the use of modern weaponry.


            It’s been over six months since I started working on the documentary. I’ve enjoyed every bit of it and each time I’ve come back to do a new scene I get to hang out with some pretty cool cats. Granted I can’t speak any Chinese, but I still enjoy sitting with them, listening to them argue as to what is the best angle to take and how their going to get it done. What’s truly amazing are the ingenious ways that they employ to get the lighting right and the way they manage to get access to old buildings in Tianjin, such as the exquisite Astor Hotel.


            The rooms in the Astor have been kept the same as a traveller would have been accustomed to in the late 19th and early 20th century. Granted the beds are modern and very comfortable, along with the updated bathrooms. However modern it all looks, you feel like you’ve stepped back a hundred years.


            How do they achieve all this you may ask, well there’s one special young man. His English name is Sure, he likes to joke with westerners, when they ask him his name he says “I’m Sure”, getting the reply “are you sure?” “Yeah, I’m Sure”.


            Sure is an assistant to the director, his job is to create the necessary environment so that the director can shoot the scene he has conceived in his mind. Sure, is the go to guy. He listens to the director and then sets out to convince those that need convincing. To let Sure and his team use them or their premises to create their documentary, it is without doubt a tough job by any standards. But Sure is a confidant and smart looking guy. He also has a certain amount of luck on his side, as well as a disarming personality.


            One of Sure’s other tasks is to track down Western guys and girls. This task alone is very difficult as there are nowhere near as many Westerners in Tianjin as there are in Beijing. He tells me that sometimes he must head out into the night to trawl the bars and nightclubs, engaging with western revellers trying to convince them to come to a location somewhere in Tianjin in order to star in a documentary. It sounds daunting but he always comes through.


            It is a high-pressured job but you can see that Sure loves this frenetic lifestyle. It’s his passion in life and along with the other people he works with one can only imagine that that passion rings through to their work.


            The documentary is the story of Tianjin itself. Beginning in the 1880s and going right through to the present day. It will be a nine part series and will air on CCTV 9 in April. I for one will be glued to my T.V. to see how this great city has grown and to learn the stories of some people who had a major impact on its development.


By John Doyle

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