BEIJING — When an employee of Rupert Murdoch begins badgering someone about cozying up to the Chinese regime, it’s clear that the People’s Republic is having a public-relations crisis.
“Spielberg said, ‘No, I’m not going to go,'” a reporter said, thrusting a Fox News microphone at British filmmaker Daryl Goodrich on Feb. 23.
Eleven days earlier, Steven Spielberg had publicly announced he was quitting as an artistic consultant to the Beijing Olympics. So why, the Fox man demanded, had Goodrich said yes?
Goodrich, one of five directors who have made short films about Beijing to mark the Olympic year, managed to get something out about the necessary separation of sports from politics. Then, as the Fox reporter pressed for follow-up, Goodrich’s producer backed him away from the press-conference stage, pleading another interview commitment.
There are not many contexts in which Daryl Goodrich would be compared to Spielberg. Goodrich, an adman by trade, is still working on his first feature film; his most widely acclaimed work is a short-subject that London used to promote its successful bid for the 2012 Olympics. That was enough to convince the government-backed Beijing Foreign Cultural Exchanges Center to invite him to participate it its Vision Beijing project.
And that was enough to bring a whiff of the stink bomb that Mia Farrow set off last year in Hollywood wafting into the Olympic Media Center. Farrow’s target was Spielberg—or from her point of view, the target was Darfur. The Sudanese government is causing slaughter and misery there. The Chinese government trades with the Sudanese government. The Olympics will be in China. Spielberg signed on as a creative adviser to the opening and closing ceremonies of the Olympics. Ergo, skipping over a few subcontractor-liability issues and the proceedings of the United Nations Security Council, E.T. was killing people in Darfur.
So, I suppose, was I. Because I had screened three of the Vision Beijing movies and interviewed the organizer, Shirley Zhang, back in December, the Foreign Cultural Exchanges Center called me up two days before the press conference and asked if I would write about the films for one of its magazines. Somewhere not far up the org chart, this meant taking an assignment from the propaganda office of the Beijing municipal government.
Then again, I had just negotiated a kill fee on a service piece for an American men’s magazine, after they’d urged me to write something “more positive” about the fact that every bookable hotel room in Beijing was already taken during the Olympics.
I told the Foreign Cultural Exchanges Center to send over a full set for me to preview.
While I waited for the disc to arrive, I wandered over to one of my neighborhood DVD shops. It turned out to be carrying copies of Lost in Bejing—director Li Yu’s tale of exploitation and squalor in the modern metropolis, which was first censored and then banned outright by the Chinese authorities in January.
Three or four years ago, all of Beijing was a DVD-shopping paradise. Since then, a crackdown on bootlegs (which is to say, on the city’s entire DVD inventory) has left many stores with denuded shelves. But the old free-flourishing business survives in pockets, seemingly at random. So there was Lost in Beijing—the unexpurgated version, according to the box. Nearby was something titled The Bloody History of Communism.
“Respect for human rights is important wherever you go in the world,” Goodrich said at the press conference, when the Spielberg question was raised for the first time. But, Goodrich said, he had been invited to make a movie about sports and children, so that was what he did.
Two of the other four directors were also there fielding the question. Andrew Lau, the director of Hong Kong’s blockbuster Infernal Affairs trilogy, said in mixed English and Mandarin that he was “hen surprised”—very surprised—at Spielberg’s decision. “It’s sports … it’s not political,” Lau said.
“I believe that art should have nothing to do with politics,” said Majid Majidi, the Iranian director of Children of Heaven. Majidi’s Vision Beijing contribution, Colours Fly, shows schoolchildren in color-coordinated uniforms dispersing around the city to release balloons, which drift up to form the Olympic rings in the sky. Owing to environmental regulations, Shirley Zhang told me, the balloons actually were kept on long tethers, so they could be hauled back down once the camera had filmed them being set free.
The premiere of the films was the next night—Oscar Day in America—far south of the city center, in a complex beyond the Fifth Ring Road. Barren fields surrounded unmarked pavement. The red carpeting was thin and industrial; an untended counter in the lobby displayed underwear, white liquor, cookies, and packaged sausages for sale. There was a buffet with breaded meat and fried rice and broccoli. The directors, now including Patrice Leconte of France, autographed a backdrop that faced the entrance. James Fallows of The Atlantic was in attendance.
The auditorium itself was a television studio with a live orchestra: The premiere was being packaged as one of China’s signature TV spectaculars. Each film was preceded by a clip reel of the director’s work, then remarks by the directors themselves. Giuseppe Tornatore, the director of Cinema Paradiso, sent his regrets in a letter read by the Italian ambassador. Majidi’s speech was delivered in Farsi, with no translation into Chinese or English.
In the first break between films, a troupe of adolescent acrobats did tumbling routines while tossing and catching wooden spools around the stage, on lengths of cord. The next break brought black-clad dancers with red fans; the one after that brought a male pop singer in a velvet shirt and studded jeans, his backup dancers wearing T-shirts and white sneakers. “Jintiande Beijing bu yiyang,” he sang—today’s Beijing is not the same. “I love-a Bei-jing!” the chorus concluded.
The last film of the night was Goodrich’s. A stern voice-over described the growth of China’s Olympic ambitions, while serious but winsome young athletes were shown in training. It was the most overtly nationalistic or propagandistic movie in the set, by a considerable margin. “We have never faltered in our dream,” the narrator declared.
Then came the entertainment finale. A chorus of singers in beaded headgear took the stage. In an unidentifiable language, they began to sing “Auld Lang Syne.” They were, the announcer would later explain, ethnic-minority villagers from a remote part of Yunnan Province—all farmers and all Christians. They had been taught the song by a British missionary in the 1900’s, according to the announcer.
The farmers’ voices were weathered-sounding, with a pleasant tautness, and the song went through verse after verse. “Auld Lang Syne” is a popular song in China, and people in the middle section of the audience, the VIP section, began clapping along, in rhythm.