Wildlife film festival with vibrantant entries coming to Shanghai
For Chinese wildlife photographer Xi Zhinong, seeing The Blue
Planet, a documentary series created and premiered by the BBC, was a turning point. Xi first saw the film in 2002, when he became the first Chinese to win the TVE award at the prestigious Wildscreen Festival — an event started in 1982 and hailed as the “Green Oscars” — in Bristol, England.
The moment he saw the biennial festival’s biggest winner that year — a film regarded as the first comprehensive production on the world’s oceans — the naturalist from Yunnan province realized that China had a long way to go to catch up.
He also realized then that domestic audiences had very few opportunities to see such productions in theaters.
This sparked a strong desire for him to bring the best nature documentaries to China’s big screens. This hope turned into reality recently when a dozen Wildscreen award-winning or nominated titles were screened in Beijing Oct 28-30. The event was part of the Earth land Wildscreen Film Festival, which will move to Shanghai, where the films will be screened on Nov 12 and 13.
From rare animals in remote terrain to extinct creatures recreated using digital technology, the 12 films — most of which aired on BBC between 2010 and 2014— provide a panoramic view of biodiversity.
The highlights include Penguins: Spy in the Huddle; Hidden Kingdoms under Open Skies; Leopards: 21st Century Cats; and Dolphins — Spy in the Pod. Except for Astonish Me and
Dragonfly, which are short films that are 7 and 15 minutes long, respectively, the remaining 10 are each about an hour long.
David Attenborough, the famous British broadcaster and naturalist, has two films in the list — Rise of Animals: From the Seas to the Skies and Natural History Museum Alive.
Rise of Animals shows Attenborough embarking on an epic 500-million-year trek to trace the rise of vertebrates, while Natural History uses computer-generated imagery to bring to life the skeletons of animals— nowextinct— from the museum in London.
While many viewers may still think making wildlife films is about cameramen getting as close as possible to the animals, they will be surprised to learn that the British have changed their techniques.
In the 2013 documentary Penguins: Spy in the Huddle, nearly 50 spycams, disguised
Xu Fan It has always been difficult to find investors.” Xi Zhinong, wildlife photographer
as realistic life-size penguins, eggs and rocks, were deployed to infiltrate the birds’ colonies to record rarely seen moments like courtship and fights with predators.
“Personally, I think the United Kingdom is the originator of nature photography and museology,” says Xi.
Recalling his years working in China Central Television, China’s most influential broadcaster, in the 1990s, he says a generation of Chinese learned about nature from Zhao Zhongxiang’s program Animal World, which has aired since 1981.
But few of the viewers would know that most of the content was bought from abroad, especially from the United Kingdom, says Xi, 52.
Speaking about the ongoing festival, Xi hopes the event, introduced by him and the Beijing-based firm Earth land, will boost interest in nature films and help wildlife photography in the country.
China is now the world’s second-largest movie market, boasting an output of 600 movies and raking in 44.1 billion yuan ($6.5 billion) in 2015, but it makes very few films on nature.
This is possibly because tracking animals and photographing them takes a lot of time when compared with dramas, and also because financiers are generally not interested in programs offering low returns.
“It has always been difficult to find investors,” says Xi, who is regarded as one of China’s most famous wildlife photographers.
A recent example of how hard things can get can be seen from the performance of Lu Chuan’s Born in China, which has some rare footage of snow leopards. The film was a commercial failure despite being backed by Disney and having a voice-over by top Chinese actress Zhou Xun.
Xi, who shot to fame with his work in the 1990s calling for the protection of the Yunnan snub-nosed monkeys, is seen as a pioneer when it comes to grassroots involvement in environmental protection.
But even such fame does not guarantee success when it comes to nature films.
Xi experienced this in 2012 when he started work on the documentary, Mystery Monkeys of Shangri-La, tracking a family of Yunnan snub-nosed monkeys living in the world’s highest forests. Xi was short of money tomake the film until a young entrepreneur he met during a visit to Antarctica helped him.
The film then received recognition in the West and even received an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Nature Programming in July, but Xi’s struggle for financing continues.
“I want to make a Chinese version of the film, but we’re short of money… You are asking about screening it in theaters in China? I don’t dare to think about it. We cannot afford that,” says Xi.
Theater screenings typically need a considerable budget for promotion and distribution.
But, despite these setbacks, there seems to be hope for the nature-film genre and it seems that viewers will not be deterred even by high prices.
At the recent festival, tickets were priced at 119 yuan per person, almost double what you would pay for a regular film online. But most of the seats were sold out, according to the ticket-sale agency Gewara.com.
Meanwhile, star power is used to promote the festival and to push the conservation message.
Hong Kong singer-actress Karen Mok teamed up with top music producer Zhang Yadong to drum up publicity for the festival in downtown Beijing.
“I believe today no one will starve if they do not eat a wild animal, and neither will they freeze and die if they don’t wear animal fur,” says Mok.
The star began to take part in nature and wildlife conservation campaigns after she read a report about “bile bears” — which are kept in captivity to harvest their bile — more than 10 years ago.
She hopes her campaigns will boost public awareness about protecting nature and wildlife, while Zhang hopes the government will extend even more support than it does now when it comes to environmental protection.
Clockwise from top: Dolphins—Spy in the Pod, Leopards :21 st Century Cats, Hidden Kingdoms under Open Skies and Penguins: Spy in the Huddle are among the nature films screened at the ongoing Earthland Wildscreen Film Festival.