Na­ture’s finest

Wildlife film fes­ti­val with vi­bran­tant en­tries com­ing to Shang­hai

China Daily (USA) - - FRONT PAGE - Con­tact the writer at xu­fan@chi­

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 Ge­

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.

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