DARKLY DREAM­ING DOC­U­MEN­TARY

对话《梦想帝国》导演

The World of Chinese - - Contents - BY DAVID DAWSON

With award-win­ning doc­u­men­tary Dreamem­pire, di­rec­tor Daniel Boren­stein casts fresh light on a fa­mil­iar blight: the rent-a-white-guy in­dus­try. Boren­stein of­fers a be­hind the scenes at why it mat­ters, from for­eign­ers adrift to a real-es­tate boom run out of con­trol

David Boren­stein is the di­rec­tor of Dream Em­pire, a re­cent doc­u­men­tary which ex­plores the use of “for­eign ac­tors” to pro­mote the sale of apart­ments in re­mote parts of China's then-boom­ing Chongqing mu­nic­i­pal­ity. The prize-win­ning doc­u­men­tary fol­lows Yana, a woman who re­cruits for­eign­ers, in­clud­ing Boren­stein, to per­form at sales events in or­der to make the de­vel­op­ments ap­pear more “in­ter­na­tional.” But what be­gins as a look at a quirky hir­ing prac­tice soon gives way to a glimpse into the darker eco­nomic forces shap­ing real es­tate bub­bles in China. TWOC spoke with the di­rec­tor in the mid­dle of a tour to pro­mote Dreamem­pire.

DID YOUR PROJECT'S FI­NAL RE­SULT END UP MATCH­ING YOUR INI­TIAL CON­CEPT? DID IT CHANGE MUCH ALONG THE WAY?

Orig­i­nally, I was fol­low­ing Yana and her boss at the time, be­fore she launched her own com­pany. This was be­fore I had re­ally got­ten to know her so closely, and she was still very much a sec­ondary char­ac­ter at this point. But when she left that com­pany, I ended up fol­low­ing her and that, of course, changed the doc­u­men­tary.

THERE'S QUITE A CON­TRAST BE­TWEEN THE LIGHT­HEARTED LOOK AT THE “FOR­EIGN MON­KEY” PER­FORM­ERS, AND THE RATHER GRAVE IS­SUES ASSOCIATED WITH THE REAL ES­TATE BOOM. WHEN YOU STARTED OUT DO­ING THE PROJECT, WAS THIS BUB­BLE AL­WAYS GO­ING TO BE THE FO­CUS, OR DID IT CHANGE AS YOU DIS­COV­ERED MORE?

Yes, it was cer­tainly part of the plan and I was aware of the real es­tate bub­ble build­ing at the out­set of the project. I wasn't in­ter­ested in just do­ing some­thing light­hearted, I didn't want to fo­cus on just the per­form­ers. I was much more in­ter­ested in the jux­ta­po­si­tion of th­ese is­sues and the real es­tate mar­ket it­self. I wanted to look into what was real and what was fake, and the real es­tate bub­ble is­sue was at the core of this…it was pretty clear that some­thing was wrong right from the be­gin­ning.

YOU DIS­CUSS SOME VERY PER­SONAL SUB­JECT MAT­TER WITH THE PRO­TAG­O­NIST, YANA.

When you work on a project like this, you spend a lot of time with some­one, build­ing a re­la­tion­ship, you be­come friends. Orig­i­nally I had been much more fo­cused on the real es­tate is­sues, bub­bles, so­ci­ol­ogy, and the econ­omy, and I saw peo­ple as cogs or tools within th­ese broader is­sues, but get­ting to know her re­ally made me fo­cus on the hu­man side of things, and see them as in­di­vid­u­als.

ARE YOU STILL IN TOUCH?

Yeah, we've stayed in touch, there's ac­tu­ally some good news there—a Ger­man award cer­e­mony is ac­tu­ally invit­ing her out to at­tend the event. It will be her first time out of the coun­try and it's quite ex­cit­ing.

THE FILM RE­CENTLY SCOOPED THE TOP PRIZE AT THE THES­SA­LONIKI IN­TER­NA­TIONAL DOC­U­MEN­TARY FILM FES­TI­VAL, SO IT SEEMS LIKE THE RE­CEP­TION HAS BEEN PRETTY POS­I­TIVE.

The re­cep­tion has been great, I would say that we're cer­tainly among the top, if not the top China doc­u­men­tary this fes­ti­val sea­son. We've had a great run with the tele­vi­sion net­works through­out Europe, a lot of pub­lic tele­vi­sion sta­tions are screen­ing it. We're look­ing to­ward re­leases in Asia later in the year and we'll see for China. We haven't re­ally be­gun look­ing into the re­lease there.

DID YOU HAVE ANY DIF­FI­CUL­TIES FILM­ING?

A lot of the time when it came to get­ting in­ter­views and film­ing, it was ba­si­cally the same kind of for­eigner priv­i­lege that was the fo­cus of much of the doc­u­men­tary. We would show up to real es­tate shows with cam­eras and record­ing gear, and they would hand us the same gift bas­kets they would give other me­dia out­lets.

IN THE DOC­U­MEN­TARY, THERE IS ONE SCENE WITH A DEVEL­OPER WHO BA­SI­CALLY BUILT AN EN­TIRE CITY…SCENES OF HIM SHOW­ING OFF ROADS, BUILD­INGS, A SHOP­PING MALL, AND EVEN UTIL­I­TIES THAT HE BUILT. THIS WAS OB­VI­OUSLY A PRETTY POW­ER­FUL GUY; HOW DID YOU MAN­AGE TO GET HIM TO GO ON CAM­ERA?

That's ac­tu­ally a re­ally in­ter­est­ing story. For that in­ter­view, I showed up at the real es­tate com­pany and asked to in­ter­view him, and he ac­cepted, but again, a lot of this was for­eigner priv­i­lege. It was ac­tu­ally the first time he had done an in­ter­view this per­sonal, where some­one was fol­low­ing him around. He was us­ing us as well, though—at one point, he took us to a wa­ter treat­ment plant, which had ap­par­ently been in the news. Lo­cal news­pa­pers had been re­port­ing on prob­lems with the wa­ter, say­ing it was brown… We checked around with lo­cals and they all told us that there were se­ri­ous prob­lems with the wa­ter, and th­ese were the peo­ple who had ex­pe­ri­enced it. [The boss] agreed to the in­ter­view, but part of it was that

he wanted to take us to this treat­ment plant, where there were other jour­nal­ists to record us in­ter­view­ing him. We found out later, he had man­aged to ar­range so there were lo­cal news sto­ries re­port­ing about how “for­eign me­dia” had come to in­ter­view him about how great his wa­ter treat­ment plant was. He was us­ing us, just as we were us­ing him. It was the ex­act same kind of fake re­al­ity that we were fo­cus­ing on in the rest of the doc­u­men­tary.

THE DOC­U­MEN­TARY TACK­LES SOME PRETTY COM­PLEX IS­SUES. HOW MUCH RE­SEARCH DID YOU PUT INTO THE PROJECT BE­HIND THE SCENES?

There was so much re­search…we spoke to many ex­perts on the econ­omy and the hous­ing bub­bles, and so much of it couldn't go in the fi­nal ver­sion, be­cause it didn't fit with the more per­sonal, hu­man ap­proach that I men­tioned ear­lier. But some of the com­ments and ma­te­rial from those in­ter­views was fas­ci­nat­ing. In one case, we spoke to some­one who re­vealed that there had been pro­pa­ganda or­ders in the lo­cal area which re­stricted cov­er­age of neg­a­tive financial is­sues…it re­ally high­lighted one of the key themes, which we hope we com­mu­ni­cated in the fi­nal cut, that so­ci­o­log­i­cally and eco­nom­i­cally, we can't nec­es­sar­ily use Western eco­nom­ics and at­ti­tudes to fig­ure out what is go­ing on in the Chi­nese hous­ing bub­ble. If in­for­ma­tion can be cut off, and so much is fake, then how can we as­sume that th­ese eco­nomic trends are fol­low­ing the same kinds of ex­pec­ta­tions?

IN ONE SCENE, THERE'S A KIND OF BRAWL, AL­MOST A RIOT, THAT OC­CURS WHILE YOU'RE PER­FORM­ING. CAN YOU TELL ME A LIT­TLE MORE ABOUT WHAT HAP­PENED THAT DAY?

That was a crazy day. We were per­form­ing while the ac­tual brawl was hap­pen­ing, but af­ter­wards…we saw all the de­struc­tion. While it was ac­tu­ally go­ing on, the cam­era­man knew more than we did. There had been pro­test­ers from dif­fer­ent groups con­verg­ing on this real es­tate fair, we asked around and tried to find out what hap­pened [and] found mo­bile phone footage,

some of which ended up be­ing used in the fi­nal cut.

WERE THERE ANY OC­CA­SIONS WHEN YOU FELT THAT YOU WERE FLY­ING BY THE SEAT OF YOUR PANTS?

The riski­est mo­ment was prob­a­bly when we were film­ing some of the peo­ple protest­ing th­ese [hous­ing]

de­vel­op­ments. In the film, you can ac­tu­ally hear the cin­e­matog­ra­pher, just be­fore he turned off the cam­era, say­ing, “David, we have to go.” At that time, some vans had pulled up and plain­clothes po­lice were ar­riv­ing.

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