Global Atelier – Filmmaking in Suzhou, part 1

By Kate Lefoe, Masters of Film and Television (Narrative)

Sweat forms on my neck under my camera strap. It’s a humid Saturday morning in Guihua Park, Suzhou, China. A man in his sixties is talking sternly to my producer Ann. A crowd gathers around us. I look to Ann for a translation but she avoids my gaze. I can tell things are getting tense. Ann is 23 and majors in Kunqu Opera at Suzhou University. We’re here filming the marriage market where parents come to meet and arrange blind dates for their kids, hanging signs that reveal their children’s statistics. ‘Man. Born 1980. 165cm tall. Bachelor of Commerce. Accountant. Own apartment.’ It’s our first day of shooting my documentary Age, Height, Education, part of the two week Looking Suzhou Film Scholarship Program. Ten students from Film and Television are here to make their documentaries with the help of a local student.

People’s Park, Shanghai – photo: Kate Lefoe, 2015

Later I’d find out that the man claimed we were invading their privacy and that their kids didn’t know they were trying to set up dates for them. He was threatening to call the police and said we should delete the footage. A crowd gathers and more people start weighing in – a middle-aged women says ‘He’s being kind to you, if he was being mean, he’d break your camera’. It’s time to go. Ann tells me just how serious things were getting. We decide to call Professor Ni, Head of the School of Film and Television at Suzhou University. A warm and funny man well respected by his students,  he is just as surprised as us to hear about the sensitivity of the parents using the dating market. While we sit in the shade, a few strangers who watched what happened come up to us to offer their support and suggestions for the documentary.

Over dumplings we discuss what to do next. The People’s Park in Shanghai is rumoured to have dating markets on a Sunday. Undeterred by our first experience we book tickets on the 7am bullet train and plan a more discrete approach.

Ann (Xu Chunannan) and Kate Lefoe – 2015

Ann and I share a terrible sense of direction, and we get a little lost finding our way to the park, huge in size and filled with markets and dozens of professional matchmakers with rows of paper signs with eligible singles. The matchmakers are happy to be interviewed and explain how it works and what the expectations are for a compatible partner. But we still need to interview parents!

I admire Ann’s tenacity as she gets politely knocked back again and again by parents. I wander around filming the market by myself. Occasionally being shooed away. By a large tree, an old man is quick to start up a conversation in English with me and more people gather. Ann returns and has almost convinced Mrs Ye, a woman looking for a daughter-in-law, to be interviewed. The men I’ve been chatting to chip in and Mrs Ye is happy to be interviewed. Interestingly, her views are more old fashioned than the mother we interviewed in Suzhou in terms of what’s important in a future daughter-in-law. We get what we came for.

Enjoying a break from filming at a teahouse on Ping Jao Road – photo: Kate Lefoe, 2015

The next week is a blur of translating and editing. Our VCA lecturer, Siobhan Jackson, and Professor Ni, come in to watch our rough and fine cuts throughout the week. Siobhan offers a fresh perspective and great advice. With all of us from the VCA busily editing in our dorm rooms, we drop in to share advice, frustrations and snacks. Ann and I have a marathon 12 hour session of translating and finalising the English and Mandarin subtitle tracks. The more tired we are, the harder it is! Despite our frustrations with the project, we both still make jokes and laugh. We make a good team.

After a week in the edit cave, it’s time to screen our films. It’s fascinating to see the ten different stories from Suzhou. I’ve loved the process of learning about an aspect of another culture and it has been amazing getting to know Ann and learning about her life. We’re all incredibly sad to get on the bus and wave goodbye to our new friends.

The documentary we made Age, Height, Education was a finalist in the Phoenix Documentary Awards in Beijing and is expected to start the festival run soon. I’ve already started planning a return visit to make another documentary with Ann.

More information about Looking China 2015.

This article was first published on VCA & MCM Channel in 2015.