April 13, 2010

The Sun Interviews Thomas Lennon

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Leaning against the doors of a train speeding to Beijing, light runs across the face of a young Chinese man as he reflectively mutters in Mandarin, “Like a train ride, our love is fast, swift and only in the dark…” Thus begins Tongzhi In Love, a rare 30-minute documentary film in which tongzhis — meaning comrades or homosexuals in Chinese slang — candidly talk about their forbidden love in China. The pain of being an outcast in a country of 1.3 billion people is echoed in The Blood of Yingzhou District, an Oscar-winning short documentary in which orphans shunned in a poor Chinese rural district tearfully recall the discrimination they face: Their parents died from AIDS, a disease so terrifying and misunderstood in the villages that not even their relatives would take them in. The back-to-back screenings of these two films with their producer Thomas Lennon last Friday at Cornell present a myriad of paradoxes. At the most fundamental level, how do you condense issues as complex as homosexuality in a traditional society and discrimination against rural families with AIDS into a 30-minute documentary? After the screenings, Lennon spoke to The Sun about tackling this issue and many others in the production of these two documentaries.

SUN: I was quite surprised by how the two documentaries are presented in very different ways … in Tongzhi in Love, it seems to me that the film has more artistic freedom to try new forms of presentation whereas, as you mentioned last night, The Blood of Yingzhou District isn’t groundbreaking in terms of how the film is edited and presented. Is that because of the subject matter of the film? Or do you think they’re not that different after all?

THOMAS LENNON: I’d say The Blood […] is perhaps more straightforward in terms of style. Some of that has to do with the circumstances under which we’re filming … [You] don’t want to distract, you want to be careful about indulging in stylistic devices. I think the gravity of the subject matter imposes a certain straightforwardness of style […] [Tongzhi] is a much more internal and subjective story, and therefore it invites more subjective filmmaking and more stylistic experimentation. Because it is fundamentally an internal story, whereas Blood is much less so.

SUN: One thing that really struck me last night was when you talked about the moral dilemmas and decisions you had to make while filming and editing both films … For example, with The Blood in Yingzhou District, you have to decide whether it is morally right to film and interview orphans. As a producer, how do you face these moral dilemmas and struggles? Is that what you think is most difficult about doing documenatry films?

TL: [In] some fields, let’s say medicine or law, you have organizations that codify and regulate ethical goals and ethical boundaries … Documentary film as a field doesn’t have any such institutional codes — probably for a good reason … So those decisions that you make you make on your own. I think the way which I answer those questions [is by asking] ourselves: Are we prepared to be absolutely transparent about what we do and the decisions that we make? And if there’s a decision you’re making that you’re not very prepared to discuss very openly or freely with anybody who you meet or anybody who asks you, then it’s probably a warning signal to you that you’re stepping into areas that you don’t want to be in. For example, […] how do we protect the children? We come to a decision that we’ll only feature the children whose disease has already been made public before us…

SUN: As you said last night, in China, a lot of the connections are more personal and there are grey areas in the legal system, but at the same time there is more censorship and you may face more severe consequences for crossing the boundaries. So how would you compare filming in China and in the U.S.? Which one is more difficult?

TL: Clearly there are risks in doing documentary work in China that do not pertain to the United States. To use an example, out of the AIDS situation, there were times when reporters would go and do investigative work particularly in Henan [province] only to find that the people who had talked to them had later suffered various pressures and consequences. You know, there may be intimidation or so forth. So when you’re potentially exposing somebody to consequences like that you think about that extra hard […] At the same time, it’s such a dynamic society that there are large stories that play themselves out. That makes it very appealing to filmmakers. Let me add another element: Unlike other documentary filmmakers who go to China and do something and leave, we have an ongoing presence and ongoing relationship with China’s Ministry of Health to [produce] health messages. As recently as this year, we’ve been doing work with the government […] We also want to think about being mindful that any work we do not jeopardize our first priority, which is humanitarian. So that also makes our choices in documentary filmmaking a little more complicated than perhaps some other filmmakers.

SUN: A very strong impression I got out of both films is that the films really strive to present these people as people in flesh and blood … I think the human side really comes through.

TL: A person who goes to see this film may well already know there’s an AIDS issue in China, or [that] it’s difficult for gays to live openly in certain cities. So you can’t just be giving them that information. You have to give them a human experience that stays with them…

SUN: So which film do you like more? Which film is closer to your heart?

TL: Never ask a parent which of his children is his favorite! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CJx18Ynuzck

Original Author: Venus Wu