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Closer to nature
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China's first series of nature documentaries has won audience acclamation, although its makers faced a struggle due to lack of funds and knowledge.


China's first commercial nature documentary series Forest China, which hit TV screens across the nation on December 1, 2007, has been met with mixed opinions.

Since 2004, the crew for the 11-episode documentary has been dispatched to remote and mysterious parts of China, exploring mountains, forests and deserts. It took four years to finish the filming of the documentary, a stunning production that brings the audience closer to China's natural habitat.

"Forest China reminds me of the masterpiece documentary Microcosmos. I never expected we Chinese filmmakers could make such a smashing work," one viewer said in a comment on the website of the documentary series. Another viewer said that the filming was so excellent that every picture taken from the documentary could be used as a desktop computer background.

On the official website of Forest China, a public survey shows that the top three attractions of the documentary were beautiful scene (27 percent), music (19.9 percent) and interesting commentary (19.3 percent). When asked to compare Forest China to foreign documentaries, 47 percent of respondents said they thought the two were neck and neck and 28 percent said they thought the Chinese documentary was better.

Tell a story

Before shooting began in 2004, the documentary directors were given a week of training by two veterans from the world-leading producer of factual television Natural History New Zealand Ltd. (NHNZ), Michel Stedman and Peter Hyton.

"NHNZ might not be the most powerful documentary producer, but for sure it has harvested the most trophies in this field," said Chen Xiaoqing, the documentary's general director and a veteran Chinese TV producer who works for the country's largest TV station China Central Television (CCTV).

The words, "You must tell the audience a story," were embedded in Chen's mind by the NHNZ veterans. One documentary follows golden monkeys because an animal expert told them it was time for the monkeys to choose a new king.

Chen's crew focused on a family of black cranes, but filming was disrupted when the birds' environment was disturbed by tourists.

Such things happened a lot during the filming. The crew in charge of rain forest filming planed to shoot an endangered species of gibbon in Hainan Province, but found only 12 very alert and difficult to film animals living on a mountain. The crew waited in the rain for almost 10 days to shoot nothing, but a shadow of one of the gibbons.

Big investment

The documentary team came up against obstacles during the four years it took to make the series, including weak scientific research and lack of knowledge about the environment, but their biggest problem was lack of funds.

Though they received 10 million yuan from the State Forestry Administration and the Ministry of Finance, the team found this money fell far short of what they needed. Although 10 million yuan might be a big investment for a documentary project in China, it is only one thirtieth of that of a foreign documentary, said Chen.

The filming equipment was the biggest complaint for the cameramen. "Our equipment fell far behind that of other countries," said one of the crew Xiao Wei. Chen also admitted that one third of the 550-minute documentary was shot by DV.

The film crew rented a micro camera to shoot the close-ups. As it was the best weapon they had in their film equipment arsenal, they had to arrange the schedule for the camera. "It was used by the eight teams of us one by one, a few days for each team," said Chen.

Shanghai TV Festival, the first international TV festival in China, has a category for nature documentaries. Since the festival was established in 1986, the award for best nature documentary has never been awarded to a Chinese documentary. The most frequent winner has been the BBC. Chen has been a judge for the documentary award and believes the poor results for China have got much to do with a generally depressed environment for documentary production in the country. One of the major reasons for this is a lack of funds. "Chinese documentary producers are starving," he said.

Documentary making in foreign countries has become an industry with a mature production line from choosing the topic to distribution, said professor Lin Xudong from the Communication University of China.

In some sense the Forest China is an assignment for CCTV from the country's forestry administration and not made for the market, Lin added.

Professional background

Another big obstacle for Chinese nature documentary is knowledge. In the history of nature documentaries the most important pioneer is David Attenborough. He has a profound knowledge of the world through studying anthropology and he is member of the Royal Society. A broad and profound professional background is one of the key factors that contribute to the making of a mature nature documentary.

When the Discovery channel filmed a documentary for the PBS (Public Broadcasting Service), all the cameramen were people who raised birds of prey. One photographer even tied a camera to the back of a bird and documented how it dived and captured a rabbit at a high speed.

The crew for Forest China by comparison lacked such professional knowledge in the natural science. Most of the crew were engaged in humanity documentaries before and this was their first nature documentary project.

"This time we have strong support from the Financial Ministry and the Forestry Administration. I'm not sure whether there will be a second chance like this," said Xiao.

"Many of the cameramen for nature documentaries in foreign countries are experts in a scientific field in the first place," said one of the Forest China directors Li Taishan. For the present China's nature documentary makers fail to reach that level: the cameramen are not engaged in scientific research and the researchers do not film.

When the crew was filming golden monkeys on Qinling Mountain, they were shown a batch of precious video clips, in which a mother monkey feed her baby for 30 days even after the baby was dead. However the quality of the video was so poor that it could not be used in the documentary.

Will China have its own David Attenborough? It's not going to happen soon, according to Chen. It will take time to bridge the gap between documentary and scientific research, but Chen is optimistic that it will eventually happen.
(Beijing Review January 7, 2008)

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