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IFFR 2020 Bright Future

Mladen Kovačević • Director of Merry Christmas, Yiwu

"I wanted to make a film about the complexities of the real China"

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- We chatted to Serbian filmmaker Mladen Kovačević, whose latest documentary, Merry Christmas, Yiwu, has just world-premiered in Rotterdam's Bright Future section

Mladen Kovačević  • Director of Merry Christmas, Yiwu

We sat down with Serbian filmmaker Mladen Kovačević, whose latest documentary, Merry Christmas, Yiwu [+see also:
film review
trailer
interview: Mladen Kovačević
film profile
]
, has just world-premiered in International Film Festival Rotterdam's Bright Future section. We spoke to the director about the feature.

Cineuropa: How did you discover Yiwu, and when and why did you decide to make a film about it?
Mladen Kovačević: I knew I wanted to make a film about the complexities of the real China, not its curiosities – a film that explores the everyday lives of ordinary people without an agenda. And I also knew I needed a cinematically explicit story, which could be told in an organic, naturalistic manner. Then I heard from a Chinese journalist about the city of Yiwu, home to more than 600 factories that produce more than two-thirds of Christmas decorations for the entire world.

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We recognise these products even if they’re half-finished in the hands of the Chinese workers. They bring back the feeling of the most intimate family holidays, Christmas and New Year. It all has an obvious emotional relevance to Western audiences. It's the right state of mind in which to explore the lives of the Chinese people who are making them from the point of view of the Westerner. What surprised me at the screenings at Rotterdam is how emotional the Chinese people in the audience got about the film. My initial intention to make a feature about the ordinary, real China wasn't lost in the process; we weren’t seduced by the extraordinary setting.

How did you get access to these factories, and even the homes of the protagonists?
In terms of the logistics, we had support from the local Chinese production partners, who facilitated the initial research and access, while the crew was predominantly Chinese, which was another important asset – it felt like it was a Chinese production and so people were less suspicious. Also, the factories are private, and as long as the factory owner didn't mind, we didn't need any additional permits.

In most of the places where we shot, including those storylines that didn't end up in the final cut, the factory owners were also characters in the film. And then, once a degree of trust had been established, a very natural step in the process of telling the story about the everyday lives of the workers and the factory bosses was to continue this at their homes, which were either factory dormitories or the houses adjacent to the plants. These characters live in the “film setting” of Christmas factories; their routines and their personal narratives are entirely linked to the theme of the film, which is why the narrative as a whole didn’t have to be forced in any sense.

It is a surprising film in the sense that it does not explore facts or events in a place and industry that have never been filmed before, but presents a certain way of life that is quite alien to the Western world.
I don’t believe that film is there to inform or to educate. Whether documentary or fiction, film is there to provide a cinematic experience, to tell a story. If you learn something from this experience, that's great. When I'm interested in facts, I read newspapers or factual books; in film, I'm interested in intimate stories, and indeed, the characters’ way of life reveals itself to the extent that the story will allow.

These factories are like big households. Workers often come together from the same remote region to the same factory, and they end up working and sharing dormitories with their cousins and best friends. In these factories, couples meet, families form and children grow up. The workers can afford the newest iPhones, and it's obvious that these factories are not sweatshops, but the work in the plants is still hard. Christmas production peaks in the summer months, when the temperature in Yiwu is 40 degrees. Some factories are filled with chemical fumes from plastic or coloured dyes, and glitter particles float through the air. There is no real peace or privacy either in the factories or in the dormitories. It’s not an easy life, and that's why most young people look for opportunities elsewhere, and opportunities in modern-day China are everywhere.

Are you working on a new project, and can you tell us anything about it?
My next documentary is called Beginnings. Parts of it have been shot already, from a South Pacific treasure hunt and mountaineers lost in an earthquake in the Himalayas, to the Mediterranean and Northern Europe. I’m taking a somewhat experimental approach to the narrative, where the stories are going to be interrupted abruptly and unexpectedly, towards the end of the first act. It's a memoir of beginnings, with excerpts from the author's journal read sporadically in voice-over.

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