Staff Pick: Living the Chinese Dream

For years the Chinese city of Yiwu has welcomed business-savvy Syrians, Yemenis, Libyans and Iraqis, but without laws recognising refugees many of the city’s migrants are worried about how long they will be able to stay in what has become their second home.

Directed by Shanshan Chen



Q+A with the filmmaker

For this month’s Staff Pick spotlight, we are excited to introduce the brilliant short doc, Living the Chinese Dream. Directed by One World Media Fellow Shanshan Chen and produced for Thomson Reuters Foundation, the film tells the stories of Ammar, Mike and Manar, who all fled violence to start a new home in the city of Yiwu.

We spoke to Shanshan about her experience making the film, the One World Media Fellowship and her top tips for anybody hoping to embark on their first solo documentary project!


How did you come across the story for your project?

My film featured three people: one from Syria, one from Yemen, and a third from Iraq, all of whom lived in Yiwu, a city that is famous for its commodity markets and its vibrant international communities. I first came across Mike in 2017, an actor from Syria, when his online video post of him playing “foreigners” in Chinese films went viral. I got in touch with Mike, who was positive about my interest in filming with him. Meanwhile, a friend, who made a short documentary about the city’s Muslim community, introduced me to more people from the Middle East living in Yiwu. From there, a story about people from war-torn countries – Syria, Yemen and Iraq, started to emerge.


What was the most valuable thing you learned during the process?

The most valuable thing I learned was to be mindful of any unpredictable changes and make the most of the circumstances! I especially remember that during our Skype calls, Flora, my One World Media exec producer, repeatedly said that I would need to make sure to give myself some time each day apart from the filming, to take care of myself. It was one of the most important pieces of advice I received, as it was quite stressful and it was my first time filming for 12 days straight.

Another important thing I learned during the editing was that for a story like this – which was more complex than I was used to – it is important to edit by scenes. Before editing, I labelled all the scenes with tags (with locations, names, scenes – basically any key words) in Premiere on one timeline. It took me almost two days to lay out and label all the footage, but it proved to be a very effective way to revisit the scenes and pull footage later.


What was the most challenging aspect of making your film? How did you overcome this?

There was one person who didn’t make to the final cut of the film because his family decided against filming at a very late stage, and one of the three characters could only spare a few hours due to his schedule. I scheduled some extra time for filming so that I had flexibility in case something like this happened. With the help of my executive producers, we managed to structure the film with the material that we had.


How did the One World Media Fellowship help you make your film?

The One World Media Fellowship gave me the green light to enable me to research, set up and film this story, and helped me to validate my idea through workshops with my mentors and fellow filmmakers. It also gave me the confidence to look for stories, to talk to other filmmakers/journalists to share ideas, and pitch stories, and to believe it will happen again!


What advice would you give someone making their first documentary?

You don’t need to stick to the original plans; give yourself chances to encounter surprises. It may turn out to be better than your preconceived story!


Shanshan’s film was distributed by Thomson Reuters Foundation.

View more films with OWM Presents.


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