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Documentary makers shift focus to ordinary lives

By Sun Li | China Daily | Updated: 2011-12-14 13:39

Foreign documentary producers, who have recently joined CCTV-9 as consultants for the largest Chinese TV network's documentary channel, say good subject matter needs to be sourced to enhance the appeal of co-productions between China and other countries.

Steve Burns, former executive vice-president of global content at National Geographic Channel, says major United States nonfiction networks have covered many subjects related to China, such as China's first emperor Qin Shihuang (259-210 BC), the Terracotta Warriors and Great Wall.

"Those programs centering on classic topics did attract international audiences, but they were oft-repeated. Chinese documentary makers should look for new topics when pitching a program to their potential foreign partners," he says.

"Western viewers are not only interested in programs about Chinese history and legendary historical figures. They are also interested in shows about people's lives and the current economic situation."

Yves Jeanneau, founder of the France's Sunny Side of the Doc, says that in addition to documentaries focusing on Chinese history, the European documentary market expects programs about science and wildlife.

"Both subjects are relatively rare in the overseas market," Jeanneau says, adding documentary co-productions about China's wildlife and science could be original and powerful when using old photos, computer-generated images and three-dimensional effects.

Jeanneau also says programs that reflect ordinary people's lives and the social environment would be popular in Europe.

For example, if Chinese documentary producers were to do a story about the family planning policy, it could be attractive to foreign docu channels because they have heard a lot about it but don't fully understand and want to learn more.

British producer Phil Agland, director of the award-wining documentary Beyond the Clouds, a stunning series recording the joys and sorrows of ordinary families in Lijiang, Yunnan province, says small-budget programs about people's real lives are good subjects for co-production projects.

"People's lifestyles and conditions in China are unique and are varied according to the regions. Western audiences are curious about these," Agland says.

"That's exactly why I put my camera on the ordinary faces in Lijiang, and I think Chinese producers should explore more subjects connected with people's real lives."

Liu Wen, director of CCTV-9, says these consultants who evaluate co-production projects and make documentaries focusing on ordinary people will be one of the channel's focuses for 2012.