Documentary shot with cellphones shows real China
By Zhang Rui  ·  2024-01-24  ·   Source:

The premiere of China's first-ever documentary film shot with cellphones, "This Is Life," was held at Tsinghua University in Beijing on January 6. The film captures the essence of individuals in an era of rapid change, focusing on their material pursuits and spiritual quests through vivid and authentic self-shot footage.


The crew of "This Is Life" pose for a photo on stage at the documentary's premiere at Tsinghua University in Beijing, on January 6, 2024. [Photo courtesy of Elemeet] 

Six years in the making, the documentary presents a collection of more than 800 short videos filmed by 509 individuals from various backgrounds, with a special emphasis on manual laborers and farmers. The production team spent a year carefully combing through over 50,000 clips. By incorporating this footage, the film actively involves ordinary people in its creation, showcasing their genuine life experiences and giving them a prominent role that is often overlooked in mainstream cinema. Notably, the film's distinctiveness stems from its exclusive use of vertical aspect ratio, setting it apart from conventional films.

Tsinghua University professor Yin Hong served as executive producer of "This Is Life." At the film's premiere, he said: "We've always emphasized the need to tell good Chinese stories, and this film precisely represents real Chinese stories. It showcases the lives of the Chinese people, their work and their aspirations for a better life. It certainly holds unique appeal and significant value."

Director Sun Hong elaborated on her original idea behind creating the film, stating: "We hope that the lives of ordinary Chinese people, captured through these small screens, can be seen on a grand scale. It's not only about being seen, but more importantly, that their lives and images can be remembered by people. In these rapidly changing times, it's essential to preserve and retain those special moments of inspiration, allowing them to settle and become a historical memory that we can revisit and savor. Only cinema can fulfill this mission."

Tang Ke, the head of the program-creating center at China Movie Channel, was captivated by the film. "It quickly grabbed my attention because of the unique nature of footage captured through cellphone lenses. It brings us up-close to the everyday lives of ordinary people," Tang said. "This sense of closeness, along with the unique relationship and distance between the filmmakers and the subjects, creates an intense, unparalleled and extraordinary sense of authenticity."

Among the audience, renowned musician Su Yang praised the film as a pleasant surprise, stating: "I didn't expect it to be this good, and I found myself laughing throughout. Our everyday lives, when edited, hold many surprises." The film's sound director, Li Danfeng, brought his son to watch the film and was pleasantly surprised by his reaction. He said, "I'm particularly happy because I brought my son along, and he was extremely excited. This demonstrates that our film is not only for adults but can also achieve family-friendly entertainment, allowing children to experience real life."

A range of merchandise is slated for release to coincide with the film, including lenticular tickets, woven bags, hoodies, as well as traditional Chinese couplets and red envelopes, all designed to enhance the celebration of the Chinese New Year. Chen Sinuo, vice president of the popular Kuaishou short video platform and a producer of the film, also unveiled upcoming plans for charity screenings of "This Is Life," offering free tickets to blue-collar workers such as construction workers, textile workers, truck drivers, food delivery riders and couriers. Chen explained, "In fact, the film boasts a total of 510 directors, with Sun Hong being the first and the other 509 directors being the creators of the short videos."


A poster for "This Is Life." [Photo courtesy of Elemeet] 

Several experts later joined a panel discussion on the film. Huangfu Yichuan, the president and editor-in-chief of the magazine Contemporary Cinema, remarked: "In my view, it's like the classic ancient scroll painting 'Along the River During the Qingming Festival' for the smartphone era. It revolves around the poignant moments in life. We are touched by individual lives, moved by their hardships, inspired by the wisdom and unique skills that emerge under life's pressures, and captivated by the miracles unveiled as smartphones reach every corner of the world. Furthermore, it is observed from the perspective of smartphones, capturing the essence of their love — the love of ordinary people. Such a moving experience is challenging to find in other visual representations."

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