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‘What I know now’: directing China Love

Photographer-turned-director Olivia Martin-McGuire on her debut documentary China Love and what she’s learnt for next time.

It was glamorous brides in running shoes that first caught photographer Olivia Martin-McGuire’s eye.

She was at The Bund in Shanghai, and had arrived early. The director of the Australian documentary Red Obsession, who she would be photographing, was still 20 minutes away. And so she was struck by this vast number of brides posing for photos – what she would later discover was one of up to seven backdrop and location changes for the booming billion dollar industry of pre-wedding photography shoots.

This “surface level” interest would lead her not just to a successful photo series, but her first feature-length documentary China Love.

Now releasing in cinemas through Demand.Film (find out more here), the observational documentary delves into the $80 billion Chinese wedding industry through newly engaged couples, their families, and the businesses that deliver these dreamy pre-wedding photo shoots. It creates a colourful, thoughtful portrait of modern-day China, steeped in history yet optimistic for the future, and its evolution since the Cultural Revolution.

“It is intriguing as a photo series,” Martin-McGuire says from Hong Kong, where she’s now based after living in Shanghai for four years. Indeed, the photo series went on to feature in Time Magazine and at the 2018 Head On Photo Festival in Sydney.

“But,” she acknowledges, “it only goes so far. And what was really gratifying and amazing for me was to be able to take it to that next level, which you can do when you start talking to people.”

While there are a lot of photojournalists based in China, “just to hear the people speak is not as common.” And certainly not in the Western media.

“To hear their stories, their personal stories – [and] taken out of a political context – I think is more rare.”

Within the first six months of living in Shanghai, Martin-McGuire started the photo project. About a year after that, with producers Rebecca Barry and Madeleine Hetherton from Media Stockade attached, she received development support from Screen Australia for the documentary.

Armed with a newly-made trailer thanks to the development funds, she applied for the Create NSW/ABC Arts Documentary Feature Fund initiative and was successful (only the second film to receive it), with additional major production funding from Screen Australia.

But with that funding came a deadline – a world premiere at the 2018 Sydney Film Festival, which at that point was less than a year away.

“So it was like this crazy, crazy adventure where I was just chasing stories and characters and had the camera on me all the time and translators,” she says.

“There were so many slapstick, ridiculous [situations] – with me, just this person chasing brides on the street. But we made it. We got there in the end.”

“There were so many slapstick, ridiculous [situations] – with me, just this person chasing brides on the street. But we made it. We got there in the end.”

During that time, Martin-McGuire was also dealing with personal tragedy. “My father had just died in a tragic accident, so I was in a bit of grief and when it got funded, my little sister came out, she was the line producer and the two of us were still sort of processing the grief that we were going through.”

She says it wasn’t until they hit the edit, when some of the other crew and characters also suffered personal loss, that they realised how China Love “was as much about grief as it was about love.”

“And it was very much about a sort of cultural healing through photography, or moving through the grief of a country and finding different ways of hope through these symbols of romance.”

It was while they struggled through the edit that Martin-McGuire wondered if she would ever make another film again.

“But as soon as the film finished, I had this hunger within my gut that I've probably never experienced before, of wanting to make more documentaries and make them better. To use the things that I had learnt and try and do things that could help people. And that was a massive surprise, because it was like a deep-seated sort of hunger to get back out there again almost straight away.”

China Love

Here’s how Martin-McGuire and the team made China Love, and her takeaways for that next project:

SHOOTING OVERSEAS

“You've got to have good translators; you've got have a good line producer; a local fixer. Those things are pretty critical,” Martin-McGuire says.

“In China it's a bit complicated – making a film about something political would have been much more difficult. So I think it was nice to make something that was through the prism of love.”

In fact, figuring out what China Love was really about at its core presented one of the biggest dilemmas.

“Telling a story from someone else's culture that's not yours, that was probably the biggest challenge. How do I tell this story without it being voyeuristic, without it being unethical?

“So I think that's something to get your head around firstly, so you're not whitesplaining – why you're making a documentary in another culture.”

A cultural difference Martin-McGuire also embraced while in China is the ability to react on intuition or instinct, as opposed to planning everything out.

“It's not a super cerebral system and culture. Whereas Australia's very cerebral: you think things through; you make considered and calculated decisions; you organise plans. In China you just go with the flow and… see where it takes you, and you make some gut, instinctive decisions…

“Documentary making is a bit of a labor of love, so it's better to just follow that feeling, that passion, that idea and that love rather than making it too cerebral.”

GEAR

Before China Love was funded, Martin-McGuire relied on her own camera – a Canon 5D.

“Once it was funded, it had quite a few different DoPs, with different cameras. So the look is sometimes very eclectic. But that was just the nature of the pressing deadline and China is very multilayered and complex so it kind of reflected that complexity through the eclectic look,” she says.

With the story still taking shape, Martin-McGuire adopted a guerilla-style approach, shooting anything and everything she could.

“[We were] 100% chasing it.”

“[We were] 100% chasing it,” she says of the story.

“And using the DJI Osmo was super helpful because it's tiny and also I don't really look the part – and that's helpful with photojournalism as well. I'm sort of a middle-aged blond. It's still kind of a sexist world really. So I can get away with lots of things if I'm holding small camera, because I don't really look threatening.”

LESSONS

Martin-McGuire says her main takeaways were around how to prepare for the edit (China Love was edited by Bernadette Murray).

“It was just so ‘fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants-under-the-deadline’ that I would love to do it with more storyboarding and more space to log everything and have everything translated and really be more prepared before I hit the edit room,” she says.

“[And] I'd love to be working solidly with one DoP, and build up a relationship with them.”

The credits list 25 camera operators and three camera assistants.

“It just was the situation in China where it was a bit tricky so most shoots we had a different DoP. I think just to have that chemistry of both being on the same [page and] telling the story together, would be pretty amazing.”

As a photographer, she says a lot of those visual storytelling techniques were transferable.

“I'm always very cinematic anyway so I always want to push the music or push the cinematic style of it, but just as far as really building that arc of the story, that's really what I learnt a lot more about in this project,” she says.

“I guess with photography, you're coming from a more macro view, so it's really understanding those more micro ways of storytelling. That might start off in a written form (such as a script) and trying to have more space around building story that way.”

When pressed about upcoming projects she could put these newfound skills to, Martin-McGuire says there’s more than one.

“I’ve got a few ideas actually. There’s a few things ticking over at the moment.”


China Love is releasing in cinemas through Demand.Film – find a screening near you or host one yourself by clicking here. It will also screen on ABC Arts in February 2019.