Five years ago, while I was working in Montreal, I was approached by Bill Mundell with an intriguing proposal: he was producing a feature-length documentary film about the future of the relationship between the world’s two acknowledged superpowers—the United States and China—and he needed a director to help shape this extraordinary story.
Over the years, I’ve directed films in 86 countries, and on several occasions my work has called on me to analyze the intricate politics of nations I understood as a layman – at best as a keen and interested observer, but certainly never as an expert or scholar. Why? My medium, film, is seldom associated with deep scholarship. At their best, documentaries tend to “paint with a broad brush,” to be impressionistic and highly personal. And, while they can be indisputably journalistic, with a solid basis in truth and fact, documentary films are often most effective when they focus on emotional portraits of people, places and events. I strive to make films that tell deeply personal stories of lives changed, lives lost and the accompanying unanticipated challenges.
Early in my career, I learned from a seasoned documentary filmmaker that if a subject was sufficiently exciting, thought-provoking and emotionally engaging to capture the filmmaker’s interest, then it had a reasonable chance of stirring its eventual audience’s imagination, too.
This is what I hope we’ve accomplished with BETTER ANGELS. Over four years, we visited workers, students, mothers, fathers, and business and political leaders from around the globe to piece together the story of the intricate and multifaceted relationship that exists between China and the US. The resulting film is a modern ‘relationship-drama’ built around two countries with radically different histories and cultures, engaging at this moment on the world stage with a combined economic and political power surpassing all other nations on earth.
When we first explored making BETTER ANGELS half a decade ago, it became clear that the cautionary tale of the U.S.-China relationship, clouded by suspicions and misinterpretations on both sides, needed to be told, and that to tell it right would require capturing shifting historical and political winds.
Little did I know that by the time of its release, the subject of US/China relations would be the stuff of daily headlines as the Trump Administration and Beijing engage in what is – for now – a war of words and escalating economic tensions. And in today’s highly charged political climate, our film’s message – advocating a more reasoned and measured, less confrontational approach to the relationship between the two most powerful countries in the world – is even more urgent.
Without doubt, the future of U.S.-China relations is a subject capable of enthralling the public: a multi-dimensional, profoundly enigmatic relationship that was reborn in the crucible of the Cold War through the game-changing diplomacy of President Nixon and Chairman Mao—both ably advised by Henry Kissinger and Zhou Enlai. The global press corps billed Nixon’s visit to China as the “week that changed the world,” and today we can look back at 1972 and acknowledge that those four men created a far-sighted “new beginning” for both nations. After years of mutual mistrust, suddenly there was a foundation for a path forward, a fragile bridge of hope to the possibility of peace between the world’s most populous nation and the most powerful nation on earth.
Those four historic figures could not have predicted how events would unfold in the years ahead, but one moment during that fateful week in February 1972 provided me with a clue as to how I might approach this film.
It occurred in a brief exchange between Zhou Enlai and Henry Kissinger, and it was Dr. Kissinger himself who related the story to me. I report it here in his own words:
“On my first visit to China nearly fifty years ago, I remarked to Premier Zhou Enlai that I now found myself in, what to us, is a land of mystery. Zhou replied; ‘What is so mysterious about China? There are 900-million of us, but it’s not mysterious to us. If we get to know each other better, the mystery will disappear.”
Dr. Kissinger went on to conclude: “In a way that defined the challenge of the next decades. I believe that the peace of the world, and the progress of the world depends on whether China and the United States can find a dialogue that reconciles each with the other’s special approach, because if we are to clash, it would be a disaster for the whole world. So, the relationship is an effort to make the better angels of our nature dominate amidst a maelstrom of events.”
In those few words Dr. Kissinger suggested the germ of an idea that ultimately grew to become BETTER ANGELS, a documentary we decided should be much less “political” and far more “anthropological” than we had initially anticipated. The key was to approach these two great nations as if they were two tribes entirely alien to each other, with each tribe struggling mightily to better understand the other, whilst also periodically falling victim to the misgivings, misunderstandings and fear that’s so often a consequence of a lack of knowledge and understanding about their opposite number. Zhou Enlai was right to conclude that the best antidote to the mistrust and strife in the US/China relationship was to be found through increased dialogue and greater mutual understanding.
So how best to make a film that advocates for just such an approach?
With China’s extraordinary renaissance during the past 30 years, the world has witnessed the emergence of an indisputable superpower; one that may well challenge and even eclipse the US in the years ahead. The fundamental questions that our film poses in different ways to many different people are deceptively simple: how should the US react to a newly ascendant China? Furthermore, is it conceivable that the 21st century could bear witness to the first time in human history that two superpowers, each pursuing its own agenda of self-interest, might peacefully co-exist? Might it be possible to imagine a future in which the US and China gradually overcome their economic rivalries, ideological challenges and cultural differences in favor of an historic accord in which a new bi-lateral alliance is forged that could benefit not only their own national agendas but might also be of immense value in fostering peace and prosperity in the wider world?
A brief note on “style”
It became clear very quickly that if we were to distinguish ourselves in this journalistic space we would have to adopt an approach somewhat different to the many China-related network TV news specials and documentaries that have become something of a cottage industry in the US and Europe during the past several years. For the most part, the approach of these films was either prosecutorial, (“Death by China”); alarmist (“The Coming War on China”); or accusatory (“The China Hustle”).
For BETTER ANGELS we decided against relying heavily on the opinions of experts, pundits and journalists; striving instead for a more informal, anecdotal, story-telling approach that permitted our audience to engage emotionally with our characters and subjects, whether they are Chinese or American. In the field of documentary filmmaking a picture really is worth a thousand words, and a thousand facts will always be eclipsed by one powerful, authentic emotion. That’s what we strived for in BETTER ANGELS.
It should come as no surprise that the election of Donald J. Trump as President of the United States was, in more ways than one, a significant event in the lives of the BETTER ANGELS production team—coming as it did, after the film was completed, but before the film had been released.
Naturally, in light of the President-elect’s widely known opinions on the US/China relationship, my colleagues and I decided that the entire film should be revisited with the intention of reflecting the emerging reality of an administration that clearly views China in a very different light than that of Mr. Trump’s predecessor.
During the Trump primary campaign, China became a regular and reliable “whipping boy.” And the President-elect’s dismay at America’s trade imbalance with China was a highly successful rallying-cry.
Speculating how all of this might shake out in the next four (or eight?) years is a parlor game that the makers of BETTER ANGELS declined to play. Elements of our film, as with so many documentaries, are time-sensitive. The lives of many of our film’s key characters are already changing in a myriad of small ways.
The best we could do was to acknowledge the realpolitik of a Trump presidency, attempt to evenhandedly appraise the major points of contention between the two countries, and finally return to support the central thesis of our film: one that has neither changed nor waivered in close to five years and now continues to grow in urgency. For the United States and China, this new century is an enormously challenging time, with new goals being set and old priorities being questioned and reappraised. The global stakes could not be higher. History has shown us that whenever one of the world’s preeminent nation states has been confronted by the rise of a newly ascendant power, the default outcome has all too frequently been conflict and war.
BETTER ANGELS proposes a constructive approach to China’s rise, achieved through an expanded dialogue, diplomacy and mutual understanding. Greater economic integration can benefit both sides and sustain an equilibrium that can hold in check the forces of conflict while acting as a powerful deterrent in preventing any periodic crises from spiraling out of control.
BETTER ANGELS hopes to persuade its audience that this new century could herald an era of unprecedented rapprochement during which China and the United States grow beyond their mutual suspicions and misperceptions to create a viable, stable and prosperous alliance that could benefit the entire world.