Safe haven a flamboyant Chinese business woman who had extensive contacts in Bulgaria, among them mob connections. She wasn’t exactly Oskar Schindler but she has played a heroic role in helping the Syrian immigrants. Jia Zhao
Jia Zhao, Chinese-Dutch producer and founder of Muyi Film, first had the idea for Lady of the Harbour at IDFA 2015, when she met the father of young Beijing-based Sean Wang, then studying scriptwriting at the Beijing Film Academy, writes Geoffrey Macnab. The father was working in Athens and told Zhao colourful stories about Chinese immigrants who had come to Europe in the 1990s following exactly the same route as Syrian refugees today. Some travelled legally but others were smuggling themselves across borders. “That triggered me. I didn’t know any of this history at all,” the producer says. She began to think this could be an intriguing subject for a film. Son Sean, who had won plaudits for his student film The Huis Away From Home (2014), about a Muslim’s immigration across China, agreed to direct. The original title was ‘Arks of Confucius’. The filmmakers needed a main character and eventually found one in the shape of Suzanne,
Suzanne, who is in her early 50s, turned out to be quite a draw when it came to getting the film financed. “First of all, she is very photogenic,” Zhao says of her subject, who charmed the commissioning editors. Suzanne is also a formidably strong-willed figure who has displayed enormous courage in helping the refugees. Suzanne may make mistakes but she is pragmatic and business-minded. She uses oldfashioned Chinese acumen to come to the aid of the Syrians. “The film really has a lot of humour in it. It is not like this very sad, heavy, tragic refugee (story),” Zhao says. Suzanne’s motives for helping the refugees are complex. She feels guilt over the death of her father, for which she may have been responsible. This wasn’t an easy film to finance, even with Suzanne on board. Zhao couldn’t go to the normal European funders as the production had very few European elements, but trade body the China Greece Trade Association invested in the documentary because its members felt it had an important story to tell which reflected the Chinese experience in Greece. Zhao also secured backing from Canada and
from the Busan Film Festival. The post-production was completed in the Netherlands. Lady of the Harbour (handled inter nationally by sales agent CAT&Docs) was made all over the world, in China, Bulgaria, Macedonia and Greece. Director Wang was relatively inexperienced but was a committed cinephile with a strong vision. There wasn’t enough money for a cameraman and so Wang ended up shooting the film himself. “There was pretty much a synergy between us. I wouldn’t say that I was leading him…but it was a very good result in the end,” the producer says of the collaboration. As she finishes Lady of the Harbour, Zhao already has various other projects percolating. In all her work, she looks to bring western European and eastern filmmakers and stories together. One of her current documentaries, Kabul At This Moment, looks at contemporary life in Afghanistan. Another, The Crow Is Beautiful, which she co-directed with Frank Scheffer and also premiering at IDFA, is about the painter He Duoling, whose creative processes and output express his ways of thinking as a Chinese man (see page 34). Zhao may have founded her company in 2012 but since then she has become a regular fixture at IDFA where many of her films looking at intercultural exchange between China and the west have been selected.