Series sheds light on mystery of China

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Boasting a population more than four times that of the United States, China is rapidly taking its place among the world’s dominant powers. Still, the nation and its people remain largely shrouded in mystery.

Filmmaker Jonathan Lewis was determined to cut through the murk and gather some clues. His quest led to “China From the Inside,” a fascinatingly intimate documentary series premiering Wednesday night on PBS.

“It’s so important that we get to know these people,” Lewis said in a phone interview. “And we need to know them not as strangers, or enemies, or as a billion inscrutable worker ants – but as human beings.”

“China From the Inside,” which unfolds in two-hour segments over two nights, is a good start. A national PBS series that was co-produced by San Francisco’s KQED and Britain’s Granada Productions, it treks across half the provinces of China and takes viewers into courts, prisons, orphanages, party meetings and rural and metropolitan homes. Along the way, it sheds considerable light on a country of 1.3 billion people that is undergoing astonishing growth while facing daunting obstacles.

Over 14 months of filming, Lewis and his crew sought to get a strong sense of where China has been and where it is going. That wasn’t always easy to accomplish in a country where information is tightly controlled by the Communist Party. “The government was very, very fussy about what approach we were taking and what we wanted to do,” he recalled. “From the start, we didn’t want to be rude and critical, but clear-eyed and fair.

“Obviously, at times, they had a propaganda agenda in mind. But even if you twisted my arm and got me drunk, that stuff wouldn’t get through.”

Going into the project, Lewis wanted to interview not only the powerful, but the powerless. And he had concerns that he would meet a lot of reticent citizens, afraid to speak their minds. But he was pleasantly surprised to find just the opposite.

“Of course, we did come across cautious people who gave us bland and uninteresting interviews that went straight to the cutting-room floor,” he said. “But we had a lot of passionate people who were eager to talk to us and speak out freely. I was surprised by the degree of openness we found.”

He was also surprised to find a number of remarkable contrasts as he traveled from bustling cities to bucolic rural villages.

“One day, you’d see a massive airport being built in a city you’ve never heard of and the next day, you’d come across a man plowing his field with a water buffalo,” he said. “It’s amazing to see how these ancient and modern worlds coexist.”

“China From the Inside” opens with an hour that examines how the Communist Party, which has been beset by rampant corruption, manages to maintain control over the country’s vast citizenry. Part 2 looks at how long-repressed Chinese women are beginning to fight for their rights.

Next week, the series concludes with segments that sift through the environmental concerns stemming from China’s rapid industrialization and provide a look at the country’s issues with religious worship. “It’s a hell of a journey,” Lewis said. “And it’s an important and timely one, too.”



CHINA FROM THE INSIDE

9 p.m. EST Wednesday (concludes next week)

PBS



(c) 2007, Contra Costa Times (Walnut Creek, Calif.).

Visit the Contra Costa Times on the Web at http://www.contracostatimes.com.

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.



AP-NY-01-08-07 1554EST

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