“I use film when nothing else works.” That is the mantra of William Mundell, the producer of “Better Angels,” a 90-minute documentary film that deals with the Sino-US relationship.
When it comes to an international issue as thorny as US-China bilateral relations, a film might just be what is needed to improve the association between the two countries.
It is something the 55-year-old American, who’s in Shanghai for the film and TV festival to promote the movie, is hoping for.
“We made this film out of a certain frustration. If you look at the recent summitries between the US and China, all the countless conferences and endless studies on Sino-US cooperation, little has been done to move the needle on the relationship between the two nations,” Mundell tells Shanghai Daily.
“The Chinese have a saying that roughly translates to: ‘If you can focus on the most important issues, the secondary issues will settle themselves quite easily.’ The converse is also true — if you don’t focus on that most important issue, you’ll accomplish very little. That is unfortunately the sorry state of the US-China relationship. This film is an opening salvo in an effort to change that.”
Mundell’s mantra lends itself some credence. In 2009, his first documentary, “Gerrymandering,” saw the people in California vote to terminate an age-long controversial voting policy in their state, where politicians could choose their own voters by demarcating their own district lines.
“For 20 years, good-minded citizens would try to change this system and fail. The film allowed people to understand what was going on and it changed their perspectives,” says Mundell.
“If we could solve a problem as vexing as gerrymandering in California, maybe a movie can also help change the direction of the US-China relationship. My motivation to be involved in film is to change the direction of something that isn’t going well.”
To Mundell, it is paramount that despite their frictional differences, the two nations understand the seemingly limitless potential of their relationship.
“I think the most consequential and important bilateral relationship in the world is the one between United States and China. If anything, we have neglected it. That was the purpose of making this film to draw attention to it.”
Mundell’s interest in China was sparked by a business trip to the country in 1991, which landed him a huge deal with the State Statistical Bureau.
“That contract I won (in China) had a very consequential effect on the value on my company,” he laughs. “I realized this was something I should not be ignoring and that I should learn more about. I began to take regular trips to China to learn more about the country and I met some good Chinese friends.”
In the 25 years since his first trip, Mundell has observed China’s rise as an economic power on the world stage.
“When I first came in 1991, I was stunned by the poverty. I remember seeing mostly bicycles on the roads and no five-star hotels. I thought to myself, ‘here I am in the capital of the most populous country in the world and it really is an underdeveloped country.’
“But over the years there has been a spectacular increase in the living standards of not just the top-tier of Chinese, but the middle-class as well.”
To Mundell, China’s rise as an economic power is the very issue that many Americans have a bone to pick with.
“The point we make in the film is that it’s true — America has lost a lot of jobs to China.
“There is a lot of frustration that exist among Americans in this aspect. What really forms Americans’ opinion about China right now is this perception of the loss of jobs to them.”
As a statement of intent from Mundell to change perspectives, he hired two-time Academy Award-winning filmmaker Malcolm Clarke to spearhead “Better Angels.”
It had a budget of US$3 million and took over three years to film, spanning across four continents — Asia, North America, Europe and Africa — and accumulating over 850 hours of footages.
The film features interviews with prominent world figures such as former US secretaries of state Henry Kissinger and Madeleine Albright, and Tung Cheehwa, the first chief executive of Hong Kong.
But the primary focus is on ordinary American and Chinese citizens.
“We’ve failed to invest in the core infrastructure of the relationship — how we feel about each other. So we decided to look through the lens of ordinary Americans and Chinese,” says Mundell.
Indeed, there are certain intriguing characters in the film that bridge the divide between the two nations, one of whom is Memo Mata, a former US soldier who moved to Shanghai after experiencing difficulties back home. He is currently teaching Chinese students at a high school and coaching American football.
In the film, Mata describes his life in Shanghai as realizing the American dream.
Mundell explains: “We had two criteria in choosing our stories — they had to have compelling characters and that they could shatter myths about perceptions of the two countries.”
In the case of shattering myths, the production team traveled to one of America’s poorest counties — Thomasville, Alabama — to cover the stories of two American women who found jobs when a Chinese company opened a copper plant in the area.
“Americans have this notion that Chinese investment will lead to a loss of American jobs. But here is a case where China took a risk in where Americans were unwilling to take and set up shop in one of the poorest counties in the US and created jobs for a town that has been forgotten,” says Mundell.
Ultimately, the film aims to show that despite their perceived differences of each other, Chinese and Americans, after all, are not all that unalike.
“The aspirations are the same — a high standard of living, similar family values, and a desire to allow people to achieve their full potential — that is a commonality between the two countries,” says Mundell.
One such sequence in “Better Angels” highlights these issues in detail. It features the separation of Chinese families because parents had to move to another city for a job.
“There are 61 million Chinese children who are essentially ‘orphans’ in that sense because their parents had to move to another city — that’s 20 percent of the child population in China,” says Mundell. “I think if Americans understood what the Chinese have been through to become who they are today, there would be more benevolence and more empathy toward China.”
The title of the movie draws its inspiration from a speech by Abraham Lincoln in an effort to reconcile the North and South of the US at that time.
Likewise, to Mundell, this film has the same goals in mind as Lincoln had 155 years ago.
“It is a rallying cry to the people to appeal to the better angels of their souls, to take a fresh pair of eyes and look at this relationship, unbound by predetermined impressions of each other,” he says.
Mundell is optimistic that the film has the potential to change the two nation’s perspectives for the better.
“I’ve learnt (from producing the film) that the rise of China does not have to mean the decline of the US. That for the first time in history, two rival powers can not only rise together, but can help each other get there.”
Only time will tell if Mundell’s mantra will ring true. When nothing else works, a film might just be all it takes.