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Around China with a Movie Camera: Chinese Zeitgeist Illustration

Around China with a Movie Camera Beijing 1910Around China with a Movie Camera: Beijing 1910. Realism absent even from “documentaries” like Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack’s Grass (a chronicle of the seasonal migration of members of a Bakhtiari tribe in Persia).
  • Around China with a Movie Camera (2015) review: Films such as those included in this British Film Institute compilation documentary offer a magical window into the past.

Around China with a Movie Camera review: Old shorts illustrate the Chinese zeitgeist during the first half of the 20th century

If the dictionary defines zeitgeist as “the spirit of a time and place,” then Around China with a Movie Camera: A Journey from Beijing to Shanghai (1900–1948) is the definition of a vehicle that takes the viewer to that time and place.

Along with Marcel L’Herbier’s L’Inhumaine, this short-film compilation by the British Film Institute was also presented at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival’s “A Day of Silents.”

The shorts consist of travelogues, home movies, and newsreels made by British and French filmmakers. A few of these were professionals; most were amateurs: Tourists, expats, missionaries.

Life as it was

Unlike fiction films, with their artifice and controlled action, the various Around China with a Movie Camera shorts show life as it really was (in some cases) over 100 years ago, with countless people going about their daily business – some of them, fascinated by the camera, either staring into the lens or running away out of fear.

The clips include common outdoor scenes, street theater, and historical monuments like the Great Wall and the Palace of the Forbidden City. Additionally, we get to see a town precariously built on stilts, rivers transporting hoards of people and trade goods, and even a quick glimpse into an opium den.

One anthropological delight is a sequence showing the Miao people, an ethnic group living in the isolated rural villages of the Yunnan Province in 1948. But my personal favorite is the beautiful stencil-colored sequence, sailing down a canal in Hangzhou.

My only suggestion about the screening is that the films should have been integrated in chronological order, leading up to the Communist Revolution in 1949. Sequencing them by date would have provided some linear order of events.

‘A tree without a root’

I have long ago stopped asking myself what it is that triggers my fascination with the past, regardless of culture or national origin.

To quote an old Chinese proverb: “To forget one’s ancestors is to be a brook without a source, a tree without a root.”

Films such as these featured in Around China with a Movie Camera are the next best thing to having a time machine.


Around China with a Movie Camera (2015) Review” endnotes

Around China with a Movie Camera image: Courtesy of the British Film Institute, via the San Francisco Silent Film Festival website.

Around China with a Movie Camera: Chinese Zeitgeist Illustration” last updated in October 2021.

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