In his first inaugural address 154 years ago, Abraham Lincoln appealed to the best qualities in the human spirit to navigate the United States through the storm of civil war that lay ahead.
A century and half later, another impassioned American has invoked the same notion on Sino-U.S. relations to “allow their capacity for wisdom,tolerance and forward thinking to prevail over historic rivalries, mutual suspicion and the all too pervasive zero-summentality.”
William Mundell is producing a 90-minute documentary on the U.S.-China relationship,Better Angels, due for release later this year.
Mundell has assembled a team including two-time Academy Award winning director,Malcolm Clarke. It is not the first time the 54-year-old entrepreneur has invested in film-making. In 2009, he produced a documentary on gerrymandering, which led to political reform in California.
“If we could reform as vexing an issue as gerrymandering through a movie that costs less than a million (dollars) to make, I thought we could use the same medium to move the needle on U.S.-China relations,” Mundell said.
China’s extraordinary rise has challenged the U.S. in many ways. Cooperation usually comes along with frictions.
“Our goal is to change public opinion, a building block of the relationship. We have to dig deep into the infrastructure, the plumbing of the relationship,” he said.
In 1991, Mundell made his first visit to China to seal a business contract. Over the years, he traveled extensively in China. He is an honorary professor at Beijing’s Tsinghua University.
“I was a fly on the wall, listening and watching, and now I feel it’s time to speak up,” said the son of Nobel laureate Robert Mundell.
Last year Mundell made 11 trips to China, almost once a month. The self-described idealist stayed at his friend’s home in a Beijing hutong (alley), where he thought and rethought how to keep his brainchild moving forward.
In producing the documentary, Mundell interviewed prominent figures such as former secretary of state Madeleine Albright, Chinese businessman Wang Jianlin, first chief executive of Hong Kong Special Administrative Region C.H. Tung, and also ordinaryChinese and Americans. So far he has accumulated more than 700 hours of footage.
“The film won’t be a talking essay. It doesn’t commemorate a special event in history, itwill be deep and emotional, connected by a common theme, through narration,” he said.
In one sequence, Mundell and his team traveled to one of America’s poorest counties,Thomasville, Alabama, to film the stories of two American women whose lives changedwhen a Chinese company opened a copper plant, bringing 300 new jobs and new life into acommunity that hadn’t seen any real investment in 45 years.
“I hope that when the Chinese watch the sequence, they cannot help but feel a great senseof pride. And when the American watch, they can have a chance to change the stereotypethat Chinese investment will always lead to loss of jobs,” Mundell said.
In another sequence, an ex-U.S. Marine started a new career and rebuilt confidence in life,not at home, but in Shanghai, where he was voted one of the best teachers. He describeslife as realizing American dream in China.
“Each story was carefully chosen to illuminate some unique and perhaps little-known facetof the relations, and each one could provide audience with fresh insights,” he said. “I hopeit will surprise, shatter myths, and move people.”
When Mundell began work on the film, he thought quite differently. “I thought I was goingto find the magic bullet, the most innovative policies, things that have not got enough airtime in policy circles. Then halfway through filming, we realized that none of these policiescould flourish if we do not fix the infrastructure of the relationship,” he said.
“In attempting to shift public opinion about each other, we got something unexpected. Ithink we made a film about Americans and Chinese rediscovering who they are at theircore.”
The film, which has cost three million U.S. dollars to make, aims for a global theatricalrelease later this year.
“We are not whitewashing the differences. We want to remind people be sufficiently open-minded to create an opening in the bilateral relationship,” Mundell said.