At the 67th Cannes Filmfestival Marceline Loridan-Ivens will present on Wednesday 21th of May the digital version of How Yukong Moved the Mountains (1976) and the DVD boxset at the Palais de festival as part of Cannes Classics. The print has been restored by the CNC (National Film Center) and will be distributed by ARTE Editions, starting on 3 June 2014

The documentary on China lasts 12 hours and was seen at the time by 250 Million spectators. The presentation starts at 3 PM on Wednesday 21 May 2014. 

Festival Director Thierry Frémaux and Marceline Loridan-Ivens on stage during the introduction of the film, 21 May 2014. Photo © CNC.

The audience applauding with enthusiasm after the introduction of Marceline Loridan-Ivens, 21 may 2014.

To know more about the background of the film production of How Yukong Moved the Mountains (1976):


In 1971, while Ivens was hard at work collecting material for a film commission on the Netherlands, he received a message from premier Zhou Enlai via the Chinese embassy in Paris inviting him to come to China. He had first met Zhou Enlai in 1938 and had filmed in China on several occasions, but in the aftermath of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (1966 – 1976) he had become persona non grata. The invitation was part of the prime minister’s endeavour to ease the isolation of the People’s Republic. After the initial years of complete anarchy, the closure of schools and universities, the violence of the Red Guard, the relocation of hundreds of thousands of intellectuals to the countryside, summary executions, and a serious decline in production, the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party were determined to present a positive image of normalisation to the outside world. Ping pong diplomacy got into its stride. Ivens’ friend, the American journalist Edgar Snow, was among the first to sit down with Mao Zedong, thereby offering a signal to the Americans that the door was open.[1] Snow’s interview with Mao appeared in the April 1971 edition of Life and American table tennis players shared in the excitement by being allowed to play ping pong in Beijing and to talk with Zhou Enlai. In June of the same year, the American Secretary of State Henry Kissinger travelled incognito to Beijing. The new open-door politics quickly delivered diplomatic success: Kissinger offered China membership of the United Nations and laid the groundwork for a visit from US President Nixon in February 1972. Not without reason, Nixon was later to describe his visit as ‘The Week that Changed the World’.[2]

Image improvement
In the same month that Kissinger was holding his first secret talks with Zhou Enlai, Ivens and Loridan arrived in Beijing. A meeting took place on June 11th with the most senior representatives of The Chinese People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries together with the Central Newsreels and the Documentary Films Studio in Beijing, at which a potential commission was discussed. Lists of other western filmmakers were in circulation, but in addition to Ivens only the Italian filmmaker Antonioni was invited to make a major film about China. Zhou Enlai knew that he could trust Ivens to ‘clean up China’s image’ as he put it, and to restore some degree of balance to the distorted view of the country generally maintained by the western press at a time when image formed a crucial part of China’s rapprochement towards the west.[3] Ivens had told a Dutch journalist earlier in the same year: ‘My work is inspired by my revolutionary convictions, rooted in a Marxist-Leninist view of society. Mao Zedong in particular has continued what Lenin started, and the relationship between the individual and society is primary in his thought. You might say: the new person will live in an authentically socialist relationship with his fellow human beings’.[4] In the preceding years of western radicalisation, Ivens had come to side more with the political direction of China and to distance himself from the Eastern Bloc. This was partly to blame for the abolition of the Joris Ivens Prize at Leipzig’s documentary film festival in 1971 and Ivens being declared persona non grata in the DDR.[5]

Shoulder to the wheel
In order to form their own image of the actual situation, Ivens and Loridan set out on a three month tour of the immense country. They visited schools, factories and workshops, among them a primary school in Beijing, a ping pong factory, and ‘Engineering Works July 21st’, named after Mao’s appeal to the people on July 21st 1968 to take his thoughts as a guide for life. According to Ivens’ notes, he and Loridan found themselves in the room in front of a large white table at which the workers committee were seated: a very serious looking female engineer, a blue-shirted female worker with huge hands and lock of black hair hanging over her face, and the party secretary to their right. The wall was decorated with slogans and quotations from Chairman Mao, portraits of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin and Mao and a huge blackboard that read: ‘Welcome to comrade Ivens and comrade Loridan’.[6] Via an interpreter, both filmmakers confronted the ‘reception committee’ with an constant string of questions about the political awareness of the workers and reported back to the film studio on their findings, conscious that they had to serve as the basis of a film plan. To do justice to the Cultural Revolution’s most important slogan ‘Serve the People’, Ivens and Loridan did not limit themselves to talking alone. ‘Last week Marceline and I spent some time working at a massive factory 25 kilometres from Peking where they manufacture diesel locomotives. We stayed with the labourers and worked on a couple of engine parts in the factory. It was a good opportunity to learn something about the daily lives of the people, their work, their thoughts, their ambitions. It was particularly useful, because short visits to factories, universities, and communes provide nothing more than surface impressions. [...] I would like to make a film here next year. There’s something important happening here, a critical event in the history of the moment. And as you know, I have always tried to keep pace with history in my documentary film work,’ Ivens wrote to Jan de Vaal, director of the Dutch Film Museum, with whom he corresponded regularly.[7]

Behind the scenes
On July 22nd and 29th and August 1st, Ivens and Loridan discussed their travel experiences with Zhou Enlai.[8] The latter gave the filmmakers a unique opportunity, carte blanche, the freedom to film whatever they wanted, adding that China was a poor country: “The film should not present a rose-coloured image of China, but rather China as it now is’.[9] After the meeting with Zhou Enlai, Ivens and Loridan attended a performance of the ballet The Red Detachment of Women in the company of Mao Zedong’s wife Jiang Qing. Charged with responsibility for culture, Jiang Qing kept the artistic sector firmly under her control, insisting for example that only eight model revolutionary operas were to be permitted.[10] In their turn, Ivens and Loridan screened a number of films from May 1968 for Jiang Qing and Zhou Enlai, filmed in the brisk new cinéma vérité style. Ivens went into considerable detail about new developments in the western cinema – Germany, Italy, France and the US – but was met with an uneasy silence at the end of his account. No one spoke or asked a question. Ivens was only later to learn that the film screening was but one of many moves and countermoves in the struggle for power between Jiang Qing’s ‘ultra left fraction’ and more moderate figures like Zhou Enlai, who were later to reinstate Deng Xiaoping and return him to Beijing. Jiang Qing had surrounded herself with three trustworthy disciples, referred to by Mao as ‘the Gang of Four’, in an effort to take over from the aging helmsman and to continue his ideological legacy.[11] The struggle for power was to continue until 1976, long enough to see the completion of Ivens and Loridan’s Yukong film.

China at first sight
Ivens and Loridan were also kept busy welcoming a number of foreign film crews as they caught their first glimpse of China. Filmmaker Roelof Kiers had already been commissioned by the VPRO (a liberal Dutch broadcasting company) to film for ten days in Guangzhou (Canton), a city with a population of 3 million people. After his return he wrote: ‘Impressive!, fantastic! [...] Vitality, Energy and Purposiveness are everywhere; in the countryside, the city, in schools and factories. The downcast, somewhat grey inhabitants typical of communist Eastern European countries are nowhere to be found in China. The Chinese give the impression of being lively, good-humoured, self-aware and independent. [...] the Chinese are well-nourished and healthy. [...] We were allowed to film as we pleased within the prearranged schema. No one interfered and nothing was forbidden’.[12] Ivens and Loridan returned to Europe with the same fervour. In the latter part of 1971 and the winter of 1972, Ivens travelled through the Netherlands, Belgium and Italy giving talks about China while his partner did the same in France. They organised a survey in cities such as Marseille, Roubaix, Longwy and Thionville.[13] ‘What do you know about China and what would you like to know?’ 200 questions were selected from an extensive list that were to serve as the guiding principle for the new film. People’s knowledge of hitherto closed China turned out to be limited. ‘You might say that the film is intended for people who still think that all the Chinese look alike,’ Ivens declared.[14]

Too big
Having completed their preparations, Ivens and Loridan headed back to Beijing on March 19th 1972. While they had their questionnaire, they were still without a scenario and had no idea how they were going to proceed. Ivens wrote: ‘Marceline and myself are hard at work here trying to grasp a theme as intense, as significant as the Paris Commune, or the October Revolution, or the 80 Year War in the Netherlands. Too big for 1 film, too big for 5 films. Que faire? Quand même: aller à l’assaut du ciel’![15] According to Ivens, Chinese society was ‘almost the opposite of what we have in Europe. The opposite of the audio-visual – the philosophical. Actual shooting begins in a week’. A day later: ‘The plan and concept I am trying to realise with Marceline and a couple of Chinese filmmakers is gigantic. I was perhaps a little too enthusiastic in yesterday’s letter. [...] China is no utopia. So much still has to be sorted out. In addition to the disastrous influence of the Soviet Union’s mired socialism in the 1950s and 1960s – don’t forget that this country followed a feudal system for thousands of years – old traditions, customs, ways of thinking and acting still prevail throughout the country and are not to be eliminated in a single generation’.[16]

Two concepts
Doubts about how to approach their ambitious China project lead Ivens and Loridan to evolve two different concept: ‘I shoot 2 films (with Marceline): one, my international idea – and another about China after the Cultural Revolution (I sense a sort of transitional period here, much is attempted with sincerity and the best is kept)’.[17] Ivens’ ‘international idea’ referred to a synthetic film in which the majesty of China’s natural resources and history were to be combined with a story about socialism under construction. The alternative concept related to an element that Ivens and Loridan could not find in other considerations about China: everyday life at the basis of Chinese society. Filming started at the end of May 1972 on the campus of Quinghua University in Beijing, without a scenario and with a Chinese technical crew. The arrangement with the film studio was that they would supply the personnel and that the latter would be given practical training in return. The film was an independent production funded by the filmmakers own production house (CAPI-Films) and not the Chinese. This was made possible by an advance on box-office receipts granted by the Centre National de la Cinématographie. Both filmmakers were taken aback when the viewed the initial rushes because they appeared to be completely unusable.[18] The cameraman Li Zexiang had placed the camera on a tripod at the back of the classroom but had not followed the microphone. As a result, the sound constantly fades in and out and the camera work is ‘like driving a car at the same speed all the time’. Ivens advised Li Zexiang to pay special attention when the students got tired, leaned back in their chairs, whispered to one another or got up to mischief, insisting that such moments made things interesting.[19] Loridan asked Ivens to replace the cameraman, but that latter saw no sense in doing so since his replacement would probably have filmed in exactly the same way.[20] Ivens’ method became clear to Li Zexiang when they heard about a football incident that had taken place two days earlier at Lyceum 31 in Beijing. Instead of handing over the ball when the bell rang to signal the end of the break, a student at the school had kicked it in the direction of the teacher. Ivens preferred not to attempt a reconstruction of the incident, focussing instead on the discussion that ensued between the students and their teachers on responsibility and not avoiding the occasional yawning face. This was an eye-opener for the cameraman. Resolving the conflict through consultation, whereby the teacher was also subject to criticism, served to symbolise the Chinese educational system.

Mobile film school
Teaching western camera techniques in the style of the cinéma vérité was no easy matter: ‘Piles of extra work, e.g. the documentary studio is not set up for 16mm film, no 16mm cameras. So I have to start from scratch, no reserve cameras. No experience as yet. But it’s pleasant to work here, not to be pressed for time, or agitated by small-minded producers, money-chasing distributers (chasing for themselves alone, of course), no bureaucratic state production procedures’.[21] According to Ivens, the problem with the Chinese camera crew was simple: ‘Chinese cinema differs from ours; it’s more contemplative, more static. The camera doesn’t move, doesn’t participate in the event; it observes and ascertains. As ancient Chinese philosophy puts it: the human person between heaven and earth stares at the tens of thousands of elements in the universe. Result: the camera doesn’t move’.[22] Ivens also explains the reluctance to film people in close-up in relation to China’s cultural tradition: ‘If one takes [China’s] visual arts as a whole, then one observes that there no portraits of people outside the Buddhist tradition. I thus had to explain the role of the close-up and why filming at close quarters is so important. It all took such a long time; you need patience in China to convince people. You can’t use authority based arguments, as is often the case elsewhere. That too is the cultural revolution’.[23] Ivens and Loridan devoted several long sessions to patiently explaining what they expected of the camera people. Cameraman Li Zexiang responded to everything with the only French words he knew: ‘A demain!’. The filmmakers had little to say in Chinese by way of response.

Crowd scene
The studio people directed Ivens and Loridan in the first instance to Dazhai, the renowned and successful model village that had served as an example for the national campaign ‘Learning from Dazhai’. But a perfect village full of stereotypes and official influence was the last thing they wanted.[24] As in his earlier career, Ivens thought it better to start as far from the centre of power as possible. In August 1972, the crew travelled to the autonomous region of Xinjang-Uygur, an area three times the size of France and sharing an extensive border with the Soviet Union. Exhausting negotiations with local party bigwigs followed, however. ‘It was unbearable’, Ivens wrote, almost certainly thinking back to the rigorous censorship he had had to face when filming The 400 Million in 1938. Things came to a head in Kashgar, where he was given permission to direct ‘the grandest production of my entire career. [...] At seven in the morning, a crossroads and street after street enlivened by hundreds of extras, men and women, all of them smiling, dressed in impeccable blue, and school children, each of them wearing a brand new apron’. Loridan referred to the entire – unusable – scene as ‘Nightmare in Kashgar’. Filming far from the city and out of sight of the authorities fared better: ‘In September I filmed an important episode in West China, i.e. in the mountains and along the edge of part of the Gobi Desert. Together with Marceline and our film crew (8 people, including two translators) I came across a nomad campsite full of Kazakhs herding scores of sheep, cattle and horses from the mountain grasslands to winter them in the lower-lying valleys; a magnificent mountain landscape at an altitude of 1800 metres’.[25] By the beginning of October the filmmakers were back in Beijing where Ivens was hospitalised after a bout of bronchitis and Hong Kong flu. The few months’ rest was a question of necessity, not only because of illness, but also because it took two months for Zhou Enlai to react to the complaints they had submitted to him by letter. They had pointed out that it made no sense to continue their work in the face of so many obstacles. They had only managed to film for 37 days in a period of six months and 7000 meters of film had been wasted in training Chinese cameramen and fending off party officials. Zhou Enlai finally responded, however, by appointing a new supervisor. As a result, the film crew underwent a serious metamorphosis.

The Roof of the World
During the months of waiting, Ivens took the time to integrate his encounter with the desert and the highest peaks in Xijiang and Tibet into a film scenario for his international film. The idea was to film China from the air, from the perspective of the clouds and the wind, and at four different altitudes. The concept dated back to the end of the 1950s, a concept he had wanted to incorporate in Mistral and Rotterdam Europort but without success. The scenario begins with: ‘First level (tempo and rhythm of an Adagio). Overture: ‘Serene silence in the high mountains. Immense landscape with mountain ranges spread out in space ... a pure domain, white from ever-present snow. A clear blue sky. The film hones in on a conjunction of mountains, formed long ago by nature’s enormous powers – one senses The Roof of the World. [...] A small red spot becomes visible on a white slope. The camera swoops down towards it (airplane nose-dive). It is a red flag in the middle of a tent encampment, clearly a scientific expedition. The image soars upwards once again and somewhere in the skies sparse clouds disperse. Traces of powerful avalanches on the slopes below. The camera drops dramatically to follow a glacier; boulders, piles of snow, masses of ice – what energy – cold, blue, transparent, grey, luminous. Via the first rivulets in the snow, the sources of China’s mighty rivers, the camera reaches the snow line, where the image accelerates at breakneck speed, via a rugged landscape, out of focus, loess plateaus, the colours change to brown, grey, green, black, the acceleration is staggering – things can no longer be distinguished – the images become streaks, blotches, smudges that fall from the top to the bottom of the screen, announcing the second level.[26]

Romantic revolutionary
The scenario continues in the same vein for several pages, to a third and fourth level; the images extend to include the length of China, 5,500 km, via the Taklamakan Desert and the Great Wall to the cities and planes along the coast with its fishermen and the port of Shanghai, across the sea towards Taiwan. Everything has to move, change; human beings change the face of nature and of history. The scenario is ultimately a combination of Ivens’ own films – Creosote, Song of the Rivers, Mistral – John Fernhout’s Sky over Holland (1969) and Artavazd Pelechian’s Four Seasons (1975) in ‘une style romantique révolutionaire’. The film plan had to be ready by July 1973 when the crew was scheduled to leave Beijing and, as Ivens himself observed, because the aerial shots had to be filmed in the summer. Ivens refused to let go of his ‘sequence avion’ throughout Yukong’s years-long production process. He later abandoned it with a view to turning it into a separate film, reinstated it as one of the longer segments of Yukong, and finally had to give it up completely because the Chinese did not place the necessary airplanes at his disposal. The scenario remains important nevertheless, because the concept and the locations – Taklamakan Desert and the Great Wall – serve as the point of departure for his Tale of the Wind, in which the red flags and other references to passing political movements disappear, although he does take a swing at the stubborn local officials who provoked him beyond measure in Kashgar and elsewhere.

With Ivens in better health, and in the company of their new supervisor Chen Li-yen, the good-spirited film crew set off for Shanghai where three long films were to be shot in the space of three months. The team made a start in January 1973, focusing on a major labour dispute in a generator factory, with endless committee discussions and posters proclaiming the party line. Filming took place in pharmacy 3 in February and March. Zhou Enlai had recommended the place as a labour unit that had implemented the guidelines of the revolution in an exemplary manner. Ivens and Loridan spent the first couple of weeks helping the pharmacy’s staff and customers to get used to the presence of the cameras, such that the latter became almost unnoticeable during later filming. Cameraman Li Zexiang now realised what was expected of him, as did the second cameraman Chang. On March 11th and 31st, Ivens and Loridan examined the rushes together with their camera team: some panoramic shots and close-ups are blurred, but the colour balance is good; correct distance and close-ups in the meeting scene; Chang’s camera trembles in the factory; shots filmed with the hidden camera are very good...’ The filmmakers remained difficult to please, however, and shots they considered unsatisfactory had to be filmed anew.
Filming in and around the harbour and shots of the traffic on the streets served as the ingredients for a third film, a portrait of the city, with a scene depicting overloaded bicycle carts bringing fresh produce from the countryside. One poor farmer isn’t strong enough to push her heavily laden cart across the bridge on her own. A colleague stops to help. China is a third world country, and the workers still have to bear a heavy burden, the commentary reminds us.

After Shanghai the crew travelled on to Nanjing where they spent a month filming in a barracks. The film got longer and longer, but would it maintain audience interest? ‘It is an ideological film that mustn’t be boring. Not an easy task for a filmmaker. Bear in mind that if I wanted to write a book about China after one of the most important revolutions the last 2000 years I would need at least three years to finish it. Look at the authors who write about China, Edgar Snow (sadly deceased), for example, or Han Suyin; they also had to take their time. Studying, reading, referencing, thinking, analysing, synthesising, writing, my film is on the same level’.[27] By summer the crew had found its way to Shandong on the coast, a fishing commune where nothing exciting appeared to be happening. Film of the oilfield in Daqing and of Professor Chen followed. The filmmakers came to realise by degrees that posing direct questions from a questionnaire did not work and that the logic of the west did not square with the Chinese mindset. There were no simple answers, only enormous complexity and impenetrability.

On November 2nd 1973, Ivens and Loridan returned to France with 100 kilometres of film (120 hours) and 800 reels of soundtrack in their baggage. This massive amount of material was first whittled down to a rough montage consisting in total of 30 hours of film. Progress was slow and three editors were appointed to work simultaneously on three montage tables with Ivens and Loridan supervising the entire process. Ivens speaks of going through hell at this juncture, having to deal with almost insurmountable problems, not the least of them being the film’s artistic content and the completely unfamiliar language: how do you cut a Chinese sentence in the montage process without running the risk of lopping off a word or syllable? Yam, a Chinese student, was almost permanently present to help avoid mistakes. By April 9th 1974, Pharmacy had been reduced to 6 kilometres, but it took a further seven weeks to edit it into a film of one and a quarter hours. Ivens, however, sensed the absence of ‘un leitmotiv visuelle – qui se developpe en se répétant’ in the series. He asked himself whether children might provide such a connecting thread, children learning to speak up for themselves and entering into debate.[28] The final subdivision of the material only emerged at the end of the year: 5 long documentaries, 3 medium-length and 4 short.[29] Li Zexiang was asked to shoot extra material.

Power struggle
When Ivens and Loridan viewed the new images provided by Li Zexiang, however, they were horrified. He appeared to have forgotten everything they had taught him and returned to his old-fashioned and static approach. Ivens and Loridan decided to gauge the situation for themselves and left for China on July 30th 1975. They screened the already edited segments of the film for a number of cultural aficionados, including vice-premier Zhang Chunqiao, a member of the Gang of Four and a supporter of Jiang Qing. The end of the screening was met with silence, until a famous dancer from one of the model operas who had worked his way up in the party hierarchy took to his feet and presented a list of 61 points of criticism together with suggested emendations. Pharmacy, for example, contains a scene with rain and umbrellas using ‘The East is Red’ as background music. The latter was intended as a salute to Chairman Mao and the shower of rain detracted from it. Suggestion: delete. In another example, two customers are seen chatting in the pharmacy. The men are carrying worn-out suitcases, however, and look like hawkers. Suggestion: delete. The morning sky above the river is too grey and might make people think of air pollution. Suggestion: delete. And so the list went on.[30] Ivens styled the critical observations unacceptable absurdities. He had not come to China to seek permission. The negative remarks were part of the ‘Criticize Lin Biao and Confucius’ campaign organised by Jiang Qing in an effort to finally settle scores with Zhou Enlai. The latter had been admitted to hospital in the meantime with cancer of the bladder and Mao had blocked treatment for two years.[31] Zhou Enlai succeeded, nevertheless, in getting a letter to Ivens and Loridan via the staff of the Ministry for Foreign Affairs. It read: ‘Take your film, leave immediately and don’t ever come back’.[32] The visibly moved filmmakers said their emotional farewells at the airport, smothered by the hugs and kisses of forty friends. The latter’s association with the film and friendship with westerners had placed them under suspicion. The ultra left wing campaign also appeared to have been the reason for Li’s old-fashioned camera technique. Banned from filming on location, Ivens and Loridan left the country without the extra material they had come for.

Anti-Chinese fool
Filmmaker Michelangelo Antonioni had already fallen victim to the hate campaign against western and bourgeois influence. The headline in the Renmin Riboa insisted that the content of his film Chung Kuo (Cina, 1973) was poisonous and that he had used contemptible methods by filming Chinese people in an intimidating manner and without asking permission.[33] In reality, Antonioni had been placed under permanent supervision and had only departed from the established travel schedule on one occasion, to film an astonished group of people in the Linshien district of Hunan while a party functionary made sure that poorly dressed locals were kept out of shot. Antonioni had started filming in May 1972, the same month as Ivens and Loridan, and had managed to shoot roughly 30,000 metres of film in 21 days. The Italian’s lengthy documentary was well received after the premiere in January 1973, but a year later the campaign had transformed Antonioni into a household name for a person who had concealed his true intentions regarding China and had slandered socialism. The Italian was designated an anti-Chinese fool, without any of his films ever having been screened in the country. The Chinese tried to force Ivens to turn his back on his colleague, but with no success.

By September 20th, Ivens and Loridan were back in Paris: ‘and then the third part of our long march started, i.e. distributing the films, launching them, having documentation printed, publicity. For a variety of reasons, we prefer to do the work ourselves’.[34] Ivens expected the premiere to be at the end of November or the beginning of December, but the work involved was vast. ‘There’s still so much to be done here in our CAPI film shop, and all with a minimum of helpers, little money – thus 110% commitment in energy and imagination from Marceline and me – very little money, as we approach the end of a project that has grown to enormous proportions under our care, evidence that eighteen months of filming in China was extremely intensive and its processing here in Paris fruitful. It helps to keep me young and to face whatever problems come my way (including financial concerns)...’[35] The target date for the premiere was postponed to March 1976. When Jan Blokker of the VPRO approached Ivens with a proposal to broadcast the series simultaneously on television he responded: ‘Please understand that we are deeply in debt, and if we can sell the film to a country that can pay more for it, this will give us a little more elbow room’.[36] When Blokker pressed the issue a second time in February, Ivens wrote: ‘Such a shame we’re not millionaires. But then we probably wouldn’t have made films in China, and certainly wouldn’t want to broadcast them’. In the middle of January, Ivens and Loridan screened the final montage for an invited audience of thirty. First impressions: ‘ extraordinary work that offers a balanced picture of a wholly unfamiliar country, about which virtually nothing is known. The segments that focus on everyday life are full to the brim with human characteristics that often have a humorous effect when the audience recognises reactions and ordinary details’.[37] All 12 segments of the film premiered simultaneously on March 10th in four Paris cinemas, thus allowing the public to follow the entire series. ‘Joris Ivens and China conquer Paris’ wrote Louis Ferron, ‘’s like an event without equal, which has already had a profound influence on the dress habits of many a Parisian’.[38] The latter observation referred to the latest fashion trend: Mao suits with turned up collars and caps in an endless variety of blues. Roughly 130,000 people saw the film in Paris and 300,000 in France as a whole. The press reaction on both sides of the political spectrum was positive. The Cannes film festival screened the segments with the football incident and the generator factory in May of the same year.

A battle
Ivens explained to Rewy Allen, a friend from Beijing: ‘To put 12 hours films on the capitalist commercial screen and television that is really a battle. Maybe we underestimated the class resistance we would meet, however com. Zhou Enlai told us clearly what we had to expect, and the only way for us was to win the battle. The first battle indeed we won. An extremely successful launching of our films in Paris, with a worldwide echo. Now we have a strong weapon in our hand in the field of psychological propaganda for China, for our cause’.[39] The distribution of the film focused in the first instance on television with Loridan taking responsibility for most of the negotiations. ‘Marceline chased me to the mountains to rest and recover my strength. [...] Distribution is really not my thing, and being commercial even less. My father was quick to realise this when I was working for the firm and doing more damage than good. We have similar money worries, bills to pay, wage arrears, loans – its beyond imagination. No money for an English version! No money for 35mm! What do we do... make an English version with friends, Joe Losey and others, who’ll refuse to take money or ask very little, and just keep going’.[40] The English version was followed by German, Italian, Dutch and Finish versions..., in each instance under the supervision of both filmmakers: ‘Supervising a version is necessary to ensure quality, artistic and political accuracy’.[41] All twelve parts were screened with considerable success at the Venice Bienniale, in Montreal, at the Museum of Modern Art in New York – with long early-morning queues, noisily protesting New Yorkers unable to get a ticket, traffic chaos – and at the University of Berkeley. Both Ivens and Loridan were kept busy promoting the Yukong series until 1979, travelling, giving interviews, arranging translations, negotiating sales, and participating in debates.[42]

The film appeared at an opportune moment: China was attracting the attention of a broader public and not only that of a radical left wing elite. Corresponding developments in the Middle Kingdom served to stimulate this interest. After the death of Zhou Enlai in January 1976, a spontaneous demonstration took place in which millions of grieving Chinese made it clear, albeit implicitly, that they rejected the Cultural Revolution. Opportunities for political renewal increased on the death of Mao Zedong in September of the same year. Within a few short weeks, Marshal Ye Yianjing – who featured prominently together with Zhou Enlai in Ivens’ The 400 Million in 1938 – rounded up the Gang of Four. The path to modernisation opened by Zhou Enlai was vigorously followed by Deng Xiaoping. In February 1977, Ye Yianjing received Ivens and Loridan in Beijing and praised their work. At the end of the same year, the Chinese version of the Yukong film premiered in Beijing, after which multiple copies (into the hundreds) of five parts of the series were distributed throughout the country. Minister of Culture Houang Chen described the film as ‘a splendid event in the cultural life of our people’.[43] Joris Ivens underlined the role of his close friend Zhou Enlai in his vote of thanks: ‘C’est lui qui a energiquement soutenu un projet qui pour sa reussite avait besoin d’un champ d’observation tres large de la part de cineastes, et c’est lui qui a nous aidé à resoudre de differentes difficultés’.[44] Marceline Loridan-Ivens told the Chinese that they did not claim to have said all there was to say about China or about every aspect of the daily lives of the Chinese people, but that their film was intended to facilitate mutual understanding and respect between peoples separated by such incredible distances. The evening before, both filmmakers had had a lengthy conversation with the new president of the People’s Republic, Hua Guo Feng.[45] They also ‘had tea’ with Deng Xiaoping, the most powerful man behind the scenes. The only Chinese leader Ivens never met was Mao Zedong himself.

[1] Han Suyin, De wind in de toren. Mao tsetoeng en de Chinese Revolutie, [1976 London] 1978 Amsterdam, p. 375. See also Jung Chang and Jon Halliday, Mao, het onbekende verhaal, 2005 Amsterdam, p. 732-737 and Gao Wenqian, Zhou Enlai. The Last Perfect Revolutionary, 2007 New York, p. 1-19.

[2] Richard Nixon, quoted in China. Portrait of a Country, 2008 Hong Kong, p. 230.

[3] Joris Ivens and Robert Destanque, Joris Ivens ou la mémoire d’un regard, 1982 Paris, p. 315.

[4] Joris Ivens in discussion with Leo Jacobs, GPD press, including Het Vaderland February 28th 1971.

[5] See Kerstin Mauersberger (ed.), Weisse Taube auf dunklem Grund. 1997 Leipzig. The conflict started in 1968 when Loridan and Ivens brought films about May ‘68, which the authorities refused to authorise. Loridan managed to organise her own screening, however, and with success.


[6] Joris Ivens and Marceline Loridan, ‘Rapport Usine des Machines Pékin 21 juillet’, 1971, JIA.

[7] Joris Ivens in a letter to Jan and Tineke de Vaal, August 10th 1971. De Vaal Collection, JIA.

[8] The Renmin Riboa (the people’s newspaper) of July 30th and August 2nd and 4th 1971 contain ‘official portraits’ of Ivens and Loridan with Zhou Enlai and Jiang Qing among the opera stars and other important figures in the Great Hall of the People.

[9] Joris Ivens and Robert Destanque; see note 3, p. 331.

[10] For the operas in question, see the documentary Yang Ban Xi. de 8 modelstukken by director Yan Ting Yuen, 2006.

[11] Jung Chang and Jon Halliday, Mao, het onbekende verhaal, 2005 Amsterdam, p. 755-756.

[12] Roelof Kiers, ‘China op het eerste gezicht, 10 dagen in de volksrepubliek China’, VPRO Gids 24, June 1971, p. 8-9. Jungman described the documentary in Het Parool (October 8th 1971) as ‘Kiers’ devotion [...] a mystical belief in uniformity and indoctrination from the cradle to the grave’... horrifying in his opinion.

[13] Marceline Loridan-Ivens in an interview with Claude Brunel, Joris Ivens, 1983 Paris, catalogue of the Cinémathèque Française, p. 76.

[14] Joris Ivens in The New York Times, 1978.

[15] Joris Ivens to Jan and Tineke de Vaal, May 21st 1972. De Vaal Collection, JIA.

[16] Joris Ivens to Jan and Tineke de Vaal, May 22nd 1972. De Vaal Collection, JIA.

[17] Joris Ivens to Jan and Tineke de Vaal, July 3rd 1972. De Vaal Collection, JIA.

[18] The negatives were sent to Paris where they were developed and examined. According to Ragnar van Leyden, both the camera work and the sound recordings were unfit for use. See his correspondence in Ragnar van Leyden Collection, JIA.

[19] Joris Ivens, quoted by Li Zexiang in Joris Ivens and China, Beijing 1983, p. 119.

[20] Marceline Loridan-Ivens in an interview with Luisa Prudentino on April 11th 2003, Le regard des ombres, 2004 Paris, p. 202.

[21] Joris Ivens in a letter to Jan de Vaal, October 25th 1972. De Vaal Collection, JIA.

[22] Joris Ivens in an interview with Jean-Marie Doublet and Jean-Pierre Sergent, March 1976, Press folder, JIA.

[23] Ibidem.

[24] Joris Ivens and Robert Destanque; see note 3, p. 318.

[25] Joris Ivens to Jan de Vaal, October 25th 1972. De Vaal Collection, JIA.

[26] Joris Ivens, ‘Scenario pour la séquence: avion’, manuscript December 10th 1972, and ‘Notes sur la Séquence: La physionomie géographique de la Chine’, manuscript December 17th 1972, JIA.


[27] Joris Ivens to Jan de Vaal, May 3rd 1973. De Vaal Collection, JIA.

[28] Joris Ivens, ‘1e Brouillon montage Yukong’, manuscript July 8th 1974, JIA.

[29] Joris Ivens, lay-out Yukong series, November 27th 1974, JIA.

[30] Joris Ivens and Robert Destanque; see note 3, p. 345.

[31] Jung Chang and Jon Halliday; see note 1, p. 755-756. See also Gao Wenqian, note 1, p. 259-262.

[32] Lin Xu-dong, ‘Documentary in Mainland China’, in Doc Box 26, August 2005, p. 29.

[33] Renmin Riboa, January 30th 1974, the official newspaper of the central committee of the CCP. Also published as a separate brochure: A Vicious Motive, Despicable Tricks, A Criticism of M. Antonioni’s Anti-China Film China, 1974 Beijing, JIA

[34] Joris Ivens to Jan de Vaal, September 8th 1975. De Vaal Collection, JIA.

[35] Joris Ivens to Jan de Vaal, September 22nd 1975. De Vaal Collection, JIA.

[36] Jan Blokker to Joris Ivens, November 4th and December 3rd 1975; January 14th 1976; Joris Ivens to Jan Blokker, February 2nd 1976, JIA.

[37] Charles Boost in Haarlems Dagblad, January 16th 1976.

[38] Louis Ferron, ‘Joris Ivens en China veroveren Paris’, in Hollands Diep 14, July 3rd 1976, p. 10-31.

[39] Joris Ivens to Rewy Allen, July 4th 1976, JIA.

[40] Joris Ivens to Jan de Vaal, July 24th 1976. De Vaal Collection, JIA. Joe Losey is the director Joseph Losey.

[41] Joris Ivens to Jan de Vaal, August 16th 1976. De Vaal Collection, JIA.

[42] Robert Del Tredici in a letter to Joris Ivens and Marceline Loridan-Ivens, March 7th 1978, JIA.

[43] Press release, Chinese press agency Hsinhua, December 29th 1977, JIA.

[44] Ibidem.

[45] Press release, Film museum, January 19th 1978, JIA.

Film still from l'histoire d'un ballon, 1976, Joris Ivens / Marceline Loridan-Ivens. © CAPI Films.


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