After years of preparations and research, professor Zhang Tongdao (University of Beijing) and Dutch filmmaker René Seegers finalized their four-part television series about Joris Ivens. In each part of 50 minutes one of Ivens’s Chinese films is key: 1- The 400 Million (1938); 2- Before Spring (1958); 3- How Yukong Moved the Mountains (1976) and 4- A Tale of the Wind (1988).
The film crew travelled to locations in China, where at the time Ivens shot his films. Besides that, they made interviews in The Netherlands and France. The documentary series is unique because the filmmakers succeeded in finding a lot of eye witnesses of the film production, former crew members of Ivens or people who were filmed by him.
In the first part the film crew went to locations of The 400 Million in 1938. During the production Joris Ivens, Robert Capa and John Fernhout were confronted with severe problems when trying to film the Chinese struggle against the Japanese invader, like continuous censorship and strict surveillance by Chinese security members of the Guomindang. In Tai'erzhuang, Xián and Hankow, heavy fighting and bombardments were filmed. Very touching in the film of Zhang Tongdao/Seegers is the sequence when a couple of old Chinese sing 'The Song of the Volunteers. It was a well-known song of the Chinese resistance and fight for independence and national liberation, which was used by Ivens to accompany the final sequence of the film: a demonstration of students. This song became the National Anthem after the Peoples Republic was founded.
The second part got the character of a personal revisit film of René Seegers. He went to Inner-Mongolia, where in 1958 Ivens shot Before Spring, one of Ivens' least known films. Ivens’ documentary, made as a kind as film school for Beijing film students, was made in February and March. The opening sequence shows exciting dynamic footage of a herd of horses. Also the festivities of New Year with dancing people in a village gets a visual echo in Seegers film.
Especially the visual comparison of the current living environment, the current architecture, the urban landscape and situation of the daily life in China with these elements in 1938, 1958, 1972-76 and the 1980s is impressive and makes the series attractive to the television audience. A lot of old China has been destroyed and changed, but despite of that, the filmmakers succeeded in finding contemporary locations. The interviews with some of the protagonists of the Yukong-series, a pharmacist from Shanghai and the mother in Une Femme, une Famillie are extraordinary.
Remarkable in part four is the interview with the official in the Mausoleum of the first emperor of China, Qin Shi, who prevented Ivens from filming more than a few minutes of the Terracotta Army. This aroused the anger of Ivens, who presented the official as an example of bureaucracy and the attempts to limit the freedom of an artist.
The television series was broadcasted by CCTV-9 in August 2021. Zhang Tongdao and René Seegers intend to make an international version in which the four parts are compressed to one part.