WHEN Swiss/French filmmaker Dominique Othenin-Girard took his friends for a recent hutong tour in Beijing, they were warmly greeted with tea by local residents, who were pleasantly surprised to see the director’s return to the neighborhood.
“It was a real authentic hutong, with no toilet in the house,” he tells Shanghai Daily. “I had to use public toilets when I lived there. I was the only foreigner there, among many migrant workers.”
Last year, the director, best known for movies like “Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers” and “After Darkness,” spent three months in that hutong, and another six in Shanghai. He wanted to better understand China and its people, write film scripts and host workshops. With such experience, he is now working on a variety of China-related projects including a horror story set in the country.
Living in the hutong was his way to “meet China,” the real China.
“So I chose the hutong over a hotel on purpose,” he explains. “Like everybody else, I was afraid. But the migrants were so kind to me.”
This month, China’s 20th Fete de la Francophonie, a French-language cultural festival, invited him to screen “Henry Dunant: Red on the Cross” (2006) and share stories about the founding of the Red Cross with the audience.
For many years, Othenin-Girard has been fascinated by the story of Dunant, wondering what drove the ex-banker to found the Red Cross, what happened in his life, what changed and what remained.
“Compassion,” he explains. “Someone who does something for others always fascinates me. Why does he give something to the others? That’s most attractive to me.”
The film focuses on Dunant’s experience at the Battle of Solferino. The young man arrived in the Italian city on the evening of June 24, 1859, when the battle occurred and produced 23,000 wounded, dying and dead men. Dunant was shocked and soon became deeply engaged in helping the wounded.
“The audiences get it,” says the director. “I feel that the Chinese audience might strongly identify with Dunant, with his way of doing things.
“Once the Chinese set up a goal, they are going to do everything to achieve their goal. This drive is very similar to what I’m portraying in the film.”
The idea of giving is crucial to him, “even in the horror movies,” he adds, explaining that he has to fulfil the need for the audience not to come out feeling empty after watching his movies, but to come out with a thought.
Compassion, a word that Othenin-Girard repeats in the interview, is also a repeating theme in his movies.
In 1992, he co-wrote and directed a family drama “Sandra: C’est La Vie,” telling the story of a family with a child with Down syndrome. Later he made the German television film “Florian: Love With All His Heart,” again featuring people with Down syndrome.
The inspiration came from his own personal experience. His sister-in-law has Down syndrome.
Some of the scenes in the movie show the patients cornered and helpless, evoking emotional responses from the audience.
“I’m a provoker,” he says.
He always seeks a reaction and response from the audience, while he manages to show respect for his characters.
“I go into the shoes of every character,” the director explains. “As much as characters can be different, the core of my message is that we’re all different, but we’re all equal. No one is inferior or superior.”
Living in the hutong of Beijing and communicating with those who live there, with all the possible means he could think of, was also his way of getting into the shoes of China, to smell the country and to get a sense of its vibe.
The result is a desire to show China from his eyes and camera. “There is no reason to be scared,” he says. “I decided to show the Swiss how Chinese people smile. I wanted to bring them closer to the Chinese.”
In order to bring them closer, he made the short documentary series “Impressions of China,” which aired on Swiss TV and the international French channel TV5 Monde. The subjects of the series were diverse like Chinese food and urban transportation in Beijing. They were designed to reveal aspects of China that are commonly unknown to many Westerners.
He was also inspired to write fictional stories for films.
One revolves around a young French musician who meets four Chinese youngsters competing in a French karaoke competition, which exists in real life.
Drawing from his own experience of living in and getting to know an entirely different culture and country, the director hopes to follow the relations between the Frenchman and the young Chinese, but also look on the youngsters’ relationships with their older generation.
The working project is expected to be out next year, showing to both French and Chinese audiences.
The director of “Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers” was also inspired to write a ghost story set in China, after a mysterious night in Shanghai.
Having often worked with multinational crews, he finds collaboration with Chinese artists and technicians rather smooth. His trick is to listen, listen and listen some more.
“Once, I was on a film set where there were six languages, with two languages that I didn’t speak; Arabic and Serbian,” he recalls.
“I knew their dialogues, I knew what they were saying, but I had to direct them by listening to the emotion in their voice.
“And all the actors understood my intent by the tone of my voice or my way of illustrating a scene to them. I love it, it’s an interesting challenge,” he says.