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A filmmaker's odyssey

By Sun Li  (China Daily)

09:28, June 15, 2012

A scene from Fan's doecumentary, Last Train Home. Photos Provided to China Daily

An award-winning documentary's creator has hit the road to ensure his work on migrant workers is seen by the masses. Sun Li reports in Beijing.

Documentary maker Fan Lixin has had an unexpected big-screen hit with his first work, Last Train Home, about the annual exodus of migrant workers from their urban workplaces to their rural hometowns during Spring Festival.

The visually amazing and emotionally engaging work, filmed in 2006, took three years to complete and has garnered more than 60 prizes, including Best Feature-Length Documentary award at the 22nd International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam in 2009.

But its migration to the cinema screen has surprised a lot of people and is due to Fan's "one city, one screening" concept.

Fan says he spent two years showing his documentary at film festivals around the world before returning to China in 2011 and ensuring his film was seen around the country.

"Chinese films face stiff competition from Hollywood, though some have done well," Fan says. "But documentary movies aren't normally so lucrative."

He adds that even though he received a grant of 60,000 yuan ($9,456) from the Sundance Institute Documentary Fund, which encouraged him to release the work in China, he could not afford the "way more expensive fee" charged by a distribution company for a cinematic release.

It was Wu Jing, a programming manager at MOMA Broadway Cinematheque, an art house cinema in Beijing, who inspired Fan.

Wu suggested premiering the film in China MOMA in July 2011 and showing it once a week for five months. "Since we didn't have enough money to publicize the film, we had to let the reputation build slowly," Wu says.

Full houses convinced Fan the format could be replicated in other cities. Hence, the "one city, one screening" idea, for which a cinema would screen the documentary in a city for at least a month.

Fan says cinemas like Beijing's MOMA Broadway Cinematheque were preferred. But if cities did not have such a resource, then theaters near universities were chosen, as they were likely to attract a more art-house crowd.

Although Fan didn't have enough resources and connections to locate and negotiate with suitable cinema owners, luck was on his side, as one of his friends was part of an online independent film group.

"My friend was well-connected with independent film lovers who are familiar with the cinemas of their respective cities," Fan says.

They helped Fan find the cinemas. Another friend helped him sign contracts to arrange screenings.

"Thanks to their assistance, nine cities, including Wuhan, Guangzhou and Chengdu, were pinned down within two weeks. That's a miracle," Fan says.

The first-time director then embarked on his personal screening odyssey and visited nine cities within 10 days.

His routine was to rise at 5 am, arrive at the airport at 6 am, get to the city between 8-9 am, and take interviews for three hours at the cinema.

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