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Poised for takeoff

 Poised for takeoff

Three individuals with no professional background in film have spent seven years making a feature movie about birds. Photos provided to China Daily

An oil painter, a photographer and an art apprentice come together to make a full-length feature on birds. Ju Chuanjiang, Zhao Ruixue and Wang Qian report

Sun Xian still marvels at the dramatic turns his life has taken. Although a student of oil painting, it is not a painting but a film that will take him to a prestigious film festival in Germany, on Sept 9.

An employee of a film distribution company, Sun has no professional background in movies, yet his full-length feature will be screened at Visions of China - Chinese Film Festival Cologne, one of the most impressive festivals for contemporary Chinese films outside of China.

"It is not even the stuff of dreams," Sun, 30, says.

"Mothers carry their babies for nearly a year. I have spent more than seven years nurturing mine," he says referring to My Garden of Eden, the nation's first feature on wild birds.

"Sun and his partners have created a miracle," says Yuan Xueqiang, author of Our Niubaisui, which was a sensation featuring the lives of people living in the countryside in the 1980s.

The film is a joint effort of Sun and his colleagues - Wang Jiantao, and Yu Hui, both in their 30s - in the Film Distribution Cooperation of Weihai, Shandong province.

None of them had ever shot a film before. While Sun attended oil painting classes at Qufu Normal University; Wang learned photography for two years at Jinan Radio and TV University; and Yu, was an apprentice of Sun after senior middle school.

But they did learn a lot from the thousands of films they showed in the district's theaters.

"We observed closely how a film had been made. This was our only 'teacher'," Sun says.

He got the idea of shooting a film when invited by an advertising company to take some bird-themed photos in 2002.

It was at this time that Sun and his partners produced a documentary titled Mr Swan, which was picked for the "Gold Panda Award" over works from the United States, Britain, Russia, Germany and China Central Television at the Ninth Sichuan International Film Festival in October 2007.

It was also shown at the international documentary festival in Croatia in 2008.

My Garden of Eden is set in Hailu Island, a 0.11-square-kilometer island, 1.6 kilometers from the coast. Thanks to the abundant food here, thousands of gulls descend on its steep cliffs every year from April to August.

The main protagonist is a baby black-tailed gull who is born and raised on this island.

She hurtles into the sea the first time she tries to fly. Saved by her mother, she realizes it is not easy to soar high in the sky.

More tragedy awaits her as her father becomes trapped by a fishing hook and dies; one of her brothers is bitten by a snake; and another brother and even her mother abandon her.

Left to fend for herself, she learns the art of survival.

Sun says his team's experiences on the island - going without food, electricity and drinking water - mirror the struggles of the seagull.

Temperature changes on the island can be quite dramatic. In May, it is cold enough to be dressed in down coats. However, the temperature rises to 40 degrees in June and remains high for the next two months.

To get close to the gulls, the trio had to climb a 64-meter cliff, with their heavy equipment in tow.

Yu Hui says she will never forget the time she found herself staring into the wide open mouth of a snake.

From 2002 to June 2008, the team gathered more than 420 hours of footage about the gulls' lives on the island and spent 7 million yuan ($1.03 million).

Although they got some investment from local companies, the filming wiped out their collective savings. However, none of them was willing to sell their footage to a few film companies from China and abroad, which offered to buy it from time to time.

It was Yuan Xueqiang who suggested they make a film about birds, after seeing what they collected.

On Jan 24, 2008, the three finally got their license for producing a film from the State Administration of Radio, Film and TV (SARFT). They then began to write the script, edit the footage and do the dubbing, all of which posed major challenges for the green hands.

Just the editing took them more than four months and the script had to be revised more than 10 times.

Even so, when they arrived in Beijing seeking support from film academics, no one was interested in looking at them. But everything changed when they showed their work to experts such as Chen Tong, composer for the film that bid for the Olympics and Gan Lin, composer for the 2010 Shanghai World Expo Concert.

Chen and Gan accepted the invitation to write the music for the film. Many wanted to be associated with their project - for free.

Seven years of efforts paid off when the film won high praise wherever it was shown. "This is the first film on birds in China. It's worth watching," says Zhang Hongsen, general director of SARFT.

"The reason we chose a baby black-tailed gull as our protagonist is that we want to encourage those disadvantaged in life to remain confident," Sun says. "And we want to raise awareness about the protection of these birds amid growing tourism."

Poised for takeoff 

A poster of the film My Garden of Eden.

Poised for takeoff 

Sun Xian, director of the feature film My Garden of Eden.

 Poised for takeoff

The crew at work on a cliff.

By Ju Chuanjiang, Zhao Ruixue and Wang Qian

(China Daily 09/02/2010 page20)

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