Finding Mama’s Gold
By Rebecca Redshaw
Joanne Cheng is a determined filmmaker who gives new meaning to the word “independent.” I met the writer/director/producer in the lobby of the Shangri-La Hotel in Bangkok. Anxious to talk about Mama’s Gold, her second documentary film, Cheng asked a promotions person with the Bangkok International Film Festival to find someone from the press to talk to.
Winding down from the barrage of two weeks of films and interviews, I was saying good-by to new friends and mentally packing for the trip home. The next hour, sitting with Cheng in the noisy lobby, was more than time well spent. Her passion and drive in regards to her film reminded me of the reason film festivals are important. The big studios and million dollar independent features will always draw an audience at these events, but it’s the one-man bands (or in this case, one-woman bands) that allow the public to see the important work being done by the creative visionaries that fight battles on their own.
Mama’s Gold is the story of one woman, China Mama, and her 300 ethnic orphans ranging from two to seventeen years of age. The orphanage, comprised of survivors of the devastating earthquakes and poverty that struck southwest China, is set deep in the mountains near the border of Tibet. Complicating the day to day struggles of rebuilding hope in young minds is the ongoing drama of a financial donor’s lawsuit that threatens the very existence of China Mama’s home.
When I interviewed Cheng, I had not yet seen Mama’s Gold. After our conversation, I was happy to spend my last afternoon in Bangkok watching her work in the press video screening room at the hotel.
Rebecca Redshaw: Tell me how you heard about Mama and her orphanage.
Joanne Cheng: The story came to me. I did not look for the story. After I finished my first film which was China Gold Rush, a film about urban China and its changes in millennial time, I said to myself, in order to materialize my vision, to enlighten the Western world about modern China, I need to tell human interest stories. So, then, I say “How do I find the stories?” I simply went into life. Meaning, I just went as a tourist going into a general area called Shangri-La. The concept of this place is very mystical to many people.
RR: Because of the book and the movie?
JC: Yes, “Lost Horizon.” [novel by James Hilton/film by Frank Capra] Shangri-La is located in the mountains bordering Tibet. The town where the orphanage is located has only recently been opened to tourists. But [to get] the story I had to get to the mountain by driving eight hours by car along the coast. We went into the heart of matriarchal society, arguably the last on this planet. They have 2,000 years of this matriarchal practice. It is the only one they have seen. I got a chance to feel the remote China, the very ethnic China. This is another concept I am touching on. China has fifty-six minority nationalities and the orphans come from fourteen of them, which mean the caretaker has to be so aware of their cultural differences while trying to bring them into one.
RR: Okay, but aren’t they all Chinese?
JC: They are all Chinese, but they look different and it is more than a geographical difference, it is their beliefs. They wear different clothes. You can see in the film the children are very colorful, they are in interesting costumes, but that is not their costume, it is their clothes, it is their daily wear. People always ask me, they say, “Do they just dress up for you?” I tell them a true documentarian never announces his or her arrival. I never told anyone I was coming. I just go there and catch the moment. I am very much on the beat. I do not do anything in two takes, everything is right there.
RR: Did you have unique challenges in making Mama’s Gold?
JC: In order to make this film I had to remain Chinese. Do you know what I mean? I lived in the States for fifteen years and I could have become a U.S. citizen as many people are dying for, but I chose to stay Chinese for eight years. It is because I really wanted to tell the story of my country. By becoming American, I could not.
RR: If you were a US citizen you would be not considered Chinese, is that what you are saying?
JS: What I am saying is, I did everything I could to make this film including keeping my Chinese nationality, because this story is so exclusive and Westerners can not get the story because of local government.
RR: They wouldn’t let Westerners in the door?
JC: Exactly. It is interesting about Shangri-La. Inside Shangri-La is mythical, so I had to be prepared to discover this hidden world. And I remained Chinese in order to get into the life of China. Basically, my film has a cross-cultural point of view. I always position myself as an international filmmaker who tells a China story in English.
RR: So, this is not a dubbed film, this is a film in English?
JC: I would say it is a bilingual film, 70% in Chinese, because my story is a Chinese story. These characters are Chinese characters, but in between I am the narrator. And partially, in a very small portion, I am in the film as the guiding mind to introduce the story. But there was a twist during the making of this film. There is a lawsuit that happened right after I finished filming the first year. I had submitted it to PBS who thought it a very touching, heartwarming story. But then I saw a newspaper [article about] this huge scandal against Mama, my protagonist, so I basically spent the next three years tracking down this international dispute. I really put myself on the line. It was a very emotional time, but also political. I have taken risks making this movie. It has to do with China in this transition with the legal system, so this is a film with like at least four or five layers. It talks about China in general, but through the eyes of the orphans, through the eyes of the donors, through the eyes of the caretakers.
RR: So you produced, wrote and directed. Did you do the camera too?
JC: Yes, 85%. It is a complete, ultimate independent film to its core.
RR: How long was the process? How many times did you go back?
JC: Five times in four years. I stayed a month or two each visit and truly immersed myself into the story.
RR: Do you want to focus your career on documentaries, or is this just sort of where you are right now?
JC: It is where I am right now. In fact, my next film is a feature film.
RR: I know that funding for documentaries can be difficult. Did you have trouble covering finances?
JC: Yes. I totally funded two films all by myself to the extent that I lived through so very much hardship. Living in the middle of Manhattan, it is very expensive. It is very difficult to balance the survival with art, but I am very determined to make it happen despite a few accidents.
RR: What do you mean accidents?
JC: Meaning you have to balance how you make a film. Usually people are given funding to think where the marketing is, but because film to me is life, I see things differently. I am my life, and I am my film, so I live and breathe my vision. I did not make this film to start out to make money. I could have stayed at what I did before, as a PR consultant.
RR: Is that what you did?
JC: I went to film school at the University of Maryland and then lived and worked in New York City. For about ten years, I helped U.S. and International companies doing business in the Chinese market from a producing and marketing point of view. I basically spent the money I made making my own films. After living in New York, I felt so much about loneliness, independence, struggles, and I feel I want to find inner peace, and not just on a personal level. After observing life culturally from both the Eastern and Western point of view, I feel there is loss of humanity of some kind.
RR: In both cultures or in one more than the other?
JC: Perhaps more in the Western world, but I think China is expanding right now, it’s moving into a new Capitalistic plateau. China has a lot of conflict. But I think my experience in the States really make me feel I am seeking some spiritual guidance and perhaps East is my answer.
RR: Do you think that has to do with age and experience and who you are now as opposed to when you were eighteen?
JC: That is an excellent question. I am in my middle age, so I am seeking spiritual inner peace. Actually, being raised in China, I do not have a religion, but I have always felt very spiritual. I always lived double lives. There are so many persons in me, so I have to get used to life as a Westerner, so in me is an inner chaos. Within this chaos there is deep yearning for finding meaning of life. Personally, I lost my boyfriend two years ago, so I find I can not really think about life and death. Of course, nine – one – one [9/11] gave us such an awakening.
RR: Were you in New York City on September eleventh?
JC: No, I was shooting this film.
RR: But New York is your home?
JC: Yes. After living in a metropolis like New York and experiencing personal tragedy, I feel life is so fragile, so before we die, while we are here, I want to seek meaning. So, I found this beautiful, sweet, sad story inside Shangri-La. A seemingly peaceful place associated with beauty. I always tell people I am the messenger, it is as if I’m destined to travel. I have traveled from the East to the West, now I am going back and forth.
RR: Do you have family in the United States or is your family also in China?
JC: My family is all in China. I’m one woman who has ventured on this journey. My family is the only source that knows everything about my film because I showed them the footage. It was hours and hours of film, but they laughed and cried with me seeing the orphans, and they even helped me financially, so they are very supportive to me. I feel very guilty in many ways. I feel as a Chinese daughter, I should give back to them in every way, but I guess I give back by pursuing my dream.
RR: And the experience of shooting Mama’s Gold?
JC: I just want to say it is very personal. It is my observation of these orphans and about these two cultures. The details are very intimate. I also want to comment on my state of being. I am searching for meaning at this particular stage of life. I am still single, a conventional life for me. I am very much inspired by Mama, my protagonist, who is so kind to take care of the orphans. I hope the world will see this story, to be inspired not only by the children but also by the message. The children can teach us so much. I really want to say that. The children can teach us so much.