Contextual background

The storyline

The Chinese Are Coming is a TV documentary series produced and aired in 2011 on BBC Two. This TV documentary series is composed of two episodes, each one lasting 60 minutes. Within this 120-minute visual journey, the presenter takes TV viewers travelling with him across three continents: starting from Africa, then to Brazil, and finally arriving in North America. The focus of this TV documentary series is not about the scenery across the three continents, but to investigate the spread of Chinese influence around the planet - especially in Africa. It brings up the question of what the world would be like if China overtakes the West by becoming the world’s primary economic ‘superpower’.

Specifically, in the first of two episodes, the presenter embarks on a journey across Southern Africa to chart the extraordinary phenomenon of Chinese migration to Africa, and the influence of China on the development of the continent. From Angola to Tanzania, the presenter meets Chinese entrepreneurs who have travelled thousands of miles to establish then- businesses. He then crosses Brazil and the United States on an epic journey to explore the spread of Chinese influence around the planet. In Rio de Janeiro (Rio), local industries such as bikini factories are seen to be threatened by cheap Chinese imported goods. In the Amazon rainforest, the documentary presents the impact of the Chinese hunger for resources on the local people and the environment. Later in the documentary series, the camera moves to the USA, from California to the rust belt, where the rising undercurrent of American fury over their own decline in the face of competition from China is depicted visually and verbally.

The production features

If the storyline of a documentary is about what is on the screen, then the production of the documentary would be about how such contents are exhibited on the screen. Since The Chinese Are Coming is a TV documentary series by its format and nature, its production unavoidably contains some general production features of a typical documentary. By adopting Nichols’ (2001) production mode classification in the area of documentaries, it seems that the filmmakers in the documentary series The Chinese Are Coming choose to combine both the participatory mode and performative mode in its presenting style. Specifically, the filmmakers intend to actively participate, via the presenter, with the subjects (the characters) in the documentary and impact on the viewers through such engagement either achieved by interview questions or direct comments from the presenter himself. As a matter of fact, this TV documentary series conforms to the participatory and performative modes through directly engaging with the subjects (the characters in the documentary), the interviewees, and commentary in between. In this manner, the pace of the documentary series, and particularly the question/answer sections, are well managed by the filmmakers. Therefore, based on this feature, the filmmakers in The Chinese Are Coming are not outside observers but inside involvers. They combine and employ the features of these two documentary modes by carefully planning interview questions and weave the planned questions and the answers they need during the production process, in order to create the most effect and achieve the aim of the original plan for this documentary. As O’Connor (1990) states, most film and television scholars have begun to recognise that a production is the result of complex collaborative efforts in which scores of people (producers, directors, screenwriters, cinematographers, editors, actors, publicists, etc.) contribute creative ideas at various stages in the process.

In addition. The Chinese Are Coming also tries to ‘acknowledge the subjective readings of the audience’ and to replace the objectivity by its ‘evocation and affect’ (Nichols, 2001: 34). Particularly, such features can be found in those purposely reconstructed parts that may easily mislead the audience and influence their subjectiveness or judgement. For example, in the first part of the documentary (in Angola), there suddenly appears an African man’s zoomed-in sad face. The image comes from nowhere and without any explanation from the presenter. Who is this man? What causes his sadness? A family member’s loss or other reasons? No one knows. This African man’s gloomy face is put right behind the previous scene where many Chinese workers are happily working hard on a construction site in Angola. These two juxtaposed images may easily create a sharp visual contrast and imply to the audience (viewers) that the African young man’s gloomy face is due to the competition of Chinese workers who have taken his job and work in his country. Moreover, upon closer observation, it can be noticed that this sad African man does not even have any signs of being a worker. He is not wearing a helmet and the background is not a construction site. Therefore, a bold hypothesis might be that this image or face could possibly have been taken from other sources and inserted here. However, to ordinary viewers watching with the flow of the moving pictures of the documentary, one may not notice that such an image might have been ‘reconstructed’ or ‘re-edited’ in there.

Based on this example, it is necessary to have such documentary production features in mind before the detailed analysis is uncovered layer by layer afterwards. It is of vital importance to be a critical viewer and analyst in this study.

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