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Rolex mentor and protégé: director Zhang Yimou and Annemarie Jacir

When Chinese director and Rolex Arts Initiative mentor, Zhang Yimou, was asked to select a protégé, he said he chose Palestinian filmmaker Annemarie Jacir “because of her work and background. We Chinese have a special affinity with Third World countries like Palestine. I fully support people from developing nations who dream of filming in their own land.” Yimou makes colorful, monumental films like A WOMAN, A GUN AND A NOODLE SHOP (2009), HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS (2004), HERO (2002) and RAISE THE RED LANTERN (1991). He has won awards at festivals around the world and yes, even at our beloved Sundance (for THE ROAD HOME). He just completed his next film, THE FLOWERS OF WAR, a story about “Chinese sex workers in 1937 [who] volunteer to replace university students as escorts for invading Japanese soldiers.” It stars Christian Bale and opens in China next month.

Annemarie may be Zhang’s protégé , but she’s no lightweight. Her recent film, SALT OF THE SEA, which she wrote and directed, won awards at the Dubai International Film Festival and Cinefan – Festival of Asian and Arab Cinema. ”We have different ways of working,” she said, referring to her mentor Zhang, ”and different techniques with actors, monitors [screens], budgets and so on, but we have really similar ideas and goals…For him, film is not about huge cranes, huge crews, super special effects and fancy post-production. I agree with that. It’s the way he tells his stories. All the rest is fluff. If you took everything away from him tomorrow and just gave him a camera, he’d still make a fabulous film.”

One of the stipulations of the Rolex Arts Initiative program is that the mentor and protégé  must spend at least six weeks working together, so Zhang invited Annemarie to the set of THE FLOWERS OF WAR in Nanjing. “I thought the best way to manage the mentorship was during the filming process,” Zhang said. “Annemarie is not a novice; She has experience. She’ll gain much more from seeing a shoot than from a talkfest.”

While Annemarie may have experience, she’d never worked on a production that large before. “It’s on a totally different scale,” she said. “His budget is almost 200 times bigger than mine. I shoot for five weeks; He shoots for five and a half months. And his set is amazing, the most beautiful I’ve ever seen. When I first joined him on location, I thought: ‘Wow, what a privilege to make a film about your own history, your own people, and your own life in a way that’s true to the real event.’ And yet it’s still cinema, alive and magical. His film is one small story within a huge historical event: the Nanking massacre. The scale of the massacre, when 300,000 people were slaughtered, is often denied. I relate to this as a Palestinian because much of our history is also denied. So we’re both telling stories about us, our own people.”

It’ll be interesting to see if any of Zhang’s style rubbed off on Annemarie, who was in the process of making her second feature, WHEN I SAW YOU, during the mentorship program. Not that Zhang was trying to influence her – just the opposite. “The mentor-protégé relationship is not about learning at the feet of a master,” he said. “If you met and talked to Martin Scorsese [who was a mentor in the Rolex Arts Initiative in 2008/2009], for example, you’d still need to go away and think about it, figure out what works for you, internalize these elements and then weave them throughout your own films. Thinking for yourself can’t be taught. There’s an ancient Chinese saying about the importance of experiencing life for yourself: “Walk 10,000 miles and read 10,000 books.” It means travel a lot, see a lot and read a lot to gain knowledge. This is what the Rolex programme offers. I’d love to go and see how a great director such as Martin Scorsese actually works on location. Perhaps Rolex can find me a mentor!”

Yimou and Jacir on the set of THE FLOWERS OF WAR.

This post is sponsored by Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative in partnership with Sundance Channel.