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China: film about Red Cross messages receives prize at Houston Film Festival

21-05-2012 Interview

In April 2012, 25 Words – a 90-minute documentary made by Liu Shen – won the Remi Award Bronze Medal at the 45th WorldFest-Houston International Independent Film Festival, the oldest independent film festival in the world. Supported by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the film explores the history of the Red Cross messages exchanged by three Chinese sisters between Nanjing, Berlin and Berkeley during the Second World War.

Liu Shen, an independent Chinese filmmaker and writer, rescued this remarkable story from being lost in the mists of time. He sketches out the lives of the three Chinese sisters and the 25-word messages they exchanged. Here he explains how he got the idea for the film and shares his thoughts with us.

This is your first film. How do you feel after winning this award?

I had never been involved in filmmaking before. But it had been my dream since my university days. As an enthusiastic filmgoer, I subscribed to a lot of film magazines at that time. This award has been an enormous boost to me; it highlights the importance of pursuing your dreams until you succeed. More importantly, documentaries touch the human heart with true stories. Despite the film's technical drawbacks, the strength of this true story grabs the mind of the audience more powerfully than anything else. In a nutshell, I have turned my film dream into reality and I am confident that I will make more good films in the future.

Why did you choose Red Cross messages as the story of your first film?

My old neighbour from my hometown in north-eastern China is one of three protagonists in the story. She was also a scientist who I had great respect for ever since I was a child. She had kept a dozen Red Cross messages that she had exchanged with her family while she was studying in the United States. In July 2008, she passed away at the age of 98. By chance, I saw those messages when I talked to her children and I was totally dumbfounded. So I decided to document their history, as I was aware that the other two sisters were already in their 90s. Their experience and the messages vividly highlighted the historic role of Red Cross messages. I felt it was my duty and mission to record this.   

What kind of difficulties did you encounter in the process of making the film?

I had two thorny problems. Firstly, I had not foreseen how much funding I would need. Due to a lack of funds, I had to halt work for some time. Secondly, there was the problem with the filmmaking technology. I had limited knowledge, and my camera crew was just two university students who loved to film. Throughout the whole process, we relied solely on our enthusiasm and instincts to find our way. I am fully aware of the drawbacks of the film; I am confident that these experiences will help me mature as a filmmaker.

While making the film, you came to ICRC headquarters to conduct some interviews. How did this trip benefit you?

The visit gave me renewed impetus to pursue the work. I was warmly welcomed and received a lot of support from ICRC staff. I was particularly honoured that Dr François Bugnion, who is a member of the ICRC's governing assembly, agreed to be interviewed and became an adviser for the film. He even made the effort to contribute a preface for the book. I was also given access to the ICRC archives and to the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Museum. The staff were generous enough to help me by providing much-needed footage tracing the ICRC's history as well as photos. The footage and photos enhanced the authenticity of the film, bringing to life the ICRC's work during the Second World War. My experience in Geneva inspired me so much that I have decided to devote myself to the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, as I have seen the power and the glory of the ICRC.

What will be your next step for this film?

We have just released the Chinese and English-language versions of the DVD in China and we are working on the global release and promotion. Meanwhile, a bilingual English-Chinese book of the same title will soon be published. One thing that struck me was that, before starting the film, I found that almost no-one had heard of the story of 25 words, and yet it is such a moving story. It is proof of the historical role of the Red Cross message and is the best possible promotion of the ICRC's work. It could play a positive role in promoting the Red Cross and Red Crescent's work today. I am proud to have unearthed this story and shared this part of history with the world.

Do you have any more projects in mind?

When I was filming the story, I had the opportunity to do some research into the history of the Movement. I hope to have another opportunity to work on a film about the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement. I would also like to build on the success of 25 Words by setting up a Chinese social media website called 25 Words, so that the spirit of the Red Cross will live on in today's world.


Photos

Nanjing, China. Director of 25 words Liu Shen (right) meets He Zeying and her daughter Liu Yida. 

Nanjing, China. Director of 25 words Liu Shen (right) meets He Zeying and her daughter Liu Yida.
© Soba International Group

China. He Zehui, high energy physicist, academician of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and sister of He Yizhen and He Zeying. 

China. He Zehui, high energy physicist, academician of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and sister of He Yizhen and He Zeying.
© Soba International Group

Shenyang, China. Film director Liu Shen interviews Ge Yunpei, daughter of Ge Tingsui and He Yizhen. 

Shenyang, China. Film director Liu Shen interviews Ge Yunpei, daughter of Ge Tingsui and He Yizhen.
© ICRC

China. Ge Yunpei shows the letter written by her mother, He Yizhen to her sisters. 

China. Ge Yunpei shows the letter written by her mother, He Yizhen to her sisters.
© Soba International Group