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  • Hooman Razavi

Better Angels And Construction Of A Narrative Of Peaceful Co-existence

By: Hooman Razavi


Documentaries are eye-openers, created and distributed to mostly show a part of our social reality, and sometimes to twist and distort. Documentaries that have political subject matters as Better Angels attempt to inform and shape public opinions on matters related to existing and historical relationships, and not only intended to American and Chinese audience. This opportunity to analyze this film and its technique and potential takeaways is well-taken by the author who has lived in China for three years and visited US for many times. So even though, it is hard to take biases away, but my aim is to analyze, dissect film language and message and foretell how these countries (angels) manage their complicated relationship.

Film Analysis

The film (almost 80 minutes long) is directed and narrated by Malcom Clarke, an academy award documentary maker. The expository form takes the objectivity and bias of the director, but at the same time it does not take away its investigative and observational targets. One can see an episodic nature to the who film that glues different parts together, this is visible, especially when the narration goes from one city to another and transverse between US and China. The dialogues and voice-over support the visuals and help the audience the understand the nature of lifestyles, conflict and intertwining relations. The dialogues are also filled with terms with resonation for future audiences. These key script terms such as Abacus, Chinese Century, American Dream, Accidental Diplomat and Muscatine could be easily internalized in the minds of viewers who attempt to decode the moving-images and their stories.

The camera is also very active, and viewers can easily see horizons beyond just China and America, as the scene of Chinese engineer shot in Africa, Dubai and Athens. Moreover, the shots and framing also suit the theme of the film that shows the interconnectedness of the two superpowers. The opening scenes such as interview with Henry Kissinger and other characters are showing one character frozen in the frame; but gradually this change to shots with two and multiple peoples from US and America. The film also utilizes special features and soothing music to keep audience attention and focus. Overall, the audience has much to learn and observe but in a controlled and didactic manner.

Thematic Analysis & Interpretations

The film takes the viewers to see China and American as they are and in the super connected manner they are at the current moment. The theme of peaceful coexistence and compromise are much imbedded in all scene. As viewers, right from the outset, we see American teacher who lives in China and married to a Chinese woman. This storyline which extends all the way towards the end, shows that this relationship despite the challenges are enduring and long-term. Then the camera takes us to the place that current President of China, Xi Jinping went to see the state of agriculture in Rural America. This is a signal that historically China had an open attitude and the recent trade wars and rhetoric can be downplayed by the precedents and open mentality. The audience is then taken to view the life of a blind Chinese tourist who goes to different parts of America. Interestingly, he can not view as the camera, audience and President Xi did 30 years ago, but he feels the country and enjoy the bourgeoning relationship. The film also highlights how Chinese people live in America, establish friendship house, help to start enterprise in rural America and even have access for educational exchange in American schools (Shen-mu classes).

These rosy pictures are in parallel with a bleak side of the relationship and portrayal of two countries. On the one hand, one can see images of Trump belittling and accusing China of theft in his campaign rallies but, on the other hand, we see his picture with President Xi in China. Similarly we see Chinese workers in America (or Africa) separated from their families and on the other hand, we see the Chinese film industry who emulate American Hollywood programs and seemingly in financial comfort zones as their American counterparts. Moreover, the documentary also points to cultural influences of America on China and the economic dependencies of American on China as a strong market of 600 million of middle-class buyers. In brief, the problematic dimensions of the relationship, though depicted, but less visible and given priority. The message is continuity, stability and realism.

From a critical perspective, one can point to how the form and narration supports the filmmaker’s intention to minimize differences and highlight common grounds. However, viewers though sympathizing with the positive outlook can see even from the film footage, that cultural and educational differences are not as easy to be put aside. In one scene, an American entrepreneur who refused to outsource his company jobs share his opinion that China is more capitalist than Europe and they have embraced our culture and way of life. This could be true for a segment of the society, but China is a complex country with a rich history and rigid cultural tradition. This statement can be easily superimposed with another scene and storyline, in which an American educator in China criticizes Chinese education for not inculcating critical thinking in Chinese students and other scenes shot in Yunnan in which the rural culture is so rooted that the Americanization generalization seems void and ungrounded. In sum, the themes are contextually relevant, real but presented in an overall cinematic discourse that makes it to be not fully realistic and sustainable.

Final Thoughts

Some film theorists may object to the nature documentary filmmaking and its recipe of twisted depiction of reality. In this framework, even verité style of documentary is not enough to inform, construct and mediate objective meanings. Despite these valid points, as discussed, Better Angels both formalistically and thematically construct a narrative of peaceful co-existence, one in which geopolitical, economic, cultural and military differences could be resolved if the communities are prioritized at the least for now, the judgement is on the viewer if this portrayal stands to the critical reason at the age of Trump, pandemic, surveillance and Chinese ascent to global scene.


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