Directed by Kaspar Astrup Schröder / Produced by Katrine Sahlstrøm for GoodCompany Films / Country: Denmark & China / Language: Chinese
China is a fascinating country in more ways that one. On one hand, its past as a communist leader is so evident still, and, on the other hand, it has adopted capitalism and demonstrates it understands the rules of the game, and is a major player.
But in the process of establishing its position as a financial and technological world leader, it still appears closed off from the rest of the world in terms of the association we have with it, particularly when it is compared to the US, the world’s western superpower which, even in an event where it was forced down the world rankings, it would perhaps still be viewed as the glorious superpower it once was.
On top of that, Chinese society has an issue which at least for a while did not have a name. Children who do not have anywhere or anyone to turn to when a parent commits a serious crime and gets ordered to serve a prison sentence in return.
For children, such tragic events can lead to feelings of loss and shame. Of course, such feelings are universal, and it makes little or no difference if the child lives in Denmark or in China. However, the magnitude of the problem coupled with the political climate in China and Denmark differ greatly. Until 1996 the Chinese system did not have a network to help or foster some of the children who ended up without any support or anywhere to go if one of their parents received a criminal sentence.
Set in contemporary China, an extraordinary documentary made by director Kaspar Astrup Schröder titled Waiting for the Sun explores this theme and does so in an honest, respectful and emotional manner. It has social realistic elements and is very beautiful too.
Kaspar Astrup Schröder: I hope this film will help open debate about what it is like to be a child and have parents who are in prison.
The film is more than likely to make such an impact. Having just enjoyed a brilliant reception at CPH:DOX festival in March this year, there is a real sense of anticipation ahead of its premiere on DR2, Denmark’s network TV channels.
The powerful documentary follows some Chinese children at Sun Village in Bejing, one of nine orphanages located around mainland China. It takes a look at what happens to children of parents who are placed in prison for committing serious crimes, describing some children and parents cope during such a scenario. It also shows the first step in the process when things kick off and the children arrive at the orphanage
Sun Village is an orphanage that provides care, accommodation and three meals a day to children of parents who are serving prison longer-term sentences having committed crimes such as murder.
The first Sun Village was founded in 1996 by Shuqin Zhang, a former journalist who wrote about prison-related issues. She was a supervisor working within the Chinese prison system. After years of experience in this field, she had gained first-hand experience and knowledge of what happened to the children. Often left to feed themselves with no choice but to start begging or turning towards crime, the children would be left with no proper education and a normal life was out of reach for them as they were constantly suffering from poverty, hunger and disease.
The film is as emotional as it is compelling and it feels extremely real. There are times, you almost wish it was fiction because of the sadness and distress some of the children go through. Having said that, there is a lot of beauty and colour.
The director does to some extent draw on previously experience gained from making films in south-east Asia.
Kaspar Astrup Schröder: looking back at my previous films it quickly becomes apparent that I usually aim to tell a small story which typically says something about the bigger picture and the society we live in. This is also a very personal story about the children who are let down by a society that disregards the importance of human relationships. The conditions there are very tough. I enjoy classic storytelling about universal feelings and conditions, which we all recognise and can relate to.
The film-maker also made a documentary set in Japan called Rent a Family.
Kaspar Astrup Schröder: I made a film about a company offering a hire service of false family members. Shame and honour both mean a lot in Japan and because of that company specialising in this type of niche market have been created.
Waiting for the Sun is in some ways a bit extreme, whereas, my film about Japan was made in such a way that we came to understand how things are different there, which makes it possible to perhaps understand why these things work the way they do. We do not necessarily end up just thinking it too strange or weird. It should be about looking at oneself, too. That is what I aim to do with my films.
The film-maker has children who live in Denmark, and for some time the film-maker had been observing and thinking about how dependent children are from their parents, and particularly, how much his own children looked to him for all their needs and support.
The focus for the film-maker would be to understand and experience how the children experience it and what coping mechanism they made use of in that process.
Kaspar Astrup Schröder: My children are about the same age as the children featured in this film. I could not imagine how and to what extent my children would be able to cope without me. Having children has been a really big deal for me. The thought of imagining them without a parent or another adult to look after them is close to unbearable. But rather than purely focusing on ‘the system’ in China I was very interested in looking at what the children go through and how they view things. It was without a doubt the children’s perspective, their trust that was of interest to me.
The director’s decision to place the children at the very the centre of the film also meant this would be the dominating point of view or position, both in terms of actually chosen camera positions, but to create a sense of understanding of the children’s situation lead the director’s work.
Kaspar Astrup Schröder: the idea with the film was to tell the story from the children’s point of view. Without the contribution from psychologists and experts on child behaviour and their analysis. I believe this is the best way to communicate it and enable identification of the children. We are seeing things from their perspective, we are at the same level as they are in that situation. I hope audiences can identify with the feelings the children go through.
Getting children to act naturally in front of a camera requires work. A key to gaining the children’s trust and making them feel at ease in front of the camera was to hang out and play with them prior to filming.
Kaspar Astrup Schröder: I spent a lot of time with the children where I did not even have the camera with me. But at other times, the children had a go at filming each other. They started to feel comfortable in my presence and they trusted me, which made it so much easier to do the filming and it added a more natural vibe.
The documentary conveys a lot of positivity and it shows a complexity in Chinese society.
The orphanage does a really good job of looking after the children. For a country that does not look out for this group of children in society, Sun Village saves them and gives them hope of a future.
Kaspar Astrup Schröder: The system Sun Village has in place seems so homogeneous, the older children help to look after the younger ones and so forth. I think it also works as a form of therapy for them. All the children there are in the same situation and they share that and can relate to each other, and that creates a sense of solidarity. Of course, there are problems too, there is a real lack of resources etc. but the place totally exceeds my expectations on all levels and it works even more efficiently than I could have ever imagined and that is just so positive. •
Waiting for the Sun is scheduled for a Danish TV premiere on 16th May 2017 on DR2