The best documentaries about filmmaking are the ones that show it at its worst.
Movie sets are fundamentally boring places, where there's mostly a lot of waiting around going on. But when disaster strikes with millions of dollars on the line, the tension and drama are suddenly amped up to levels that often equal those in the movie being filmed.
Watching Werner Herzog and Klaus Kinski nearly come to blows in Les Blank's Burden of Dreams, for instance, is just as gripping as Fitzcarraldo, the movie they're making. Perhaps the best of this genre is Lost in La Mancha, which doesn't need to search for a metaphor to describe Terry Gilliam's doomed production: The movie he's failing spectacularly to make is, of course, about literature's most famous conquistador of futility, Don Quixote.
Throughout the new documentary Unmade in China, director Gil Kofman is dedicated to a seemingly quixotic task of his own. He's been given a green light to direct his second feature, but with a hefty catch: He has to make the movie in China, with a Chinese cast and crew, in Mandarin — a language he doesn't speak. Oh, and he has to do all this under the watchful eye of the Chinese film production system, a nonsensical and labyrinthine maze of graft, misogyny, bizarre rules and Communist Party politics that still manages to operate with an almost admirable lockstep efficiency. Unless you challenge any part of it.
"I could almost hear the train derailing in my head," says Tanner King Barklow, the documentary's co-director, recounting his reaction to hearing that Kofman was heading to China to make his movie. So Barklow went with him, documenting every head-scratching moment as Kofman bucked against a system that's even more thoroughly designed to minimize artistry and single-minded vision than Hollywood itself.
Kofman seems an unlikely rebel, which contributes to the stealthy charisma that makes Unmade in China so watchable. With his long since receded hair, corny sense of humor and dogged positivity, he's a little like a flesh-and-blood Elmer Fudd, complete with rhotacistic speech patterns.
Just as old Elmer can't be dissuaded from the notion that he'll eventually bag Bugs, Kofman rarely fails to maintain faith that the details of his movie will finally come together: that he'll get a usable script, locations that aren't overwhelmed by construction noise, a cast and crew who don't come and go via revolving door. That he'll, say, receive a paycheck.
This last point is a sad running joke throughout the film, as Kofman is constantly checking his account for that first deposit. It's never there, despite his ever-present optimism that this will be the day he finds money waiting. It's only four months into production, after he goes on strike — a work stoppage that lasts just a few hours and is mostly taken up by a much-needed nap — that he finally gets some money.
During that strike, Kofman's on-set translator expresses surprise: There is no striking in China. If you strike, you just get fired. Unmade in China is nominally about filmmaking, but what Kofman and Barklow do well is to use their unusual position within the Chinese state machine to make a thinly veiled movie about politics.
The expensive wining and dining necessary for the production to get party approval is used to show how Chinese communism runs on money and favor just as much as, if not more than, Western politics does. Male societal domination comes into play in the form of the misogyny that gets Kofman's initial cinematographer fired from the job, and via the script translator, who casually brags about having sex with the prostitutes hanging around the set.
That translator becomes a key figure, for he's presented not only as a generally hateful individual, but also as a shill for the party. He doesn't just translate the original English script, he rewrites it to reflect his own (and the party's) contempt for the perceived decadence of Gil and his American producers. The message is that this is merely one of the mechanisms by which every movie made under this system essentially becomes a propaganda film of some sort.
The perseverance shown by Kofman amid all of this is admirable, though the veins that begin standing scarily out in his forehead give Barklow and the viewer some concerns about whether he'll make it out of the process alive, let alone with a movie.
Winning against these odds is too much to expect — but shockingly, Kofman manages to tilt with foes more obstinate or surreal than any windmill, and battle them more or less to a draw.