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Exclusive interview with Chinese football documentary maker

The outside world is taking more and more of an interest in Chinese football and its many curious mysteries. is featured regularly in international media trying to make sense of it all and give some answers. But now the fertile jungle which is the game in China has caught the attention of a Dutch film-maker  who is producing an exciting documentary, 11 out of 1.3 billion: Football in China. talks to the man behind the project, David Lingerak, about what he’s discovered so far, and what viewers can expect in the finished article.

What’s your connection with China and why did you decide to make a documentary about Chinese football?

The idea for this documentary came from the guys that I make this film with. Their company (About Asia) was working for a Dutch premier league football club, for which they analyzed the world of Chinese football. They told me about the people they met and the stories these people told them about how culture and politics are involved. I made a film “Urbanisation in China” in 2010. It was the first time I visited China, but I became addicted to the country straight away. Anyway, the guys had seen my film and thought it would be a great idea to apply it to football as well. I am not the largest football fan myself, but when they asked me if i was up for the idea I was immediately convinced. The question is so intriguing: Why can’t this big country make a good team?

You’ve already done some filming over here. What have you discovered so far? Has it been different to your expectations?

We have done a lot of research of course. The book “Bamboo goalposts” from Rowan Simons gives a good insight into Chinese football history. We had the impression that Chinese fans just liked foreign football. The first match we filmed was Shanghai versus Manchester United, and there were way more Manchester shirts to be seen. But then the Shenhua bus arrived and everybody cheered for them as well. There many fans, maybe not on the scale we have in the west, but with the same passion!

Was the decision to film influenced by the influx of big name players to China?

Absolutely. There has been such a shake up over past two years. It feels a bit strange to see Anelka and Drogba here, which raises many interesting questions. Are they here just for the money, are there many other to follow, do Chinese players learn a lot from having one or two famous foreign players in their team?

Which cities and stadiums have you filmed at so far?

Our base for the film is Shanghai, but we have filmed in Hangzhou, Guangzhou and, in the pouring rain, Beijing. More cities will follow. In Beijing it rained so much we were afraid the camera would give up. But the documentary is not about showing or analyzing matches. We want to make a film that is also interesting for people who like China, as a country, the culture, but are not particularly interested in football.

What message do you hope people can take from the documentary?

Besides football we want to show contemporary China. Many people in Europe still see China as The Great Wall, Forbidden City and Chinese food. As for sport, we know the country from the burst of excellent performers at the Olympics. But there is not much attention in the media for normal citizens, what they do daily, what differences and similarities there are between them. It is not our goal to convince people of certain ideas or send out a particular message. We do want to show things that people can’t easily see themselves. We film it, and the viewers can make up their own mind about what they saw. We feel that the combination of football and Chinese society can be a surprisingly interesting topic for many viewers around the world.

Have you interviewed any famous players or other figures from the world of Chinese football so far?

Sure. Take Xie Hui, (former Shenhua striker), a well-known football personality who has interesting views on the status of Chinese football. In addition, particularly interesting for Dutch viewers, we interviewed former head of the Chinese national team Arie Haan. Danish ex-international Ebbe Sand participates too; he started a Shanghai football academy to improve youth training, just like Xie Hui. However, the film is certainly not just about star players or important people. Football fans themselves have a big role as well. We are still looking for some extremely passionate Beijing, Guangzhou or Shanghai fans, the type who would die for their team. We’d love to hear from them.

Can you tell us any funny or strange anecdotes from your filming so far? What do you think is going to be the highlight of the documentary?

Well, one day we were had traveled for over 4 hours to film at the football museum in Linzi, only to find out that our camera was not working properly. We couldn’t find any video or electronics stores anywhere nearby. Finally in our search for a replacement camera, we ended up in a wedding boutique, which let us rent a camera that was usually only used for filming wedding ceremonies. The lady from the shop even came with us to the shoot to guard her property! In the end it was a great solution and we had a good shooting day.

As for the highlight, we always hope that is yet to come. So far, we are quite chuffed by what we have done, but we are always looking for even better highlights, it is what keeps us going. We still have a couple a weeks of filming to do in 2013, and we are hoping for a spectacular beginning of the new season.

Have you had any problems getting clubs or the authorities to cooperate with the production of the film?

Of course, this is never easy. We are not the BBC, yet till now by convincing people we are a friendly crew and have no intention of painting a dark picture most of them are happy to cooperate with us. We would love to talk to Shenhua ‘owner’ Zhu Jun, but that seems to be difficult. Hopefully it will work out when we are back in China to finish the shooting.

What’s your personal view on Chinese football and the direction it’s going in right now and has this documentary changed your view so far?

We think that if China as a country really wants something, it will happen. So reaching the top level in football should be possible. Players with rising salaries have to keep in mind to look further than personal benefit, it is teamwork, you can’t all be top scorer in a good team. Further development will take many years and people in high (government) positions must really support it for the love of sport, and not for their personal interests. It is interesting to see that when you ask fans about the high salary of Drogba, they all say he’s worth his money because it’s great to see his skills. Then, when you ask the same fans what should be done to raise the level of Chinese football, they say that clubs should invest more in the education of young Chinese players. For now it seems to be hard for clubs to choose for the long term investments. Also it would be great if more kids get a chance to play freely after school, it doesn’t matter if it is football or some other sport or art. They should play more, not to become the best, but just to have fun. Some of those kids will discover an amazing talent that would have remained hidden otherwise. But all the kids, talented or not, will have a good time and discover things about themselves.

Complete this sentence: ” “Football in China” is an eagerly anticipated Chinese sports documentary because__________”

It will show enthusiasm, spirit, all presented in a way that is entertaining and educational for football lovers and non-football lovers alike. It is the world’s first film about this subject, and a truly unique view on the contemporary Chinese world (of football).

A leading international commentator on Chinese football frequently quoted by the world's top media. Offers piercing and resolutely honest insights into the bustling crossroads where football, society, economics and politics meet in contemporary China. Based in Shanghai since 2005, observer of the Chinese game since 2000.

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