Chinese dreams (2019): must-watch China doc

In short: You take a Dutch guy who wants to become a professional photographer. You put him in China with a camera team and he starts making an incredible portrait of present-day China that everybody talks about. Since this series is almost unknown outside of Holland, I decided to share it here.

Three different series have been produced. The main language is Mandarin Chinese with Dutch moderation and – most important – English subtitles:

  • Along the banks of the Yangtze (2016)
  • Through the heart of China (2018)
  • Chinese dreams (2019)

All in all, I have spent around four to five years in China, I guess. I appreciate the honesty of the people the most. Chinese people are very open about their emotions and can reflect well. The country is and remains fascinating because it is constantly and massively in motion.

The filmmaker Ruben Terlou in Dutch newspaper Trouw

Along the banks of the Yangtze (2016)

The six episodes

  • Year: 2016
  • Duration: 6 episodes X 43 min.
  • Subtitles: English
  • Difficulty: Intermediate / upper intermediate

How the Dutch filmmaker ended up in China

After finishing high school in the Netherlands, Ruben Terlou went to live in China and make a living as a photographer. A rather unusual step for a young Dutch guy, but Ruben was convinced that China was the place to be for him.

Settling down in Kunming and learning Chinese, he fell in love with the country and the people. He became fluent in Mandarin. But after two years of trying his luck as a professional photographer, he returned to Holland, allegedly broke and disappointed.

He than began studying medicine instead, putting photography second, but still visiting places like Afghanistan to shoot material. He finished his studies cum laude, yet he never became an actual doctor.

Through the heart of China (2018)

The seven episodes

  • Year: 2018
  • Duration: 7 episodes X 43 min.
  • Subtitles: English
  • Difficulty: Intermediate / upper intermediate

Ruben Terlou: The unappointed China ambassador

Ruben’s China documentaries became an instant hit in the Netherlands. In every discussion about China people would mention his name.

For most Dutch people China used to be a far away place. Little did they know about the people who live there and their daily lives. Ruben’s China series made a change, focusing on a broad variety of topics and letting Chinese locals tell their own story. He showed that Chinese are not incomprehensible strangers, but fellow human beings. Not an easy task, especially under growing political tensions:

It would be nice if my work touches the audience. Because with all that news about the Chinese trade war, misunderstanding towards the superpower is growing. “What a horrible country, that China,” many people say. I want to remove that distrust, hope to paint a balanced and human image of China.

Ruben Terlou in Trouw

Chinese dreams (2019) (no English subs yet)

(Dutch subtitles only) Screencut from vpro.nl
  • Year: 2019
  • Duration: 4 episodes X 43 min.
  • Subtitles: Dutch
  • Difficulty: Intermediate / upper intermediate

Not the usual biased approach

Many China documentaries made by westerners fail insofar that they are deep-rooted in prejudices (and often ignorance) and choose the moral high ground. Most importantly, they don’t bring any new insights.

Ruben Terlou cannot help but see China through the eyes of a westerner, but at least he makes a serious effort of NOT judging and throwing his opinion in people’s faces. But there’s more that makes him stand out from journalists and filmmakers that cover China:

  • He holds back his opinion and allows people to tell their stories
  • He’s not looking for cheap sensation
  • People open up to him and tell him very personal things
  • He’s a keen observer and a brilliant listener. He knows what to ask at the right moment.
  • Not only his Mandarin is fluent, he also knows a lot about Chinese history and culture. This is demonstrated in his interviews as well as in his selection of topics, Ruben visits places many Chinese never heard of.
  • He captures unusual places, people and situations like hospitals, circus artists and vanishing minorities.

China is the ideal laboratory for story telling. Had I made the same series in Belgium, or even in India, my conversations would affect the audience less. Those countries are closer to us. Precisely because China is strange to us, I can expose the essence of mankind. Do you understand? China is linguistically and culturally so different from us that it serves as a mirror.

Ruben Terlou in Trouw

Chinese like any other language ultimately is a tool for communication. Ruben mastered the language and moved on to use his wits and talents to do great things. What’s your dream? What do you think about his China doc? Please feel free to leave a comment.

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