An ornamental water wheel in a Lanzhou city park. (Contributed photo).

Red Deer-raised filmmaker shoots documentary in China

Jesse Pickett said making Still Turning was transformative experience

Red Deer filmmaker Jesse Pickett returned from China with high regard for the country’s ancient artistry and friendly people.

He also has renewed appreciation for Canada’s freedom of expression.

Pickett, a Hunting Hills graduate now based in B.C., was one of four emerging Canadian filmmakers chosen to make a short film in China along the themes of craftsmanship, innovation and inheritance. About 100 international artists shot footage under a program called Looking China, operated by Beijing Normal University and connected to the Vancouver Chinese Film Festival.

Pickett directed the 10-minute documentary Still Turning in June. It focuses on the craftsmanship of Duan Yicun, 74, who devoted most of his life to reviving an ancient family tradition — building the large Chinese waterwheels used since the 1500s for irrigation.

Yicun, who lives in Lanzhou, the capital of Gansu Province in Northwest China, is the 20th-generation direct descendant of the inventor of the 30-metre wheels. The process was almost a lost art form before Yicun brought it back in the 1970s, said Pickett. Now Chinese waterwheels are in demand, both for agriculture and ornamentation.

Pickett worked with a translator to interview Yicun, and linked the artisan’s story with the role of water in China. The Central Alberta native visited a modern hydro-electric dam that powers four provinces. “I looked at hydro-electricity and water as a form of energy.”

Pickett was impressed by Yicun’s craftsmanship and integrity — as well as the sheer size of China.

Lanzhou, with 14-million people, is only the country’s 37th largest city. Many of its new apartment buildings are uninhabited, however. They were built as part of an unsuccessful government push to try to urbanize the area’s agrarian population.

Pickett said he was told by Chinese officials not to put this into his film. “It was forbidden to focus on that area too much.”

Filming Still Turning, which debuted earlier this month at the Vancouver Chinese Film Festival, was a transformative experience — Pickett learned he likes making documentaries as much as fictional films. Having previously worked on Chopped Canada and his film Umbrageous, about gun violence, he also learned that “I appreciate the freedom of expression we have in Canada. It’s not available in every country.”

While Pickett would love to return to China, he next hopes to make a feature film in Central Alberta.

Still Turning can be seen on YouTube at:

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