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Films on a shoestring budget

THE founder of Meiwenti Productions uses an army of volunteers in Shanghai to help people with ideas make movies, writes Nancy Zhang.

On a recent Saturday, Shanghai was host to its very own indie movie awards. Set in the Xinguang Projection Hall, Meiwenti Productions' global short film contest attracted nearly 300 spectators and entries from Argentina, America, Spain and Paris in addition to China-based filmmakers.

It was the culmination of a four-year journey that started with a simple decision by one Shanghai expat, Colombian Juan Vargas. In 2005, without any previous training, experience or equipment, Vargas decided to make a movie in Shanghai.

"How hard can it be?" he thought at the time.

Now two feature movies and two short film contests later, he has founded Meiwenti Productions, a company encouraging ordinary people to become independent filmmakers.

Unlike Hollywood production companies, Meiwenti opens the movie industry up to anyone who wants to participate, regardless of experience or skill. They rely on a big network of enthusiasts to volunteer, and movies are made on miniscule budgets.

"Meiwenti is a movement, not just a company," says Vargas. "We want to tell the world, indie movies can be interesting and competitive but at reasonable budgets."

The spirit of Meiwenti Productions is much like Vargas' larger-than-life personality.

Having lived in Shanghai for six years, Vargas has always believed in taking risks, starting things and learning through experience.

Before arriving in Shanghai in 2003, Vargas lived in Thailand trying to build an "eco city" - a city modeled on environmental rather than economic principles.

He was also writing, finishing five novels before he came to Shanghai. Before that he was working for a Colombian NGO helping indigenous people in the Amazon rainforest.

The 38-year-old has packed a lot in for his age.

While working on his projects, Vargas has also lived in nine different countries. Since leaving Colombia at age 11 with his mother to live in the United State, Vargas has also lived in Switzerland, Spain, Poland, Brazil, England and Thailand interspersed with stints back in Colombia.

Vargas was in the middle of writing his sixth novel, none of which have been published, when he arrived in Shanghai. But the energy and "craziness" of the city meant he never finished it.

"Somehow I just don't have the peace of mind to write here," he says.

But Shanghai was perfectly suited to his entrepreneurial drive. He harnessed the energy of the city to make movies, a much more sociable and hectic enterprise, he says.

"I like the speed and the electricity," says Vargas. "It's easier to make a movie here because it's so entrepreneurial. Elsewhere people are conservative, but here they say, 'what the hell, let's go'."

In answer to that initial question he asked himself, "how hard can it be," Vargas found the answer: not intellectually difficult, but a lot of hard work. He was also surprised at how movies come alive as all the people involved put their energy and focus into the same goal.

Starting with nothing but an idea, Vargas called his friends and his friends' friends to help him - with advice, with equipment, with editing software. For a day job, Vargas worked in online education and a now defunct production company filming car races.

The resulting 75-minute movie "90 Days" was finished in December 2005 and is a comedy about an American in Shanghai who wants to be Chinese, but fails.

The response was phenomenal. Everyone wanted to be involved, even for free, he says. In the end 100 people had volunteered. It was all very amateur. Sometimes when volunteer actors didn't turn up, Vargas says they approached people eating or walking nearby and just asked them to step in.

This first movie led to the founding of Meiwenti Productions in the summer of 2005. Supported by corporate videos, the company's main goals are to make feature films and run film contests. Vargas now works there full time along with six other paid full-time employees.

The bar for amateur filmmakers has lowered with technology, meaning you only need a computer and some software to edit, says Vargas.

Also, equipment is cheap to rent here, and friends can be persuaded to become actors, and their apartments shooting locations.

Vargas' philosophy rebels against the Hollywood norm that movies require big budgets to get made.

"We forget that movie making is an art form first, and an industry second," says Vargas. "Someone talented in music only needs a guitar to practice and be good, but what about talented directors? The bar for them to start practicing their skills is much higher, I want to bring that down. Movie making shouldn't be just for elites."

"Swat Chicks," Meiwenti's 33-minute pilot for their second feature-length film, was made for just 25,000 yuan (US$3,659). An army of 153 volunteers kept costs down, and it screened in mid-June.

The indie film contest entries were made for even less. Of the entries from China, Vargas estimates that each cost just a few thousand yuan on average.

"Probably their biggest cost was food for the volunteers," he says.

But in typical Vargas style, the contests are more about pushing people to jump in and start working on their dreams. The short deadlines - one month from conception to finish - force filmmakers to action, and free advice and cheap equipment rental are on offer so there are no excuses. Aptly the theme is "Against All Odds."

In many ways, Meiwenti has bridged the gap between the amateur and professional. Some of its volunteers and employees have gone on to become professional actors, or work in advertising, film and other video industries.

But what does the establishment think of their activities?

"There are two reactions: some people just think this is crap because they're used to big budgets, and they don't want to lose face with low-budget productions. But then there are the really experienced filmmakers who can see beyond the quality problems and appreciate our ideas."

Still, budgets are catching up with Meiwenti Productions. Vargas wants to improve the quality of his films - and that requires funding. The pilot film "Swat Chicks" was made to pitch to investors.

Displaying the typical stubbornness of an entrepreneur, Vargas concludes: "I will struggle, fight and scratch to get the investment, because I want to do a good job and I know this city has human potential."Juan Vargas

Nationality: Colombian

Age: 38

Profession: Movie director and producer


Self-description:Easygoing, stubborn, risk taker (in short Latin American!)

Favorite place: Swimming pool. There's a nice outdoor one in Gubei. Latin Americans have a beach culture, so I like to be outside in the summer, but there are not lots of options here.

Perfect weekend:

Has to include an all-you-can-eat Japanese buffet, followed by some sport ? I like squash, gym or swimming. Then shooting a movie, it's really fun, one of the best things you can do on a weekend in Shanghai.

Strangest sight: People walking around in pajamas.

Worst experience:The pollution gives me lung problems.

Motto for life:Today's the day.

How to improve Shanghai:

Things are developing really fast here, but I think people can chill out a bit more. It's crazy the hours people work, they should go out more and enjoy the city.

Advice to newcomers:Do more touristy stuff when you first get here because you'll never do it later on. For example, there are lots of museums, and things like the aquarium. I went to the aquarium last year, and surprisingly it was very nice.


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