An Ordinary Discovery
By Tao Zihui  ·  2023-05-12  ·   Source: Web Exclusive

Vikram Channa (COURTESY PHOTO)

Vice President of Content at Discovery Networks Asia-Pacific, Vikram Channa, also a reputed documentary filmmaker, first set foot on Chinese soil in 2001 and has since shot more than 300 films in and about the country. “The people’s stories are quite powerful for audience both in and outside China,” Channa said in an exclusive interview with Beijing Review reporter Tao Zihui. Excerpts from their conversation follow:

Beijing Review: You once mentioned that out of all the documentaries produced by the Discovery Channel; those related to China are most popular. Why are they so popular?

Vikram Channa: At the micro level, ultimately, people connect with other human beings. So much has happened in China so quickly. The transformation is so distinct. I don’t think there is any other society that has been through this big change at this big scale, at this speed and with this quality. We try to tell the stories of ordinary people who have been through that change.

At the same time, the Chinese journey itself, especially over the last 40 years and what continues to happen in China, makes for an incredible and unique story.

Aside from that, we also passionately believe [the popularity] has to do with the way we make our documentaries; we actually like to say “real life entertainment” instead of “documentary,” because we try to blend Hollywood instincts with journalistic instincts and facts. That way we are able to tell our stories in a visual and emotive mode.

That way, the facts are expressed in more cinematic manner. We are trying to cover deep topics like China: Time of Xi [A three-episode TV series focusing on Chinese President Xi Jinping’s ideas on governance]. It’s a film about policy, about how to make policy accessible.

Beijing Review: What kind of China stories can best portray the country and echo with those residing outside its borders?

Vikram Channa: In the past we tended to have a lot of discovery hosts who were very famous on [the] Discovery [Channel] and we would bring them to China. They would then share the experiences of China and communicate [these] to audience outside [the country].

But in recent years, we’ve come to realize that ordinary Chinese people, people from China who have been through the country’s transformation, actually excel at expressing themselves, because there’s a lot of authenticity if they can share their own journey.

So a lot of it is about strategy, how you can work with people and make them feel comfortable and get them to share their experiences. And when you get ordinary Chinese people to talk about their journey, that transformation--if you pick the right person and guide them in the right direction, I think the outcome can be quite powerful for audience both in- and outside of China.

Beijing Review: Making a documentary is also a way to understand China. Through the production of these documentaries, what have you learned about the country?

Vikram Channa: When I look back on my first decade here, 2001 to 2011 or 2012, I don’t think I understood as much because I was sort of new.

But then when I look at the second decade, just after 2012, building up to the China: Time of Xi series, [I found] what I learned during that time was the outcome of a deeper understanding. It’s a process. Time does play a big role.

Now, another decade has started and China is embarking on a new journey. I have also been living in Beijing for the last four years and that one fact already makes a huge difference when it comes to one’s experience of, with and in the country.

Beijing Review: As you mentioned, the “China topic” is quite unique, so what is your approach to make the unique subject matter more understandable?

Vikram Channa: We always feel confident using this approach [real life entertainment with a visual and emotive style of expression to communicate a factual narrative], which is quite different from an approach based purely on current affairs, which is much more oriented towards giving information. Basically, you can have a story on information or you can have information in story. We tend to do information in story.

We hired three hosts for China: Time of Xi. The reason we chose those three particular hosts back in 2017, is because they were not brand new to China. They had already experienced China through other filming projects. I think this really helped the series because they had an opinion of their own, they had a certain confidence and they were familiar, but not overly so.

In creating the stories, the real, ordinary discoveries, Discovery works closely with Chinese partners and creatives.

If you do it all by yourself, as outsiders, you can only go so far. But when our distance and the closeness of the Chinese creatives come together, you have the ultimate blend.

This is why and how we are able to create films that work both in China for Chinese audiences and outside China for international audiences. And we call this process “made in China for the world.” We collaborate with Chinese talents, but we also know our own strengths and we understand how to insert the energy of Chinese creatives. That’s also how we can reach the right ordinary people. We may not always know them, but the partners and creatives we work with are the ones who can take us to them. Bringing these projects to life is like cooking together.

Copyedited by Elsbeth van Paridon

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