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Vancouver filmmaker premiers "Tricks on the Dead," an epic film about WWI's Chinese labourers

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The film opens with a recreation of a 100-year old wedding ceremony in a Chinese village.  Later some of the same characters appear when the son departs for Europe.  The father and son pass through the winding stone passageways to an open field.

The battle scenes and depictions of life in the trenches feel reminiscent of Peter Weir’s “Gallipoli.”

“It looks expensive but my family and friends and people I know and students made that trench," Paterson said.  "Those trains were sitting in a warehouse.” Trenches reenactment scene

They dug the trenches in Surrey.  Natural light was used in all the scenes; bulbs, in the train. Paterson and Li’s adaptation of these war scenes shows a sensitivity to light, framing and slow motion filming that is subtle and highly effective.  

“We didn't want people running around in plastic helmets like a blue chip documentary... We tried to make poetry, to make cinema or art of some kind. They are shot with a high speed camera and composed to be like paintings or a photograph.”

The treatment of archival photographs shows the same sensitivity to subject and form. In one, a few Chinese laborers appear wearing hard hats and sitting together. The photograph was in fact staged by war photographers to send back to China and create the perception that the laborers were well treated.  But on closer scrutiny their real hats, made of straw, can be seen resting near them, and their expressions are somber.  Paterson knows exactly what he is doing here, and why.

“It’s my way to reflect both the problem of history telling and also, without being overly self-reflective, point to the fact that we are also manipulating this history,” he said about this photograph.

The title of the film reflects this point about the telling of history.  “Tricks on the Dead” is a play on Voltaire’s assertion that “history is nothing but a pack of tricks we play upon the dead.”

Filmmaker Jordan Paterson

Paterson has made two other films, but as he said, he has "never made a feature documentary before and this is 100 times more complicated.”  When he started “Tricks on the Dead,” he was pursuing a degree in Educational Technology at SFU and working.  He already had two degrees, one in film production and the other in English and Humanities.  Once he started “Tricks,” he had to quit both SFU and his job.

His other documentaries focus on immigration and migrant justice.  One documentary “Sanctuary” is about religious sanctuary as a political act of civil disobedience in Canada and how it speaks to the failure of the Canadian immigration refugee system. The second film looked at Chinese immigration to Canada during the “Period of Exclusion” between 1923-1947.  

Though “Tricks on the Dead” may meander and could perhaps use another set of eyes to help with editing, it brings history just where it is supposed to be – making it relevant to the present day. 

“In political history, the first world war is a game changer.  It is the watershed moment for China.” said Paterson. 

After so many Chinese had participated on the side of the Allied Forces, they were allowed only two representatives at the Paris Peace Conference.  At the signing in Versailles, the Western Powers granted the Shandong territory to the Japanese.  For the Chinese, this became known as the “Paris Betrayal” and China became keenly aware of the West’s colonial designs on their country, an awareness that began a movement toward communism and fostered distrust toward Western powers.

“Historians may argue that point,” said Paterson, “but the evidence is pretty clear that the Paris Peace talks was a pivotal moment.”

Broadcasters who came on board for Paterson in the third year included OMNI TV in Canada, European broadcasters and CCTV in China. 

A documentarian who directs re-enactment as well as Paterson is often headed for the dramatic film world.  That’s exactly what Paterson is planning on trying next.

“Tricks on the Dead” will be airing in Canada and China soon.  The showing at VIFF is Sunday, Oct. 4th at 3:45 at SFU Woodwards.

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