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Chinese films donation gives USC collection a different view of 20th century

A massive film donation announced today completes the University of South Carolina's quirky - but scholarly rich - two-reel feature on the history of the 20th century.

The first "reel" is made up of the Fox Movietone News Collection, snippets of footage that captured the news and culture of the world from 1919 through 1944 filtered through a Hollywood prism. The University Libraries' Moving Image Research Collections is built around the 11 million feet of film in the 1980 Movietone donation.

The new second reel picks up in 1949 and shows the rest of the century through the very different lens of Chinese filmmakers during the tightly controlled period in their country through the 1980s. The Chinese Film Collection features everything from documentaries on life in China to wildlife films to fictional melodramas.

"Half a century ago, China was closed to the rest of the world," said USC president Harris Pastides. "Now it is a global economic power, a destination for international tourists and a hot spot for scholars and students. These films tell the story of this transformation."

About 650 titles on 33 mm and 16 mm film were donated by the Embassy of the People's Republic of China in Washington. University archivists haven't seen much of the film, but they suspect it depicts the China that the government wanted U.S. audiences to see. Otherwise, Chinese leaders wouldn't have shipped the films to Washington in the first place.

A truck from Washington, filled to the brim with film cases, arrived at the Catawba Street home of the collection this month.

"We opened the doors (to the truck) and we said, 'Wow! That's a lot of film," said Greg Wilspacher, the curator of the Newsfilm Collections who will help archive the new donation.

Wilspacher doesn't read or speak Chinese, but English titles are written on some of the film canisters and many of the films have English subtitles. To provide a snapshot of the collection, he pulled out a 33 mm reel from a canister with the title "My Old Beijing."

He slipped it into a high-tech player to show it on a computer screen. The gorgeous Technicolor footage of the streets of Beijing and nearby mountains made it difficult to pay attention to the subtitled dialogue.

By contrast, a 16 mm documentary on woodblock printing focused on the production of books. The close-ups of the print-carving artistry were stunning.

Those are just two canisters from a storage room stacked floor to ceiling on all four walls and in a center bookcase, barely leaving room to walk.

The embassy provided a detailed inventory of the 35 mm films, but the content of many of the 16 mm films remains a mystery. And the university doesn't have a title list for the DVDs.

"It's an amazing collection," said Mark Cooper, director of the Moving Image Research Collections. "We're going to learn a lot as we go through it. We'll be uncovering treasures."

The Hanban, the international headquarters of the Confucius Institute, in cooperation with the Chinese National Film Archive and the Beijing Film Academy donated the 1,500 DVDs. They have a different format from U.S. DVDs, and the university has ordered a special player for them.

The university's Confucius Institute was established last fall, setting the stage for this donation to the school's already world-renowned film repository. With the new addition, the collection is outgrowing its current building. A solution is in the works, but the details have yet to be worked out, Cooper said.

The Movietone archives have become well-known, used by everyone from Hollywood producers working on documentaries on early 20th-century U.S. presidents to fifth-graders doing class projects on the Doolittle Raiders.

Now, the university collection has footage suitable for a documentary on the Ping Pong Diplomacy of 1972 or a class project on the Great Wall of China.

The real challenge might be for some graduate student to write a thesis comparing and contrasting the Movietone view of the first half of the century with the Chinese Film Collections view of the second half.

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