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Visiting Jiaojiao – on location in China

portrait of a Chinese dancer

Film portrait of a Chinese dancer

A film produced by Sonova recounts the story of a Chinese dancer with hearing loss – and how her dream comes true. The film crew travelled to wintery Harbin, China, for the shoot.

Tianjiao Zhang – usually known by her nickname, Jiaojiao – takes off her winter jacket. She's wearing ski pants for her first meeting with the film crew. This is the city of Harbin, Manchuria in the far north of China, where January temperatures rarely rise above minus 13 degrees Celsius even in daytime. January is the coldest month of the year in Harbin, and temperatures at night can even plunge to minus 30 degrees. The dancer is curious: how will the film actually be shot? Her mother has come with her for the first meeting with the film crew who have travelled all the way to Manchuria to make a film portrait of the young dancer.

The crew are seated on sofas at the back of the hotel lobby. A castle built entirely of ice can be seen through the huge window: these are the weeks when Harbin's renowned Ice Festival takes place, so there are sculptures and buildings made of ice blocks everywhere in the city. As is the custom in China, a waitress brings warm water with lemon for the guests to drink. The director explains the shooting schedule. The film is to depict Jiaojiao's life, her friends and inner circle, and also her home – but the focus will be on her passion for dancing.

The mood in the lobby is upbeat. Jiaojiao's mother suggests various dance studios for the film shoot, while the cameraman enquires about details of the premises. What is the light like? How big is the studio? A journalist tells Jiaojiao that she'll be conducting an interview with her next day to record some statements for the film. Project Manager Patrick Lehn has travelled here from Switzerland on behalf of Sonova. He tells Jiaojiao: "We're really looking forward to shooting this film with you!" Patrick's colleague Heidi Zhang interprets into Chinese. Jiaojiao smiles and replies that she feels just the same.

A film shoot in one of the world's coldest cities: thanks to tremendous team spirit, the Sonova film crew triumphed over the challenges posed by this exceptional location.

This film about a Chinese dancer is part of Sonova's long-term storytelling concept. Individuals tell their stories and by their examples, show how they lead lives free of limitations with the help of hearing solutions from Sonova. Through these stories, viewers can experience how Sonova's corporate vision is being turned into a reality. The films produced by Sonova only present authentic emotional portraits that transport the viewer into the world of each featured individual. This is why the ambience on the set feels like a documentary film shoot, where the aim is to capture glimpses of real life.

Jiaojiao Zhang's story inspires courage. Despite her hearing loss, this dancer has already won national and international prizes – even though she is only 20. Achievements on this scale call for talent and iron discipline. "It hasn't always been easy," Jiaojiao admits in the interview. She speaks slowly, concentrating hard as she considers her words carefully. She's not used to speaking into a microphone. The soundtrack with her voice will eventually be synchronized with the images to guide viewers through the film. The images will also be backed with music played on Jiaojiao's favorite instrument: the piano, whose clearly defined tones she can hear especially well. During the interview, Jiaojiao keeps moving the tip of her foot around in a circle on the floor. It's as if her body is saying: "What are we doing here, sitting on a chair for hours and hours? Let's dance!"

Shooting finally starts on Monday morning. Jiaojiao is sitting on the floor of a dance studio with her legs in the front split position. This is a stretching exercise that poses no problems for the youngster: she holds her mobile phone in her hand and texts her friends on WeChat, the Chinese equivalent of instant messaging services such as WhatsApp. She seems unperturbed by the film crew who are busy all around her, arranging everything in the room for the shoot. An assistant is setting up studio lights. The cameraman is pacing through the room, looking for good angles to shoot from – no simple task because there are so many mirrors on the walls. He himself shouldn't be visible in the takes, of course. Everything that shouldn't appear on screen has to be cleared out of the way: filming equipment, chairs, jackets and bags. The director concentrates as he watches the monitor on his laptop and plans the scene that will be shot today: Jiaojiao taking a dancing lesson.

Her teacher, who has been her support for many years, has come along especially to take part in the filming. The two women focus all their attention on achieving perfect postures and poses – they hardly need any words to understand each other. The film crew stays in the background; only the cameraman is really close to the action. In the next scene, Jiaojiao swaps roles from student to teacher: she teaches a girl who has come along to the set with her grandmother. "My granddaughter loves Jiaojiao and admires her for achieving so much despite her hearing loss," the girl's grandmother says. "She's sad whenever Jiaojiao goes on tour and there are no dancing lessons." In the middle of the lesson, the girl suddenly throws her arms around Jiaojiao and gives her a warm hug.

The crew must improvise all the time because the film is being shot in various locations: in different dance studios, around Harbin's inner city and at Jiaojiao's home. The traffic jams on the streets turn each change of location into a test of everyone's patience. Harbin's low outdoor temperatures present a challenge for the camera batteries, which run down far more quickly than usual in the extreme cold. But Jiaojiao is a pro. Her education at one of China's best dance academies also included training in physical gestures and facial expressions. Hardly any of the scenes needs more than one take.

The film crew are also standing by when Jiaojiao meets up with her friends on the frozen river in Harbin. An incredible setting: the blueish silhouettes of Harbin's skyline as the backdrop, with the snow-covered surface of the Songhua river in the foreground. The banks are lined with huge blocks of ice. Artists and their assistants have carved them out of the frozen river to shape them into sculptures for the world-famous Ice and Snow Festival.

At the end of several days' intensive shooting work, the film still hasn't been cut – but everyone in the team can see what it will be like. They have created an emotional portrait of an impressive young woman. She wants to give back to others some of the support that she herself has received: "I love teaching children and encouraging them. My dream is to have my own dance school one day. Dancing makes me happy and I want to pass this on."

 

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