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Campus Currents May 2007: Volume 4, Number 2

1930s Shanghai Cinema

To understand what life was like in Shanghai, China, during the 1920s and 30s, you could look up a newspaper published at the time. Alternatively, you could watch the student-made films screened at this year’s Golden Chopsticks Awards.

As a conclusion to his popular class, “The Cultural History of Twentieth Century China,” Professor Paul Pickowicz hosted an Oscar-esque award ceremony where students showed off the fruits of their labor—20-minute black-and-white silent films aimed to emulate ones made in Shanghai in the early 20th century.

Pickowicz’s unique class, the only one of its kind in the nation, looks at Shanghai culture during a time of rapid modernity and development through the telling historical lens of the camera.

“You can look at a movie made at the time and it’ll tell you a lot,” says Pickowicz, who owns and studies a rare collection of Chinese films made in the 1920s and 1930s. “The course is about using films to understand the basic issues of the time.”
As their final project, students created short films with plots that touch on the issues of the era, while imitating the technology and techniques of the period. A seven-judge panel presented awards for such categories as “best cinematography,” “best director” and “best set design.”

“We have to be very familiar with the literature on these films and with what was produced during the period,” says Chris Reynard, who directed Voice of the City, a film that chronicles the challenges of a young girl leaving her rural home to become a singer in Shanghai.

Pickowicz’s unique approach caught the attention of his colleagues at the University of Shanghai, who asked him to teach the course, where students could take advantage of the authentic locale for the sets of their own films.

For students at UC San Diego, the hefty workload included drafting scripts, finding locations and designing costumes, but it hasn’t detracted from the popularity of the course.

“I heard about this class in my freshman year,” says Reynard. “I thought, ‘my four years here as a history major are not complete until I take this.’”

For movie clips and a full list of winners: alumni.ucsd.edu/goldenchopsticks

—Mina Nilchian, ’13