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Bringing Almost Heaven home to China

  • Carol Salter and Ying Ling

Carol Salter and Ying Ling in Shanghai

June 2017

Carol Salter recently travelled to Shanghai International Film Festival to premiere her feature documentary Almost Heaven to a Chinese audience.

Here’s Carol's account of her trip:

On the flight to Shanghai, I started to reflect on the long and at times challenging journey I’ve had while making Almost Heaven.

I made my first trip to China in 2013, and it is exactly four years to the month that I met the film’s protagonist, Ying Ling, who at 17 had just moved away from home. She was about to start her first job, training as a mortician in one of China’s largest funeral homes. She was terribly homesick, frightened of the dark and scared of ghosts! And like me, she had never seen a dead body. I was fascinated by how someone so young could cope with working day in, day out with the dead.

In China there is much stigma around death, many believing its bad luck to even mention the word. However, jobs in China are very limited for the young, meaning that someone like Ying Ling has very few options.

I was looking forward so much to seeing Ying Ling again. What would she think about seeing herself on the big screen? I felt that we had gone through so much during the making of this film, and her finally seeing it would be very special.

As soon as I stepped off the plane I was hit by the humidity and the familiar sights, sounds and smells of China, reminding me of the many trips I had made to make this film… however despite my travel experience, I had completely forgotten to write the hotel address down in Mandarin for the taxi driver. Rookie mistake. I had to spend the next hour trying to communicate with sign language.

Eventually I made it to the festival to an unexpected moment of delight: seeing a 10-foot poster of Almost Heaven in the foyer of the cinema.

It didn’t take long for me to meet two other kindred spirits, also women documentary makers who were struggling to find their way around the huge festival (with its 45 screening venues spread across the city). We worked as a team to navigate our way around the press events and cocktail parties, mostly arriving too late because of our unsuccessful taxi communication skills. But I made two friendships that I feel will last long after our adventures in Shanghai.

The following day I was expecting Ying Ling. It would take her over 15 hours on the bullet train to get to Shanghai. This would be her first time in this city.  It was magical to reconnect with her. We decided to spend the morning sightseeing in the area of Bund, with a visit to the iconic Oriental Pearl TV tower that looks like a prop model out of ‘Thunderbirds’. This was one of many strange juxtaposes of architecture that put a smile on my face.

Almost Heaven screenings were sold out weeks before, however I was still nervous about how a Chinese audience would react to the subject of a story set in a funeral home, and of course, about how Ying Ling would feel about seeing herself on the huge screen! I needn’t have worried, very quickly the audience warmed to Ying Ling and laughed at her quirky sense of humour.

We were inundated with questions at the end of the film. The audience members were particularly fascinated with how I had managed to get permission to film in a funeral home (not easy) - notoriously places shrouded in superstition. By the end of the evening, Ying Ling and I were asked to autograph the audience’s cinema tickets and appear in their ‘selfies’.

Later that evening, I felt sad to have to say goodbye to Ying Ling as I knew I wouldn’t see her again for a long time.  For her to take time off work was extremely hard and the opportunities for her to travel outside China were also challenging.

My trip to Shanghai was so short and sweet. But I was delighted to get the opportunity to be there -- it was only right that I could share this special experience of the Asian Premiere with Ying Ling.

There is always a come down from festival trips, despite the wonderful highs of seeing the way the film was received and reuniting with old friends and making new ones. Struggling to sleep with jet lag on my first night back, my spirits were lifted when I received an email at 3am that Almost Heaven would have its London Premiere in September followed by a wider UK release!

More momentum… so now we are already busy prepping for the autumn. The film’s journey continues.

Read more on Almost Heaven at the film's website, Facebook page and Twitter account.