“The Six,” a documentary film shining a searchlight on the little-known Chinese aspects of the familiar Titanic story is headed for theatrical release next month in the Middle Kingdom. With James Cameron on board as executive producer and contributor, it could make waves in other markets as well.
The 97-minute feature will debut in Chinese theaters on April 16, around the 109th anniversary of the “Titanic” sinking, with the release handled by local distributor QC Media. A 60-minute version has been prepared for TV. London-based specialist factual distributor TVF International is handling the global rights.
Despite events taking place over 100 years ago, the anti-Asian fall-out of 1912 has close parallels with the racism and antagonisms of the past year. The Titanic’s six Chinese survivors miraculously escaped the shipwreck only to be vilified and refused entry to the U.S. within 24 hours of their arrival. They have been all but erased from the history books.
Filmmakers Arthur Jones and Steven Schwankert, both long-term foreign residents in China and both former Variety correspondents, did not set out with a socio-political agenda.
Instead, their point of departure was their passion for diving and maritime history and the idea of making a follow-up shipwreck film to their 2013 picture “The Poseidon Project.” That documented the sinking of Britain’s most advanced submarine off the China coast in 1931 and how, against the odds, some sailors survived.
“We didn’t start with a (sociological) angle. But we soon discovered extraordinary parallels with today. These people turned out to be the perfect model for the illegal immigrant stereotype,” Jones told Variety.
The discrimination the Titanic survivors faced in the U.S., U.K. and Canada has trickled down and colored the lives of their descendants today. (Canada passed an anti-Chinese “Exclusion Act” only a few years later in 1923.)
“Steven was already aware of the Chinese survivors of the Titanic sinking, but it took some time to convince me that it would not be too grim. In 2016, following my usual habit, I cut a funding trailer with the intention to pitch the project at festivals. But then two things happened,” says Jones.
“First was ‘Twenty-Two,’ a film about the Chinese comfort women under Japanese occupation. That changed how people regarded documentary features, justice and modern China. And it started to get distributors interested in our project,” says Jones. “Then, in 2017, Pear TV somehow got hold of our trailer and put it on Weibo (China’s equivalent of Twitter). It quickly began trending and within 24 hours had got 22 million hits.”
Financing for “The Six” then came together quite quickly, allowing the producers to dig deeper into archives and begin production.
“Once we started finding descendants, I realized that the story expanded way beyond Titanic. What happened to the Chinese survivors reshaped their lives in a way that, a century later, still affects their families and communities,” says Jones. “And the more we dug into that very human experience, the more we saw that Titanic was part of a much bigger story about race and immigration and simple human decency that is still playing out today.”
The six Chinese survivors were variously accused of being stowaways on the Titanic, of hiding themselves in the ship’s lifeboats, and of jumping the queue by disguising themselves in female clothing and answering to the call of women and children first. “On examination, all the claims fell apart very quickly. We even built a replica of a lifeboat with collapsible sides to see if it was possible to hide unseen,” says Jones.
“As documentarians, we had to be prepared to tell the story if these people had in fact done something bad,” says Jones. “But what emerged instead was a picture of confusion, panic and human error.”
Luo Tong, producer and co-founder of production house LostPensivos Films, said: “(Cameron’s) ’Titanic’ was a huge hit and has become a cultural touchstone in China, so to tell for the first time a real-life Chinese story of the disaster is deeply significant.”
Cameron himself joined during production. “Steven understood that Cameron was aware of the Chinese aspect as Steven knew that ‘Titanic’ contained a deleted scene with a Chinese man surviving on a floating door,” says Jones. “We were able to contact him via a producer friend and got a call to fly to New Zealand where James Cameron was then making the ‘Avatar’ sequels.”
“He offered to be EP (alongside Maria Wilhelm and Nick Ware) and was very helpful with getting footage from Fox, helping to get image permissions from Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio,” says Jones. “He was a real part of our film.”
“In fact, Fang Lang’s rescue from the water was the inspiration for Jack and Rose’s final scene in my movie, ‘Titanic,'” said Cameron in a supplied statement. “‘The Six’ were the least known passengers until now and Titanic’s last, great untold story.”