In 1980, former BBC producer Peter Montagnon became the first Westerner to strike a documentary film deal with China since Mao Tse-tung took power in 1949.
Yet, while Montagnon diligently plowed through 18 months of shooting, 200 hours of film and two years of fund raising, other news groups aired their specials, wearing out the novelty of "lifting the veil," "penetrating the shroud of secrecy" and "parting the bamboo curtain."
Montagnon, however, still believes he offers the definitive overview of China in "Heart of the Dragon," a 12-hour series premiering Monday at 8 p.m. on Channels 28 and 15 and PBS stations nationwide and continuing on consecutive Mondays through July 22.
"What we've seen in news reports so far--ephemeral changes in parliament, even wars--has little to do with the Chinese people," Montagnon said. "They owe more to 2,000 years of history than to 30 years of communism."
In the 12 episodes of "Heart of the Dragon," Montagnon focuses on everyday activities, then broadens the perspective to look at larger social, economic and political issues. "If you understand how the families and streets work," Montagnon said, "then you can understand how society and factories work."
"Eating" (May 13), for instance, profiles an entrepreneur in the city of Guangzhou, who cooks and sells everything from frogs to snakes, then illustrates how he is one of a growing number of Chinese businessmen who are amassing fortunes by maneuvering through tax loopholes.
"Remembering," the episode that launches the series on Monday, opens as black clouds and thunder ("the noise of the dragon") signal rain. As the rain falls on dark green agricultural fields, where four-fifths of the Chinese work, the commentary explains how agriculture has shaped Chinese culture throughout history, and how culture, in turn, shapes the Chinese. "To know a man," says the commentary, "you must know his memories."
Robert MacNeil and Jim Lehrer, co-hosts of PBS' "MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour," will introduce and conclude each of the 50-minute segments with live commentary and interviews with noted Sinologists.
Henry Kissinger will be the guest on Monday night's "Remembering" episode, while Leonard Woodcock, former President Jimmy Carter's ambassador to China and former head of the AFL-CIO, will speak on the "Working" segment June 24. Alan Dershowitz, a constitutional lawyer and Harvard professor who helped the post-Mao government form a new constitution, will be interviewed on "Correcting" July 1.
"Unlike other China specials," MacNeil said, "this series captures China intimately. Like a privileged traveler, we're permitted to linger."
While Montagnon's small documentary company, formed after he co-produced the BBC series "Civilization," couldn't match bids offered to China by larger television companies, Montagnon said the Chinese were willing to talk to him because they were "suspicious that the major networks might have some ax to grind."
At first, he said, "they gave us a choice of covering either the east or the west side of the Yangtze River. I had to keep telling them, 'We're interested in your rivers, but we're also interested in the people who work on your rivers."
After receiving a promise "to hold a mirror up to China and produce a series based on the reflections," the Chinese accepted Montagnon's relatively modest bid--$1 million--and permitted his crew to film throughout the country.
Raising that money, however, along with $7 million in production costs, proved more of a challenge than Montagnon and business partner Nigel Houghton expected.
"We wore out the shoe leather running up and down Broadway in New York in January, totally without success," said Houghton, a former BBC producer. "We were bitterly cold and bitterly disappointed."
They were caught in a Catch-22 situation, Houghton said: "Investors either told us, 'You'll be so critical of China that we'll lose potential business there,' or, 'You'll be so pro-Mao that we don't want to get involved.' "
After seven months of negotiations, however, Montagnon and Houghton raised $8 million, enabling them to air the series in England last January through March. By early this year, a $3-million grant from General Electric provided the funds for U.S. distribution.
Montagnon said he hopes that the series will "diminish stereotypes about what one quarter of the world's population is up to."
"Montagnon's goal is best realized in the episode on 'Caring' " (June 3), MacNeil said. "There's an extraordinary difference in the way our two countries deal with people in hospitals and mental institutions. The tenderness with which the human cargo is handled in China is really quite remarkable. The Chinese have been brutal and uncaring in the past, but it's far from the country of a billion people where lives and feelings don't matter."