I intended this post to be a review of the documentary RED OBSESSION (and one will be forthcoming). It concerns one of the most talked-about topics in the wine business: the rise of China in the international market and its penchant for top-flight Bordeaux. These wines cost thousands of dollars per bottle, and are being snapped up at a headline-producing rate. But the all-caps title of the documentary, with its play on red wine and Communist (“Red”) China, struck me as hinting at some kind of sensationalist take on the story. (A la “Red Scare” or “Red Menace.”) So I welcomed the chance to send some questions to Warwick Ross, who is Red Obsession’s Producer/Co-Director/Co-Writer.
Warwick’s thoughtful answers follow. He provides interesting insight into how the title for a film is chosen as well as a window into the process of documentary filmmaking. Not to tip my hand too greatly about my review, I will say it’s a fascinating film to watch even if you don’t know much about (or care for) wine. Anyone who studies culture, race, class, and gender would find the film an interesting launching point for discussion.
Jameson: Can you comment on the choice of the title for the film and the reaction you think it will elicit from potential viewers?
Warwick: Titles are an interesting subject. Many years ago a producer in Hollywood told me “There’s never been a hit movie with a bad title – but there sure have been lots of bad movies with bad titles”. We had a couple of working titles before we settled on RED OBSESSION, both had the word ‘wine’ in them. As we got deeper into filming, it became clearer to us that the film had a number of themes, only one of which was wine. When we interviewed one subject who paid over US$200,000 for a single bottle of wine, the word “obsession” seemed to sum up that level of passion.
As China became more of a focus throughout our filming year, and the Hong Kong auction rooms became the number one auction centre for fine wines in the world, taking the mantle from New York and London (particularly for ‘red’ wines), “RED OBSESSION” seemed to encapsulate the phenomenon. We also liked that it worked on a number of levels–the colour red symbolising not just communism but good fortune, joy and happiness in Chinese culture.
Reaction to the title has been very positive from audiences and buyers alike.
J: My question about the title arose because when I first saw it I thought of “Red Menace” and “Red Scare.” It led me to believe that the film would be a sensationalized look at the issue. You’ve said reaction to the title has been positive, so I am curious to know what you think of my initial take. My graduate school thesis was about cultural conflict and the language people use to frame others, so the title and the East/West, Chinese/European dichotomy was of particular interest to me.
W: I think the word RED is emotive and when combined with with a word like OBSESSION (maybe less so than Menace or Scare), perhaps becomes more so. Everyone brings their own interpretation to a film and that includes the title. I found that audience members will always look for deeper meaning in the film’s themes and the title and will want to make their own discoveries. I think when you use the words Scare or Menance you tend to trigger prejudicial interpretations. I hope OBSESSION doesn’t do that. Interestingly, one of our main interviewees, Fongyee Walker, says at the end of the film, “There will always be a clash of cultures…there will always be….” She continues that her advice to Westerners wanting to engage with the Chinese is, “Don’t forget, this is China–and things work differently here….”
It’s no coincidence that I filmed a crane up shot of the Great Wall of China in far flung Ningxia Province which once separated the cultures of the Han Chinese and the Mongols (the foreign barbarians of the time)–now abandoned and crumbling. Eventually walls dividing cultures come down
J: In the course of conceptualizing and filming the movie, was it important to avoid an us versus them, East versus West, dichotomous view of China and the Chinese versus the European wine community?
W: I think our job as documentary filmmakers is to present the views, arguments and perspectives of both sides to the audience without allowing any perceived prejudice of the filmmakers to bear on the subject. Honesty and frankness from an interviewee is, of course, what we seek and we try to reflect that as accurately as possible in our editing, conscious of avoiding any bias – acting only as a conduit for those views to be expressed.
The prejudices that are held from one culture to another are always present when documentary makers delve into cross cultural issues but we try to present a balanced assessment of views expressed. I think a fascinating aspect that we discovered about ‘wine’ during the course of filming (and expressed by a number of interviewees), is that it has the ability to bring, not only people, but cultures together. It’s the new Silk Road–a medium that fosters cultural exchange.
In fact, we discovered that each side held great respect for the other and was keen to breakdown the stereotypes that are often presented.
J: Along those lines, there is sentiment among some British wine merchants and French winemakers that looks at the Chinese interest in Bordeaux (both the wine and property in the region) with emotions from bemusement to disdain. Do you hope Red Obsession will promote a better understanding of the Chinese interest in Bordeaux?
W: Yes, I hope so. I’ve heard and read the views you mention, expressed by some sections of the western wine community, but found the views presented by the majority of our interviewee subjects surprisingly enlightened. Frederic Engerer of Chateau Latour, for example, expresses in the film that “There has always been fear of the unknown….We have to remain an open society” He was encouraging of the Chinese to come and invest in Bordeaux. Others, aware of the long history of Bordeaux, had seen other cultures come and go – the Americans, the Russians etc. and felt it was the turn of the Chinese. The ability to assimilate and adapt to other cultures has always been the strong suit of the Bordelais. I think that’s what convinced us to end the film on a philosophical note – the resilience and endurance of Bordeaux. As I said above–wine is the new silk road, promoting and fostering cultural exchange and building cultural bridges.
Image courtesy Wolf Consultants.