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Filmmaker John Helde with William Hua, the retired director of the Chengdu YMCA (seen in the background). Helde's grandfather designed and oversaw the construction of the building in 1925.
Filmmaker John Helde with William Hua, the retired director of the Chengdu YMCA (seen in the background). Helde's grandfather designed and oversaw the construction of the building in 1925.

Film by John Helde '87 Has Television Premiere

John Helde ’87 always thought of his history professor father as the family storyteller. But there was one story he had never really told: about growing up the child of American missionaries in 1930s China.

“He just did not talk much about it at all,” says Helde, who began peppering his father with questions in 2002 after he turned up a cache of old family photos taken in China and discovered a missionary’s memoir with an account of his father’s birth on a mountain outside Chengdu.

That quest to understand his father and what it’s like to grow up with a leg in two cultures became the material for Helde’s first feature documentary Made In China. The film premiered at the Seattle International Film Festival in 2007, was screened at film festivals across the country and had its television premiere in August on the Documentary Channel, in time for the Beijing Olympics. (The Documentary Channel wil repeat the film in rotation for three years.)

In Made In China, Helde, a Seattle-based film editor who has worked on such films as Sleepless in Seattle and Smoke Signals, interviews his elderly, ailing dad, tracks down other aging former missionary kids who share their memories of a vanished pre-Communist era China and, after his father dies during the shooting of the film, travels to China himself to find the places the senior Helde spent his youth. Armed with an old map, he treks the crowded streets of Changsha hoping to locate what had been the family home. Helde even embarks on a grueling journey to that remote mountaintop where his father was born.

“The question of what home is was a running theme in the back of my mind in the making of the film,” says Helde, who got his start in documentaries at Maysles Films, with legendary documentary maker Albert Maysles. “When I was younger, home meant the place I grew up, in suburban Virginia, outside Washington D.C. But I was surprised by how much I felt at home on top of a mountain in China with people I didn’t know very well but who helped me get there. My sense of what home is, shifted from a fixed place to being more about the idea that you can feel at home anywhere in the world.”

What’s next for Helde? Having made a shift into writing and directing, he’s got a feature script in development, and he's already begun shooting another documentary, about a four-generation family farm in the era of mega-agriculture. 

For more information, or to buy a DVD of Made in China, go to trythisfilms.com

--Eils Lotozo

The Climbing Stone, by Peter Rockwell '58, is located outside Magill Library.

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