French Wolf Totem director says Chinese censors gave him complete freedom

BEIJING (REUTERS) - The French director of the film Wolf Totem said on Sunday he had complete freedom from Chinese censors in his adaptation of the Chinese novel, which touches on divisive themes including the degradation of grasslands in the Inner Mongolia region.

In China, all broadcast media and films are pre-screened for approval and anything deemed politically sensitive is banned.

After Wolf Totem, written by Lu Jiamin under the pseudonym Jiang Rong, was published, some foreign critics pointed out elements that seemed to have escaped the country's censors.

An environmental cautionary tale that pits a pack of wolves against an influx of settlers to the grasslands during the late 1960's Cultural Revolution, the 2004 bestselling novel also includes critiques of Chinese culture and governance, and favourable allusions to democracy.

Director Jean-Jacques Annaud said while he understood he "may have been an exception", Chinese censors made no modifications to his screenplay. "What I can say is that I had carte blanche at every level until this day. The movie you see is the same movie I cut," he told Reuters in an interview in Beijing ahead of the film's release in China later this month.

The book won the first Man Asian Literary Prize in 2007. The author, Lu, a retired professor, has since affirmed he had been jailed for his involvement in the 1989 democracy protests around Tiananmen Square.

Chinese officials hope to expand the global imprint of the country's culture and arts and government pronouncements and state media often discuss plans for "cultural reform" to this end. "Definitely, in order to achieve soft power, there will be a need to allow artistic freedom," Annaud said of the development of China's film industry under state censors, adding that he was "not here to give a lesson to anyone".

Much like the book, his approximately US$40 million (S$56 million) movie, backed by the state-run China Film Group, deals with conservation themes head on, though it largely avoids the book's more subtle political issues.

He said conservation had been one of his "constant preoccupations" as a director. "If we want to save our little planet, we cannot do it without America and without China," he said.

He had crossed the Chinese government with his 1997 film, Seven Years In Tibet. That movie depicts a young Dalai Lama, who China says is a separatist seeking autonomy for the Himalayan region.

Wolf Totem is set to hit theatres at a time when many ethnic Mongolians say their grazing lands have been ruined by mining and desertification and that the government has tried to resettle them in permanent houses.

Minority ethnic Mongolians, who make up 20 per cent of Inner Mongolia's 24 million people, are demanding better protection of their lands, rights and traditions.

The region, which has the country's largest coal reserves, was rocked by protests in 2011 after an ethnic Mongol herder was killed by a truck after taking part in protests against pollution.

In January, another herder hanged himself outside a government building in protest at the authorities' illegal occupation of his grazing land.

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