Interview: journalist Melinda Liu on her first foray into film with Doolittle Raiders: A China Story

The award-winning foreign correspondent heads to Shanghai to discuss her documentary short at the Shanghai International Literary Festival

Photograph: Alan Babington-Smith
Beijing-based journalist Melinda Liu has spent the majority of her career reporting on current affairs, but for her first foray into film, the award-winning foreign correspondent has delved into the past with a ten-minute documentary short, Doolittle Raiders: A China Story.

A project that’s particularly personal for Liu, Doolittle Raiders explores the role played by Chinese citizens in helping the small group of American bomber pilots who hit Tokyo during World War II find their way to safety after landing in an occupied area of China. A story that Liu grew up with, she explains that in 1942 her father, ‘just happened to encounter these Doolittle Raiders... and became one of the people who risked his life to help rescue them.’

Liu spent many years unofficially documenting the stories of her father until he passed away in 2009. ‘I think that’s when it hit me in a very visceral way that I’d blown it, I’d missed an opportunity to do much more to document his and his colleagues' stories...' she says. 'But I felt I could still do a lot on the Chinese side of the story.'

Ahead of her trip to Shanghai to speak about her film at the Shanghai International Literary Festival, Liu talks motivations behind the documentary, why it’s especially poignant today and squeezing years' worth of material into ten minutes.


Where did the inspiration for Doolittle Raiders: A China Story come from?

It’s an accidental endeavour in a way because I began simply wanting to do an [oral] historical archival project. I’ve known a lot about American aviators in WWII China, and there’s quite a lot of literature out there on the Flying Tigers or The Hump pilots… but the Doolittle Raiders, because they’re a smaller group and spent less time on the ground in China, I think they’re less known from a Chinese perspective.

As I was in China working as a journalist it became clearer and clearer to me that there are Chinese sources who have amazing stories about all of these groups, but there’s very little in way of an archive, so that’s how it began: I wanted to flesh out more of the Chinese side of the story... And I felt a sense of urgency because everybody was passing away. The original generation, both in America and China or wherever they are, they’re getting too old and they’re passing away. It began evolving when a generous corporate sponsor asked me to do the film.

[When the Doolittle Raiders landed in China] they were spread out over several provinces… relying on the kindness of Chinese strangers to help them. There were amazing stories of luck and serendipity and humanity and kindness; it was a great series of human interactions, but many people only knew the American side, so I felt my job was to help find out more about both.

As a journalist, what was it that made you decide to produce a film rather than write an article about the Doolittle Raiders? How does film help to portray your message?

Because I’ve been a journalist for such a long time, I can really see the pros and cons of each medium. I can see where writing can be very powerful... You can write it in a way that it has a lot of emotion and it’s very evocative. But similarly, I think the documentary medium really grabs people in a [different] way.

There are people that were moved by the film who would not have been so impressed to read an article. I have spent a lot of time with families of not just Doolittle Raiders but other American aviators who were in China in WWII. Many of them will read an article and will say it’s good and whatnot, but when they actually see the footage taken at an air raid shelter where their fathers had been in 1942, that grabs them in a very visceral, a very emotional way.

I think writing has a lot of strengths and it can do things that film cannot, but film can do things in a unique way. It has an impact that I’ve always appreciated. I’m glad to have done it, I look back on it now and I see so many things that I would have done differently or better... There were a lot of things that technically from a filmmaking point of view I would have done better had I had the time and the resources, but I’m glad I was able to do it.


What were some of the challenges you encountered along the way?

At first I was in despair, it felt like I couldn’t do anything [with ten minutes], but I tried to get as much as I could get into it, and also it was just very lucky there was a lot of footage… One of the problems with the Doolittle Raiders is because of the daredevil nature of their mission and the fact that they didn’t stay in China that long, there are not many photographs and even fewer film archives... So that was another challenge, a technical filmmaking challenge of how to bring something alive when there’s not much material available.

It’s modest: it’s a ten-minute documentary made on a shoestring, but I took it on because I think it also achieves part of what I was hoping to be able to achieve from the very beginning with all the recorded interviews – which was simply to document and to help educate people about [the Doolittle Raiders]. Because let’s face it, when you look at China and the US today, it's hard to imagine that they were in the relationship that they were back in the '30s or '40s.

Watch the short documentary below [VPN on] and hear Melinda Liu speak at the Shanghai International Literary festival on Thursday 21 March at 6pm. Buy tickets online.

Read more