It is a hidden path traversing the world’s second-largest drifting desert and also an important ancient road in the history of civilization migration and commerce in Eurasia. It is also an expedition path deeply imprinted in the lives of Chinese explorers Zong Tongchang and He Xudong.
The documentary tells the story of Zong Tongchang and He Xudong who, in their 70s and 50s respectively, went back to N39 searching for memories, challenging themselves, overcoming difficulties and discovering the unknown.
When the results of film recommendations of the 16th Beijing International Sports Film Week in 2020 were announced, Back to N39 became one of the 10 films picked to be shown at the Sports Movies & TV -- Milano International FICTS Fest.
Director Ruan Renyi was shooting a documentary about ethnic minorities in Yunnan when he heard the news and during an exclusive interview with Beijing News, he recalled with a smile: "When I was browsing WeChat Moments, I suddenly saw that my film work was recommended on it. I was very happy..."
Why did Ruan produce the documentary? What difficulties did he encounter during the shooting? What does the documentary want to convey to audiences? The Beijing News will tell you the story behind Back to N39.
Explorers’ true emotions on the road are the most touching.
Reporter (R): Why did you want to shoot a documentary with this theme in the first place? Is there any story you can share with us?
Ruan Renyi (RRY): I am also an enthusiast of extreme sports. As I grew up in the south of China, I especially like aquatic sports, such as kayaking and diving. Therefore I have special fondness for documentaries related to outdoor extreme sports.
He Xudong, one of the protagonists in this documentary, is my good friend. In the past several years, we have collaborated on many documentaries, and all are about outdoor extreme sports.
He is a rally driver who drove a motor vehicle to cross the N39 line for the first time in 2007; Zong was a member of the 2004 Sino-Japanese expedition that trekked through Taklimakan Desert and was the first Chinese to cross the N39 line on foot. They are old friends.
At that time, Zong and He proposed to re-visit N39 and invited me to record it. I agreed without hesitation. I also hoped to see the legendary Taklimakan with my own eyes.
R: N39 is also known as the “Land of Death”. Before setting off, what preparations did you make as a director? Have you ever worried about your safety during the shooting?
RRY: I had notified one month before the shooting. Before I set off, I only had basic knowledge of the Taklimakan Desert, and I knew nothing about the details and difficulties of the route. So during that period, I crammed knowledge of the desert and learned the details about routes and regional culture, among others. The shooting conditions in the desert are harsh, and can cause great damage to the lens. At the same time, the equipment must meet the mobility requirement in the desert. Therefore, it was necessary to choose light, reliable and durable equipment that can produce quality images.
Although the N39 line is dangerous, I did not worry that it would be life-threatening because we had a very professional logistics support team. The team members were the top desert rally racers, and equipped with satellite phones and other rescue equipment. I believed that we would encounter difficulties and troubles along the way, but would not threaten our lives. This stemmed from mutual trust.
R: Can you recall what impressed you the most during the production of the documentary?
RRY: During the 20-odd days of traveling through Taklimakan, we encountered all kinds of troubles every day, such as lack of water or fuel, broken axles, cars turning over...With so many difficulties, we seemed to have become insensitive, and so I didn’t bother too much. On the other hand, the emotional expressions of the protagonists captured along the way was unforgettable.
The reaction of the two protagonists was very special when they were revisiting the N39 line. Zong burst into tears when he was offering sacrifices to the gods by a river. It turned out that his mother died during the time he was on the expedition last time, and he could not say goodbye to mom before her death. He Xudong celebrated his 50th birthday on the way. That day, he happily made a call to his mother. Such seemingly trivial things touched me a lot. In an extreme natural environment, people show the most authentic emotion.
Ruan carried the camera even to bed, ready to shoot all the time.
R: How long did it take for this film from preparation to final editing?
RRY: The preliminary preparation took about 1 month; and we took about 25 days on the road. The film editing took the longest time, and it is still being perfected. After the filming was over, my companions and I first edited a 5-episode version. Later, to participate in the sports film week, I edited a 50-minute version and revised it many times. I am still improving it at night when I have time.
R: What did you want to express most of all when shooting this documentary, and what do you most want to convey to audiences?
RRY: Before I set off, I actually didn't know what the documentary was going to be or convey. Through memories and experiences of the two protagonists, the film reproduces the challenges and rich cultural heritage of the N39 line, allowing audiences to see human exploration of nature. All these I slowly summarized and understood along the way.
At the beginning, I was at a loss and wondered why human beings torture themselves and their vehicles so much? Why did generations of explorers challenge physical limits and fight against nature? Later, I gradually understood that the spirit of exploration is actually engraved in human genes.
R: Which clip of this film is the most satisfactory for yourself and why?
RRY: The desert is full of unknowns. Unexpected things often happen. When we were traveling through Taklimakan, I slept with the camera to ensure that I could immediately start to shoot anytime and anywhere, if there was an emergency. But when I think about it carefully, I feel there are still many things that could be done better in the documentary.
Generally, I am satisfied with the last aerial shot. In a vast expanse of desert, a few cars seemed so small. But in the end people struggled to complete the seemingly impossible N39. This is also my biggest perception during this expedition.
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