Mingtian working in China

On Nov. 11, 2015, the Chinese “Double 11” shopping day (like “Cyber Monday” in the U.S.), when Chinese girls were busy spending on clothes, Mingtian was desperate for money to complete her thesis film in the University of Miami School of Communication’s Master of Fine Arts program.

Faced with a $15,000 shortage, the 24-year-old from Beijing decided to do crowdfunding on WeChat, the Chinese version of Instagram.

“I thought that, besides buying merchandise, people may also want to spend money to help memorialize a special culture,” says Mingtian.

Mingtian’s film, “The Deer God,” tells of the Oroqen people, a Chinese minority group of only 8,500 forced to give up their guns after thousands of years of hunting, because of the government’s gun-control policy. However, the gun has served as the cornerstone of the Oroqen’s life and culture over centuries.

“There has to be someone to record their story,” said Mingtian, whose parents gave her only one name, meaning “tomorrow.”

“They may lose their guns, but the culture and spirit should last.”

In the crowdfunding proposal, she asked each person to donate ¥11.11(less than $2), which was the date of China’s “Double 11” shopping day. The film crew invested those four No.1’s with new meaning: “One to show support for minority culture, one for a poster from northernmost China, one for your name in a closing credit, and one for hope.” The proposal went viral rapidly and by day’s end Mingtian and her crew got more than $3,000.

“You can’t image how thrilled I was when I got that money,” said Mingtian. “People’s kindness also gave me the impetus to accomplish my work.”

However, a harder situation awaited Mingtian and her crew. The filming location with a small Oroqen tribe in Heihe, China, was near China’s northernmost border with Russia. On Dec. 26, the first shooting day, the temperature went down to minus 43 F. It was so cold that after a local dance troupe performed a Shaman dance to welcome them and removed their costumes, the clothes froze and stood vertically on the ground.

“That’s a cold I had never imagined,” Mingtian says, adding she can’t stop talking about it. “I tremble every time I think about it.”

On location, Mingtian wore seven tops including three goose-down jackets, five pairs of pants and a huge fur hat. Even with extremely heavy clothes, she had to curl up to keep warm. When working, she would kneel on the snow. Icicles hung from her hair and eyebrows. Her nose got white. The freezing temperature blurred her glasses and she had to remove them to see the scenario on the monitor. 

She and her crew worked in those circumstances for 16 days.

It was on the day before the last day of 2015 that Mingtian and her crew finished shooting.  The whole crew, actors, and local folks gathered to celebrate the moment. Everyone was running, singing, drinking, and screaming. Fireworks bloomed in the starry night, the colorful lights warming hearts even though the weather was still freezing.

“It was like a scene in a youth movie,” says Mingtian. “I cried for the first time during the whole tough, long shooting process.”

Before leaving, the 19 crew members sent out 200 postcards to their crowdfunding donors from the filming location, as promised in the crowdfunding proposal.

Mingtian will graduate in May 2016, after which she plans to go back to China and work in the film industry. Ultimately, she wants to be a teacher and teach film students.

Now she’s doing the final editing for the film. The Deer God will be presented at the 2016 Canes Film Festival, April 30-May 1, in the Bill Cosford Cinema on the UM Coral Gables campus.

“I am extremely proud of Mingtian's work,” says Konstantia Kontaxis, Ph.D, associate professor in the UM School of Communication and Mingtian’s mentor. “Not only did she film a great story, but she also took on the subject of a disappearing culture.

“Her production has already had an impact on her and everyone involved.”