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Daughter Of One of Putin's Allies Was Killed In A Car Bomb Outside Moscow; The Devastating Impact Of COVID School Closures On Our School Children; Interview With The New Yorker Staff Writer And "Surviving Autocracy" Author Masha Gessen; Interview With TV Rain News Director And Anchor Ekaterina Kotrikadze; Interview With "The Stolen Year" Author Anya Kamenetz; Interview With "Red Carpet" Author Erich Schwartzel. Aired 1-2p ET
Aired August 22, 2022 - 13:00:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
ANNOUNCER: This is CNN. More people get their news from CNN than any other news source.
SARA SIDNER, CNN SENIOR CORRESPONDENT: Hello and welcome to AMANPOUR. Here's what's coming up.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
(END VIDEO CLIP)
The daughter of one of Putin's biggest allies and ideologues is killed in a car bomb lot outside Moscow. We ask, who are the Durgins and what might the
implications be for Ukraine? Plus, what does it say about safety and security in Russia during Putin's war?
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
(END VIDEO CLIP)
The enduring impact of COVID on our school children. With a new academic year approaching, we look at the fallout from closures, teacher shortages,
political tensions, and children falling behind. Education journalist, Anya Kamenetz, joins me as the author of "The Stolen Year: How COVID Changed
Welcome to the program. I am Sara Sidner in New York sitting in for Christiane Amanpour.
Russia claims it knows who killed the daughter of an influential ally of Vladimir Putin. Darya Dugina is the daughter of far-right ultranationalist
Alexander Dugin. A political commentator herself, Darya and her father are proponents of Putin's war in Ukraine and Russian expansionism as a whole.
She was killed by a car bomb outside Moscow, Saturday night. The Dugins' security service tells Russian state media, Ukraine is responsible for her
death. Ukraine has denied any involvement in that explosion. Correspondent Fred Pleitgen takes a closer look now at the incident and who the Dugins
(BEGIN VIDEO TAPE)
FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voiceover): A car engulfed in a massive fireball on a highway outside of Moscow. Police
say the vehicle exploded and then crashed. The driver, dead on the scene. That driver was Darya Dugina, a well-known commentator and supporter of
Russia's invasion of Ukraine who was sanctioned by the United States and by the U.K. She was also the daughter of prominent right-wing idealogue
Alexander Dugin who promotes Russian expansionism.
According to Russian state media, an explosive device detonated Saturday night setting the vehicle on fire. Russia has opened a criminal
investigation. The investigative committee says, they believe Dugina was murdered. Taking into account, the data already obtained, the investigation
believes that the crime was preplanned and of an ordered nature, a statement said.
While forensic work continued, the foreign ministry implied that Ukraine may be behind the attack. If the Ukrainian trace is confirmed, foreign
ministry spokeswoman, Maria Zakharova, wrote on "Telegram", then we should talk about the policy of state terrorism implemented by the Kyiv regime.
The Ukrainians deny any involvement.
MYKHAILO PODOLIAK, UKRAINIAN PRESIDENTIAL ADVISER (through translator): I emphasized that Ukraine definitely has nothing to do with this, because we
are not a criminal state, which the Russian Federation is. And even more so, we are not a terrorist state.
PLEITGEN (voiceover): But some in Russia believe Darya Dugina wasn't the actual target of the explosion, but rather her father. Alexander Dugin also
sanctioned by the U.S. and remains highly influential in Russia, as he calls for the annexation of large parts of Ukraine.
An ultraconservative philosopher and TV personality with roots in the orthodox church, he's a champion of Russian expansionism. Some claiming, he
may have influenced Vladimir Putin's decision to further invade Ukraine.
In 2014, Dugin said that Russia must, "Kill, kill, and kill the people running Ukraine and that there should be no more discussion." Darria Dugina
was 29 years old when she was killed. Russian investigators say they are frantically working to find those responsible. Fred Pleitgen, CNN, Moscow.
(END VIDEO TAPE)
SIDNER: This incident leaves us with so many questions. What will be the fallout from the bombing? What does it say about safety and security in
Russia while it rages war on Ukraine? Let's get into all of this now with two people who are following this very closely. Russian-American journalist
Masha Gessen is a staff writer for "The New Yorker".
And Ekaterina Kotrikadze is a news director in anchor for TV Rain, Russia's only independent news channel. She was forced to flee Russia after the war
in Ukraine broke out.
I want to start with you, Masha. Who would have interest in assassinating Darya Dugina?
MASHA GESSEN, STAFF WRITER, THE NEW YORKER AND AUTHOR, "SURVIVING AUTOCRACY": Well, any number of people might have an interest in
assassinating Darya Dugina. And I think that's part of the design -- if there was such a thing, right? Because conspiracy theories abound and in
fact, a couple of people -- one person has already taken partial credit. This is former Russian opposition politician Ilya Ponomarev, who is now in
Ukraine, has been living in Ukraine for the last, I think, 10 years.
And also, the Russian authorities are now saying that they have actually found the culprit. They -- it took them all of two days to open and close
the investigation. They're accusing a Ukrainian woman who they claim came into the country, traced Darya Dugina, and then killed her, and then left
the country via Estonia.
So -- but to answer your question more directly, Alexander Dugin and his daughter, Darya, are not, particularly part of -- the sort of the Kremlin's
inner circle. But Dugin -- Alexander Dugin in particular, is the -- is a producer of a lot of ideology. And Putin's government, which is
ideologically very opportunistic occasionally brings Dugins closer in to use a lot of his philosophical production. To use a lot of the language
that he creates.
This was very much the case with the start of the war in Ukraine in 2014 when Dugin's concepts of the Russian world, when Dugin's agitation for
annexing Crimea and part of eastern Ukraine, which is what Russia tried to do in 2014, were extremely influential ideas. At the same time, yes, Dugin
is not a central Kremlin figure.
SIDNER: OK. So, you made the distinction because there is a phrase being used about the father, Mr. Dugin, from "Foreign Affairs" magazine which
called him Putin's brain. But what you're saying is it's his ideology that Putin is interested. It's not like he is, sort of, close and they talk all
the time or meet. And so, that's a really interesting distinction.
Ekaterina, I want to ask you about how this might play out in Russia? You were there up until the invasion of Ukraine. Your safety was in jeopardy
and you ended up leaving. But you are an independent journalist and there are very few left, if any, in Russia at this point in time. Can you give a
sense of how this might play out depending on what people believe in Russia? What happened to this Russian citizen?
EKATERINA KOTRIKADZE, NEWS DIRECTOR AND ANCHOR, TV RAIN: Well, right now people in Russia are kind of confused, I would say. I'm reading a lot of
posts on Facebook and Instagram and Kontakte, this is the -- a Russian social network. I'm also reading the posts and statements made by the
representatives of Kremlin and Kremlin propaganda. Some of them, the faces of Russian Kremlin propaganda are calling for revenge. They're calling for
killing Ukrainians. Some of them are even calling to -- for bombing Bankova Street, this is a street where it's concentrated the office of the
president and other administrative buildings.
Well, they are confused, as I've said. They don't understand what's going on. I think this kind of incident, I would say, they show to regular
Russians. People, who do not want to know what's going on, and we understand that there are millions of Russians who are more comfortable in
this non-awareness of the situation. So, these people are getting closer to the crimes that Russia is committing right now in Ukraine.
I'm not saying actually that Ukraine is responsible for this murder, they're not taking responsibility. We don't know that. We just don't have
that information, so far. But still, when you are at state which invades a neighboring country, which kills civilians, which kills children, it just
cannot play out without any kind of circumstances, without any kind of problems for yourself.
So, this is not only about this explosion, it's also about the situation in Crimea, an annexed peninsula, Ukrainian peninsula, which is right now under
some kind of weird attacks. No one is actually answering the question, who is under these attacks? But we can assume that it may be some Ukrainian,
maybe special forces on the ground.
Just, you know, I'm trying to understand the situation in Russia from legal outlook. It's not easy. But what I can see right now, people are imposing
questions, this is something that, you know, it's inevitable. When your country -- it's almost six months of this terrible war. It could not just,
you know, go through smoothly.
SIDNER: Can I ask you, Ekaterina, you -- of course, Russia has faced bombings before, ones that are far more deadly. In particular, early in
September of 1999, an explosion at an apartment building and Moscow killed dozens of people. And you have a significant story about this that impacted
you personally and the country as a whole. Can you tell us about what happened and the significance of attacks like these?
KOTRIKADZE: Well, in September 1999, there were explosions in Moscow, apartment buildings were exploded, people died, hundreds of people. My
mother was among them. By some miracle mistake I was not home that day, it was in the middle of the night, almost midnight, my mom was alone in her
apartment. And she died and a lot of other people died.
It was not the only building that was exploded, there was also other explosions in Moscow and other Russians which led to the invasion of Russia
-- of Vladimir Putin -- Vladimir Putin's invasion of Dagestan and the second Chechen war that he started after these terrible explosions. They
blamed Chechen terrorists for that but there are so many questions still not answered about that critical catastrophic period of time in Russian
These explosions and Vladimir Putin's coming to power coincided after this happened in Moscow and other cities. Vladimir Putin became a leader who has
stated that he could fight this terrorism. That he could save Russia from terroristic attacks and that was the moment when he gained all his
popularity. It was the start of his big career. After that, we can see that it's more than 20 years that Vladimir Putin is in power and Russia is
actually becoming a state that a lot of civilized states are declaring a terroristic state, a state sponsor of terrorism which is something that,
you know, makes me exhausted and devastated.
I -- it's -- this is something that I think is maybe even natural after all the steps that Russia went through, after these explosions in Moscow, after
invasion of Chechnya, after invasion of Georgia in 2008, after annexation of Crimea in 2014, after the start of the war in Donbas in Ukraine in 2014.
All of this led to the situation where we are right now. And I have a feeling that a lot of Russians are already understanding what's going on
and there's going to be more.
I would just, you know, I would just mention that TV Rain in exile has been on air for one month and we have already 11 million unique viewers, only on
YouTube. It means -- I'm -- I just don't want to mention other platforms, I don't have figures. It means that there are millions of Russian citizens
who are trying to understand --
SIDNER: Curious. Yes, they are trying to --
KOTRIKADZE: -- (INAUDIBLE) -- and know all --
SIDNER: And Ekaterina, I think that's a really good point that clearly there's confusion. And you know, we have to keep reiterating that at this
point, Ukraine says it has nothing to do with this recent bombing. But the question is, who did? And this is an explosion that Russia hasn't seen in
quite some time, this kind of activity.
Today, Vladimir Putin called the murder of Darya Dugina a vile, cruel crime. Alexander Dugin also made his first comments about the murder of his
daughter. Blaming what he called the Nazi-Ukrainian regime for her death. And you -- as you know, that has been used by Russia to invade, trying to
link all Ukrainians to Nazism. And now, Russian media personalities have demanded strikes against what they called decision-making centers.
So, Masha, what might be the fallout from this? Will there be retaliation, and what should Ukraine expect in the coming days or weeks?
Gessen: Look, I mean, Russia does not actually need a pretext to intensify its attacks on Ukraine.
Russia has engaged in both active aggression and acts of state-sponsored terrorism on Ukrainian territory. So, I think it's likely that they will
intensify if Russia has the resources, which we don't know. I think that they will be using, of course, this murder for propaganda purposes. I think
Russia is also preparing to stage its own war crimes tribunal against Ukrainians who are supposedly -- who have supposedly committed war crimes
in a city that Russia has literally erased from the face of the Earth. In Mariupol, Russia is setting up to have a war crimes tribunal.
I would expect that the murder of Darya Dugina will be a very prominent topic of this so-called war crimes tribunal, which of course, Russia should
be facing and not staging. And I also think that, unfortunately, here I disagree with Ekaterina, I'm afraid that this will -- at least in the short
term, boost support for the war in Ukraine and Russia.
I think if I were to engage in conspiracy theories, that would be my number one. I would say that the Kremlin is worried that at some point, support
will, sort of, wane. And to stage an act of terrorism is always a foolproof method for ramping up support and for, you know, for creating, kind of,
sense of mobilization that is so important to Putin and that is so important to the war effort.
SIDNER: Ekaterina, I want to ask you about how people are living. You left at a time, at a crucial moment, for your safety. But -- and this goes to
both of you, we'll start with Ekaterina. You know, half of Russia's $640 billion foreign exchange reserves are frozen, several of its top banks have
been cut off from international payment systems, and Europe is trying to wean itself off of using Russia's fossil fuels.
But the sanctions haven't really pushed Putin to the negotiating table at this point. So, what are everyday Russians living like? What are you
hearing from people who are writing to you as a person who's now outside the country?
KOTRIKADZE: Well, this is a very interesting question because there are a lot of Russians, thousands, maybe millions, who are in a very comfortable
situation right now. What I see and what I hear from my friends who are still in Moscow because there are a lot of people still in Moscow, they are
saying that they have never seen so many people in the restaurants, in cafes, in cinemas, in theaters. Like life is blooming there.
But also, there is a feeling that it's kind of a lost summer. I'm telling terrible things but, you know, there are analysts who can see that this
situation, this summer restaurant, drinking, having fun process, it's not natural. It's not normal in this kind of situation. Maybe people have this
feeling of the last opportunity that they're getting.
Also, I know that it's in Russian regions, there are people who understand that they're losing men. There are thousands -we don't know exact figures,
there's no official statistics, of course, but thousands of men from Russian regions are sent to this war, and they die. So, one after another
we can see the statements, you know, who -- statements by their relatives, by soldiers themselves, they're giving interviews, some of them are giving
interviews and saying that they have killed civilians in Ukraine. And that they don't feel OK with it. That they regret about that. That they --
they're having terrible feelings about that.
So, this narrative will -- it's not the major narrative in Russia, so far. But I would disagree with Masha. The situation that I am seeing right now
is that more and more people, more and more small signals here and there, where we're getting the signals about peoples' disappointment, about
people, you know, thinking about their own lives, their own future, and asking questions -- starting to ask questions to Russian government.
SIDNER: Ekaterina Kotrikadze and Masha Gessen, thank you so much for your insight on this story.
GESSEN: Thank you.
SIDNER: Coming up after the break, the devastating impact of COVID school closures on children around the world. What children, parents, and teachers
lost, and what our next guest is calling the stolen year.
SIDNER: Welcome back. In many parts of the world, children are heading back to school for a new academic year. But, the fallout from COVID continues.
Two years that upended school systems all over the world. In the Philippines, kids are returning to school in person for the first time
since COVID lockdowns. Let that sink in for a moment. More than two years of distant learning for those children.
And while it's certainly a global problem, the United States is a good example of the major challenges schools are facing a chronic shortage of
teachers, children falling behind, and even divisive culture war issues like banning books.
Anya Kamenetz has been covering education for years. She's also the author of "The Stolen Year: How COVID Changed Children's Lives and Where We Go
Now". Thank you so much for joining the program.
ANYA KAMENETZ, AUTHOR, "THE STOLEN YEAR": Thank you so much for having me, Sara.
SIDNER: So, what was stolen? Can you give us a sense of what was taken away that maybe we didn't anticipate early enough, or at least our leadership
didn't anticipate early enough?
KAMENETZ: The United States is a wealthy country full of poor children. More than half of the children in public schools are considered low-income.
And so, when schools closed, many of those children lost meals that they depended on, a safe place to be during the day, and mental health services
as well as academics and socialization. And so, what I documented in "The Stolen Year" is how these changes really wreaked havoc on children,
starting in just the first few weeks.
SIDNER: I'm going to go to some of the people that you spoke to, the children themselves. You've interviewed several students who were affected
by the pandemic, which pretty much encompasses everyone, whether you are wealthy or you are lower on the socioeconomic line. These are students
discussing the challenges of learning and loving during the pandemic. Let's listen.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I could not stand being home doing work, because we have, like, 14 people in one house, and like, half of those people are
kids. I just couldn't focus.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Everything is hard, because there's no end to it. It's really sad to, like, see what was supposed to be, like, the best years of
your life, like, go down the tubes.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
SIDNER: You hear disappointment. You hear frustration. You hear worry and anxiety. What was the main issue that you took away after talking to these
students during your reporting? What was the main thing that was taken from them during the pandemic?
KAMENETZ: You know, I think we all lost was a sense of being able to have control over our lives and over our future. But for children, so oftentimes
they really live in the present.
And so, it's so hard for them to imagine what's going to happen just a few weeks down the road. And so, for example, I talked to the mother of a first
grader who developed an eating disorder from anxiety, and actually verbally express that he wanted to die. And this was from not being able to see his
friends and have the routine of school.
So, obviously, we -- we're concerned about kids' academics, but we're really concerned about the loss of meaning and purpose and hope that a lot
of kids experienced. And how do we bring that back? Yes, we had a bit of a recovery school year, but long term we really need to knit kids' lives back
together and help them see hope for the future.
SIDNER: How deep and long-lasting might this be? Because students lost maybe a year, and as you're hearing in the Philippines it's two years,
where they haven't been in school. But how deep is this for children who have lost that time?
KAMENETZ: You know, obviously, the experiences really vary and they really track other inequities in society. The most recent numbers in July of 2020
suggests that it's going to take about three years for the average elementary school students to be where they were on an academic trajectory.
Obviously, that doesn't capture what we're talking about as far as mental health, as far as trauma. Middle school students, in the past school year,
have not started to make academic recovery. So, they're going to be even longer.
And then, I'm also really concerned about the kids who drifted from high school into paid work. And many of them, we see that college-going has
really gone down more, and specifically in the United States. And so, we're worried about their long-term economic and educational outcomes from no
longer being engaged with school in the same way.
SIDNER: Let's talk about teacher shortages. There has been a battle between parents, teachers, and politicians, it seems. But these shortages, we're
seeing, in parts of the United States as well as in places like the U.K. What is happening with teacher shortage issue?
KAMENETZ: So, the inability for schools to find people to meet, you know, certain vacancies has gone on, and far predates the pandemic. In fact, it's
a little bit complicated to talk about teacher shortages right now because in fact what's happening is that schools are hiring more people, and that's
a good thing. We want them to use the federal money that they've gotten to fill school counselor roles, to have additional special education seats for
so many kids who fell behind.
And so, you know, the fact that they're hiring, that they're trying to hire is a really good thing. I think we have, obviously, a big problem in this
country as far as teachers expressing feelings of burnout and feelings of hostility from the general public because schools, over the time of their
prolonged closure, really became the site of a culture war. And there was a lot of vitriol directed, not only at teachers but at administrators and
school board members, who really thought that they were the victims of harassment and threats. And I've talked to those school leaders who said
all they ever wanted to do is help take care of the kids. And now, everybody's targeting me.
SIDNER: We heard this from health care workers. We went from hero to zero, at some point. And teachers and members of the school board and others also
felt the same way. Initially, everyone came together to support them. But then, when it was time to get kids back to school and parents felt very
frustrated, it turned into something else. How do you think that the pandemic has changed attitudes towards teachers? And is it fixable?
KAMENETZ: You know, we can't forget that this was a concerted effort by very well-funded right-wing donors to try to whip up to this kind of type
of sentiment and to fund and to support networks of people who are apparently, you know, spontaneously showing up and doing things like
banning books, targeting kids who are gay or trans, targeting teachers. All of this is funded. All of this is backed. It's coordinated. It's not
And getting back on track, in my mind really involves knitting back together those relationships between parents, teachers, and schools. I do
see that happening now. I know that parents, you know, many of them have left public schools. Public school enrollment is down over the past two
years. It's a big drop, particularly, in blue states and districts, that took longer to come back.
And so, how do schools reengage and send those all the branches out to the community? They really have to demonstrate that they care about the kids,
that they want the kids back, and that they're offering them something positive as a benefit. I know a lot of district leaders are working hard to
make that happen.
SIDNER: Can you give us a sense of the difference between what happened here in America and what happened in other parts of the world when it comes
to children not being able to go to school, the effects?
KAMENETZ: This is a great question. Obviously, everybody would've wished that we were New Zealand or South Korea, we could have reopened our schools
in nine weeks with no controversy because we didn't have cases of COVID-19. But it's a little more fair to compare the United States to countries in
Western Europe that did go through successive waves of COVID. But what they did was they prioritized children in each and every case.
And so, schools in Europe started to reopen as soon as the spring of 2020. And absolutely, by the fall of 2020, there was a strong message across
society that schools and childcare were going to remain open, even when other things had to close down. And so, what we saw in the United States
was this polarized, forked path where a red state has absolutely everything opened with no mitigation and very few blue states, with the possible
exception of Rhode Island, were making any efforts to open up schools while they were allowed other commercial establishment to reopen.
And so, it's very understandable that parents would point to the fact and say, why is the dog park opened but my child's playground is closed, as it
happened in San Francisco? Why are bars and the restaurants open, but my child's school is closed, as we saw in Boston and in New York.
SIDNER: You make this argument about moving on from the children to parents, that mothers felt the brunt of this pandemic especially hard in
comparison to their partners. Why do you argue that and what was the heavy burden that was placed on mothers?
KAMENETZ: I argue it based on the researched. I argue it to some extent based on my experience as the mom of two young girls. My family tried to
divide things up equally, but inevitably, there are -- well, I won't say it's inevitable. What happened in this country is that we allowed mothers
to cut back on their working hours, become stressed, start drinking, gain weight, expressed depression, anxiety, insomnia, and we allowed them to
continue picking up a more and more of the slack at home and with remote schooling.
And statistically, generally speaking, heterosexual partners who were men did not step up. They didn't do their part. They didn't step back from
workforce in the same way that women did. And so, we are seeing the brunt across an entire generation of working women, millennial generation, my
generation, that feel absolutely exhausted and overwhelmed by the effects of the two last years. And absolutely feel abandoned by leaders and by
their partners. Because why did no one step up to help us?
SIDNER: I think the word overwhelmed is the overarching word that a lot of people have felt when it comes to students and teachers, administrators,
parents, everyone is sort of at that point. Thank you so much for coming on the show, I appreciate your insight.
KAMENETZ: Thank you so much for having me and having this important conversation.
SIDNER: And still to come tonight. Lights, camera, acrimony? How Hollywood has turned into another political battleground between the United States
SIDNER: Amid growing tensions between China and the United States, our next guest reveals a surprising role of the movie business in the high stakes
rivalry. Erich Schwartzel has reported on the film industry since 2003 and is the author of "Red Carpet: Hollywood, China, and the Global Battle for
Cultural Supremacy." He joined Hari Sreenivasan to discuss the delicate balancing act played by movie studios that want to do business with China.
(BEGIN VIDEO TAPE)
HARI SREENIVASAN, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Thanks. Erich Schwartzel joining us now. Thanks so much.
Now, I have to start by saying, you know, here we are, in a climate, where we are talking about very real consequences about the diplomatic relations
between the United States and China. And here, you've got a book that points out that there is a whole other game of soft power that's going on
right through our movie screens.
First, I guess, what made you want to look at this? Why is this such an important battlefield, if you will?
ERICH SCHWARTZEL, AUTHOR, "RED CARPET": When I started covering the film industry here in Los Angeles, I started noticing Chinese influence in
really unexpected ways. You know, sometimes it was on screen. You would see Chinese actresses or Chinese plot points being introduced films and then
you'd have Chinese financing sometimes funding the films behind the scenes.
And, you're right, it seemed unexpected but what I learned was it really was a proxy for the broader relationship between the U.S. and China. And
over the past decades or so, that has become only more so the case because in many ways, China is trying to replicate America's success in soft power,
right? Like over the last century or so, America has really established the playbook for how to sell a country overseas using its pop culture. And what
we've seen over the past decade or so is China trying to do the same.
And so, all these conversations we have about China and the U.S. sort of serving at alternate forms of governance for the rest of the world to
follow really are playing out in the movies we watch and in the movie of the Chinese audiences watch too.
SREENIVASAN: Just give me a rough ballpark. How much money is at stake here? I mean, how much money in terms of, maybe, investment from Chinese
companies might be steering Hollywood movies that we're not that aware of?
SCHWARTZEL: Well, a lot of them investment that came in from China behind the scenes and has dried up as relations between the two countries have
deteriorated over the past couple of years. But what hasn't is the market that China represents.
And think about it, you know, Hollywood has been a global business since it started. I mean, we have shipped movies around the world for decades. But
after Mao Zedong's revolution, all of that western influence wasn't allowed into China until 1994. So, it's only been about 20 or 30 years that the
Chinese audiences are seeing American films. And it's a market that appeared seemingly overnight out of nowhere. 1.4 billion potential ticket
And so, very quickly, it really only took about 15 years or so, China's Box Office grew to rival the U.S. And now, it's quite common to see movies
there routinely grossed $600, $700, $800 million. And again, I think what's so extraordinary is we expect big numbers out of China these days, but what
is so extraordinary is that it has only taken about 20 or 25 years for it to get there.
SREENIVASAN: How has the pandemic changed things? If the Chinese Box Office is such a big draw, right now, we still have cities, entire cities in China
that are completely shut down that -- you know, at a moment's notice, so to speak, if the contagion is spreading in their communities. So, what does
that do to Box Office sales? What does that do to kind of -- any kind of leverage or conversation that studios might have?
SCHWARTZEL: Well, I think it's really shined a light on just how dependent the studios are, because you are right, that market that appeared out of
nowhere also seems to have gone away out of nowhere. Not just because of COVID lockdowns, but also because when U.S.-China tensions rise, Hollywood
movies have a tougher time getting into the market.
And so, whenever, you know, Xi Jinping and Joe Biden are having intense phone calls, the ministry of propaganda is not too keen on importing a
bunch of American films in that kind of climate. And so, Hollywood, there is a sense our here, frankly, that in some ways it's gotten played. Because
here was a market that has been written with the business plans and then, in some cases, it is controlling what movies get made and which movies
don't get made. And you see how quickly a state-run economy can just shut off all of that access.
SREENIVASAN: So, give me an example of a movie that you might think is OK here, it actually does a better overseas and perhaps the producers and the
people writing it are actually thinking about that market even from the very design of the film.
SCHWARTZEL: My favorite example is a movie from 2014, that was the fourth film in the "Transformers" franchise. Now, the "Transformers" franchise, I
mean I know that this is not exactly a movie that comes up in a lot of conversations about geopolitics but I argue that it should, because in 2014
the studio releasing this film, Paramount, knew that the Chinese audiences were flocking to these movies about giant robots that they were making.
And so, they started to cast Chinese actresses, they filmed about a third of the film in China. The even held a reality show competition to cast bit
roles in the movie. And if you watch the film, it almost feels half Chinese. There's a scene where Stanley Tucci is drinking out of juice box
with Chinese lettering on it and there's a scene where Mark Walberg uses an ATM that is a Chinese bank. It feels very Chinese.
But what I found so interesting and, in some ways, troubling when I watched it more recently, was that at the end of film, there's a scene, it's
obvious -- it's the climactic battle that we all know, the cities being destroyed and the city, in this case, is Hong Kong.
And before the bad guys ultimately win, some good guys come in from Beijing and they arrive before the Americans can show up to save the day. And when
I found out when I was reporting the book, is that that was a specific request by the Chinese authorities in order to gain access to the country
and to film in the country, they said, we've read your script and we have one note, we'd rather have Mainland China rescue Hong Kong then the
Americans. And this is in 2014.
And so, when you're re-watching the film now having seen Beijing's plans for Hong Kong, it seems like almost a bit of a sneak preview for what those
geopolitical priorities were playing out in a movie that I think a lot of us, maybe rightfully, perceive as just a silly action film.
SREENIVASAN: What gets censored in China? What is it that American writers or directors make that will automatically, you know, raise red flags?
SCHWARTZEL: They have what they call the three T's, Tibet, Taiwan and Tiananmen. You don't touch any of those topics. But then it gets a little
looser, right? And there are some rules that have been published. For instance, no scenes that portray China in a bad light.
So, we have an example of a James Bond movie having to cut a scene in which he shoots a Chinese security guard because that makes China look weak.
Portrayals of homosexuality go against certain CCP ideas of what a family should look like. So, you have movies like "Green Book" and "Bohemian
Rhapsody" cutting references to homosexual characters.
And what I learned, and it shouldn't come as a surprise, is that that is a culture of censorship, but it doesn't take long for Hollywood to adopt a
culture of self-censorship, because any executive working today and many writers working today know what to put in a script and what to avoid before
it even begins filming.
SREENIVASAN: One of the things that you sort of mentioned was time travel is kind of --
SREENIVASAN: -- not a good plotline? Why?
SCHWARTZEL: Time travel hits at a metaphorical concern. And this is why film studies professors are often among those who screen films for release
in China and it's because they are watching for deeper metaphors that might prove to be politically problematic. And in the case of time travel, time
travel is a concept that implies there is a history different than the one the government has taught you.
And so, imagining a world where you can go back in time and discover that things were different, or you can go back in time and change what would
eventually happen is an area that you can imagine authorities in Beijing don't want to explore and maybe don't want to have viewers get too creative
SREENIVASAN: So, what happens when someone decides that they want to speak out against China? And I'm thinking back an old example of Richard Gere and
his famous remarks at a Hollywood speech and is he radioactive now?
SCHWARTZEL: You're right. In the early '90s, he was arguably our most famous supporter of the Dalai Lama. He was wearing prayer beads on the Red
Carpet. He was interrupting Oscar speeches to talk about human rights abuses in Tibet. And he was able to marry that activism with his career for
quite some time.
And when I looked back, when I was reporting the book, I realize that he hadn't been in a major studio film since 2008. And that is a very critical
year because that is the year that Hollywood really woke up to the potential of China's Box Office and started to see that China would
inevitably become the world's largest Box Office at some point.
So, 2008 is really this inflection point in Hollywood, and it's no coincidence that is the last year that Richard Gere is cast in a major
studio film. And when I set out to report this book, I wanted to get to the bottom of this because there had always been a question as to whether or
not China was behind Gere's decline. And I asked around, and it turns out that is true.
I talked to an executive at Warner Brothers who described the situation like this, they said, you know, it's like, if you can get someone else, why
not just get somebody else? Why incur the risk? If -- you know, if Gary Oldman is available, get Gary Oldman. You know, we don't need to take on
the risk and the jeopardy involved in working with this person if it's not necessary.
SREENIVASAN: What about companies? You spent a good amount of time looking at Disney. I mean, here's a company that not just makes movies, but also
has theme parks. And they also see hundreds of millions of potential customers going to theme parks in China. But it seems that once you start
to do deeper levels of business in China, then things are kind of dependent on one another.
SCHWARTZEL: If we were having this conversation five years ago, we would be talking about how Disney had one China. And that Disney had figured out
China better than any other major studio. You're right. It took them more than 15 years, but they've got a theme park outside of Shanghai that was a
$5.5 billion investment. They have superhero movies that were routinely grossing hundreds of millions of dollars in the country. They were selling
toys. They even launched a string of English language schools that taught Chinese children their ABC's using Disney characters. And that was their
rather creative way of introducing Disney mythology to children who were not familiar with Mickey Mouse or Donald Duck.
Now, all that success though is looking more and more like a vulnerability in a world where doing business in China is getting harder, and more
politically problematic. It speaks to just how intertwined so many of these studios and corporations are in China, because let's say you're running a
division of Disney, and you want to make a movie, an animated film about a Tibetan character. Well, it's not like you need to worry about that movie
not being released in China. You need to worry about that movie jeopardizing all of Disney's holdings.
Because in the past, what the Chinese authorities have indicated is that if they want to punish a company or a studio for making a movie with a
narrative they disagree with, they often look to hit it anywhere they can. So, for instance, in the late '90s, Sony made a movie called "Seven Years
in Tibet" starring Brad Pitt. And when the Chinese authorities learned of this film, they threatened not kick out just Sony Studio, but Sony
Corporation, the maker of VCR's and televisions, and the parent company, the electronics giant that owned the studio.
So, you see how even a small animated film with a storyline that no one in China would ever see could threaten a $5.5 billion theme park. And this is
the case at Disney, it's the case at Universal, it's the case for so many studios where they are part of parent companies with much broader interests
in the country.
SREENIVASAN: A lot of companies will say, look, I have to live by the local rules and regulations if I want to do business in that country. And that is
the defense for social platforms, technology companies, a lot of companies that do business in China. Do we have any sort of responsibility to be
projecting our values through these films? Is there something different about art versus widgets?
SCHWARTZEL: I think it's because we all know, inherently, the power of the American film, right? This has been the ultimate example of hearts and
minds campaign. There is a quote that I came across, that I love, that talked about how in the 20th century, the movies allowed America to become
an empire by invitation. And it speaks to the success that the movies have had in shaping public perception of the country, of shaping attitudes, of
shaping fashion, of shaping, you know, language, hairstyles, everything.
I mean, this medium that is still relatively young has had incredible emotional, and in many cases, political power around the world. And I think
what the Chinese authorities have identified is the power, really the propagandistic power that you might have by ensuring that that medium
doesn't explore certain narratives.
In defense of the studios, they might ask, you know, why should we punish a 15-year-old Chinese student who wants to go see a superhero movie or why
should we deprive them of a nice Saturday afternoon, right? Why can't we entertain a billion people? It's what we are called to do, and what's the
harm in that?
I think though what you're hitting on is the political situation that's shifting here in the U.S., because it is different when it's China. A lot
of executives that I spoke to will say, you know, we censor movies for Saudi Arabia, we censor movies for airplanes, we censor movies for cable
TV, and this is no different. But I think it is different whenever we're talking about a country that, in many parts of the world, is presenting
itself and its values as an alternative to American liberal democracy.
I'll give you an example. The last reporting trip I took before COVID was to Kenya where there has been a massive push by China in investing and
infrastructure and highways, ports, airports, all kinds of investments being made as part of China's belt and road initiative. And we've learned a
lot about Chinese investments of that kind, but I was shocked to learn of the cultural investments that China's making in those countries.
And for instance, in Africa, there's an initiative out of Beijing called the 10,000 Villages Project, which is distributing low-cost satellite
dishes to 10,000 African villages. I met, when I was there, with the Kenyan film minister, the man who's in charge of policing, frankly, what people in
his country watch on screen. And he was a very socially conservative man. And he said to me, I love importing Chinese movies because they've already
been censored. And I don't need to worry about your western values polluting my country.
So, if that's how the movies are being interpreted, then you -- you know, to the earlier point we made, you see how this is a proxy for the China-
U.S. rivalry that is going to define this next century.
SREENIVASAN: Erich Schwartzel, the book is called "Red Carpet: Hollywood, China and the Global Battle for Global Supremacy." Thanks so much for
SCHWARTZEL: Thank you, Hari.
(BEGIN VIDEO TAPE)
SIDNER: Extremely interesting. When we return, why women across Finland are showing off their best dance moves in support of their prime minister.
SIDNER: And finally, solidarity with Sanna. The Finnish prime minister, Sanna Marin, received significant backlash when this video of her partying
with friends leaked online last week. She responded to the criticism saying she believes that Finnish society and its resilience can withstand her
singing and dancing with some friends. She also took a drug test, which came back negative.
But now, in an outpouring of support, women across Finland have been posting their own dance moves across social media with the hashtag,
solidarity with Sanna, going viral. If dancing is a scandal, these women say, we should move with the times.
That is it for now. You can always catch us online, on our podcast and across social media. Thanks for watching and goodbye from New York.