As the Marvel superhero epic “Avengers: Age of Ultron” concluded its first weekend in mainland Chinese movie theaters, the makers of another, more modest film are appealing to moviegoers and theater managers to take a longer view of the film industry in China.
“The reason Chinese people can watch films like ‘Furious 7’ and ‘Avengers’ in the first place is because of this historic nine-day visit,” said Fu Hongxing, the director of the documentary “Mr. Deng Goes to Washington,” about Deng Xiaoping’s 1979 visit to the United States. The film opened in Chinese theaters on Friday.
Mr. Deng’s visit — the first by a leader of the People’s Republic of China — came just weeks after the two countries issued a joint communiqué establishing full diplomatic relations. It is remembered as a milestone in Communist China’s opening to the outside world, most vividly captured by photographs of the diminutive leader donning a 10-gallon cowboy hat at a rodeo in Texas.
“You could say that the joint communiqué that took effect on Jan. 1, 1979, was like a marriage license, and Deng’s visit to the U.S. the next month was like the honeymoon,” said Lu Muzi, the film’s executive producer, at an advance screening in Beijing last week.
“Mr. Deng Goes to Washington” is one of the few independently produced political documentaries in China to obtain a highly coveted longbiao — the “local exhibition certificate” that signifies government approval.
According to Ms. Lu, the decision to seek private rather than state funding was made to reassure some of the film’s American participants that the documentary was not a propaganda piece.
The film, which cost $4 million to make, features interviews with important figures on the American side such as President Jimmy Carter; Mr. Carter’s national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski; and Henry A. Kissinger, national security adviser under President Richard M. Nixon who helped broker the 1972 summit meeting among Mr. Nixon, Premier Zhou Enlai and Mao Zedong that paved the way for Mr. Deng’s visit.
By weaving together interviews and footage of Mr. Deng’s visit, much of which was purchased from American media networks, Mr. Fu said he wanted to help Chinese audiences understand the importance of that visit to China’s present-day success.
According to the producers, the film was made with the support of Mr. Deng’s family. Its release comes before President Xi Jinping’s state visit to the United States in September.
“There are some voices that have emerged recently that reject the reform and opening policies and paint the United States as our enemy,” said Mr. Fu, who resigned from his position as director of the official China Film Archive to make the film. “I don’t think this is good for China.”
According to the filmmakers, the documentary underwent a rigorous censorship process, as is the case for all films that are submitted for theatrical release in mainland China. After seven rounds of edits, the film was stripped of much of its larger geopolitical context, in particular scenes that touched on China’s frosty relations with the Soviet Union at the time and its impending attack on Vietnam.
“For political reasons we decided to focus on the main story, which was the U.S.-China relationship,” Ms. Lu said.
The result is a 94-minute film that places equal, if not greater, emphasis on Mr. Deng’s personal security during his visit as on the content of his meetings and discussions with American leaders.
The film explains that the United States has a record of assassinations, citing the killings of President John F. Kennedy and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Two Chinese bodyguards and a former United States Secret Service bodyguard assigned to protect Mr. Deng are portrayed as heroes for helping save the Chinese leader from a supposed assassination attempt. (The attacker did not have a gun but was a Ku Klux Klan member who was reaching into his pocket for a can of spray paint.)
Throughout the film, crime thriller music and police sirens abound. And events not caught on camera in 1979 are recreated through animation.
“I think Fu really wanted to get away from this very stale state-produced newsreel film,” said Titi Yu, the film’s American producer. “So he’s trying to be experimental and creative and actually push that line as much as he can, given both the market and the political situation in China.”