Two prominent Mt. Airy filmmakers, Sam Katz and Sharon Mullally, are the producer and co-director, respectively, of a compelling new documentary film, “Beethoven in Beijing,” that will make its television premiere on April 16 on PBS nationwide.
Two prominent Mt. Airy filmmakers, Sam Katz and Sharon Mullally, are the producer and co-director, respectively, of a compelling new documentary film, “Beethoven in Beijing,” that will make its television premiere on Friday, April 16, 9 p.m., on PBS nationwide and on Channel 12/WHYY TV locally. (Mullally's co-director, Jennifer Lin, is a former China correspondent for the Philadelphia Inquirer.)
Katz is remembered by many as the Republican Party's candidate for mayor against John Street in 2003. (Katz has since switched his registration to Independent.) He is also the founder of History Making Productions, which has dramatized more than 300 years of Philadelphia history in its 14-episode series, “Philadelphia: The Great Experiment,” which has aired over the years locally on Channel 6.
“Beethoven fever in China and around the globe is spiking this year,” said Katz, “which is the 250th anniversary of Beethoven's birth … The Philadelphia Orchestra's continued touring of China provides both revenue and a reminder of music's universal appeal and how that emotional response fosters a shared sense of humanity.”
Mullally, who has lived in Mt. Airy for 17 years (and Germantown before that), helped win an Emmy for Fox-29 in 1995 as the editor of a documentary on the class of '65 at Edison High School in Philadelphia. That school had the highest death rate in the Vietnam War of any school in the country. “We created an hour-long documentary, 'Yearbook Class of '65,' that was the Emmy winner,” said Mullally.
Although “Beethoven” will be seen for the first time by the general public on April 16, it has already been named Best Historical Documentary at the San Antonio Film Festival and Honorable Mention for “Best Local Film” at the Philadelphia Film Festival. It was also a 2020 finalist for the Library of Congress Lavine/Ken Burns Prize for Film, which recognizes outstanding U.S. historical documentaries.
Having seen a preview of the almost one-and-a-half-hour film, I can say that is a compelling eye-opener. For one thing, it reveals that the Chinese people have become absolutely obsessed with Western classical music in general and Beethoven's music in particular. Virtually every Chinese child learns to play a musical instrument in school from the time they are old enough to hold it.
It is particularly fascinating considering the fact that during the Cultural Revolution (1966 to1976), a family in China could literally wind up in prison for simply having a Western-style musical instrument in their house! And the Philadelphia Orchestra is particularly revered since they were the first Western ensemble to visit and play in China in 1973, when Chairman Mao Tse Tung and President Richard Nixon decided that a thaw in the Cold War would be of benefit to both countries. You can in the faces of young people in China that Philadelphia Orchestra members are like rock stars to them.
Compare the Chinese obsession with classical music education to the U.S., where music education, considered a “frill,” has been removed from almost every public school in the country. Private lessons are expensive, and even after-school options like the Settlement Music Schools in Philadelphia are too expensive for many parents, not to mention the travel time and expense.
Jennifer Lin began the research and interviews for the film in 2015. The team finished the film on Feb. 28 last year, and one month later they were in the pandemic lockdown. “Jennifer was amazed at how well known and popular the Philadelphia Orchestra was in China,” said Mullally.
“When she left the Inquirer, she started seriously working on this idea. She approached the Orchestra asking for their cooperation ... They agreed and put her in touch with Sam Katz as a filmmaking partner since Jennifer hadn't made a film before. Fortunately for me, Sam thought that my skills could be useful in this project.”
A native of Cleveland, Mullally graduated from Ursuline College in Ohio with a BA in English. She worked with Sam Katz and History Making Productions for the first time in 2015 when she directed three films on Pope Francis' visit to Philadelphia.
The filmmaking team received great cooperation from the Chinese government during their first few trips to China with the Orchestra, but by the time of their final trip in 2019, things were much more tense because of the tariff war initiated by former President Trump. “Arrangements we had made before we left the States all of a sudden got cancelled when the crew was there,” said Mullally. “Things were definitely frosty, and we had to be a lot more careful ...
“We take it for granted here that we can walk out on the street and film shots of daily life — people shopping, playing in a park, hanging out on the river bank. That's not the case in China. Even a Western tourist filming with a Smartphone is stopped and questioned. So it was hard to get footage that showed the lives of the Chinese people.”
Another problem is raising the money to make a feature-length film. “Unless you're Ken Burns,” said Mullally, “independent documentary filmmaking is always a dance between what you want and the money it takes to get that. Sometimes projects take a long time because you have to pause production or post-production to raise more money. Occasionally, you get to ... attract the resources you need to do it right. This was one of those projects.”
For more information, visit whyy.org. Len Lear can be reached at email@example.com