Michael Peroff, who works alongside director Hal Rifken as executive producer of the new documentary film “The Shanghai Quartet: Behind the Strings,” visited Montclair State University’s Film Forum on Nov. 8.
Peroff is the co-founder of a television production company based in China. His company, Stone Bridge International, creates and produces weekly primetime programming for stations like China Central TV, Beijing TV and Shanghai TV.
But Peroff’s role as a producer is different than other speakers that have visited the forum so far, according to Film Forum professor Roberta Friedman.
“A producer has to have a wider overview of the entire production from conception through distribution,” Friedman said.
During the forum, Peroff co-moderated with Friedman and world languages and cultures professor Wing Shan Ho, acting as a medium between the audience and the Li brothers, who are central to “Behind the Strings” and came to the audience over Zoom. Peroff was mostly engaged with the audience, answering questions and providing information about the film on behalf of himself and director Hal Rifken.
“The Shanghai Quartet: Behind the Strings” tells the story of four classically-trained musicians after Mao’s Cultural Revolution: Weigang Li, Honggang Li, Yi-Wen Jiang and Nicholas Tzavaras. These musicians seized their opportunity and fled West, having performed in the U.S. and around the world for 35 years.
The Shanghai Quartet originally formed in 1983, but they made their debut in New York City in 1987. In 1989, they became the quartet-in-residence at the University of Richmond before they landed themselves at Montclair State’s own John J. Cali School of Music, where they stayed for about 20 years.
The documentary shows how they got to where they are today by diving into their personal lives and also showing behind-the-scenes of the quartet performing at concerts and different venues. Between filming, post-production and traveling outside the country, this film was five years in the making.
During the call with Weigang and Honggang Li, Honggang explained that he tended to forget the camera was present and what was filmed were rehearsals and fights that happened behind closed doors. Also, Weigang mentioned he and his brother were third generation violinists, and they were placed on this path by their parents who found it hard to practice during Mao’s Cultural Revolution because intellectuals like themselves were being targeted.
Through the film and discussion, Friedman wanted her students and other film and television majors to develop an awareness surrounding musicians and history.
“[I want them to have] an understanding of the massive amount of work and dedication that goes into being a professional musician,” Friedman said. “An understanding of the impact of the Cultural Revolution in China—the way the filmmaker intercut history, music, performance [and] personal stories.”
When speaking about the experience of viewing the film, Ernesto Nieves, a junior film and television major, said he found it intriguing.
“I’ve always been a real big documentary head,” Nieves said. “So, like, any type of movie, I like watching them. I thought this was pretty interesting especially with them diving into the background of a lot of the musicians and just seeing their stories and how they came together was really inspirational.”
Luke Adair, a junior communication and media studies major, said he has never heard someone turn music into such a professional career.
“The most I hear in music careers or professionals are directors for marching bands or teachers or professors,” Adair said. “But never actually some people going for it.”
Now viewers have the chance to see just that in this film which is truly Peroff’s. He went in not knowing anything about classical chamber music and came out with an amazing documentary film to fall in love with.
“The Shanghai Quartet: Behind the Strings” has been viewed at the Montclair Film Festival as well as the Woodstock Film Festival and Richmond International Film Festival. Now, keep an eye out for this film airing on PBS in 2023.