Montclair State Residents, The Shanghai Quartet, Are the Focus of New Independent Documentary Screening at the Montclair Film Festival

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Published October 28, 2020
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The Montclarion
"Behind the Strings" was screened at the Montclair Film Festival. Photo courtesy of Michael Peroff

The Montclair Film Festival was in full swing last week, with screenings taking place via drive-in venues and virtual screenings. A number of independent films, interviews and panels were available for streaming online from Oct. 16 through Oct. 25.

The independent documentary, “Behind the Strings,” may hit particularly close to home for some Montclair State University students.

The film has an international scope as it follows the Chinese chamber music group, The Shanghai Quartet, over the course of five years as they travel through France, Mexico, China and a number of locations across the United States; most notably, right here at Montclair State, where the group has taken up a residence since 2003.

“I think students will find our documentary film very interesting, particularly given that the Quartet has ‘lived’ at Montclair State for the past seventeen years,” Executive Producer Michael Renoff said. “Also, a number of students helped with the production of our film.”

The Shanghai Quartet has toured the world as well as taken up a residency at Montclair State University. Photo courtesy of Michael Peroff

The Shanghai Quartet has toured the world and has taken up a residency at Montclair State University.
Photo courtesy of Michael Peroff

The Shanghai Quartet originated in China and lived through Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution. This period of Chinese history had an immeasurable effect on Chinese culture, as classical music was forbidden amongst a number of other Western concepts deemed “reactionary.”

When the revolution ended, the young musicians took the opportunity to flee west, where they have performed professionally for 37 years. Today, their music is widely celebrated in China. Their growing acceptance in China is in part thanks to recent infrastructure expansion within the country, wherein a number of new performance venues have been built.

The production team learned a lot about this era of Chinese history in the process of filming. Michael Peroff, the film’s executive producer and co-writer, attributes his education of the Cultural Revolution to his time spent producing several primetime series at a television production company in China.

“I met and worked with many Chinese [citizens] who were either sent to the countryside or were on the other side of the coin, [and] Red Guard members, often viewed as the enforcers of Mao’s [revolution]” Peroff said.

According to Hal Rifken, the director and cinematographer of “Behind the Strings,” his knowledge on classical music was nonexistent when Peroff approached him about making the film.

“Five years later, I can now say I know a bit about chamber music and why Mao’s Cultural Revolution banned it,” Rifken said. “And about the heart of the documentary: what it takes to become a world-renowned quartet, four guys fiddling together, managing to not kill each other over artistic differences.”

Aside from detailing the personal and historical aspects of the group, the film also reveals what can be described as the quartet’s “secret sauce.” The cameras were rolling during many of the group’s rehearsals, revealing their ability to “negotiate” on how each piece should be played.

According to producers, The Shanghai Quartet typically spends three or four hours practicing a piece before they meet to rehearse. Then, each arrives with a different perspective on the piece, in which heated arguments can sometimes arise, but they eventually arrive at a resolution. This is a process they have been repeating for nearly four decades.

The documentary tells both the professional and personal stories of this world-renowned quartet. It manages to delve below the surface of each of their careers and it pulls back the curtain on their family lives, highlighting the duality of the life of each touring musician.

While they are doing something they feel passionate about, the group travels and tours 180 days out of the year, creating a hectic schedule that takes them away from their families. The film shows how the musicians create balance in their lives through their endeavors at home, with heartwarming moments that capture them cooking with family, building a chicken coop and even renovating a church that was built in 1803.

“One of the attractions of documentary filmmaking is the opportunity to learn something about which one knows very little,” Rikfen said. “[I am] happy to say that alongside editor Tracy Cring, we pulled off a remarkable film.”

The virtual screening of “Behind the Strings” wrapped up on Montclair Film’s website on Sunday, but those who missed it can watch the full film next year, as it is set for distribution in 2021.

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