As Time Goes By: Uli Gaulke & Helge Albers

Uli Gaulke and Helge Albers, attending SIFF for the Asia premiere of their documentary As Time Goes By, talk to CH about how they're telling the story of Shanghai's Peace Old Jazz Band, the oldest jazz band in the world.
Recognized by Guinness World Records as the oldest jazz band currently in existence, Shanghai’s Old Jazz Band has been playing the same time slot seven nights a week at the city’s iconic Fairmont Peace Hotel since 1980. The members of this six man ensemble range from 75 to 88 years old and have been playing classics of Western jazz starting from the 1940-50s.

Director Uli Gaulke and producer Helge Albers followed the musical octogenarians from 2011-2012 as the band members prepared for one of the most momentous performances of their careers: a slot at Rotterdam’s North Sea Jazz Festival, the largest indoor gathering of jazz musicians and enthusiasts in the world.

Scenes of the elderly Chinese musicians occasionally stumbling through rehearsals, searching for an alluring female singer to join their group, arriving in and touring Europe for the first time -- they're all framed within a larger context of the players’ lasting passion for jazz, which persisted through decades of significant social change during some of the most turbulent times in modern Chinese history.

CreativeHunt spoke with Gaulke and Albers about their documentary As Time Goes By in Shanghai shortly after it premiered at the Shanghai International Film Festival last week. Here, the duo chats with us about culture clashes, filming in Shanghai, their success with Kickstarter funding and upcoming projects.

Congrats on your recent premiere here in Asia. How was it?
Albers: Good, good. It was really important for us to be at this festival. I mean, usually, it’s a nice festival, but not quite one of the essential ones. But in this case, we said we have to be here and premiere here. For us, it was really important to come out where the story is coming from, and to let the people who are part of the film actually see the film.

Why did this project appeal to you so much?
Gaulke: The most important thing is to know that we come from East Germany. A lot of our films come from our passion for stories that are situated in places or countries where a lot of changes are. So, the city Shanghai, for us, stands for change -- big change, social change, there are so many changes here. But what we needed was a personal story for these changes, to tell a story in Shanghai through the eyes of older people [who witnessed it].

And why the Old Jazz Band?
Gaulke: The brand of the band is that they play every night at 7.30 -- it’s not quite about the old age of the members, it’s the brand, the idea: they have been here [at the Fairmont Peace Hotel] every night at 7.30 for decades, through all kinds of history and cultural change. And, [it was so interesting because] there was such a culture clash. There’s the Western music, the Chinese life, and that’s going on over 60 years. You know what’s happened here in the past 60 years, a lot of social changes, and that was our interest -- to get these personal stories from this big history.

Albers: When you ask people, where do you think the oldest jazz band in the world is? People think, New Orleans, maybe? No one would ever think they’re in Shanghai, China. And you know, a lot of these band members started playing when they were in their 20s-30s, and these were the formative times of their lives, and they carry all the inspiration of art, music, anything creative, from these years and carry them on for the rest of their lives. They’ve been playing this style of music since the ‘40s, and well, nothing has really changed amid the history. This is what kept them alive, I think.

The film was partially funded through Kickstarter – how did that go?
Albers: At the end of the day, Kickstarter really works more on an individual basis. We did that quite late in the process; it was only in the post-production, mainly because… We just didn’t want to be limited in music rights, so we said, let’s try Kickstarter, it’s something new for us, and we reached out for 25,000 dollars and yeah, we got it. The reaction was quite good. In fact, it was actually quite fulfilling, because people connect to it quite early on and they’re really proactive about following the project, giving comments.

Albers: I had one guy from Canada who was really enthusiastic, to the point that when the Kickstarter campaign was sort of trickling down, he upped his money big time, came in with a big chunk of money and pushed it forward again. That’s very uplifting, also for your spirits. It’s a roller coaster thing with this whole Kickstarter. You know, for a long time, first you have to build up the community work, to the press, and you have to research it first to build up the awareness, and then you have to do the campaign and you post yourself to death, and then you’re still out there, and time is running out, and then all of a sudden this one guy comes in and really pushes things up, and yeah, it’s quite intense.

Would you use that as a financing platform again?
Albers: I don’t know. It’s very tough. I found it very exhausting and challenging. I think it depends on the project, how desperate you are, where you are in the process of the film -- I think the chances are very limited when it comes to development. We did it so late, we already had good footage, we could really promise that there would be a film at all -- that there would be a good film… So at this point, I just felt that we had something good in our hands already, so that it would be fine for us to reach out and ask people for money.

What would you say was the biggest challenge of filming in China?
Gaulke: Oh, our relations with the band manager.

Albers: We have a good friend of ours who runs a production company in Beijing. He’s been here for 10 years, is a German but speaks Chinese fluently. He came down to help us with shooting, and was sort of our door to the language and to the culture, as much as he knows it, so that was a big help. Even then, you sometimes just get to a point when you just don’t understand what’s going on. I mean, even if you understand it verbally, you don’t understand really -- “why?”

Albers: But really, a lot of the time, the band manager Mr. Chou really made our lives more difficult than it really needed to be, I think. I don’t know how he sees it. I mean, I guess that’s what everyone says when they have Western business culture meeting Chinese business culture -- it’s such a different outset, and it’s such a different decision-making, when a commitment is a commitment and how far you negotiate.

To set the ground for production, by the time you bring over a film crew, you are financed and are promising to deliver a film, so that’s quite a strong pressure on the operation. If at that point, you’re still in the phase of negotiating and not moving on shooting, which was the case with our project, then that’s quite nerve-wracking. Then we understood that, I think, you have to set aside a lot more time here [to get things done] than you would in the Western world.

Was there a turning point during this filming phase?
Albers: It helped a great deal that we came back in 2012, just because we did the whole trip, the festival, the concert -- we had started off with a totally different basis of trust with everybody. And I think a lot of the material in the film we got when we came back for those weeks in 2012. The flesh of the film, the parts that are more intimate and down to the personal stories, came during that period of time.

Uli, as a visual storyteller, do you find anything distinctive in what Shanghai has to offer?
Gaulke: I think the mixing of what was before and what’s now. I have no idea how the people can handle such kind of changes. To find a story to tell in this huge mass of people, and huge buildings… It’s very inspirational. It’s not somewhere where I would want to live, but to be somewhere to open your mind, to get all this energy -- when you are back, you realize, there are a lot of stories behind the walls, behind the windows.

What’s the next step for As Time Goes By?
Albers: I think we’ll know in a couple of months what the distribution situation will be. The way the film is conceived, it’s a theatrical film and we hope to bring it to cinemas, to as many countries as possible, but that’s not so easy because in many countries, documentaries don’t really exist in the theater. Like in China, it’s very complicated to see a documentary in the cinema. And then television would be the next natural step. It’s still a pretty early stage; this is only the second festival screening we’ve been in so far, so still quite some work to be done.

Any current or upcoming projects you’re working on?
Gaulke: Our next trip, we’re going to Cuba again, maybe shoot there. We’re interested in making a 3D documentary. It’s my passion for the future: to combine my storytelling with an intimate view, with a high level of visual elevation -- to bring more cinematographic value to the documentary. We work for cinema, and we know that there are big screens that audiences pay for, so if you make documentaries, you have to bring out the high value of cinematography in it.


As Time Goes By is currently running as one of the official selections at the Shanghai International Film Festival.

Upcoming screenings are scheduled on:

19 June, 7pm, Goethe Institute
22 June, 1.30pm, Metropol Cinema (Hall 1)
23 June, 1.30pm, Metropol Cinema (Hall 1)

Presale tickets are available online through the four vendors listed at the bottom of the page here.

The Old Jazz Band can be found playing its 7.30pm set at The Jazz Bar of the Fairmont Peace Hotel every night.

Images courtesy of Flying Moon Filmproduktion

Cindy Kuan

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