Independent filmmaking turns up all sorts of unlikely combinations, but Little Sister (Mei Mei) by Berkeley-based director Richard Bowen may be one of the more unusual. It tells the Cinderella story — but based on the Chinese original. Bowen shot the film in China, where he was the only Westerner on set. Financing comes from Australia. Editing started in Hong Kong and was finished in Berkeley. And now the premiere will be at the Toronto International Film Festival on Saturday.

When you hear Bowen’s own story, the melange of his film makes sense. In 1998 he and his wife Jenny adopted a daughter in China (they subsequently adopted another daughter from China). Although they had been based in Los Angeles for 20 years working in the movie industry, they decided “the last thing we wanted to do was raise girls in LA”. So they moved to back to Berkeley, their home before the decades in LA.

Shortly after the Bowens adopted their daughter, they formed Half the Sky Foundation to enrich the lives of orphaned children living in China’s social welfare institutions (the name comes from the Chinese saying that “women hold up half the sky”, since the vast majority of orphans in China are female). Although the foundation started modestly, it grew so rapidly that the Bowens concluded they needed to move to China for their organization.

“We thought we’d take a year off,” Bowen says. “But we just loved being there so much that we stayed five years.” During that time, the foundation grew enormously. It now has 12,000 supporters, 14 employees in Berkeley, 1,500 employees in China, and has programs in 44 orphanages in 21 provinces and municipalities in China.

The Bowens moved back to Berkeley after their five years in China. Their daughters now attend King and Berkeley High. Jenny Bowen remains CEO of Half the Sky.

In the midst of their foundation work in China, Bowen stumbled across the story that became Little Sister. Bowen heard that the Cinderella story originated in southern China, and was probably brought to the west by Marco Polo. He then found a hieroglyphic from 768 CE in a Beijing antiquities museum. He decided it would become the basis for his first film as writer and director.

“An ancient fairy tale, far away and long ago, safely within a well defined storytelling genre, seemed the perfect vehicle for me to make the writer/director leap and to explore an issue I care deeply about,” Bowen says. “It’s a family-friendly tale with a happy ending, but, like all genuine fairytales, it has a dark side and a moral. As a lover of films that both entertain and teach, I found the combination irresistible.”

The movie was shot last spring in China. Editing started in Hong Kong, but was finished by Berkeley-based editor Lisa Fruchtman. Bowen hopes the Toronto premiere brings sufficient notice to get a wider distribution for Little Sister.

“I’m a western filmmaker but I was shooting in China where I was the only Westerner on the set,” he recalls. “I lived in China for five years, have two Chinese daughters and I’ve come to understand and love the Chinese people. So this film isn’t simply another Westerner’s view of China from the outside. Nor would a Chinese director have made the film the way I did.”

Watch the film’s trailer on the TIFF website.

Lance Knobel (Berkeleyside co-founder) has been a journalist for nearly 40 years. Much of his career was in business journalism. He was editor-in-chief of both Management Today, the leading business magazine...