Monday, October 18, 2010

What is China? Looking Behind Things with Director Zhao Dayong

If you read my post on The High Life back in June, you'll know I'm a fan of director Zhao Dayong (pictured left, image by David Bandurski), one of the most innovative and intriguing filmmakers to have surfaced in China in recent years. Zhao's career began with the feature-length documentary Street Life in 2006, but he first attracted international attention with his following up film, the epic documentary Ghost Town, which I wrote about for RealTime. More recently Zhao unveiled his first dramatic feature, The High Life, at the Hong Kong International Film Festival in March, where the film won the Silver Digital Award and the FIRPRESCI Prize.

Over the past year I've had the chance to interview Zhao Dayong on several occasions via email, as well as meeting him in person at the Hong Kong International Film Festival in early April. Zhao is not one to waste words, but his answers are always sharp, incisive and amusing, so I thought I'd compile my interactions with him into a post.

The first interview was conducted in November 2009 for my RealTime article on Ghost Town, and several quotes  appear in the finished piece. Looking back at his answers, I found some of his comments echo my own concerns about the way China's underclass is often depicted in local documentaries – see my post on Xu Tong's Fortune Teller for a more detailed discussion of these issues.

At the end of the RealTime interview I've added a few additional questions Zhao answered in September 2010 about his most recent film The High Life, shortly before it was screened at Beijing's Ullen's Center for Contemporary Art last month.

The final questions were for “Bookshelf” in the current edition of The Beijinger magazine (October 2010, p56), a column that sees a different China personality quizzed each month about their favourite books. Although not directly related to film, Zhao's answers speak volumes about his quietly maverick personality.

Many thanks to Zhao's producer David Bandurski, who facilitated my interactions with Zhao Dayong and provided translations of the director's answers. And of course thanks to Zhao Dayong himself for taking the time to thoughtfully respond my questions.

Street Life (known in Chinese as Nanjing Lu).
Interview conducted for an article in RealTime magazine via email in November 2009.

Which part of China are you originally from?

I was born in the city of Fushun, in northeastern China’s Liaoning Province. I am ethnically Manchu. I can’t pinpoint what influence this background might have had on me, though perhaps it is one reason for my sense of confidence. Certainly, my family upbringing had a major influence on me.

I believe you were originally a painter. Can you tell me what drew you to filmmaking?

Painting opened a door for me into a personal world of reflection. It offered me a way to reflect on my own life. Film, like painting, is a method and technique of thought, and all forms of creativity are rooted in this question of how to think and reflect.

Did you live in Zhiziluo [the town seen in Ghost Town] for a time before you started shooting the film? How long were you actually shooting in the town for?

After my first trip to Zhiziluo in 2002, I made trips in 2003 and 2004, staying there for two months each time. My original plans to make a film there didn’t pan out. But the people made a deep impression on me, and my thoughts often went back to them. By the time I returned again in 2006 I had a whole new understanding of the place, and through the town I began to see and reflect on my own life. This process of self-reflection is for me the essence of filmmaking. Without it, you are left only with disconnected stories about the Chinese underclass. In total I filmed for twelve months in Zhiziluo.

Ghost Town
Did you work alone during the shoot, or were you working with a small crew?
I had three people assisting me, all local villagers. For example, the truck driver who appears in part two of the film often helped me with sound recording. This way I was able to maintain close relationships with the people in the village, and that was very important.

In an online interview I read you were quoted as saying, “Ghost Town is actually more a portrait of myself than the people I filmed.” Given that Ghost Town seems a very intimate portrait of your subjects, I found this quote quite intriguing. Can you talk about what you meant when you said Ghost Town is more a portrait of yourself?

Sure. I touched on this a bit in answering your third question. As I was living with these people I came to realize just how uncertain their lives and fates were. The empty government buildings in which they lived did not belong to them, and the fate of the place itself, of its architecture, was also in question. They were merely floating in the world, without any sense of safety and security, and their existential condition was basically no different from my own.

If it was just about recording the lives of others I wouldn’t even bother to pick up my camera. That to me seems like a kind of violation or rape, in which the camera becomes the agent of a kind of lascivious act.

Did you suffer any interference from the authorities while making Ghost Town? Conversely, were any of the townsfolk resistant to you making the film?
China is not a country governed by rule of law, but rather by rule of man. In such an environment you can accomplish just about anything provided you have your own methods, and provided you do no direct harm. I never suffered interference while making the film. As for the townsfolk, they treated me as one of their own. I am still in regular contact with them by telephone.

Do independent documentary makers in China generally suffer much/any interference from authorities, or do they simply ignore you?

Some filmmakers do suffer interference from the authorities. As for myself, I don’t think they understand my films to begin with, and I haven’t yet achieved that sort of notoriety.

Are there any particular filmmakers that have influenced your style and approach to filmmaking?
I am most influenced by my own thoughts and inclinations. I don’t see myself as greatly influenced by others.

Can you tell me a little bit about the film you are currently working on? I believe it's called My Father's House? [NB: The High Life was actually finished and released before My Father's House – as far as I know this film has yet to be released].
This film was conceived by my filmmaking partner, David Bandurski, who is very attuned to affairs in China. We collaborated throughout the process. Filming went very well. It is an enchanting documentary, giving you a taste I think of the basic beauty of life. I won’t say more than that for now. Once you’ve had an opportunity to see it you’ll certainly have many more questions.

Additional questions from an email exchange with Zhao Dayong in September 2010.

The character of the poetry-writing cop in The High Life is one of the most fascinating filmic characters I've seen for a long time. Was he inspired by a real person or situation, or is he purely a work of fiction?
The cop you see in The High Life is in fact a friend of mine. He's someone I know very well. He is a cop, and he is a poet, so he certainly inspired his own character.

Although quite elliptical, The High Life seems quiet critical of contemporary Chinese society. Do you think cinema has an important role to play in interrogating what lies behind China's modern economic success?
I think it's extremely important for a film to have a critical quality. At the same time, The High Life is also a very realistic look at contemporary China.

You have come from a documentary background – do you intend to continue working across drama and documentary in the future? Do you see your films in the two forms as separate bodies of work?
I hope that all of my films, documentary and fiction, are different from one another and unique. I don't like the feeling of repetition. I always felt before that fiction and documentary films were all of the same fabric, but now I don't think this at all. Feature films are feature films, and documentaries are documentaries. The two are fundamentally distinct.

From the "Bookshelf" column in the October 2010 edition of The Beijinger magazine.

Which book on your bookshelf has the most sentimental value for you?

How To Get Pregnant.

Whose bookshelf would you most like a peek at?

That would be Chairman Mao’s.

What's your favorite book from your childhood?
Sorry! When I was little all I read were those children’s comics. I devoured so many it’s impossible to remember.

What's one book that changed your life?

No book has ever changed my life. From an early age I’ve had a strong conviction that everything in our books is ideological nonsense.

What's the last book you bought?

Tombstone, Yang Jisheng’s book about China’s Great Starvation [NB: Yang's book documents the famine caused by Mao's Great Leap Forward in the late 1950s which the author claims killed 35-40 million people. For decades the official line in China has been that the famine was caused by natural disasters. See here for a detailed article on Yang's work].

What's the last book that you read?
That would be Tombstone too, which I bought recently in Hong Kong.

Have you ever judged a book by its cover?
No way! I make it my business to look behind things.

What books did you hide before we came around (figuratively speaking)?
The one I haven’t finished writing yet.

If you only ever read one book about China, make it...
I don't know. What is “China”?

What book do you pretend to have read, but haven't really?

That question is totally against my nature. What reason should anyone have to pretend?

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