Wednesday, December 29, 2010

"Documentary is My Lifelong Career” – an interview with Zhang Tianhui

This will be my last post for a couple of weeks as I'm off to Australia for a well-earned break. There are some changes afoot for 2011 which I'm hoping will give me more time to devote to Screening China. Until then – happy holidays!

But before I go...

Back in October I was lucky enough to catch a pair of documentaries by Zhang Tianhui at the Get It Louder Festival in Beijing. Both 7th Medical Ward and Farewell, Beijing (poster above) revealed Zhang's talent for sympathetically sketching his subjects while gently revealing their all-to-human failings. You can read my reviews of the films here.

After the screenings in Beijing, Zhang headed south to film the Asian Games in Guangzhou, so I was unable to interview him in person. He kindly took the time, however, to answer a few questions about his filmmaking via email – a translation of our interaction is below.

Two of Zhang's answers stood out for me. The first was his citing of Federico Fellini, Emir Nemanja Kusturica and Hou Hsiao-Hsien as key directorial influences. I was surprised he chose three directors so closely identified with dramatic feature films, while naming only two specific documentaries he felt had had an impact on his own work.

On reflection, however, his choice of Fellini and Kusturica makes sense – both filmmakers produced their best-known work in societies undergoing profound social and economic transformations (post-war Italy and 1990s Serbia respectively), and each displayed a keen awareness of the surreal, absurdist air this lent their surrounds. The China of today is undergoing a similarly disorientating societal experience.

As for Hou Hsiao-Hsien, almost every Chinese director I have spoken too has named him as an central influence. It would be worthwhile sitting down one day and penning a serious consideration of the impact Hou's work has had on mainland Chinese cinema over the past twenty years.

The second point I thought noteworthy in Zhang's responses was his distaste for what he regards as the “impetuousness” of some contemporary Chinese documentary makers, and his emphasis on taking the time to understand his subjects before he begins to shoot what he thinks is important.

Particularly in Farewell, Beijing, Zhang deftly evokes a broader social and historical context for his character's story, allowing the man's personality to take centre stage while generating a fruitful dialogue between the conditions of contemporary China and some wildly differing understandings of the country's recent past. The film is a testament to Zhang's methodical, considered approach.

Thanks to Wang Yi for her help with translating the email interview with Zhang.

Have you made any other films apart from 7th Medical Ward and Farewell, Beijing?

I have made two short dramas, the 16mm Youth on the Roof (屋顶少年) and an dramatic adaptation of the documentary Farewell, Beijing called Xie Jingsheng (谢京生).

What first attracted you to documentaries?

People often say a movie can't be completed by one person, but under some circumstances documentary movies can be done by a single person. Before I wasn't in a position to make feature films, but I could shoot documentaries to express myself. I did everything on these two documentaries [7th Medical Ward and Farewell, Beijing] – shooting, sound recording, editing and the poster design. Everything except the translations [for subtitling].

So you generally work alone?
Before I worked alone, but from my next documentary I will set up a small group to work together.

How did you come across the stories of 7th Medical Ward and Farewell, Beijing? 
7th Medical Ward came from a report in the Xiamen Evening News called “7th District Ward” (七区病房). Farewell, Beijing came from a Ji Heiming's photography collection Vanished Youth [an approximate translation of 走过青春 – literally Walked Past Youth] and Sun Chunlong's reportage Sent Down Beijing Youth Who Stayed Yan'an (留守延安的北京知青).

[NB: “Sent down youth” were young urbanites sent by Mao to live in the countryside and “learn from the peasants” from the late 1960s to the mid-70s. The practice stopped with Mao's death and the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976].

One aspect of your films which I really like is your ability to sympathetically engage with your characters and allow their personalities to shine, while still alluding to bigger social issues. How conscious are you when making films about balancing individual stories with the bigger picture?

I have a hobby, which is to stand to the side quietly observing other people. Then I think about things related to this person. My way of shooting has been influenced by this habit – go to a place, learn the truth of peoples' everyday lives, stand to the side quietly observing, and record what I'm interested in. So I don't need to design or arrange anything – their stories naturally reflect broader social phenomena.

Have you been influenced by other filmmakers or artists?
The novelist Wang Xiaobo, and the filmmakers Federico Fellini, Emir Nemanja Kusturica and Hou Hsiao-Hsien. Also the documentaries Kindergarten (幼兒園) by Zhang Yiqing and Houjie Township (厚街) by Zhou Hao.

Digital technologies have had a huge impact on the way documentaries are made in China in the past decade. Do you personally feel digital technology has effected the way you make films?
In the past it was very difficult to shoot films or documentaries. Now everyone can be a director just by picking up a DV camera and shooting. Ten years ago I was painting film posters at the entrance of Xiamen Malong Cinema. Then I would go out on my old bike to put the posters up everywhere. I thought, “If I could find a better job I wouldn't have to do this anymore.” Ten years later people are sitting in cinemas watching my films. If we didn't have digital technology, and still had to use film to record images, I think this would have been mission impossible.

Do you see yourself as part of a wider movement or community of documentary filmmakers?
Of course. Drama cannot compete with documentary because of documentary's authenticity and social value. If I have the chance I will shoot more dramas, but documentary is my lifelong career.

What, if anything, differentiates China's current generation of documentary filmmakers from earlier generations?
I don't know what you mean by earlier generations, but I have never felt an obvious generation gap with the documentary makers I have come into contact with. Every era has it's own characteristics. People in different age brackets focus on different things – to have a hundred flowers bloom is quite normal.

If there is a difference, I think current documentary makers are more impetuous and inclined to follow trends. Documentary film festivals are partly responsible for this. At the end of 2009 teacher Zhu Rikun [founder of Fanhall Films] said in Nanjing, “Festivals are the scourge of directors.” I really agree with that.

What are your future plans? Are you currently working on any projects?
I am planning to write a drama script, and then I will go to Guizhou to research, investigate and shoot some material. This is a habit I formed while shooting documentaries – if there is not enough research, investigation and material you can't come up with a good script.

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