Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Fear, Loathing and HIV: Zhao Liang's Together

Happy New Year! I hope everyone had a good Christmas break. I'm back in Beijing after a glorious couple of weeks back home in Australia. It was a warm 28 degrees when I left Sydney (that's Celsius for US readers - or 82 degrees Fahrenheit) and -11 when I touched down in Beijing (12 degrees Fahrenheit). All the more reason to stay inside watching films I suppose!

Towards the end of last year I published a short email exchange I had with documentary maker Zhao Liang about his new film Together. That exchange was background for an article I was writing for the January issue of the The Beijinger magazine, which came out while I was away. Readers in Beijing can pick up a copy from many cafes, galleries and bookshops around town – for everyone else I've reproduced the article below.

I was also pleased to hear Zhao's earlier films Crime and Punishment (reviewed here) and Petition (reviewed here) are currently enjoying a short season at New York's Anthology Film Archives. These are two of the most powerful documentaries to come out of China in recent years, so it's great to see them getting greater exposure in the US. You can read coverage of the rave reviews the films have received in the New York press on the dGenerate Films website.

Read on for my article on Zhao's latest work, Together.

Fear, Loathing and HIV: Zhao Liang's Together

He Zetao (left), the HIV+ child in Zhao Liang' new documentary Together.

“The most important thing is that this film gives hope to other people,” says Zhao Liang of his new documentary Together – but it's a hope balanced by the unflinching critical eye for which Zhao is famous. The end credits, for example, tell us there are an estimated 740,000 HIV sufferers in China. Of these, around 400,000 are possibly unaware of their condition.

It's this vast vacuum of public knowledge that Zhao, one of China's leading contemporary documentary filmmakers, is looking to fill with Together. And it's not just the audience he wants to inform. “Before the shoot I had no knowledge at all of HIV,” Zhao admits. “I gradually learned through preparing and shooting the film.”

Together was conceived by veteran director Gu Changwei (And the Spring Comes, Peacock) as a companion piece to his new feature Life is a Miracle, described by Zhao as “A film about the nature of people in the face of disaster.” The characters in Gu's drama suffer from a strange disease referred to only as “the fever,” an appropriate metaphor for a condition that for many in China remains shrouded in mystery.

Several HIV+ volunteers worked with Gu on his shoot, including a young child called Hu Zetao, who plays one of the film's central characters. Zhao Liang's documentary captures the shifting relationships between the HIV+ volunteers and the rest of the cast and crew, which includes stars like Zhang Ziyi.

Initially ignorance among the crew is high – when informed that the lighting stand-in has the virus, one extra is so terrified that he cannot even bear to look at him. “Actually Chinese people are a very tolerant,” Zhao comments. “But discrimination exists because people lack knowledge and mainstream media stigmatizes the disease.”

If Together illustrates Zhao's point by showing us the prejudices HIV carriers suffer, his documentary also highlights the positive effects of education. Through a series of information sessions in which the cast and crew talk with medical experts about their concerns, and the sense of community fostered by the pressures of film production, close bonds gradually develop between the HIV+ volunteers and the others on set. When the lighting stand-in is forced to leave the shoot due to his deteriorating condition, his tearful farewell makes clear he is no longer a faceless “HIV carrier,” but a friend whose emotional and physical pain the crew share.

The broader social context of HIV is also traced in Together, as Zhao Liang delves into online chat rooms set up by HIV sufferers. Zhao's conversations play out as text scrolling across the screen in real time, as if we are sitting with the filmmaker in front of his computer. This stripped back approach makes the pain woven into the simple lines on screen all the more heartbreaking.

Although these scenes make clear the fear and discrimination endured by HIV+ people, the very act of reaching out to them and putting their stories on screen is small step towards lifting the veil of ignorance around the disease. The fact that Together is showing in local cinemas is also a step in the right direction, since this is the first of Zhao's films to have an official release in mainland China.

Zhao's last documentary, Petition, was a shocking portrait of the life of petitioners living on the outskirts of China's capital. The film, which debuted at Cannes in 2009 and earned Zhao the Humanitarian Award for Documentaries at the 2010 Hong Kong International Film Festival, has rarely been seen on China's mainland.

When asked if working within the system on Together necessitated any changes in his approach, Zhao replies cautiously, “This film was really different to my old films. Because this was a not-for-profit movie, I needed consider a lot of social factors. But to me, if the film has social value then it's worth making.”

If that makes Together sound like a dry public education advertisement, fear not. Although there are moments when Zhao's gritty style clashes with the more mainstream-friendly touches, Together offers a thoughtful, highly emotional look into one of China's most pressing social concerns. By bringing us face to face with HIV sufferers, Zhao makes it clear that the virus is not just the concern of a marginalized subculture – it's a disease that effects every one of us.

Zhao Liang's Together is screening at Beijing's BC MOMA cinema throughout January. Gu Changwei's Life is a Miracle is scheduled for release in March-April.

This article originally apepeared in The Beijinger magazine, January 2011, page 50.

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