|Zhao Liang (second from right) and Gu Changwei (far right) at a press conference about Zhao's documentary Together in Beijing earlier this year. The others pictured appear in the documentary.|
Chinese documentarian Zhao Liang has been in the U.S. news recently with a somewhat critical profile of the director in the New York Times entitled, “Chinese Director’s Path From Rebel to Insider.” The long article by Edward Wong details Zhao’s supposed “evolution from a filmmaker hounded by the government to one whom it celebrates.” Zhao’s new “insider” status is said to be the result of his last documentary, Together, which was backed by China’s Ministry of Health and approved for release in Chinese cinemas.
I’m not sure why the NYT published a profile focusing on this issue now. Together was completed last year and screened in Chinese cinemas around nine months ago. You can read my article on the film for the January 2011 edition of the The Beijinger here. The director also answered a couple of questions about the film via email last December. Zhao is one of the most talented of China’s contemporary filmmakers, so it’s great to see him receiving such prominent recognition in the U.S. press. I felt, however, that Wong’s profile was somewhat unfair and inaccurate on a number of counts.
First there is the issue of Zhao's relationship with the Chinese state. One small-scale documentary for the health ministry that screened in a handful of mainland cinemas hardly makes Zhao the “insider” that the article claims. When I spoke to Zhao about the film during its cinema run in Beijing, he explained that it came about because Chinese director Gu Changwei was making a dramatic feature about the AIDS virus (Love for Life aka Life is a Miracle) and he invited Zhao to shoot a “making of” documentary to accompany his film. Zhao took the opportunity to find out more about the disease and the discrimination endured by AIDS sufferers by contacting victims online, a process detailed in the documentary. According to Zhao, “Before the shoot I had no knowledge at all of HIV – I gradually learned through preparing and shooting the film.” I can well believe Zhao’s claim, given the general level of ignorance regarding AIDS in China.
Although working within the system of course brought restrictions, Zhao’s comment was, “If the film has social value then it's worth making.” In contrast, Wong’s article implies that Zhao’s primary motivation was to make a film that would be “widely seen in China.” If that was really Zhao’s aim it's debatable whether he succeeded. I’m not sure about other cities, but in Beijing Together screened at one cinema (BC MOMA), and the two sessions I attended were not exactly packed.
Wong’s article also does little to combat the perception outside China that the Chinese state is a monolithic entity that moves in a unified fashion along a single path. Wong writes, for example, “The story [of Gu’s feature] was from a banned book by Yan Lianke. Yet, the Health Ministry had agreed to support the movie.” As Wong presumably knows, the Health Ministry is not the Propaganda Department or the Public Security Bureau, and the average health ministry official probably couldn’t care less whether a book is banned. Given the byzantine workings of the Chinese bureaucracy, it wouldn’t surprise me if the Ministry of Health wasn’t even aware of the ban. The Chinese state is a vast network of competing bureaucratic structures and “bans” imposed by one department are not necessarily respected by another.
Finally, the article seems to assume that filmmakers are either “inside” or “outside” the system, whereas in reality many filmmakers move between the official and unofficial realms. When I spoke to Zhao he seemed to regard Together as a one-off opportunity that came along unexpectedly and he made the most of it. That did not mean he had fundamentally changed his outlook on filmmaking or his plans to continue making work outside the censorship apparatus. Even Wong’s article acknowledges Zhao’s next documentary will be a “return to his old way of filmmaking.”
Admittedly, Wong’s article does become more nuanced as it progresses, and he acknowledges that Chinese filmmakers face an extremely difficult choice. They can either make films outside the censorship regime that very few mainlanders get to see, or else they achieve wider distribution and tailor their work to the authorities’ demands and expectations. Overall, however, I think he leaves readers with the impression that Zhao Liang has sold out his principles in exchange for acclaim and recognition.
Interestingly, the dGenerate film site ran an interview with Wong last week, in which the reporter commented, “I think many intellectuals in China get frustrated with how Westerners often frame those choices [open to filmmakers]: as a duality between being a complete rebel or being a sellout.” He seemed to feel his article had helped combat this black and white view.
The New Yorker’s Richard Brody seemed to have similar misgivings as I did about Wong’s profile. In Brody’s column the day after Wong’s profile appeared in the NYT he stopped short of directly criticizing the piece, and acknowledged that some figures within China – notably Ai Weiwei – have been quite critical of Zhao Liang’s choices. He adds, however, that “heroism can’t be undertaken prescriptively, and those of us who write and make art without fear of arrest should pause before accusing Zhao of collaboration or cowardice.”
Zhao’s future work, I suppose, will be the ultimate measure of what impact his flirtation with the official production realm has had on his filmmaking.