On Saturday, April 2, Crows & Sparrows will present Zhengfan Yang’s DISTANT at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston with the director in person!
After SNAKESKIN‘s world premiere at DocLisboa one year ago, Senses of Cinema writer Jorge Mourinha beautifully described Daniel Hui’s second feature as “a hallway of broken mirrors that meld past, present and future” and “a literal collection of nested Russian dolls, a series of Scheherazadian psychogeographic tales that eventually reveal as its real subject the chasm between reality and memory, fact and fiction, history and myth.”
The film is composed of footage from Singapore in 2014 and viewed from the point of view of our narrator in the year 2066, becoming a reflexive meditation on film, memory and history’s narrative seams.
Crows & Sparrows and the Harvard Film Archive co-present the film on October 18, 2015. In the days before the event, Crows & Sparrows had the chance to interview Hui about his work.
You call some of your characters “players”, who perform the stories and memories of some real individuals who don’t appear in the film. Could you describe your process of collecting, writing, and recording these stories into strands of narration?
For this film, it started out with me. I was doing research, collecting stories, interviewing people etc. At some point I realized it would be much more interesting to get contemporary people to play characters from the past, because the film is a lot about how history survives (or doesn’t survive) in the present. I think it’s really easy to create this fossilized version of history, with interviewees who play fossilized versions of themselves. History becomes this thing to be admired and appreciated from afar, instead of how it actually is – being lived.
I’m curious – did you ever allow your players to improvise while in character?
As for the process, I started writing these thinly fictionalized versions of these real characters. But when I gave them to the people playing them (some of them were playing themselves), it was important for me that they turned these stories into their own. So they would rewrite (sometimes completely) my words, take things out and add things. For some of them, I would tell them the story in my head, and they would retell the story from their own imagination. So yeah, there was a lot of improvisation as well.
Your film conjures ghosts, describes the risks of time travel, and relays tales of being spirited away, all within the realm of documentary. How do you see these paranormal elements in your film in relation to feelings of closeness or distance to truth?
I think of genre as a perspective on things, so ‘fiction’ and ‘documentary’ are genres to me. These genres point more to the sets of rules that come with them – you can only film people and things in this or that way in a documentary or a fiction film, and I’m uncomfortable with these rules. Most of the time I want to film people the way I like, and it’s usually the same whether it is fiction or documentary.
Were there certain books that you were reading or films that you were watching while you were making this work?
I tried watching essay films as reference because I thought they would be similar in style, but it was actually pretty useless. They actually got me very stuck. So instead, I was watching a lot of film noir and reading a lot of crime novels. I guess I was relearning how to make a narrative film in many ways, so I was interested in seeing how these writers and filmmakers made their stories ‘move’ – how they get from one scene to another. Besides reading books for research, I was also reading a lot of Roberto Bolaño and Iain Sinclair, and maybe you can detect their influence. I love how their words are so amorphous – they can use words as documentary reportage, and suddenly they can shift to metaphor, exaggeration, and surrealism in the same sentence.
You’ve mentioned in a previous interview that it’s important to you to see how “history is embodied or disembodied” in the landscape of a place and in ourselves. Could you say more about how this interest influenced your pairing of the sound and image in the film?
I wanted image and sound to function as many different things. They can be demonstrations, metaphors, metonyms, and fantasy; but most importantly, they can be different things at the same time.
Your producers on this film are Pedro Fernandes Duarte, Joana Gusmão, and Bee Thiam Tan. How did you come to this interesting Singapore / Portugal co-production opportunity? How did this creative partnership work?
I started the project with Bee Thiam, and he helped mostly during the preparation and shooting of the film. Joana and Pedro came in during post-production, because I was looking to do it in Portugal. Mostly, it works because we’re great friends and we love each other so much. I feel like we have a filmmaking family spread over three continents.
You are a part of the film collective 13 Little Pictures. What have been the benefits of being a part of this collective for your individual work?
We created 13 Little Pictures mostly out of convenience – we were all independent filmmakers who faced trouble getting any grants because we didn’t have a production company with a strong CV backing us. So we decided to pool together all our experience and expertise – we helped out on each other’s films etc.
Are you working on anything new right now?
Yes. I’m working on an adaptation of a Dostoevsky novel, but it probably won’t resemble anything Dostoevsky wrote!
Beginning this week, Cinema on the Edge: The Best of the Beijing Independent Film Festival 2012-2014 will bring a selection of narrative, documentary, animated, and experimental films by independent Chinese filmmakers to New York City. The program runs from August 7 – September 13 at venues including Anthology Film Archives, Made in NY Media Center by IFP, Maysles Cinema, Asia Society, Columbia University, and UnionDocs.
Cinema on the Edge is organized by Karin Chien, Shelly Kraicer, and J.P. Sniadecki and features a number of filmmakers in person for discussion, including Li Luo, Wang Wo, Huang Ji, Zhu Rikun, J.P. Sniadecki, Zou Xueping, and Li Xinmin, with introductions by Cinema on the Edge curator Shelly Kraicer.
To learn more, visit the program’s website at www.cinemaontheedge.com.
Crows & Sparrows is excited to announce that on Sunday, April 26, we’ll be co-presenting the area premiere of Zhou Hao’s THE CHINESE MAYOR at the Independent Film Festival Boston!
See you at the festival! Learn more about all of the participating films at www.iffboston.org
This spring, Crows & Sparrows is excited to partner with Balagan to co-present two nights of experimental cinema and animation at the Brattle Theatre and ICA Boston, including a curated selection of works by artists based in China, Taiwan, Canada, and the US, and introducing the work of award-winning young Chinese filmmaker Lei Lei to Boston audiences.
Tuesday, March 24, 2015 at 7PM at the Brattle Theatre
Recycled: Reconstructions of Place and Memory
Description: Crows & Sparrows and Balagan co-present a program that takes Lei Lei’s found footage film RECYCLED as its point of departure. The screening will include a selection of works from filmmakers who explore innovative formal approaches in their reconstructions of place and memory on film and video.
Tickets ($11 / $9 students and seniors)
Friday, April 24, 2015 at 7PM at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston
New Directions in Chinese Animation
Filmmakers Lei Lei and Chai Mi will appear in person for Q&A
Description: Crows & Sparrows and Balagan co-present a selection of recent works by independent animators from mainland China, highlighting the work of the award-winning Beijing-based artist Lei Lei. The works presented explore a variety of subject matter, and represent the breadth of recent innovation in animation practice in China.
Tickets ($10 regular / $5 students and ICA members)
After director Zhou Hao and producer Qi Zhao premiered their new documentary feature THE CHINESE MAYOR at Sundance about two weeks ago, the film got high praise from US critics, and won a Sundance special jury award for “unparalleled access” to its subject Geng Yanbo, the mayor of Datong. The city lies at the heart of China’s polluted coal country, and the film follows Geng’s campaign to transform the city’s reputation through controversial demolition and redevelopment projects. This is Zhou Hao‘s first work to screen at Sundance. His other works include COTTON (2014), THE TRANSITION PERIOD (2009), USING (2008) and SENIOR YEAR (2005).
Daniel Walber of Nonfics called THE CHINESE MAYOR “the first great political documentary of 2015” and Dennis Harvey of Variety described it as “a fascinating vérité portrait of the collision between progress, politics, corruption and citizens’ rights in a rapidly changing People’s Republic”.
Picking up on the previous lack of independent non-fiction from China at Sundance, Vadim Rizov of Filmmaker Magazine wrote:
The vast world of Chinese independent documentaries was finally acknowledged by Sundance with the inclusion of Zhou Hao’s The Chinese Mayor. That’s not to bag on the festival for an anomalous oversight: this exciting and politically urgent strain of films has been happening for 15 years or so but not often acknowledged by U.S. festivals at large. This is a very good starting point.
A BRIEF LOOK BACK: INDEPENDENT DOCUMENTARY IN CHINA
The beginning of independent documentary filmmaking in China can actually be traced back about 25 years, to Wu Wenguang’s BUMMING IN BEIJING in 1990. Previously, Chinese documentaries were all pre-scripted and often propagandistic works for television, employing a heavy-handed use of music and omniscient voiceover. Since then, Chinese independent filmmakers have developed their own unique values for documentary, in reaction to the older, more prescriptive rules that continue to govern television docs.
In a 2013 talk at MoMA, Chris Berry summarized a few of these developments:
- In the early 1990s, a new word for realism (jishizhuyi), often translated as “on-the-spot” realism, entered the parlance of many Chinese doc filmmakers, referring to a spontaneous observational approach that American filmmakers and critics might associate with cinema vérité or direct cinema. However, despite the stylistic inspiration that a number of early Chinese independents gained from filmmakers like Frederick Wiseman, Chinese practitioners of “on-the-spot” realism were more deeply influenced by a desire to distinguish their work from earlier Chinese documentaries – This was a departure from both the prescriptive, ideology-driven style of PRC TV docs, and an earlier Marxist concept of realism (xianshizhuyi), which sought to present the hidden reality of class struggle.
- In the late 1990s, the spread of digital video allowed for further experimentation with “on-the-spot” realism and the flourishing of many new nonfiction modes, including the personal/diary documentary, the experimental documentary, the essay documentary, and what Berry calls a more relaxed set of rules for the spontaneous observational style, showing more flexibility toward voiceover and music.
- Finally, in the late 1990s and 2000s, Chinese independent documentary filmmakers moved away from being primarily concerned with the issue of filming objective truth as an alternative to the official state narrative. “Instead,” as Berry describes, “the related questions of ethics and access become more crucial — the ethics of the relationship between the filmmaker and his or her subjects, and the question of who gets to make films, and who gets to speak on camera and about what.”
For more on this history, you can read the full text of Berry’s talk on the dGenerate film blog.
THE SUNDANCE MODEL OF DOCUMENTARY
While many independent Chinese films have found their way to American audiences via festivals, local screenings, and distributors, Sundance’s selection of Chinese docs in recent years has been limited to those by only a few directors and producers, not including the many other rich modes of nonfiction filmmaking that have emerged in China. In a way, this is a specific example of the critique that Anthony Kauffman makes of Sundance in a recent IndieWire article. He writes:
Sundance lacks a significant presence of nonfiction films that push the form forward stylistically or that dare to be different. […] Where at Sundance can you find films that don’t fit into preconceived molds? […] A vast majority of the titles have been crafted according to the PBS school of documentary filmmaking.
While festivals should have complete freedom in their programming vision, the subjective decisions of a festival like Sundance can influence what is made visible and accessible to millions of people each year, and what remains in the dark, most notably in the case of non-US works.
CHINESE DOCUMENTARY IN PARK CITY
Technically, there aren’t any Chinese documentaries that have screened at Sundance without Qi Zhao on board as a producer, or without Canadian creative personnel. Most of these selections don’t actually represent the field of Chinese independent nonfiction, and may be better described as North American productions or co-productions.
Aside from this year’s THE CHINESE MAYOR, producing powerhouse Qi Zhao was also behind Sundance 2013’s FALLEN CITY (director/producer), 2012’s CHINA HEAVYWEIGHT (co-producer), and 2010’s LAST TRAIN HOME (executive producer).
Additionally, the acclaimed Canadian production company EyeSteelFilm was involved in the production of CHINA HEAVYWEIGHT, LAST TRAIN HOME, and UP THE YANGTZE (Sundance 2007), working with Chinese-Canadian filmmakers Yung Chang and Fan Lixin on all of these titles.
The very first independent Chinese documentary that appears in Sundance records is the 2003 premiere of Chen Weijun’s TO LIVE IS BETTER THAN TO DIE, which was edited by Fan Lixin.
Within this very small circle, the director of THE CHINESE MAYOR, Zhou Hao, is a new name for Sundance. Based in Guangzhou, he has been building his reputation for over a decade with works like USING and COTTON, which just won the Golden Horse for Best Documentary this year in Taipei.
Here is the full list of these feature documentaries from 1990-2015, as found in the Sundance festival archive and on IMDb:
2015: THE CHINESE MAYOR
Director: Zhou Hao
Producer: Qi Zhao
2013: FALLEN CITY
Director: Qi Zhao
Producer: Qi Zhao, NHK
2012: CHINA HEAVYWEIGHT
Director: Yung Chang
Production Company: EyeSteelFilm
Co-producer: Qi Zhao
2010: LAST TRAIN HOME
Director: Fan Lixin
Production Company: EyeSteelFilm
Executive Producer: Qi Zhao
2007: UP THE YANGTZE
Director: Yung Chang
Co-production: EyeSteelFilm / National Film Board of Canada
2003: TO LIVE IS BETTER THAN TO DIE
Director/Producer: Chen Weijun
Editor: Fan Lixin
WHY CHINESE DOCS DON’T GO TO SUNDANCE
For the past several years, Sundance has sent North American filmmakers to Beijing to provide documentary workshop opportunities for Chinese filmmakers, but so far this hasn’t led to the appearance of any new Chinese documentary talent in Sundance programming.
Given these new efforts and the rich 25-year history of independent documentary filmmaking in China, why have Chinese doc independents been underrepresented at Sundance for so long?
Of the many possibilities, here are two:
A lack of knowledge about US festival strategy among Chinese filmmakers. Producers like Qi Zhao may be one in a billion when it comes to talented Chinese producers who also have a deep understanding of North American festival strategy. Without guidance from a producer who has previous festival experience in North America, many Chinese filmmakers may not be able to navigate the unfamiliar festival submission process on their own, and perhaps may never end up submitting to Sundance.
A stylistic disdain for Chinese independent documentary among US film circles. In a 2008 piece on Chinese nonfiction cinema for IDA, US producer Lisa Leeman described this disinterest in recounting the reactions of a few filmmakers to the “unflinching observational style” and slow pacing of several Chinese docs selected for a screening series by filmmaker Duan Jinchuan:
[One] Western filmmaker observed, “Chinese docs are obsessed with vérité, at the expense of craft.” He cited one post-screening discussion, in which a Westerner criticized the Chinese documentarian for being “anti-style” and disregarding the audience. The filmmaker replied disdainfully that “We’re not interested in massaging audiences.” […]
Another Western filmmaker speculated […] “Filmmakers here bow down to Fred Wiseman, but they are not yet thinking carefully about character, story and structure, how to develop vérité stories in a compelling way.” […]
One Western filmmaker mused, “It is a delicate question–do Western and Chinese filmmakers and audiences simply have deeply different senses of pacing and storytelling, or could Chinese docs still be in the process of maturing?”
This last question is important, because it leads to another, more difficult one – by whose standards do we measure the “maturity” of a film culture? Because, if we use the Sundance standard, the vast majority of Chinese nonfiction cinema will continue to be invisible to American audiences.