Interview With the Filmmakers
Read excerpts from interviews with the filmmakers discussing how their work reflects China's rapid modernization, and those left at its margins.
Joshua Fisher is a recent graduate of the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. His master's thesis documentary covered the plight of migratory beekeepers who truck thousands of hives across the United States to pollinate food crops, and the troubles these beekeepers now face in keeping their bees alive. He has worked for Al Jazeera International in Washington, D.C., taught film theory in Kazakhstan and run an independent record label in Minnesota.
I first heard about China's independent film movement in 2000, when the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis held a special screening of Jia Zhangke's film Platform. I had spent a semester studying in Beijing a few years earlier and was itching to go back to China any way I could. So I bought a ticket and settled into a seat at the back of the theater, hoping to ease my wanderlust with a cinematic journey.
It took a few scenes before my American eyes, accustomed to the fast pace of MTV-style editing, adjusted to the rhythm of Jia's filmmaking. Each take lasted a minute or more, with the camera holding steady while events and conversations unfolded. It felt more like a documentary than a feature film.
But soon I was wrapped up in Jia's story of the Peasant Culture Group from Fenyang, a troupe of musicians and dancers traveling from village to village in the central Chinese province of Shanxi. The film follows the troupe through the 1980s, a decade of great change in China as economic reforms loosened the government's grip on society and allowed capitalistic influences to slowly spread across the country.
Over the years, I watched Jia's other films when I could find them in specialty video stores or at film festivals, and I came to realize that again and again Jia made films about small-time characters who are left behind in the great modernization of China.
In the fall of 2005 I met Li Xin, a visiting scholar and film critic from Beijing at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.
Over the next couple of months, she educated my ignorant soul. I learned that Jia Zhangke is a leading director in a new generation of Chinese filmmakers inspired more by Italian neorealism and cinema verite than by the sweeping historical epics of older Chinese directors such as Zhang Yimou (Raise the Red Lantern) and Chen Kaige (Farewell My Concubine).
I leaned that this new generation specializes in telling contemporary stories that dare to touch taboo subjects, such as class tension and homosexuality. And I learned that their films are largely banned by government censors.
I traveled to Beijing in August 2006 to meet Li Xin. Together, we interviewed Jia Zhangke and Du Haibin, a young documentary filmmaker whose films are powerful depictions of real life in China.
We also visited Duan Jinchuan and Jiang Yue, two veteran documentary filmmakers, who explained China's censorship system and told me how independent filmmakers operate outside the official film industry.
As I traveled through Beijing, I was also struck by the massive construction projects, many of them in preparation for the 2008 Olympics. As I walked down a sidewalk one day, I was surrounded by a stream of migrant construction workers heading back to their makeshift barracks. The procession stretched for an entire city block, but they were just a handful of the 3 million migrants in Beijing who have traveled from rural China to Beijing to find work. I realized that I had seen these faces in the films I'd been watching.
Later, Jia Zhangke told me he felt he had become a filmmaker by accident, that he should be one of his characters. He was taking a break from editing his latest film, Still Life, which is about a village flooded by the Three Gorges Dam project.
I asked him if his film tried to capture the lives of ordinary Chinese people in a way that journalism cannot.
"People may pay more attention to the news, but when the news is over, when the dam is finished, how will the villagers live?" Jia answered.
"The news won't care anymore. What kind of problems do the villagers face? How do they live? What do they eat? How do they breathe? These things are what movies portray best."
The following month, in September, Jia premiered Still Life at the Venice International Film Festival, where it won the Golden Lion, the festival's top prize.
-- Joshua Fisher
About FRONTLINE/World Fellows
Joshua Fisher's story about Chinese filmmakers is the latest story in the FRONTLINE/World Fellows program, sponsored by the Carnegie Corporation of New York. It is part of our ongoing effort to identify and mentor the next generation of video, print and online journalists.
The program, started in 2003, has showcased the work of talented young journalists, who have traveled across the world to report their stories. You can see them all here.
As part of the latest Fellows projects, made possible through our partnership with the U.C. Berkeley, Columbia and Northwestern Graduate Schools of Journalism, we will be publishing stories from Liberia and Morocco in the coming months.
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