Interview Excerpts With the Filmmakers
Jia Zhangke talks with Joshua Fisher about his childhood memories of the end of the Cultural Revolution and the sweeping societal changes that followed. He also describes how he dropped into filmmaking almost by accident rather than by design.
Joshua Fisher: Your early films are set in Fenyang, your hometown in Shanxi Province. What was it like growing up in rural China during the 1970s and 1980s?
Jia Zhangke: My earliest memories are from the period at the end of the Cultural Revolution. At that time, family relations and the overall atmosphere in society were totally different than today. People did not have private lives, or even social lives outside of their work units.
In the early 1980s, I clearly remember my parents coming home very late every evening. They went to sleep immediately, and the next day they got up early and went back to work. They gave all their time to the work unit. Personal lives were not important. And there were no businesses on the street. In my memory, the whole town of Fenyang is empty.
How did Fenyang change as you were growing up?
Change came quickly. In 1977, when I was in elementary school, I was always hungry because there was a food shortage. Then, in the 1980s, people started buying televisions, washing machines and now even computers.
After the economic reforms of the 1980s, people gradually acquired the right to a personal life. They could go to movie theaters. Women began to wear skirts and style their hair. Men played sports and billiards.
Today, we are a completely consumer-driven society. If you go back to Fenyang today, you will find a dynamic economy in front of your eyes.
When did you move to Beijing?
I was 23 years old when I came to Beijing. It was 1993.
What was your first impression of the city?
I felt that Beijing was not a convenient city. I was studying at the Beijing Film Academy, which was located near the third ring road, and every time we wanted to cross the street, we had to climb up the pedestrian overpass. It was difficult for a small-town boy like me. I couldn't adapt. I always had a feeling of distance from the city.
I think the criticism is right. But there is darkness everywhere. China has a dark side. America has a dark side. Every historical period has a dark side. Life itself is dark. Where there are people, there is darkness.
Of course, Beijing was also exciting because there were movies to watch. But there weren't many DVDs in China at the time, and foreign movies were not easily available. I had to ride my bicycle to a French elementary school in the embassy district to watch movies by Godard and Truffaut. It's a very good memory: almost an hour-long bike ride ... only the city can offer this.
It was also a booming time for youth culture -- rock and roll, independent movies, performance art, conceptual art. All these things were booming. People were more interested in things outside the mainstream.
Today, Beijing is not as attractive to me because it has become very consumer-oriented, and everything is mainstream. It has lost its original charm.
How did you become a filmmaker?
It happened gradually. In my hometown, there were only two paths -- either join the military or apply to college. Because I wanted to go to college, I began to study the arts. And because of this, I fell in love with movies.
But at the beginning, it was all about making a living. In my early twenties I didn't have much ambition for art or interest in movies. It's an accident in my life. I chose art -- not because I liked it but because the college entrance scores were lower.
Why do you want to capture the transformation of China on film?
This period has seen the most dramatic change in Chinese history, and it's a good time for photographers to use their cameras. The Chinese people have experienced many tragedies. The Cultural Revolution was one of them, but there were many others.
In China, people have not often used cameras to record history. Because of economic and cultural reasons, there were almost no private images taken during the 10 years of the Cultural Revolution. Now, because of economic progress in the 1990s, we are able to record change. I am lucky to be working in this era.
Even though your film The World takes place in Beijing, you still include a character from your hometown -- the migrant construction worker who is killed in an accident. Why did you include this character in the film?
Social change happens quickly, and many people are sacrificed. So, when I have the opportunity to make movies, I want to capture this. I don't want those lives to be forgotten. Artists cannot change anything, but artists can bring dignity to these people in movies.
In real life, some things are unforgettable. Social change happens quickly, and many people are sacrificed. So, when I have the opportunity to make movies, I want to capture this. Frankly speaking, I don't want those lives to be forgotten. I don't want those people to be forgotten. Artists cannot change anything, but artists can bring dignity to these people in movies.
Some have criticized you for showing the dark side of Chinese society in your films. How do you respond to this?
I think the criticism is right. But there is darkness everywhere. China has a dark side. America has dark side. Every historical period has a dark side. Life itself is dark. Where there are people, there is darkness.
Beijing is preparing for the 2008 Olympics with some impressive construction projects. Do you think the Olympics will benefit the rest of China as much as it does Beijing?
I think any benefits that come will not be from the Olympics. They will come from the Chinese people themselves. The force of progress comes from the people, from those who silently follow the crowd.
Over the past 10 years, I've felt that the opening up of our society might regress. But it never has. I think the Chinese people understand the bottom line -- that we want more freedom, more individualism.
I'm proud to be a filmmaker. It not only provides me a living -- I won't go hungry -- it also makes me feel like I am doing something meaningful, like I am part of the wave moving society forward.
Excerpts from Interviews With Duan Jinchuan and Jiang Yue
Documentary filmmakers Duan Jinchuan and Jiang Yue talk about the realities of working under Chinese censorship, the early films they produced but were never released, and how their work has gained a small but influential following over the last 10 years.
Joshua Fisher: What restrictions do filmmakers in China face?
Duan Jinchuan: China's media is not a platform for free expression. After you finish a movie, it has to pass the censors to reach an audience. On the other hand, nowadays China's media is also highly commercialized. Great importance is given to audience ratings. Ratings are almost the only way that TV programs and movies are judged. So it's strange that, on the one hand, the media must follow government restrictions and, on the other hand, it pursues commercial interests. The mixture makes the life of documentary filmmakers very hard.
Jiang Yue: In a film like Fahrenheit 9/11, Michael Moore interviews high-level officials. But in China, no independent filmmaker can interview senior officials. For example, should China build the Three Gorges Dam? If I tried to approach a senior official to ask this question, they would slap me and drive me out. Or issues like whether the Tibet railway will have a negative effect. Those are impossible questions.
What influence do your films have on Chinese society?
Jiang Yue: We have been making documentaries for a long time. When we started, we understood that our films might not be released, that they might not reach a broad audience. So we were mentally prepared for this. But we felt that just making a film was the most important thing.
Duan Jichuan: The documentaries we made 10 years ago attracted no attention at the time, but, over time, they have become more and more influential, and more and more people have seen them. I think this is a just part of the development of documentary film in China.
Mostly, our films influence a small group of people, such as intellectuals, who share the same interests as us. But we have also discovered a devious road. That is, our documentaries can influence members of the official media. We are both members of the avant-garde, post-1989 movement of documentary makers. Although our independent films are not released publicly, they have a large influence among others in the media industry. This is an indirect effect.
Unlike America and other Western countries, we've found that the reality of Chinese history is completely different from what we learned in school. So we feel we have a responsibility to convey reality.
Jiang Yue: And now there are a lot of documentary filmmakers. This is another influence.
Duan Jinchuan: We've roused the passion of young people. Although it's a difficult road, there are still people who love it.
What are you working on now?
Jiang Yue: Recently, we have been making documentaries about Chinese history. In our research, we found that there are very few images of people's daily life from 1949 to the 1980s and 1990s. We are restoring the record of real life.
Duan Jinchuan: Unlike America and other Western countries, we've found that the reality of Chinese history is completely different from what we learned in school. So we feel we have a responsibility to convey reality. This is an important task for us, and we are slowly achieving this goal.
We have talked about the restrictions on China's media, but you still can slowly penetrate the limit. You can't expect China's media to be completely open when you wake up tomorrow morning. It's unrealistic. But there's got to be someone pushing it so that restrictions will become fewer, and the chances for free expression will become higher. We hope to improve this situation.