Filmmaker Qi Zhao discusses the making of his film, Fallen City, and his personal experience with the Beichuan earthquake.
Qi Zhao: Fallen City is a film about how three surviving families of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake have been through in the three years’ time. They’re trying to find their life back.
I came to make Fallen City by chance, actually, but it’s also sort of destined as well. I was at the earthquake zone three days after the earthquake. It was chaotic, and I wouldn’t know what to do. But I had a hunch that something larger than making just a story of rescue is lying there. And it’s luck that I had the patience to follow my characters in three years’ time to explore something that really touches me.
As time went by I was naturally getting closer and intimate with these three families. They trusted me, allowing me to access their lives and sharing me with their emotions. And as each family has lost a family member, their story is just as compelling as long as they are willing to share their grief and show their hearts with no hide.
The first year was very hard. I wouldn’t want to invade their lives as they were in a really deep mourning period. So I just constantly paid visits to them, trying to soothe if possible, but just try to be with them. And then the second year is getting better, as they slowly got back on their feet and restarted life. I began to shoot something more and ask more in this period. Many testimonies were made during this period. In the third year, we were very close already. We talked a lot. We almost talked about anything. They even come out as for different issues in life.
And for me I think there’s no trick building up the trust with your character. You have to give them your trust to win their trust to you. And it’s more like treating them as a friend instead of treating them only as a target on the other side of your camera.
Fallen City is not a very dramatic story. It’s a quiet film, and it has a lot of space for meditation. Through Fallen City, I’m trying to learn and explore more how a generation was thrusted in their relentless pursuit of economic growth and uprooted from their past. The earthquake is something very concrete in the film. But for me it’s also a metaphor of the fracture that lines out the two 30 years before and after the Open Reform policy. It’s a hard lesson to learn that only material upgrading is not enough if a belief is absent.
How did making the film change myself? Well I think I have been changed a lot, more than you can imagine, because I decided to have a baby in the making of Fallen City, when I learned and felt more the attachment in the family and also the eternal feelings for a loved one.
I’m very happy that I finally made the film, Fallen City. I never wanted to quit, but I did doubt that I would be able to finally make it, with regard to both finance and the creative part. It’s very hard to raise money in the very beginning and it’s even harder to find the story, as nothing but sorrow happened in the first year. I’m happy and I feel lucky that I finally worked out something I’m entangled with.
Why do I choose to work in documentary films? Well I just love people. I like talking to people. And also I’m always touched by stories and emotions. So maybe that’s the base to be a documentary filmmaker. And also I’m in China with 1.3 billion people moving very fast from a 5,000-year history to a very modern future. There are just amazing stories happening every minute. It is blessed to be a documentary filmmaker here in China.
I would appreciate if anyone would be able to take anything out of the film. I intend to make the story broad. The pace is good for meditation, for people to think. So I would not be surprised if people get different things out of it, and actually that’s my wish. I want people to pick anything that they can feel out of it.
I think it’s a good chance for the audience to learn something different about China and try to see this country and people from an angle of a quiet introspection.