CinemaTalk: Conversation with Edward Wong of the New York Times on Chinese Indie Filmmaking

In the August 14 edition of the New York Times, Edward Wong profiles Zhao Liang, director of two of the most fearlessly independent social documentaries to come from China, Crime and Punishment and Petition. Zhao has recently transitioned to work with the Chinese government to produce Together, an “official” documentary on Chinese HIV victims. That decision and an earlier one involving involving Zhao’s withdrawal from an Australian film festival in support of a political protest by the Chinese government have drawn the criticism of a few occasional supporters and collaborators, including outspoken artist-activist Ai Weiwei, whose detention by the Chinese government this year drew international attention. The article summarizes its central concern in one paragraph:

Mr. Zhao’s evolution from a filmmaker hounded by the government to one whom it celebrates offers a window into hard choices that face directors as they try to carve out space for self-expression in China’s authoritarian system. Like Mr. Zhao, many seek to balance their independent visions with their desires to live securely and win recognition.

Listen to a podcast interview with Wong from the Sinica podcast on Popup Chinese.

We interviewed Wong about his experience reporting this story and its broader relevance on art and culture in contemporary China.

dGF: What attracted you to report on this story?

Edward Wong: While living in Beijing, I had watched and greatly admired two of Zhao Liang’s films, “Crime and Punishment” and “Petition.” In November 2010, I met him at a dinner in the 798 arts district with Karin Chien, the founder of dGenerate Films. At that time, he was working on “Together,” a documentary that the Health Ministry had commissioned as a public service announcement about people with HIV/AIDS. For the film, he had just recorded a song by Peng Liyuan, the celebrity wife of Xi Jinping, the man who is expected to become the next leader of China. Zhao also told me about how he had used social networking websites to track down interview subjects with HIV/AIDS. This new project sounded interesting. We talked a lot too about the making of “Crime and Punishment,” and about how he had lied to police officers to get access to their station house in northeast China.

I found Zhao to be an engaging person, and I thought that he might make an interesting profile. As I spent time with him, I found he had a lot of interesting things to say not only about making films, but also about the role of artists and intellectuals in China.

dGF: Given that this story is part of a series on Culture and Control in China, do you see the issues and challenges that Zhao Liang faced common to other cultural sectors or artists in China?

Wong: Yes, the challenges that Zhao Liang confronts every time he makes a film are familiar to artists across China. The question I keep hearing from artists here, especially those who work in a mass medium like film, is: How do you maintain your artistic integrity and get your work seen without bowing too much to government restrictions? In the American system, it’s often market forces, represented most powerfully by studio executives, that hold sway over filmmakers. Here, the government can have great influence over a film if the filmmaker wants wide distribution for it. Filmmakers who want their films seen in theaters both engage in self-censorship and negotiate with censors over scripts and rough cuts.

Even though Zhao went through that process on “Together,” the documentary still turned out to be a socially committed film, and Zhao doesn’t seem to have bought into the system – he told me his next film will be made in an independent manner, outside the censorship process and with foreign financing. But if he does go the independent route, which is a familiar one for him, he’ll have to live with the fact that the film almost certainly will not be seen by many Chinese. During our interviews, he told me repeatedly that he makes films for a Chinese audience.

Gu Changwei, a supervising director on “Together” and a much more prominent filmmaker than Zhao, has chosen to make movies within the system. On every production, he has to negotiate with representatives of the state. He told me the film bureau and the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television, or Sarft, are “the most conservative – there’s no way to be more cautious than they are.” This is what many artists working in different media across China face: negotiating their work and their relations with conservative censors and officials, many of whom come from an older generation.

dGF: What were the most significant ways that working on this article changed or enhanced your understanding of independent films and filmmakers in China?

Wong: The most interesting aspect of researching this article was seeing the dialogue between filmmakers with an independent spirit and the state. During the reporting process, I learned in detail from Zhao Liang, Gu Changwei and others about the negotiations that take place between filmmakers and representatives of the government, particularly with censors from the film bureau. I felt privileged to get a glimpse into the way the system works. Zhao described for me some of the discussions he had with censors and officials over content in “Together.” It was interesting for me to hear what roles various government bodies played – the Health Ministry, the Central Propaganda Department and the film bureau of Sarft.

Gu had an interesting story about navigating the system in order to get approval from the film bureau for “Love for Life,” the narrative fiction film that was a companion piece to “Together.” Once Gu had the idea for the film, he had to first get support from the Health Ministry before film officials would approve the project, since it was on a topic (HIV/AIDS) that some officials still consider sensitive, and it was based on a banned book. Once health officials had agreed to back the project, the film officials knew they could shift the blame to the health officials if anything went wrong, so they granted approval. This process of constant negotiation was fascinating to me.

As for as filmmakers working outside the system, I found in my reporting that independent directors and producers are dedicated to their visions of society and work together in a community to realize those visions even when there is little financial backing and no official support. Despite the constant attempts by the state to control the industry, that fierce spirit makes me optimistic about Chinese film.

dGF: How would you characterize the response to your article, especially in comparison between Chinese and non-Chinese readers?

Wong: The response has been consistently positive. Many Western readers told me they find Zhao Liang compelling and thought the narrative revealed to them the intricacies of artistic creation and political dialogue in China. My Chinese friends who have read the article in English said it accurately shows the nuances in making choices that relate to the state.

If you’re an intellectual in China, these are choices and decisions you grapple with all the time, in ways big and small, and I think many intellectuals in China get frustrated with how Westerners often frame those choices: as a duality between being a complete rebel or being a sellout. For many foreigners, Ai Weiwei, for better or for worse, has come to represent the ideal of an artist in China. Zhao Liang and many Chinese intellectuals do not follow Ai Weiwei’s lead. They take a more pragmatic path. Certainly they create art or start public conversations that make many officials uncomfortable, but they sometimes acquiesce to demands by officials too. And the government and the Communist Party are not monolithic. There are officials who quietly support even some of the more controversial work by these artists. There’s a fluidity in China, and people move in both directions. One Chinese friend wrote this to me in an email: “The piece did a good job showing the readers the dilemma artists like Zhao are facing in China today, and that agreeing to work within the system can have many subtle implications and is not as black-and-white as ‘going over to the dark side.’” Last time I checked, there wasn’t much response from readers on Zhao Liang’s microblog, but one person commented that the story was the most complete one he or she had read on Zhao, and that Zhao was “niubi” which is Chinese slang for ultra-cool.

dGF: Reading about Zhao Liang being caught between two worlds (the independent network and the state apparatus), I couldn’t help wondering if it was analogous to your own position as a reporter working in China for a U.S. newspaper. What sort of challenges do you experience in your role as a foreign reporter? Does working for a major publication like the NY Times bring any kind of stigma (positive or otherwise) to your interactions in China?

Wong: Working for a Western news media organization in China draws a wide range of reactions from ordinary Chinese. It really can vary, so I don’t want to generalize. From my experience with the central government and with local authorities, Chinese officials are at best ambivalent and at worst downright hostile to foreign journalists. That reaction can change from region to region, or as broader political trends in China shift.

I wouldn’t say my situation is analogous at all to that of Chinese artists and intellectuals. The fact that I have foreign citizenship makes a big difference in my relationship with the Chinese state, obviously. I don’t feel the pressures from the state as keenly. Also, I work in the American mass media system, which has much wider latitude for freedom of expression than mass media in China.

That said, I do think that whenever you work in an institution, you become bound by the limits of that institution, and that’s where I would say my experience might have some overlap with that of Chinese artists and intellectuals. As is obvious to anyone who reads it, The New York Times has strict formats in which news is presented and rules that govern how reporters write their stories. It can be something as simple as choice of words, for example, or it can have more to do with judging what crosses the line between so-called objective reporting and opinion. These are things that all reporters at The New York Times and in other news media organizations negotiate everyday. I have great respect for The New York Times and its role in public discourse in the United States, but there are boundaries that reporters are always trying to navigate and limits that they are testing. I believe this situation helps me empathize with Chinese artists and intellectuals, though the world in which they operate is a much tougher one, and they are much braver souls than me.

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