CinemaTalk: A Conversation with Filmmaker Wu Wenguang on the Memory Project

By Maya E. Rudolph

After his screening series premiering many works from the Getting the Past Out Loud: Memory Projects at New York University, I spoke with filmmaker and Memory Projects organizer Wu Wenguang about the project, a new generation of filmmakers, and his view on screening works in the US. The event was held at the NYU Center for Religion and Media and co-sponsored by the Department of Cinema Studies, with generous support from China House.

Special thanks to NYU Professors Angela Zito and Zhang Zhen for curating the program and arranging this interview with Wu Wenguang.

Wu Wenguang at NYU

dGF: When and how did the Memory Project begin?

Wu Wenguang: The project started last year. It was last summer that we had the opportunity to start this. It was during this time we first started going to villages to conduct interviews. It had to be summer, this was the ideal season for heading off to these villages. So, everyone headed off to their own villages, their hometowns, for these interviews. When they got back, everyone started to edit, give advice, collaborate. This is how we got started.

dGF: The majority of the people participating in this project as filmmakers are pretty young, born in the 80s or 90s. You’ve said that your generation’s view of cinema differs greatly from that of these young people. What do you feel you have to teach one another – what kind of exchange do you have?

WWG: These kids have a lot of confidence, real self-starters. I don’t know if I really can teach them much. We can simply work together. Sometimes, the people in these villages think I’ve taught them how to shoot and what to shoot. This isn’t the case; they’ve chosen how and what to shoot by themselves. What I have to teach them isn’t important. What is important is their own work and how they choose to conduct it.

dGF: In some of the films, the subjects express hesitation about having the films shown abroad. They’re worried that foreigners will develop a negative view of China or Chinese village life. As someone who works hard to have these films screened abroad, how do you reconcile this contradiction?

WWG: Yes, this appears especially in Zou Xueping‘s film Satiated Village. The villagers expressed these kinds of misgivings. They are worried. They think foreigners won’t understand, will laugh at them. When you saw this film, did you want to laugh at them?

dGF: Definitely not. History is complicated.

WWG: It’s not even about history. It’s about human understanding. Would you look at this work and this, “You are so stupid?”

dGF: Of course not.

WWG: Right. But they are afraid, they even assume that you will look at them and say “You are so stupid.” But you won’t. They need to be told now that you would not say this, that you won’t laugh at them.

dGF: Jian Yi’s IFChina Original Studio has closed recently. What do you think about this? Does it create any concern for or have any effect on your Caochangdi Workstation?

WWG: I believe they are relocating to new location. I’m not totally clear on the events surrounding this. Why did they have to close? I think, overall, no one can really make them close their doors. There is no such thing as closing off this kind of organization now – we have email, we have internet. Nobody can stop you. Just one person – yourself – can stop you. No one else can force you to do anything. Even if they [IFChina] no longer have the cooperation of the University and they get kicked out, they can find some other place to operate. They’ll find a new place and continue to work.

dFG: I agree. So, this is the last time most of these works have screened in the US. How did you feel about the audience reaction?

WWG: This was about what I expected. The audience was great and received all the pieces really well. The best audience is one that really gets the work, will engage with the filmmakers and material. The best audience is one that really expresses interest in the work. They can come from any background and just come to watch, start thinking after watching. That’s the goal.