To commemorate Zhao Liang’s visit to the United States, we have translated a lengthy interview with Zhao, originally published in the Chinese magazine Liang You. Translation by Yuqian Yan:
In 1996, when Jia Zhangke picked up a 16mm camera to film his fellow townsmen in Linfen, Zhao Liang, who used to live across the corridor to Jia at Beijing Film Academy, held the camera to record a special group of people – petitioners near Beijing South Railway Station.
Twelve years later Jia Zhangke has shifted his early interest in documentary to a recent martial art film project, and he even became a jury chairman at the Cannes Film Festival, while Zhao Liang eventually finished his 12-year project Petition, and was invited to a special screening at Cannes. Therefore he’s still a novice at Cannes. “Never mind. It’s quite common for a forty or fifty-year-old to be called a young director.”
From the bottom of his heart, Zhao Liang doesn’t see himself as that “young” since it’s very rare now to be moved to tears by what he is filming as he used to be. Most of the time, he’s rather quiet and calm deep down inside, with no strong emotion. “I’ve become an old man, not easily moved. This is not the same as being numb, since I use my brain to think more often.” He also finished his filming of the petitioners. “I’m sure I’ll continue to keep an eye on them since we are already friends. But I won’t shoot any more. I’m physically and mentally exhausted, mostly a mentally. The topic is very sensitive and I’m under huge pressure.” In order to most truthfully record the process of petitioning and keep himself safe, Zhao Liang almost lived in disguise all the time. “I had to wear shabby clothes to film the petition, whereas to film the government’s reaction, I dressed up like an official.”
Journalist: Director Zhao, it’s my pleasure to interview you. First of all, I want to ask how you understand Prof. Cui Weiping’s conclusion of “Sisyphus’s children?” Like Sisyphus rolling the huge boulder up the hill, the petitioners also struggle to achieve an impossible mission with unflinching courage. Including yourself, over ten years shooting is also a long, persistent process.
Zhao: I like this metaphor a lot, and I’m deeply touched by it. Her conclusion is very accurate. These people’s life and mental state is exactly like what she concludes.
Journalist: Prof. Cui also proposed another question, whether their stubborn personality led to the tragedy of their life or the tragedy caused their stubborn personality? What do you think?
Zhao: In this film, stubbornness is a virtue. In fact I see stubbornness as human nature, but its nature is not easily perceivable in most people. I think that this nature can nurture a person. Perhaps you may never come across such a situation that reveals your stubborn nature. I also feel that this is very complicated. Personality determines a person’s overall temperament, but fate is formed by different aspects and forces. No one wants to live such a tough life, but they have no choice. Actually lots of people who come to Beijing to petition have to give up eventually because of the political situation here, as well as their own financial problems.
Journalist: Did this stubborn personality affect you when you were shooting this film?
Zhao: For me, observing and filming are my personal interest. As a bystander, I’m not part of them, and my persistence does not match even one thousandth of theirs. It’s not comparable. I can only use my own way to express my opinion on them.
Zhao: This is also quite complicated. As a professional documentary director, I have to satisfy myself in the end. Compared to other film genres, documentary has its unique social value and meanings. I have the responsibility to record their living state and the reality that is unknown to most people. There’s very little such report in our society. I’ll be very gratified if I can use my camera to preserve their living state and show it to general audiences.
Journalist: How do you see the international and national screening of this film, and the contrast between the two versions?
Zhao: The film is just my personal opinion, my own work. As a film, it doesn’t have a nationality. I want to show it to people, no matter if they’re white, yellow or black. I use audio-visual language to show audiences my world, my mind and my surroundings. For me, a Western audience is different from an Eastern audience. It’s the objective condition. I can only do my own part, and I don’t want to impose my own expectation on them. Of course, as for the meaning of social development, showing it to Chinese will be more efficient. But foreigners certainly have the right to watch our films.
As for the length of the film, my mentality is that the short version should be more suitable for international promotion. For me, foreigners don’t need to know too many details. The short version still contains the overall structure and major content, and its accuracy is not reduced by the shortening of the length. Maybe for Chinese people, the more detailed long version is more interesting to them, while these details are not necessary for the culturally and socially different Western audiences.
Journalist: In the short version, many dramatic elements about Fan Xiaojuan and her mother is gone, even some essential content.
Zhao: But a film has limited capacity. The general mood of the short one is tough and brave, so I tried to avoid tears during the editing. For example, I would avoid scenes that might sadden the audiences and trigger tears. I tried to make my work more masculine. But in the longer version, I highlighted the mother-daughter story. If the audiences feel like to cry, let them cry freely.
In the longer version, the mother-daughter story is told in flashback, across-edited with the ongoing reality. Their ten-year life experience is reflected in the long process of looking for the mother. In the two-hour version, the structure is readjusted to help the audience understand the film. Too complicated plot may cause many misunderstandings, such as confusions in the chronological order. The relationship between different characters is quite complicated.
Journalist: In the two-hour masculine version, what do you think the climactic moment for tears is?
Zhao: In fact the mother-daughter story still has the tear-triggering effect. For me, when Xiaojuan found her mother and the two of them sitting in the room and talking, my eyes were watering. From a male perspective, bursting into tears is not necessary. The long version has a scene of Xiaojuan picking up a bottle from my car and handing it to her mother. The emotional feeling between the daughter and mother is truly communicated through this media. Their past still lives in them. Although the bottle itself is valueless, their life experience and class remind them not to forget their roots. It’s very tear-triggering to me.
Journalist: The opening scene of the whole group is also very powerful. It’s almost like the petitioners emptying out their pain and suffering that have been accumulated for so many years in front of the camera.
Zhao: In the original edited version, the talking alone was about half an hour. The content was very rich. I asked Kong Jinglei to help me with edit, but she couldn’t help crying after the first part. I’ve never encountered such situation in my work before. I’m very sure about the use of the group opening scene since its impact is very powerful.
Zhao: Of course in this film, my self-expression is very important. I present my thoughts here; I reorganize their life in my film in order to tell the audiences my opinion on them. Their excitement or sadness is the element I want to express. Broadly speaking, documentary is more about showing others a personal angle, personal perspective and thoughts. In my opinion, a work shouldn’t carry too many meanings. Of course it’s great fortune if it can carry some other social meanings. But as long as the author can elaborately articulate his/her intention, it will be a good work.
Journalist: But your previous works are all concerned about serious social topics, consciously or unconsciously.
Zhao: All I think or care about is always in conflict with and in relation to the social and political system. But I don’t insistently expect my film to generate such social value.
Journalist: In Tuchimoto Noriaki’s retrospective in this film festival, Tuchimoto says that film is the fruit of happiness, although minamata disease is a tragic social reality. Did you feel happy during your filming?
Zhao: It was very painful, no happiness at all. I tried to be more professional. All that was happening was very worth recording.
Journalist: If I understand this from a different angle, is it possible that the concept of professionalization also contains a certain utilitarian purpose?
Zhao: When you have witnessed so much suffering and experienced it with them, if you still think about awards, think about fame and gains, you’d better try some other things that will benefit you more. For me, fame and material gains are not the case. Whether it’s appreciated by other people or wins certain awards, it’s just other’s opinions, which is not important to me. I’m very clear how much I suffered for this film and how much pressure I underwent. As a man of my age, once I start doing something, it’s essential to carry it through to the end. I have to make good use of my time. Of course if you say it’s also utilitarianism, then it is. Anyway, I must be responsible to myself.
Journalist: During the Q and A, the audiences were very excited. Sometimes they were simply expressing themselves, and occasionally you and the host had to interrupt their talks.
Zhao: It’s related to their education level and the occasion for the conversation. You have to know what you are doing. In such a workshop occasion, the purpose is not to listen to their self-expression. It’s not their lecture. You have to be clear what your role is as an individual. Interruption is quite normal; I even feel it’s a joke. The film made some of the audiences outraged. But either vituperation or other voices, the audiences should understand what to do in different occasions. For me, all sorts of situations are quite natural. They are not a big deal for me.
Journalist: Did you feel sad or worried during the filming process? Did you think that if this tragedy caused by the institutional system might happen to you, perhaps in the next second, you would become a petitioner yourself?
Zhao: It’s not my personality. I’m probably more like Yang Jia and would react in a more violent and direct way. Petitioning is unlikely to happen to me. I know it’s a meaningless thing and I don’t want to waste my energy. Of course, the petitioners were absolutely right by saying my petition today also indicated your future. It would be your turn some time. What they referred to is the lack of safety caused by this social system and judicial flaws. Since the Constitution is not actually executed, we all possibly become a victim some day.
Journalist: Was there anyone who refused to cooperate during your filming?
Zhao: One guy who lived under the bridge was extremely difficult to communicate. He spoke in a very strange way and always talked about difficult political theories. He lived at the end of the bridge opening and stayed there even after all other people were driven away by the authority. He replaced a square brick on the side of the bridge opening with a piece of glass. In the morning, he moved the brick away to get some daylight, and put it back during night so that he was not found by the authority. He made a living by picking garbage and spent the rest of his time writing. He never went to petition. He saw himself as a Ninja, waiting for something to happen, kind of like Waiting for Godot. Although his way of thinking might be a bit awkward, his words and expressions were quite accurate if you think them over carefully. I was not able to understand him through my own intelligence and logic. He never let me film him, and I could never enter his world.
Zhao: In fact, the most difficult part was Xiao Juan and her mom. Their relationship with me was a different kind. It was a long process of repeatedly turning distrust into trust, and then it became distrust again. Xiaojuan’s mother was angry at me for Xiaojuan’s leaving since she thought I helped her to leave. Later, Xiaojuan went to the local government and the fake news made by the local government was broadcasted on TV. She thought that it was me who filmed the fake news and gave it to the government. She thought that I was from the local TV Station so she refused to be filmed by me from then on. Xiaojuan’s mother published a search notice on the newspaper for Xiaojuan’s return to Beijing. Her refusal caused me lots of trouble.
Journalist: Xiaojuan always trusted you.
Zhao: Right. Xiaojuan had trust in me, and this relationship continued for many years. She was still very young at the beginning and there was almost no one she could rely on in the entire village. Then she figured out that she was not the biological child in the family, so she always came to me whenever she was in trouble. She asked me for advice on whether she should go to English class, or how to find her lost things, etc.
Journalist: The film mentions Xiaojuan’s several love relations. They are all very realistic, but she’s real strong.
Zhao: Right. She’s much more mature than me. The environment of the South Station is very complicated. It’s a strange circle that doesn’t affect outsiders. But she lives exactly inside it. It’s a completely different level. She’s in a very dangerous situation where the homeless, security guards, garbage-pickers can easily take advantage of her. It’s another kind of danger. Although there’s no detail in the film to present this danger, the mental state of the petitioners is perceivable from my depiction of the group. The purpose of my film is not to tell how dangerous their life is. There aren’t many scenes about their life. The depiction of this part is rather simple. I put more effort into the broad picture and different temporal layers.
Journalist: Will your next film continue to focus on such social realist topics?
Zhao: It’s hard to tell. Now I have a general line and I’ll look for something. I plan to travel around the country, more importantly to look for myself. At the same time, I want to know what is the soul of this country and this nation. This topic might be too big, but I always have some doubts about our nation. I need to go out and see. It’s more like a returning process. When a person reaches a certain age, he/she need to look for something psychological and spiritual.
Journalist: You mentioned in a recent interview that you hope to express yourself elegantly. But most contemporary Chinese documentaries are quite rough and direct.
Zhao: First of all, you need to understand what I mean by elegant. It has nothing to do with how rough and shaky the film is. In fact rough and shaky can be elegant as well. Like what Cong Feng said, he was very excited after he saw the film. The characters in this film are very elegant. To see elegance and grace from the petitioners is exactly what I want to express. Of course, each aspect is important, such as your mentality of creation, what level your lens can reach, whether your image is able to present the leitmotif of your film. My “elegance” is more about the overall artistic system.
Journalist: Can you summarize your artistic system during the past 10 years, apart from your sensitive expression of the institutional system.
Zhao: In fact, my topics are not very broad. I’m like a fish, swimming in the reality of Chinese society. My deepest feelings and thoughts are about the institutional system. I’m touching it all the time and all I want to express is related to it. So my next film is probably still about the system. Actually, no matter what you film, you can never jump out of this circle. Any thoughts and worries would have to cover this part. I’m not a very brave man, so I was always very careful and I only shot under absolute safe conditions. This caused huge psychological pressure in the past years. Sometimes I even felt that I was followed and tried to find a way to escape. Sometime I thought that my phone had gone wrong. Maybe not. It might just be my illusion, but the huge psychological pressure made me more curious about things around me. Ever since I was a kid, my dad told me that I could do whatever I wanted expect touch politics. The system is by nature a big black thing. My fear for it is deeply rooted in me.
Edited by Zhao Lili