dGenerate Films presents CinemaTalk, an ongoing series of conversations with esteemed scholars of Chinese cinema studies. These conversations are presented on this site in audio podcast and/or text format. They are intended to help the Chinese cinema studies community keep abreast of the latest work being done in the field, as well as to learn what recent Chinese films are catching the attention of others. This series reflects our mission to bring valuable resources and foster community around the field of Chinese film studies.
An award-winning journalist, David Bandurski is currently a writer and researcher for the China Media Project, a research program of the Journalism & Media Studies Centre at the University of Hong Kong. His writings have appeared in Far Eastern Economic Review, the Wall Street Journal, Index on Censorship, the South China Morning Post and other publications. He received a Human Rights Press Award in 2008 for an investigative piece for the Far Eastern Economic Review on China’s use of professional associations to enforce Internet censorship guidelines. David was also co-recipient of a Merit Prize in Commentary in 2007. Mr. Bandurski’s involvement with China’s nascent independent documentary scene began in 2005, as he made contact with several filmmakers while writing about the movement. Realizing the power of digital video technology, Mr. Bandurski decided to turn a planned long-form narrative article about the African community in Guangzhou into a documentary feature. This began a long and fruitful collaboration with Guangzhou-based filmmaker Zhao Dayong.
In this interview, dGenerate Films’ Kevin Lee talks to David Bandurski about his involvement with Ghost Town and director Zhao Dayong, the film’s reception both in China and abroad, and his ongoing work with the China Media Project.
Note: This interview was conducted with David via Skype. There are occasional moments of audio breakup. A full transcript follows after the break.
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DGF: I want to ask you many questions about your involvement in the film given that it’s an independent documentary produced in China, but you’re a American. And I want to know about your relationship with Zhao Dayong. How did you get involved with him and how did you get involved with producing his films?
DB: I guess I could start with this movement, as some people call it, coming to my attention, and that was in 2005. I was already in Hong Kong and I was focusing in my research at the University here on journalism in China, and specifically on investigative reporting in China, and I was looking at the work that Chinese journalists were doing in a really tough environment. At one point, I think it was spring of 2005, we had a visiting fellow form Fudan University, Lu Xinyu. You may know that name: Lu Xinyu has written a book about Chinese independent documentary, and its called China’s New Documentary Movement. So we had Lu Xinyu for several weeks and we were sharing an office and I looked over one day and she had a stack of films, DVDs sitting there. They all had these kind of black and white, obscure looking covers, and they looked very homemade, and I asked her what those were. She gave me a couple to take home and explained that these were independent films. They weren’t approved through the official approval system. I recognized immediately that this was something really special. In a way, they were accomplishing what a lot of the traditional press work that I was looking at couldn’t and it was just really good solid non-fiction for me.
Dayong and I just hit it off immediately. I did the subtitle work on Street Life, and already in the works at that time was Ghost Town. We started working on Ghost Town, and we also started My Father’s House quite early because I was making trips back to forth to Guangzhou doing a lot of non-fiction writing myself and the next big piece I had planned was on the growing African migrant community in Guangzhou. So I said why don’t we do this as a documentary film, why don’t we collaborate on this, so that’s how it all started.
DGF: Let’s focus specifically on Ghost Town and specifically your responsibilities in the production of the film, and any particular challenges you faced in the production of this film.
DB: I’ve been involved quite early on in our working relation, Ghost Town was one of the central projects and in early 2006, even as we were completing the post production on Street Life and beginning to work on My Father’s House, Dayong was making a few trips to Zhiziluo and filming that story and he said, “Look I’m going to make a big trip in late summer, in the fall. Why don’t you come over at Christmastime and spend a few weeks and watch me working?” And I did that and it was an amazing experience. I encourage that anyone go to this area, its just a beautiful area.
If I explain my role for Ghost Town I think translation in the larger sense, in the bigger sense. So that was huge when you consider that the original languages here are Lisu and Nu dialects and some Mandarin. That was one of the largest tasks. One of the things to recognize about Dayong’s strengths in filming this as well, if you can imagine him spending weeks immersed in this environment and he doesn’t speak Lisu or Nu, but he has a very keen eye for situations and understanding what’s going on around him.
DGF: So if he doesn’t understand the native dialects, how was he able to communicate with the subjects in the film?
DB: Well most them speak at least rudimentary Mandarin. So you can communicate and get some sense of what’s going on around you. If you take a scene in the film, where Pu Biqiu and his girlfriend, in the middle section of the film, are sitting down around the fire in her home, and her father starts explaining that money is really tight right now, and he’s selling her into a marriage to ameliorate the situation. Of course you have a sense of what’s going on there. But in the moment it was all going on in Lisu so he had no idea what the dialogue was.
DGF: Speaking of the issue of translation, I’d like to learn more about how this film has translated to its audiences, both domestically in China and internationally. First of all, how have you gotten the film screened to both audiences?
DB: For the domestic Chinese audience, honestly we kind of just had to throw up our hands. There are unfortunately a limited number of forums; some would argue a growing number, but I would say a growing number of limited forums inside China, in academic settings were we can screen these films, generally. But we kind of know what these forums are, and we kind of know those limited audiences and it’s a non-issue. We will go to YunFest in Kunming and participate in CIFF in Nanjing, but that’s a fundamental problem for all of his films, is reaching a larger audience. There’s no answer for it right now. And so I think that most Chinese filmmakers just have to push on to reach the audience they can in China.
But I’m speaking of internationally, getting it seen internationally, sending it to international festivals. I’ve shared it with so many people, festivals, mainly in Europe, China studies people, journalism and mass communications, comparative literature. And this was all through 2008 and I think I started wondering what was wrong that we couldn’t find the right people to appreciate it. And people would dismiss it with really ignorant comments, like it needed more voiceovers or tighter editing, as though we were doing an action flick or something. Some people said it rambled on and needed more contextualizing. There was even the suggestion that it was disrespectful to the audience for it to run as long as it did, saying it was way to long. And to be fair, this was a person with a television background who said that it had to be cut to 49 minutes or we’d never get any attention to it. So it was really frustrating to find the right kind of people to see the film and appreciate it.
One festival actually asked us to cut down and I remember discussing this with Dayong, it was for a festival in Europe, “Do you have a shorter version, if it was 120 minutes or something, they might be interested.” I discussed with Dayong and of course he grumbled a lot but I think he cut 30 minutes from the version that we’ll screen at the NYFF and it must have been an excruciating process. We finally realized that it was wrong for us to even consent to that. And besides, we never heard back. So I think I was very naâˆšÃ‰Â¬Ã˜ve in expecting such courtesy from these festivals. But it was a long and discouraging process, so we’re really happy that the NYFF has seen it for what it is because it is a really beautiful film.
As I told you I spent about three weeks in Zhiziluo watching him film, and I can tell you from being there that the way the film moves, including its length, you need to have the treatment that Dayong gives it. You couldn’t do it in a shorter version. He has completely captured the pace of life in Zhiziluo. So people should understand that, if they are willing to be patient with the film and give it its just due, then they’ll appreciate its beauty.
DGF: Again, it was great that the NYFF jury responded so positively to it and understood what the film was about. Just a couple of the quotes from the jury members: Dennis Lim said that it was “one of the most surprising and rewarding films he’s seen all year, one of the most important films to emerge from the booming but still under explored field of Chinese independent documentaries.” Scott Foundas said that he “didn’t think there was another Jia Zhang-ke or Wang Bing lurking out there but it turns out there is.” But I’m curious, to go back to the limited but still solid Chinese independent film festival circuit: film festivals, gallery exhibitions. It’s a very small and somewhat self selecting circle but it has grown to a national size and scope between Beijing, Nanjing, Yunan, Kunming and all parts in between. So I’m curious, what is the response to give a sense of the native, for lack of a better word, context and appreciation to the film in contrast to the international reception that the film has received?
DB: The film screened in May 2008, it was at the 5th China Documentary Film Festival. The Li Xianting Film Fund puts on that festival every year. Unfortunately I couldn’t attend, I was out of the country at the time. It won the Independent Spirit Award, along with another film and it got a very favorable reception there. I was talking to Dayong afterwards and he said everyone loved it. Everyone was talking about how this was the film of the year, the documentary of the year. It kind of raised the bar. It’s a beautiful film, it’s not as rough and tumble as lot of the documentaries you see filmed on DV. It lends itself to a theatre environment as well, and the scenes are so gorgeous. And Dayong was so successful at getting inside this community. So a lot of people were talking the film and of course this was a contrast with the reception we were getting from festivals outside China. But I remember clearly the comments that one of the judges made during the May 28 festival, that it was one of the most ambitious films of the festival and he said that the director gave us ample time to absorb what’s before us, he gives us ample time to absorb and reflect the circumstances, or something like that, which I think captures one of the things I was saying before, about Dayong’s patience in the filming process. But a lot of independent directors in China have spoken very highly of the film. People like Wu Wengguang, who is considered kind of the father of the independent film movement in China. So it had a very strong reception throughout 2008. So it’s wonderful that at the end of 2009 we’re revisiting it.
DGF: Does the film sort of emblematize what we could call a Chinese documentary filmmaking aesthetic? From what you’ve seen, based on your own observations, do you think we could say there’s such a thing as a dominant Chinese aesthetic towards documentary filmmaking? Is it something that’s very distinguishable from documentaries that you see in the US or elsewhere?
DB: It’s really tough to define and its sort of dangerous. In Lu Xinyu’s book she’s talking about these films as a movement and I always find myself using the word “movement” and I want to slap my own hand and say “be careful.” Because if you talk to the directors they may see a difference between their films and that of another. Dayong he may feel a sense of camaraderie and the sense of being a part of the same scene. There’s a filmmaker named Zhou Hao. You may be familiar with him he made film called Using that was out this year about drug addicts in Guangzhou. But their films are so different. If you try to boil it down to an aesthetic I think it’s really difficult.
So aesthetically it’s a much more difficult thing to put your finger on, but what I always go back to, and again this isn’t a focus that the directors themselves necessarily have, but what I always go back to are the institutional issues in China with making a film. These are independent films in China not because of their low budget, or that they’re made outside a dominant production culture. They’re independent, really because they’re illegal, technically. They don’t go through the licensing process, the don’t ask the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television, âˆšÂ¢â€šÃ‡Â¨Ã€ÃºCan we?’ They don’t give them a script and say, “Approve this and we’ll go and film it.” They’re not renegades in that sense, they’re not out to make an explicit political point or go up against the authorities. But they’re making use of this strange gray space that exists outside this regulatory and censorship environment. That is the real fundamental for them as independent filmmakers.
You mentioned the word underground, and that’s interesting because I haven’t talked to a whole lot of directors, but I’ve talked to Dayong of course about this, and most of them shy away from the term “underground” because the term underground suggests something nefarious or illegal. But they’re quite open about it, often surprisingly open and bold about the way that they film these. Actually when we were in Yunnan, it’s not in the film but there was a situation where one of the villagers cut down a tree and this is a very common crime in this part of the country. By selling firewood they make some extra money but it’s protected forest. So he was taken in to the police station to take care of this situation and Dayong just walked in there with the camera with every intention of filming that entire thing. And there was a whole back and forth where they told him don’t film in here, but his first thought not “Can I do it, how can I do it, do I need a tiny little camera?” No, he just walked in there with his camera on his shoulder, so when they make these films they don’t really have any consideration as to whether they’re approved or not, so in that sense they’re very free.
Sometimes I like to call them the only real truly free media in china. And I mean that in terms of the production process. Obviously, you have blogs, and things like this, the Internet, and you have certain spaces where people can express themselves, but there are certain technological mechanisms of censorship you can’t avoid. But these filmmakers never think about it, throughout the entire process of filming. It’s about the film they want to make and that goes through the post-production process and the final product, so in that sense they’re a very unique look at a whole range of social and political issues in China. So that’s the sense I think of them as independent, I may have gotten away from your question…
DGF: I think that’s a very relevant point that sometimes what defines a movement is a spirit, a philosophy of how do approach a subject matter, not so much the technique or a style…
DB: That’s right, I mean if you start to look at the filmmakers, they’re backgrounds are so diverse and that’s one of the distinguishing characteristics, if you start to look at this…. again I was about to call it a movement, you look at this scene and you have filmmakers like Hu Jie who’s done a lot of historical films on the anti-rightist movement, on the Cultural Revolution. By background he’s an official Xin Hua news agency photographer, he is no longer but he used to be. And Zhao Hao comes from a news background. Some, like Ou Ning, are artists and filmmakers and Dayong comes from a background in painting. Some are academics or dissidents. So it’s amazing, just the diversity just among the filmmakers themselves.
DGF: Right, as well as your background, which I’d like to speak to a little bit because not only are you a film producer, but you’re a journalist and a media analyst and you’re a staff member of the China Media Project, which I’d like you to tell our listeners more about. What is the China Media Project, its mission and its activities?
DB: We focus on analysis of the broader media environment in China, and also political reform, such as it is, as it’s reflected through discussion in the Chinese media. We look at the Internet, but we also look at print media and how its changing and that’s not always change in the positive sense but change in the sense of how the formal control censorship is changing in China, so we’re looking at that on a day to day, case by case basis. And a big thing we do is bring in top journalists from Mainland China in our fellows program and they’ll spend a few weeks and write research papers about their own experiences as journalists.
I was saying earlier, one of my big projects in the past few years has been looking at investigative reporting in China, which is really under a threat. We’re kind of looking back now on a Golden Age of investigative reporting from the late 90s from ’98-’99 till 2003 and now it starting to disappear. This is a function of how the control changes in the leadership. I have a book coming out later this year that goes through some of these major cases of investigative reporting in China and how they happened in this really restrictive environment.
It’s often a surprise for people to hear that investigative reporting even exists, but again that relates to this film as well. Because this is still one of the bright spots when you look at the broader media environment in China, when you look at the issue of free expression in China. These films are so expressive and they give no consideration or very little consideration to the control mechanisms or to the authorities. They are just creating in this completely gray environment. This also relates to the issue of domestic distribution and forums domestically and that’s the real conundrum. That’s the real big wall for this scene or for these films in terms of their longer-term development, because to the extent that they’re invisible in China, they’re acceptable in China, and that’s the great tragedy. As soon as they started to get any sort of real broader distribution or bigger public forums, they would instantly become a problem, because the authorities have not changed their overall approach to control of the media and the arts and culture. It’s still quite restrictive and it’s still a major priority for the Communist Party related to social stability and maintaining social stability. So I think that right now directors like Zhao Dayong are enjoying this gray area nebulous space that they have right now.
DGF: David Bandurski, member of the Chinese Media Project and producer of Ghost Town, thank you for being with us today.