CinemaTalk: Interview with Zhu Rikun, Curator of Jacob Burns “Hidden China” Series, on Ai Weiwei and Chinese Indie Filmmaking

This October the Jacob Burns Film Center presents “Hidden China,” a monthlong series of independent documentaries produced in China, selected Zhu Rikun, producer, programmer and founder of Fanhall Studio. Zhu Rikun is a major figure in contemporary Chinese independent film, having produced such acclaimed films as Karamay and Winter Vacation. Earlier in 2012 he served as an advisor on “Hidden Histories,” a series of Chinese independent documentaries co-curated by Gertjan Zuilhof and Gerwin Tamsma for the International Film Festival Rotterdam. The centerpiece of the series was a retrospective of the documentaries of Ai Weiwei. Many of those selections are included in the “Hidden China” series at the Jacob Burns Film Center.

dGenerate Films’ Kevin B. Lee recorded this interview with Zhu Rikun during the Rotterdam series, focusing on the significance of Ai Weiwei as a documentary filmmaker and how they reflect developments in documentary filmmaking, citizen journalism and freedom of information and expression in today’s China.

Interview transcribed by Stephanie Hsu.

Kevin Lee: Looking at Ai Weiwei and his films, it seems he’s made films in two different Chinas. We look at a movie like Fairytale or Ordos 100—these are documentaries about how the Chinese art world is one of unlimited money and prestige. It’s a world the ruling powers approve of, because they think it will help elevate China in the eyes of the world. And so they work with Ai Weiwei as a famous artist to help promote that view. At the same time, he makes these highly socially critical films, like Disturbing the Peace and One Recluse. How do you see the connection between these two different kinds of movies that he makes? Do you think they are all basically the same kind of film or are they very different?

Zhu Rikun: I think we can see a change in Ai Weiwei. In fact in the early years when Ai Weiwei came back from the United States, he was regarded as one of the really important artists and curators of contemporary art, and he was also a really well known architect. At the time he was not so politically sensitive and he didn’t do something like what he did later. He was also welcomed by the Chinese government. They asked him to be the advisor for the Olympic Games, for the architecture of the Beijing Olympic Stadium.

But when Ai Weiwei started to do something like investigate the deaths of students in the Sichuan Earthquake, or when he was involved in other social events, the government changed their opinion towards him, he was not welcomed by them anymore, and he became a really dangerous person for them. Like the Shanghai government, when they destroyed Ai Weiwei’s studio [in January 2011].

I think his later films also reflect this change. I don’t think a film like Ordos 100 is really different from his later films, but I think we can see the change. I really like his dissident films like One Recluse, about Yang Jia and also about his Sichuan experience, like Disturbing the Peace [and So Sorry], so I think it’s an important development.

Kevin Lee: One question I wonder about is: who else can make these films besides him? I wonder if it’s because he’s so famous and has such a high profile that he feels he can get away with taking on more challenging topics, whereas a less famous director wouldn’t have the resources to do it, doesn’t have as many people working for them, or isn’t as protected by their public profile and support network. He’s so different from the other independent directors because of his status. At the same time I’ve heard him criticize other independent artists and directors in China, that they don’t try hard enough or that they’re too afraid to take on topics like those in his films. Do you feel this is a fair thing for him to say?

Zhu Rikun: I don’t know whether he criticizes other independent filmmakers, but I think Ai Weiwei has his own way to make his own documentary film, and his documentary is really different, really an “Ai Weiwei style.” But I don’t think that the other filmmakers cannot do something like that. In fact each filmmaker can find their own way to do their films, maybe also about the same subject. Maybe others are not as famous as Ai Weiwei, don’t have so much resources or enough money to do something like Ai Weiwei, but I think each one can have their own way. In fact there are a lot of things for the Chinese filmmakers to do, not only Ai Weiwei. I think Ai Weiwei is now the most famous one among them, but I still think the others can do something.

Kevin Lee: It just seems like he has so many people working for him. Even for One Recluse, about Yang Jia, he didn’t even make the movie himself, but he had a team of filmmakers doing all the research, all the investigations, and they had a really good lawyer to help advise on the project, so a lot of it is due to having really strong connections.

Zhu Rikun: But I don’t think Ai Weiwei has a big crew. Maybe his crew is really small, as I know sometimes he just has one cameraman, Zhaozhao. I think he’s quite good for shooting such films, but he can try his best to shoot everything he can; that’s really important. Sometimes there will be two or three cameras, but it doesn’t mean a really big crew. And they are not professionals, they just open their camera, then shoot whatever.

Kevin Lee: There’s a really interesting moment in So Sorry, when he is travelling in Germany and has to go to a hospital for life-saving brain surgery stemming from his being beaten by police in Sichuan. The cameraman wants to follow Ai Weiwei into the hospital room, and the nurse says, “No no, you can’t do this, he’s sick, we have to take care of him now,” but the cameraman keeps persisting. So even when maybe it’s not good for Ai Weiwei or his health, the camera doesn’t stop, it just keeps going.

Zhu Rikun: When I met Ai Weiwei once, he said that what’s most important is that you don’t stop your filming, you just open your camera and you just shoot as much as you can. Don’t stop, even when the secret police come and ask you to stop. That’s the only thing for documentary filmmaking.

Kevin Lee: His presence on camera is also really interesting, because if you look at the other documentary directors, very few of them put themselves on camera. For one thing, I think a lot of these directors work alone and don’t have someone else to film them. Or maybe they just want to capture a social reality, and they don’t want to include their presence in that reality. For instance, in Ji Dan’s When the Bough Breaks, Ji Dan never shows herself on camera and downplays her relationship with her subjects, even when it’s apparent how much of a role she plays in their lives. Whereas with Ai Weiwei, it’s always about his experience with a social institution or issue, as a way of illustration. What do you think about how his role as a protagonist makes his films different from other Chinese documentaries?

Zhu Rikun: I think with Ai Weiwei, for the most part, his subject is not just about other people, but he’s one of them. He’s not the one behind the camera, he’s the people that he films. I think from his really early documentary films, like Fairytale, mostly a camera will follow him, and he doesn’t avoid himself. He’s not like a director, he’s something like an actor. Of course, I don’t think he’s acting, but I still think he’s like an actor in his films. So of course this is really different from most other Chinese documentary films, and that also makes a really strong Ai Weiwei style.

Also you can find in some other documentary films, something may be similar, but maybe not strong like Ai Weiwei’s films, because Ai Weiwei’s films are really related to Chinese society. But something like the others like Hu Xinyu’s film [The Man], or Wu Haohao’s films, they’re also in their films, but their films are very private.

Kevin Lee: I think Li Ning’s film Tape is both—it’s very private, but you also see him interacting with other people and society at large. With Ai Weiwei, do you feel that because there’s a camera filming everything, he acts differently than he would otherwise? Does he act more aggressively to try to produce a dramatic outcome? In Disturbing the Peace and So Sorry, I think he’s deliberately trying to demonstrate a situation of how to push against the police and the authorities to get one’s way. It’s almost like an instructional video, showing other people, especially Chinese citizens, how to fight for their rights and how to resist the police.

Zhu Rikun: I think you have to compare two things. The camera is very important for Ai Weiwei, but what’s even more important for him is the internet. In fact, I think the camera for him is just part of his whole social interaction. When Ai Weiwei does anything, he just puts the news on the internet, like his Twitter, sometimes on some Chinese site like Weibo, but mostly on Twitter. He’s connected with his fans, and he has a lot of supporters. His films are just one part of his art. He’s an artist. In fact maybe sometimes he’s not a filmmaker. So I think that is a different thing.

Kevin Lee: So you can’t just look at the documentaries by themselves, you have to see how they are connected to the internet and everything that he does—it’s just one big creative social environment. How does the internet in China work for people trying to share movies and share political subjects? How does it work with censorship and how are you able to communicate things to each other?

Zhu Rikun: Well, of course in China, the global internet is not the same as the internet in China, because of the Great Firewall that bans a lot of really popular websites, like Twitter or Facebook or Youtube—they’re not allowed in China. So in China we just call it a really local internet. So this means people cannot access information fully, but they use different ways to get through the firewall. And in China we often say “fan qiang”—how to get over the firewall to an international website. Also, it leads to something of our own, like, we can’t use Twitter in China, but we have our Weibo microblog. And there are a lot of people on such sites, because China has so many people on the internet.

But of course you cannot use some words that are sensitive. Like you cannot type “Ai Weiwei” in Chinese. But it’s interesting because sometimes you can type the same word in English. So you can type “Ai Weiwei” in English, and it’s okay. Sometimes when I type “Ai Weiwei” in Chinese, they delete my articles immediately, but when I type “Ai Weiwei” in English, it’s okay.

The other really interesting thing is the Chinese Internet police. In China, there is really big group of Internet police, they censor any word or information on the Internet, and if they find something that’s dangerous, they delete them or ban them. Not only Ai Weiwei’s name is so sensitive, but those of some well-known intellectuals or dissidents— they cannot use their name on the Internet. When they use their names to log into the Internet, they will not be allowed to speak, so people use different names or some fake name to speak. And when one name in deleted, they use another name and another. Ai Weiwei has used more than a hundred names, because when he uses a name, it will be deleted immediately. So in China they say something like “zhuan shi”— rebirth. So sometimes some people are reborn for more than one hundred times online. Maybe it’s difficult to understand, but that’s the thing that happens. The Chinese Internet is a really different thing from the rest of the world.

Kevin Lee: Do you feel social media and the web has made a significant difference in Chinese culture and society, not just for educated, web-savvy people who have access to this information, but society in general, especially people who don’t have access to resources to stand up for their rights? The underprivileged classes in China, much of them still don’t even have access to the Internet—how does this help them?

Zhu Rikun: Yes, I think of course that’s a really big problem for the Chinese people, because just compared to all the people in China, those who can access Internet, especially the global Internet, it’s just a part of them. But I still think it’s possible for more and more people to understand what’s happening through the Internet, and more and more of them will try to use the Internet and acquire information. Before, in my hometown, people didn’t care what’s happening outside, but now when I’m back in my hometown, some of my friends tell me something like what’s happening in Beijing or another country like in the Middle East. I can see the change is happening. Often my friends and my relatives and often my brother, they care about what is happening. They know more now.

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