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Interview: Zhao Qi on bridging China and the West through documentaries

Zhao Qi is a Chinese producer and director who's helped bring four documentaries to Sundance—including 2015's "The Chinese Mayor".

By , 6 Mar 17
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Zhao Qi at the 52nd Golden Horse Awards. (Courtesy of Zhao Qi)

Zhao Qi is a Sundance and Emmy award-winning filmmaker currently based in Beijing. After serving as an executive director and commissioning editor at China Central Television (CCTV) for 19 years, Zhao started producing and directing independent documentaries about socio-political issues in contemporary China.

Zhao’s latest film is The Chinese Mayor, which intimately profiles a controversial Mayor (Geng Yanbo of Datong City in Shanxi province) and his attempts to transform one of China’s most polluted cities into a cultural destination.

You could say that Zhao is a trailblazer when it comes to bringing Chinese documentaries to the United States. Four of his films — Last Train Home (2011 Emmy Award), China Heavyweight (2012 Golden Horse Award), Fallen City (2013 Sundance nomination), and The Chinese Mayor (2015 Sundance Special Jury Prize) — have screened at the Sundance Film Festival. This is unprecedented for any other Chinese filmmaker; depending on how you count, only eight Chinese documentaries have screened at Sundance to date.

Cinema Escapist had a chance to talk with Zhao about bridging China and the West through documentaries, as well as his experiences making The Chinese Mayor.

•   •   •

How did first get into documentary filmmaking?

After university in 1996, I joined China Central Television (CCTV, the largest TV station in China) and started making 10-15 minute documentaries there. In that sense, I’ve been in the industry for 20 years already — but the first moment where I really got into independent documentary filmmaking was around 2005.

Between 2002-3, I had the chance to study filmmaking in the UK, and it was there I learned the style of independent feature-length documentaries. I remember the first film I watched there was Michael Moore’s Roger and Me — and as I started watching more [documentaries], I realized they were really interesting and that I should take a more in-depth look at topics that’d allow me to explore society and the human world.

When I got back to China, I started to look for something to work on — and Last Train Home happened to be the story that came to mind around 2005.

What made you want to go to the UK and explore feature-length documentaries?

A portrait of Zhao Qi

When [I left for the UK], I’d been at CCTV for five years already. In the first two years in that particular unit [of CCTV], I traveled around the country, saw different things, and got very excited. But after a while I realized that, every time, I’d working on the same kinds of topics. I realized that I wanted to do something new, but I didn’t have a way — I didn’t have someone or some films to follow.

Thus, I felt I needed to learn something new — to get out of that environment, to inhale something fresh. And it just so happened that the University of London had a course called “Documentary by Practice”. I liked the idea of documentaries, and also the program didn’t require a long thesis; you could get a degree by making a one hour film. I thought “making a one hour film is easier than writing a 20,000 word thesis” — and that proved to be a good choice because doing that taught me much more about independent thinking at a practical level.

Is it fair to say that Chinese and Western audiences have pretty different expectations about documentaries? For example, in the West, I feel many people perceive documentaries as very cinematic and artistic whereas, in China, people might see them more as purely factual TV programs.

That would be fair back in the 1990s and maybe in the early 2000s. Today, everyone [in China] knows that documentaries can be in theaters, and there’s more of them released in theaters today. And documentaries have been a type of cinema from the very beginning anyways — after all, the first film was a documentary.

However, in China, for a long period of time, [documentaries] weren’t just art; they were a type of ideology. Whether a documentary was in cinemas or on TV, watching it would be like a social responsibility, a way to learn about the special ideologies people were talking about.

Later, when China adopted a market economy, films were one of the first forms of media that opened to market competition. People began to accept that movies should make money and be entertaining, but that didn’t happen as much for TV. The functions of TV and film began to diverge in that period — TV served an educational purpose, while films were more for entertainment. In that sense, more traditional people [in China] might still regard documentaries as a higher format of education — something you don’t pay to watch in theaters but are instead required to watch [on TV].

On that note of ideology and education — between 2014 and 2015, you were a visiting scholar at Berkeley’s School of Journalism. What do you feel is the relationship between documentary filmmaking and journalism, particularly within China?

Honestly, I’ve never done a systematic study or comparison of that issue. I do feel, from my own experience, that there are more and more Chinese documentary filmmakers who have a strong sense of independence, who want to share their own point of view with others.

Of course, they have to think about how they’d release their work on a larger scale, apply for permits, and potentially make compromises for the sake of reaching a broader market — but an increasing number of them regard themselves as independent intellectuals, and sometimes investigative journalists. In that sense, maybe [documentary filmmaking and journalism] are getting closer.

Switching gears, let’s talk about your most recent feature documentary, The Chinese Mayor. How did you and director Zhou Hao first come up with the ideal for that film?

Poster for The Chinese Mayor.

This was the first time I worked with Zhou. He’s an experienced and prolific filmmaker who’s done many works before The Chinese Mayor, but most of them have only been circulated within [China]. I think he wanted to work on something that’d be known around the world, that’d help people understand China.

Personally — I’m always fascinated with the system in China. People have talked about “the Chinese model” for a long time now… but what is it? On one hand China has a one-party system, which some people criticize. At the same time, that system provides something people may not realize, namely high efficiency. Why is the system’s efficiency so high, what’s been sacrificed to achieve that efficiency, and is that efficiency sustainable? Those are questions that are very interesting to both explore and invite people to think about.

For a long period of time, Chinese independent filmmakers may have been limited by their knowledge and social links, and were not able to cover stories through that lens. They looked more towards the grassroots classes of society — maybe because that’s where they grew from in the first place, what they’re familiar with, or who they might think they’re the spokespeople for, which is fair enough.

But on the spectrum of arts and journalism, there should be someone talking about all kinds of topics, and nobody was talking about the system. When I first met Zhou, he mentioned that he had a chance to make a documentary about the Mayor. I told him that if he really wanted to do that, maybe we could do it together, because the topic was so valuable that we needed to make it known to the world, to manage and produce it in a proper way. He agreed, and that’s how we started around 2011.

Was it hard to get Mayor Geng Yanbo to agree to being documented so extensively? How did you gain his trust?

I think we were lucky. I believe Mayor Geng is a simple person — I feel that he just trusts you by observing if you’re working hard, and if you’re his style of person as well.

We didn’t have much problem getting into his life. While he’s not an extrovert, he’s very keen to observe what kind of person you are, and he can decide very quickly if he can work with you or not. I think that we just happened to have chemistry, and he liked us.

At the same time, he may not have been that self-protective because at the Mayor or Party Secretary level of cities or provinces, everyone is followed by TV cameras and the local news is talking to them every day. Thus he might not have felt very nervous because we were simply one more camera in the camera team, and he might not have known what a feature-length documentary was anyways.

I also think that maybe Mayor Geng really believed in what he was doing. Again, this is just my presumption, but perhaps he thought what he was doing was worth being recorded — so if someone was going to take the time to do that, then why not?

Has Mayor Geng seen the film? What was his reaction?

Mayor Geng Yanbo, featured in The Chinese Mayor.

By now, of course. We didn’t show him the film before Sundance though — we tried to contact him, but he’d been transferred to a new city and was very busy, so we weren’t able to schedule a screening for him. We did get in touch after Sundance, which might’ve been a good thing for us anyways in case he wanted to change something — that’d cause a philosophical dilemma of whether to change or not, but thankfully that didn’t happen.

Someone actually ended up pirating the BBC version of the documentary and released that in China. That pirated version has spread everywhere, and local government officials [in Shanxi province, where Geng is based] have watched the film. I don’t have any direct feedback, but nothing good nor bad happened — so I guess it’s OK. Among the general public, people rather like the film — the ratings on Douban (China’s version of IMDB) are pretty high.

As for Mayor Geng himself — he knows all about the film, and he’s probably had some internal discussions about it… I just don’t know what the products of those are. Regardless, he’s recently been re-elected mayor of [his current city of Taiyuan], so at least his boss still thinks what he’s doing is right.

As you hinted, The Chinese Mayor won a Special Jury Award at Sundance. Many of your other films — Last Train Home, China Heavyweight, Fallen City — have actually screened at Sundance. However, it seems like very few Chinese documentaries gain that level of Western attention. Why do you think that is, and is there something that makes you or your films different on this front?

I don’t really think there’s anything different — it’s just that when a door is initially closed, it opens very slowly. When it does open, you have a very small gap to slip in, and then [the door] opens further, allowing more people to get in afterwards. This year we had Jiuliang Wang’s Plastic China at Sundance, and last year we had Hooligan Sparrow. So you’re seeing a lot of new directors from China.

The poster for Last Train Home, which documents the journey of a migrant worker family during China’s Spring Festival. Zhao helped produce the film.

I’ve had four films released in Sundance, which is a lot for a single person — so far — from China. However, that might just be because I was there at the very beginning, when there weren’t as many Chinese titles submitted, and when quality hadn’t yet reached a certain level. Before [my first Sundance submission] Last Train Home, there’d only been Yung Chang’s Up the Yangtze — more a Canadian production — and Weijun Chen’s To Live is Better Than to Die.

From a tactical point of view, given my background in a TV station, I already had some idea about how to make a good film. Drawing from the example of Up the Yangtze, and making Last Train Home, really helped open my eyes to the world of international co-producing and documentaries.

These elements combined together helped my collaborators and I become the first group of Chinese to discover what films the world was looking for, and how that overlapped with what we were interested in. Our films have become examples for others — to learn what kinds of stories to pursue, or which styles fit into which festivals. As a result, there’s more Chinese titles coming to not just Sundance, but also Venice and Cannes.

I’d say this model also applies to [non-documentary filmmakers like] Jia Zhangke and Wang Bing. In the beginning, they were among the few Chinese directors chosen for festivals like Venice or Cannes — but that helped light a path for others. Now, people know to anticipate the style of festival programmers (who choose which films to screen), which also allows those programmers to recognize more talent from China.

Do you have any plans for future projects?

Yes. Besides a producer, I’m also a director — and I’m directing my second film right now. It’s about the first Chinese sailor to circumnavigate the world alone (Guo Chuan).

This film had been postponed for quite a while, but recent events have urged me to finish it — [Guo] recently lost his life on a trip from San Francisco to Shanghai. [In October 2016], he disappeared around 800 knots south of Hawaii, and no one’s been able to find him.

I actually started following [Guo] around 2012, and didn’t finish the film because I didn’t know where it would go. Now, it seems like there’s a clear ending, a reminder to understand what kind of life he lived.

I’m also producing another film, about religion [amongst the Miao ethnic minority] in Yunnan province. There’s a small village there where people adopted Christianity around 200 years ago. Today, there’s a core group of villagers that sing hymns, and the local government has repackaged this on celebrity shows and said that this is “traditional Miao music”. That’s brought change and different opinions to the group — some people say that’s not appropriate for God, while others think it’s a great way to spread the gospel. It’s something quite funny in a dark way.

Hopefully these films will come out within the next two years.

•   •   •

Want to watch The Chinese Mayor? You can stream it on Amazon or Netflix.


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