On a beautiful day spent in London at the Chinese Visual Festival, we had the pleasure of speaking to director Zhou Hao. A big thank you goes to Jingjing Xie, Film Curator at China Culture Connect, for giving us this chance and for interpreting.
Eva Spirova: To begin with, you are an award-winning film maker and you have screened your documentaries at various international film festivals. How do you find the Chinese Visual Festival and are you satisfied with the reception of your films here in the UK?
Zhou Hao: The reception at each and every film festival is pretty much everywhere the same. It always is a pleasure to attend.
ES: Was the transition from being a photographer and a journalist to a film maker an easy one, and what inspired you to change the medium through which you send your messages to the audiences?
ZH: Being a journalist is not much fun. Every media has a boss and you’ve got to do what the boss tells you to do, whereas when you are a documentary film maker you are your own boss and you can do whatever you want to do; you’ve got freedom. The greatest pleasure for me working as a documentary maker is the opportunity to get to know people very, very well.
When I was a journalist I kind of knew people well, but it’s only after I started making documentaries that I realised how limited understanding I’ve got, so making documentaries was my way to know more about different people and about the world we live in.
ES: Your films touch upon some very sensitive and controversial issues such as the educational system, police corruption and politics. So I have to ask the obvious question of whether you have faced any legal problems and consequences, as well as restrictions in China?
ZH: I know that these subjects have a very wide reach. They are related to my experience of being a journalist. After I have made a film about a certain subject I knew much about it, but I also didn’t want to repeat myself. So I always tried new areas which I haven’t explored before as a way to also challenge myself.
The latest film I’m currently working on is called ‘Cotton’ and I just came back from France where I am doing the editing. At the beginning the film is about how cotton is grown in China and then from all those processes and various businesses in the industry how the cotton is being made into fabrics, into jeans which are then branded and sold to customers all over the world. But this is actually a very different film, although it may sound very industrial like.
When I made the film I realised it’s not a film about the industry, but about the many people behind this industry. The cotton serves more like a string that connects so many different people, especially women’s lives as they work in different parts of the chain.
Through the film you can see a very different side of the industry which says a lot about the real life of chain women. This film took me a very long time to get to the stage at which I am at the moment and the accumulated footage. I am in the final stage of editing now, but I started making this film 8 years ago.
I followed some of the women who went to the fields to collect the cotton. In China those migrant workers are kind of summoned in this area as they lack labors in collecting the cotton and so many women take the cheapest train possible just to go to that province to pick up the cotton.
Although most people see my films as ‘issue’ films such as politics, actually in the end I always focus on the person behind. ‘Cotton’ is just an example, but all of my features are about a certain person. Although the subjects sound political and problematic, after you see the film it’s always about someone’s life, which is my intention. I use these subjects to tell stories about people’s lives. I have been asked this question many times, but the truth is that I have never encountered any problems.
I just submitted my applications for the films and after quite a few rejections someone would agree. But I have never encountered any consequences in China. It is quite a different perception I guess of people beyond China, as they might think that certain things are difficult, but it isn’t in reality.
ES: Your films have been very well received in the West, partly because of screening them at various international film festivals. So when you are making your films, are you conscious about how would they be received in the West even though they are focusing on some very problematic topics in China or are you fully concentrated on the Chinese audience’s reception?
ZH: No, I am not. Let’s take for example the Amsterdam International Film Festival, people said ‘Oh yes, drug dealers are exactly the same all over the world’, so it was perceived the same way. My films are very popular in China as well.
ES: In that sense, what do you think is the future of independent and investigative Chinese cinema?
ZH: There are a few independent cinemas in China already, however because of the political system it is probably not very possible to have independent cinemas in each city. But I am confident there will be more and more cinemas showing independent films because with the development of China many people have had the need to focus on something. Many people are not content of just watching CCTV so I am confident that there will be developments in independent Chinese cinema.
ES: In terms of your personal influences, who influenced you when you first started your documentary career, any particular film/documentary film makers?
ZH: I don’t really think I am influenced by any director, although some people, institutions, organisations say that my films are similar to those of Wiseman in the U.S, but I feel that my films are completely different.
ES: What do films such as ‘Senior Year’, ‘Cop Shop’ 1 and 2, ‘The Transition Period’ and ‘Emergency Room China’ say about the current state of the Chinese society?
ZH: China is a very complicated country. When I am making my films I never see anyone as just a good or a bad guy. The most obvious example is the drug dealer in one of my films. Although he is a drug dealer and was sent to prison I don’t really see him as a bad guy.
I actually often ask my audience after the film if they think that he is good or bad and they often can’t tell. It is the same as in ‘Transition Period’ where the character is shown behind the bars but you can’t really tell if he’s a truly bad person as the film has shown. I wouldn’t be able to send any particular message about the Chinese society because I am also focused on human nature and on what kind of beings we are, and I keep researching and learning more and more with each film about human nature and humanity. I might never know, I might die before the day I know.
Interview by Eva Spirova
Photography by Andreea Dascalu