When I was nineteen I came home one morning after a party and, since I couldn't sleep, I tuned in to Fuori Orario Rai3. They were broadcasting the first part of Wang Bing's Tie Xi Qu – West of the Tracks (2003), the one called "Fabbriche" [Factories] in Italian. The movie had started a couple of hours before my tuning in, so I watched it from halfway onwards. Time flew by: it was not that I liked or disliked the film, Tie Xi Qu was simply something I had never seen before.
Flash-forward six years, I made a twenty-five hour trip in order to meet Wang Bing in Paris and talk with him for forty-five minutes. Life is all about time, dedication, and doing what you think is right and meaningful. So is cinema, as you are about to read.
Huge thanks to Shi Hang (interpreter), Luca Bertarini (additional translation), Viviana Andriani (Rendez-Vous Press), Isabelle Glachant (Chinese Shadows) and mon ami Raphaël Nieuwjaer.
Michael Guarneri: How's it going with your Shanghai film project?
Wang Bing: I haven't started shooting the film yet. I am still making preparations, we are still in the pre-production phase, so to speak.
MG: What story (or stories) are you going to tell, within the city of Shanghai?
WB: The city of Shanghai is immense and it is divided into a lot of districts, so there are a lot of areas in which one can decide to shoot. I do not intend to shoot necessarily in the city centre. As a matter of fact, what I want to do is to tell stories of men and women in their twenties living in the suburbs of Shanghai: I want to follow the love stories taking place in the urban area.
MG: "To follow" is an interesting verb: can you tell me more about your idea of narration, of storytelling?
WB: Literature and cinema tell stories. We all tell stories. Our lives themselves are stories. Stories are everywhere and there are a lot of ways in which stories can be told, according to the various literary or cinematographic conventions. As far as I am concerned, I am not interested in what is usually called "storytelling", that is to say I am not trying to narrate something I invented. I am not making things up. What I am after is the transformation, or "translation", of real life into something made of moving images and sound. Through cinema, I want to immortalize this or that slice of everyday, real life.
MG: In Feng Ai – 'Til Madness Do Us Part (2013), I really liked the scene in which a young, supposedly insane man starts running and the cameraman, after a moment of reflection, starts running after him, all around the corridor of the mental hospital. I think this scene can be a great metaphor for your filmmaking practice: a man with a digital camera following people...
WB: At the time of the shooting, in early 2013, this young man had not been in the psychiatric hospital for long. He had just been forcibly admitted to the facility, so he still felt the desire of leaving: he was resisting his present condition with all his strength, he wanted to run away from his life in the hospital... He wanted to break free, even if it was actually impossible for him to escape from the institution. As I got to know this young man, I decided to show his personal acts of resistance against the life in the hospital: he does not sleep at night, he leaves his room and runs around the corridor, all alone, until he's exhausted. By means of the link between the young man and the camera, I wanted to show his restlessness, his agitation. I think this is the way in which an important aspect of his life can be understood by the audience.
As a matter of fact, every story is meant to be perceived by an audience: stories exist because people tell them to other people. This brings us back to the concept of "story". Everyone has his or her own idea of what a story should be: some stories are considered funny, some are considered interesting, while others are deemed boring and useless, and they are never even told... For most people, telling a story is like walking along a road: a certain logic must be followed, with rules and procedures codified by other narrators in the past. For me, however, it is different. For me, a story doesn't belong to this or that literary or cinematographic tradition, but to people's lives. For me, a story must contain elements taken from everyday life, and it should bring people closer together.
MG: Is there a link between the microcosmos and the macrocosmos, between the mundane, little stories of unknown people and the Grand History of the People, of the Nation?
WB: In a certain sense, yes: of course, it exists a link between China as a Country in a given historical moment and a Chinese man or woman living in China in that given moment. At the same time, though, Chinese society is made of individuals, as any other society. In the past, the Chinese individual accepted to be part of the whole, whereas these days things have changed: today it's as if the bond between the individual and the community "loosened", and the individual is not anymore a "representative sample" of modern society or Nation as a whole.
Personally, I think that true History and reality are the actions and the everyday experiences of the individuals. In China – and in Chinese cinema especially – there are very few narrations focused on individuals. Very, very few. They prefer to tell the Grand History of the People, of the Nation, of the Party. As for me, I am a filmmaker who focuses on individuals: nobody forces me to film the History of the Nation. It is not at all my vocation. I am interested in the individual within the Chinese society, I want to tell his or her specific and concrete story.
MG: It seems to me that traveling is an essential aspect of your filmmaking practice. I think you are a little bit like an explorer...
WB: I have traveled a lot, it is true, but I don't really think I am an explorer. Why do I travel? I travel because China is an immense country. I live in Beijing and to reach, say, the south-western province of Yunnan where San Zimei – Three Sisters (2012) and Feng Ai were shot, I had to travel thousands and thousands of kilometers. Moreover, I shot films both in North-East China [Dongbei] and in North-West China. It is the immensity of Chinese territory and the desire of making films that "force me" to travel and leave my everyday routine behind, in Beijing.
MG: You always say that the human relationship with the people you film is very important. Can you tell me about that?
WB: If you go someplace and film a person you don't know at all, it is difficult to represent his or her life in a complete way; it is difficult to show what this person thinks, what he/she does and why. I think that the most important thing is to gain a good knowledge of the people you are going to film. Otherwise, it is difficult to penetrate their inner world and understand their life, and this could damage your film.
MG: Do you think that the camera is a sort of "weapon" that may hurt the people that are being filmed?
WB: There are a lot of things that may hurt people: the camera, as a means of communication, is one of them. I think that it all depends on those who make the film. It depends above all on the film's director, who has a responsibility both towards the people that appear in the film and the people that are going to watch the film. The members of the audience have their own importance and responsibilities too, because certain comments about the film can hurt the people that appear in the film.
MG: I imagine that the human and professional relationship with the members of your troupe is also important. Can you tell me about this aspect of your work?
WB: I don't have a "permanent troupe". On the contrary, I work alone for most of the time. When I feel like developing a specific project and making it into a film, I simply look for friends who are willing to help me out and I ask for their temporary assistence. I do not have permanent collaborators and I do not require permanent work relations: my film crew is composed of the most suitable persons for following the single project I am working on at a given moment.
MG: In the West your films are screened in the most important film festivals, and you are called "an artist". Do you consider yourself an artist? Do you like being called "artist"?
WB: To be honest, I don't really care. I think that what they call me is not important. I do not intend to say that I don't care about what other people think; on the contrary, I like very much being part of this environment because of the respect other people show me and the praise my works receive. But after all, you know, the epithet "artist" can also be used in a pejorative sense towards people like me, who make very long films, outside canons and standards, outside the market and the industry, with a personal and non-conventional style... Thus, "artist" can be an insult at times, making fun of those who do not do "normal" things. [Laughs] Anyway, the notion of "artist" is indifferent to me, both in its laudatory and pejorative sense: people are free to think what they want about my work.
MG: A thing I find very interesting is that you studied photography at the Lu Xun Academy of Fine Arts, but in your films the images are never "fine and perfect". What is a "beautiful image", in your opinion?
WB: In my view, the most important thing to keep in mind is that a film is not a still image. Beauty in cinema is not something that you can stop and "immortalize"; it is not something forever frozen into one single exposure. Beauty in cinema is the perception of an ongoing process. As a filmmaker, I am interested in movement, in moving images, in the "evolution" of the real that is so difficult to capture and make visible.
MG: After completing your studies at Beijing Film Academy and before starting the making of Tie Xi Qu, what did you do? Where did you work?
WB: Once I finished the training course for camera operators at Beijing Film Academy (it was the end of 1997), I occupied a temporary place at the Chinese Agency for Information, Documentary and Film Production, an organization controlled by the Communist Party. There I contributed to a propaganda documentary film called Zhou Enlai's Diplomatic Charisma. I worked for the government's film studio for a year. Then I helped out some friends with their film projects, and another year passed. At that time, I was working for other people, not for myself... As all the young graduates, I tried to enter the labour market and find my place in Chinese society. I tried to take my chances and have a successful career in the Chinese film industry. However, since I am of humble origins and my family is not rich, it was very difficult to make it. Moreover, I had no "connections", that is to say I didn't know important people in the film business, so it was almost impossible for me to get a job in major film productions. This is why, in the end, I decided to work on my own film projects and I started making Tie Xi Qu.
MG: Here in the West, we like to think that all Chinese artists are activists opposing the Chinese government. Are you a dissident?
WB: I don't think I am a dissident and I don't think my films are "political films". I am not a "political filmmaker", because I have no political claims, no political program, no political agenda to put forward. I am interested in the personal, inner life of the individuals who live in Chinese society. What I try to do is just to look at life and put my personal experience and my past in relation with other people's personal experiences. I look at human everyday life and of course, by doing so, I bring to the screen everyday life issues, some of which are the so called "problems of society". I repeat: personally, I have no political purposes and ambitions. It is true that in my films there are moments in which political affairs are discussed, but this is normal, because in China a lot of things are directly influenced by the Communist Party and politics is everywhere. If I decided to omit the relation between political context and everyday life in my films, then I'd be a "political filmmaker": in fact, in the China of today, the real "political films" are those that carefully avoid mentioning anything political.
MG: It seems to me that you use the newest digital technology in order to realize a very old dream, possibly the Lumière Brothers' dream: going to the most faraway places and bringing back some images, making the world visible – "the world within reach". There are indeed a lot of things to see about China, and it's as if we haven't seen anything yet. What prevents us from seeing and knowing?
WB: I think the most important obstacle is geographical. Between Europe and China there is an immense distance and the natural barriers created (and still create) problems in reciprocal comprehension. A second barrier of sorts is History. The History of China and the History of the West are extremely different: we do not have a common past or background, and this might create misunderstandings. The third factor is politics.
MG: What prevents you from making all the films you have in mind?
WB: There are two main obstacles. First of all, you must understand that contemporary Chinese society is very commercial and very commercialized, that is to say a society in which nothing can be done without money. This is particularly true for Chinese cinema: Chinese commercial cinema is a huge business in which money is invested in order to make profit. Hence, someone like me – someone who isn't rich and who is not interested in making commercial films – cannot get funding and cannot make all the films he would like to. As a matter of fact, there are a lot of film projects of mine that have never been made or completed for economic reasons.
Secondly, for a filmmaker like me, there might be difficulties in the shooting phase: I do not have the freedom of shooting all I want, where I want and when I want.
All in all, given the conditions of production of a fiction film in China, at the moment it is impossible for me to shoot the two fictional film projects I have in mind. This is why I keep on making documentary films about the everyday life of real people: I like the projects, and they are easier and more economical to make.
MG: I read that in China your films circulate on pirated DVDs only. How much is a pirated copy of a film of yours in China?
WB: It depends. In some places it is more expensive than in others. In general, the price for any pirated DVD is 7 or 8 yuan, that is to say about one Euro.
MG: Does it bother you that your films circulate for free on the Internet all over the world?
WB: I do not care about that at all.
MG: One of the first films in the History of Cinema is La Sortie des usines Lumière à Lyon (1895), i.e. Workers leaving the factory. As a matter of fact, throughout the History of Cinema we have never seen workers actually working their shifts, except for a few examples. One of these exceptions is your magnum opus Caiyou Riji – Crude Oil (2008). Why was it important for you to make us see people working?
WB: I made this sort of "video-art" on the invitation of the Rotterdam Film Festival. At that time, all my projects were being made in North-West China, in the region where the Great Desert [Gobi Desert] is. These desertic areas are uninhabited for the most part and, as all the men who find themselves face to face with boundless wilderness, I developed a feeling of fascination, respect and fear towards the desert. However, while I was staying in the region, I accidentally found out that there actually were some people working and living in the desert. So a thought appeared in my mind: "What are these people doing in the midst of nowhere? What is their job, their occupation?". Caiyou Rijiwas born out of simple curiosity: curiosity pushed me to film the lives of the oil field workers.
MG: Another thing I find interesting, in Caiyou Riji as in other films of yours, is the fact that we never see the boss. I mean the "big boss of it all"...
WB: [Laughs] Yes, it is an interesting phenomenon. As the Gobi Desert workers dig deep in the middle of nowhere looking for oil, in our busy cities we have workers building things in construction sites all day long. Then, if you go to a real estate company, you'll see young, good-looking girls selling housing development projects, houses, warehouses, stores – the very things the aforementioned construction workers are building. Indeed, wherever we go, all we can see are people of modest condition working hard, long shifts, being it manual labour or trade. These are the people "in the forefront", these are the people we can see. We never manage to see the people "behind" this work, we never see the people "upstairs" pulling the strings. Who are they? Where are they? In my films as in reality, we only see humble people breaking their backs, but they are not the ones "in charge". They are not in control.
MG: You have been quoted saying that China's ideological past was communist idealism, while China's present is marked by capitalistic egoism. Can you tell me about that?
WB: In the past, in China, there was a very explicit and severe system at work. What I mean is that the exercise of power by the government over the individuals was very direct and evident: the Party ruled people through direct administrative and political means. Today, on the contrary, the rules of society are made almost exclusively by economic means and for economic purposes, as if politics had become the same as economy.
However, I am just a simple individual who films what he loves to film. I am neither a sociologist nor an economist, thus I don't think I am capable of listing and discussing all the problems Chinese society has; and besides, as I told you, I do not film society. I film individuals living their everyday lives.
MG: What is your social class, as a filmmaker?
WB: I lead a simple, normal life. My condition is average. I would say I am an average Chinese citizen.
MG: I read that you admire Pier Paolo Pasolini's films a lot, so I was wondering: what exactly do you like about them?
WB: I am fascinated by the fact that Pasolini was setting higher and higher standards for himself with every new film project of his. He was constantly raising the bar, and he demanded a lot from himself. I cannot really judge or comment on Pasolini's work as a film director. As a simple spectator, by watching his films, I discovered his strong desire of communicating in spite of all the limits due to the historical period he was living in; I discovered his will to use cinema to cross the boundaries and be free. In his films I can see how rigorous and self-demanding he was: I like this energy, this strictness, this perfectionism, this total commitment and dedication.
Paris, April 8th 2014