CinemaTalk: A Conversation with Ou Ning
By Dan Edwards
In addition to being an artist, curator, writer, and director of the Shao Foundation, China’s cultural renaissance man Ou Ning is also an acclaimed documentary filmmaker. After making the experimental San Yuan Li in 2003 with Cao Fei and other members of the U-theque collective in Guangzhou, Ou Ning relocated to China’s capital, where he made Meishi St (2006) about the demolition of one of Beijing’s oldest areas in the lead-up to the 2008 Olympics. Both films are now part of the dGenerate Films catalogue.
In March 2010 I interviewed Ou Ning in Beijing about his filmmaking career for an article I was writing on China’s independent documentary sector for RealTime Arts magazine in Australia. Only a few select quotes appeared in that piece, but the complete interview contains a wealth of fascinating material not only on Ou’s background, but also the rise of China’s “digital” documentary generation.
Thanks to Ou Ning for his time and for speaking so openly about some controversial matters. The interview was conducted mostly in English.
Dan Edwards: I believe you started your career as an editor and graphic designer. Can you tell me how you first became involved in filmmaking?
Ou Ning: In 1999 I was commissioned by Emei film studio to design a film magazine. When I got the magazine’s content I was very disappointed, as it was all just about movie stars and commercial movies. I advised the publishers to change the magazine, and along with Wu Wenguang I got them some content about independent films. The publishers were very happy and commissioned me as the editor.
At that time there were no real film critics in China. With the magazine we organised screenings in a group that became U-theque. I knew the Hong Kong film director and critic Shu Kei [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shu_Kei]. He had distributed a lot of art films in Hong Kong, and through him I was able to get the license to distribute a lot of films in China. The screenings we organised were very successful and U-theque grew very big.
In 2003 there was the “Zone of Urgency” at the Venice Biennale. The curator Hou Hanru wanted to discuss social problems in Asian cities, and he was particularly interested in “alternative spaces” in Asia. U-theque was a good example of an “alternative space” – a space that is freer than official institutions like museums. U-theque used to use a lot of ordinary spaces for screenings like bars and cafes. So they commissioned U-theque to make San Yuan Li.
Did the U-theque screenings take place in Guangzhou?
Actually U-theque began in Shenzhen. We had so many people we also moved to Guangzhou as well. We had a total of 800 members in both cities.
Is U-theque still active?
No. In 2003 an important historical event happened. After we made San Yuan Li, Nanfang Dushi Bao [Southern Metropolis Daily, a mainland newspaper famous for its investigative reporting] sponsored our retrospective of Jia Zhangke films in 2004. Then the death of the student Sun Zhigang was reported by the Southern Metropolis Daily [Sun was beaten to death while being arbitrarily detained by police in Guangzhou]. So the after that the Guangdong Government really hated the paper. They also hated the film, San Yuan Li. Actually they never saw the film, but San Yuan Li [an area in Guangzhou] had a reputation as one of the worst areas for drug abuse in China. They were afraid our film would publicise that.
Fifteen police broke into my office studio and took all my documents and DVDs. They were trying to prove U-theque was an illegal organisation – and that the Southern Metropolis Daily had supported an illegal organisation. They also wanted to take my computer but I insisted they could not take it.
Then they banned U-theque as an illegal organisation.
How did you come across the subject matter for your next film Meishi Street, and how did you first meet the main character, Zhang Jinli?
They really liked San Yuan Li in Europe. Both Le Monde and Le Figaro reported on it at the Venice Biennale.
In 2005, Germany’s Federal Cultural Foundation supported Shrinking Cities, a project looking at shrinking cities like Liverpool and Detroit. This drew my attention to the organisation, and they commissioned me to make a project about Beijing. But I quickly found Beijing was very different to Guangzhou.
Initially I wanted to make a film like San Yuan Li – ie not a traditional documentary film. In San Yuan Li there is no story, it’s just like a montage. I wanted to do one about Dashilan [an area in Beijing just south of Tiananmen Square]. All the footage in San Yuan Li was sped up, but in the new film about Beijing I wanted the whole thing very slow. So I shot a lot of footage in Dashilan. I went there for four days every week and interviewed a lot of people, shot every hutong – totally there are more than 100 hutongs in Dashilan, and I shot almost every one. So I had more than 200 hours of footage, shot over one year.
I met Zhang Jinli [the central character in Meishi St] one morning in 2005 – it was summer, very early morning. I got up about 6am and was shooting on Meishi Street. An old person came to me because he saw me with a camera and thought I was a journalist. He came to tell me, “Today something will happen at 179 Meishi Street” – the address of Zhang Jinli’s restaurant. As a documentary filmmaker, every day I was looking for a story. He told me something would happen at 9am, so I organised all my team and we went there.
At 9am Zhang Jinli hung his banners for the first time outside his restaurant and handed out flyers. When he saw me with my camera he got so excited – he thought, “Oh good, a journalist has come!”
I talked with him – that was the first time I met him. After that every time I went to Dashilan I would talk with him, and I found he was a really interesting man – a very smart guy. So I had a new idea. I decided to give a camera to him, teach him how to use it and ask him to document his protest and his daily life. Zhang Jinli’s character is very good – he’s very interesting and humorous. Because he was trying to protect his property I realised this was a very urgent story. So I wanted to make a film about his story first, and after that I would continue with my other project. So that’s how Meishi Street came about.
How long after you met Zhang Jinli did you decide to give him a camera and ask him to document his own story?
After I met him, it was one month later I gave the camera to him.
Was he keen, or did you have to persuade him?
Actually he is very open to new things. When I told him, “I am going to give the camera to you,” he was very happy. The first day he just took the camera and shot some of his friends in the park.
That scene is in the film…
Yeah, that’s right. He felt very excited – the most exciting thing for him was one time he hung the banners on the roof of his house. The police came to take down the banners. When he put the camera on the police, the police were very afraid of the camera. That made Zhang Jinli realise that actually the camera is a weapon for him. Then he was more motivated to shoot more footage.
I noticed in a lot of the footage in the film, Zhang is filming the police, but the police have cameras too.
Yeah, it’s very interesting. You can say that digital technology has had a great impact on Chinese political society. You can see at the end of the film during the demolition process, there are so many cameras on the scene. That means that there are some cameras from the police station, some from our team, some from NGO organisations. The digital technology has brought some opportunity to the people to document history by themselves. This is a great change in China. Before that, history only had one version, by the Chinese Communist Party, but now with digital technology history has different versions. History has a Zhang Jinli version, a Security Bureau version… there’s a lot of different versions, not just one version. That is a great progress in the political situation in China.
In terms of the final film, how much time did you actually spend on the street shooting Zhang’s story, and how much of the film did Zhang Jinli shoot himself? Did he shoot most of the footage that we see in the film?
Two-thirds is Zhang’s, one-third our team. In total he provided me with about 70 hours of footage. The last scene of the demolition is mainly by us, because Zhang is in the action, on screen.
And was Zhang involved in putting the film together during the editing process?
No, he just provided footage. That is why the film is directed by myself. Actually at that time Zhang Jinli didn’t have the opportunity to tell a story. The original idea was to give a camera to him and teach him to edit. That would be a more complete idea – just like Wu Wenguang did with his village project. He gave a camera to villagers and taught them to edit.
But Zhang Jinli, after this, bought a camera himself, opened a blog and he’s become very interested in digital technology and using all the different kinds of media to document his daily life. He is still in the process of trying to get his compensation. He now lives in his sister’s house. Before the Olympics the district government said they’d give him a house close to where he used to live as compensation, but after the Olympics when he went back to talk to them they ignored him.
So it sounds like it was quite an empowering experience for him, in terms of telling his own story and producing his own media?
Yeah, he is so smart. Every two or three days, or at least once a week, we would meet and he would provide his new footage. After one month I found he was not only shooting but also speaking – narrating. Like a journalist. So in Meishi Street we can see him becoming educated as a citizen journalist. We can see him acting just like a journalist, interviewing people.
Did you ever go back to your original project about Beijing?
After Meishi Street, I had so many new projects so I haven’t had time to do it.
That footage would already be very valuable – big parts of that area have been destroyed and rebuilt in the past few years.
Yeah, after Meishi Street was rebuilt in 2007 I often went back there to get new footage. So my footage covers the whole process of change in that area – it’s totally different now. I really want to finish this project, but I don’t know how to find the time…
Both San Yuan Li and Meishi Street are very collaborative projects, with multiple people contributing to the filmmaking process. Do you feel this an important aspect of your approach to filmmaking?
Yes. This is a new way of making films – you know most of the Chinese documentary filmmakers often work individually, in one-man teams. But because when I started making films I was running the U-theque organisation I developed a co-operative idea from that orgnisation. For each project we had a list of four or five people who were in charge of the camera. So we shot a lot of footage, and then every week we would have a meeting to discuss what to do next. From Monday to Friday we would be shooting in the city. Then Saturday or Sunday we would sit down, have a meeting to preview and discuss all the footage, then decide how to shoot the following week. So we had so many meetings when making the film.
Was this for both San Yuan Li and Meishi Street?
Are other people from U-theque still involved in filmmaking?
Of course! There’s quite a lot. Huang Weikai (Disorder, 2009, also in the dGenerate catalogue) participated in both San Yuan Li and Meishi Street. He was my main cameraman. So far he has made three documentaries by himself. Also Fu Xinhua, another member of U-theque, has made two more films about urban villages in Guangzhou.
In earlier periods of the People’s Republic, filmmakers only came through the film schools and other specific training institutions, so groups like U-theque and the idea of people training themselves is a big change.
Yeah, there are two things that made this change. First was pirate DVDs. People educated themselves. They didn’t need to go to Beijing Film Academy – they saw a lot of films through pirate DVDs, which gave a very rich film history. When they had seen this history they wanted to make things themselves, and they found there were very cheap cameras that had come out. I mean everyone can buy a camera and start filmmaking. We can also say pirate DVDs are part of digital technology. This technology has had a great impact on filmmaking in China.
When did that change start to happen here?
I think it was in the 1990s people started seeing DVDs. It was after that – after the turn of the millennium – they started making films. I wrote an article about this for a Belgian art festival – how DVDs and digital cameras changed filmmaking in China and the whole political situation.
Many of China’s independent documentary filmmakers seem to come from fine arts backgrounds. I’m thinking about people like yourself and Cao Fei, Ai Weiwei and Zhang Dali. Others like Zhao Dayong and Hu Jie started as painters before moving into filmmaking. Why do you think so many visual artists in China are attracted to documentary filmmaking?
I think today you must know that documentary is the most powerful medium to show your concept of Chinese society. For example Ai Xiaoming was the first intellectual to use documentary film to talk about very sensitive events in China. She made a film about Sun Zhigang, the young man killed by the Guangzhou police. She also made a film about an AIDS village in Henan. Documentary film is the powerful medium for people to get involved in politics. Ai Xiaoming was the first one to do that, and then Ai Weiwei has also done that.
I think today’s contemporary art is very commercial in a very commercial system. Some artists have changed to making documentaries because they are concerned about Chinese society and Chinese reality. It’s a more direct way to express themselves, because a lot of artists care about society and they have found contemporary art has lost its critical power.
Ai Weiwei discovered this. He has produced four documentaries, and then he mails the DVDs to a lot of different people for free. Anyone can send their address to him and he’ll mail it to them. He has distributed more than 15,000 copies of his films this way.
Earlier you talked about the problems U-theque had, and how much the authorities didn’t like San Yuan Li. Have you ever suffered any other interference from the authorities in your filmmaking activities? Did you have any problems when you were shooting Meishi Street for example?
When I was shooting San Yuan Li the government didn’t know – I just had to deal with the people in the village. So there was no trouble in making the film. And in Beijing, because Dashilan – where Meishi Street is – is a tourist area, there were so many tourists every day with cameras the street office and local government could not recognise who was a tourist and who was a documentary filmmaker, so there was no problem [laughs].
Do independent documentary filmmakers in China generally regard themselves as a community, or do they tend to work in isolation? Do you have much communication with other filmmakers?
Yeah. There is a community in China. At the very beginning it was maybe a filmmakers community, but now because Ai Weiwei and Ai Xiaoming use documentary films to get involved in citizen’s political movements, some activists have joined in. The Chinese activists also gather on Twitter. They have a big community, because Ai Weiwei is like a leader – a godfather. When he makes a documentary film, he sends a DVD to everyone and it becomes very well known in the activist scene. So the community is getting wider and bigger – it’s gone beyond the filmmakers. Chinese activists discuss politics on Twitter every day – discuss everything that happens in China.
Are you currently working any other film projects?
[Sighs] Even though I work as a curator and the director of the Shao Foundation, the thing I most like to do is to be an artist – a creator. I really want to go back and make a film. When you work as a curator you have to handle a lot of administration. I hate that! [laughs]
I made a film about Guangzhou, and one about Beijing, so I’d like to make a film about Shanghai. There’s a worker community in Shanghai built in the 1950s, also located in the center of the city. A lot of migrants have now moved in – it’s the same kind of community as Dashilan and San Yuan Li. I planned to do this project after the Beijing project – I planned it in 2006, but I haven’t had time to do it [laughs].