CinemaTalk: Conversation with Zhao Liang, director of <i>Crime and Punisment</i> and <i>Petition</i>
Zhao Liang is one of China’s leading artists working in video, photography and documentary film. His work examines both rural and urban realities, fast-paced progress and nostalgia, the nature of politics, and the beauty of the natural world. He clearly connects with the underprivileged, whom he considers to be the engine of society, and homes in on the everyday aspects of life ignored by public institutions. He has directed two feature documentaries, Crime and Punishment and Petition, and his videos, photos and installations have been exhibited around the world.
To commemorate dGenerate Films’ release of Crime and Punishment, what follows is a transcript from Zhao Liang’s audience Q&A following a screening of the film at the China Institute on Feburary 5, 2010. Additionally, there are excerpts from a supplementary interview with Zhao conducted by dGenerate Films’ Kevin B. Lee.
Thanks to Isabella Tianzi Cai, Vincent Cheng and Yuqian Yan for their translation of the interviews.
1. From the audience Q&A following the China Institute screening of Crime and Punishment:
Question: Could you say something about how this film has been distributed in China and how it’s been received? Has it been screened in theaters? Has it been on the television as well as on the web?
Zhao: In China, this film was screened once in Beijing Independent Film Festival. Other than that, very rarely have people had the opportunity to see films like this, unless they go to certain art galleries where they might have such films. So it is definitely hard to have distribution done in China. Right now dGenerate Films Inc. in the United States is helping me distribute it here.
Question: Could you explain why you made the film?
Zhao: It actually happened by chance. I was actually doing another project in 2004 somewhere around the China-North Korea border. I was there actually through connection. I was trying to document the interactions between the Chinese police officers and also the people from across the border, the whole dynamic between the border police and how they deal with people from the other side of the border. And after I got there, I realized that they were not dealing with that issue any more. Instead, I got the chance to observe their daily lives and found them fascinating. So I decided to change that particular project and make something that could actually document their daily life.
Question: I found it really interesting that the soldiers actually allowed themselves to be filmed. I just wonder how that came about and what your sense was. Did they see the problem of what was happening and want it to be made available to the public?
Crime and Punishment
Zhao: I think it definitely involved some ethical issues for documentary filmmakers. Actually I did not have any permit to film this. I had a friend at the time, and through connection I had the opportunity to film their daily life. And I also told a lie in which I pretty much told them that I was writing a script and wanted to get some sources of inspiration for this particular script. These people were all very young and inexperienced, so for a lot of them, they actually did not give the film a second thought. They knew, though, when exactly I was going overboard. And when that happened, they would ask me to stop filming them, as you have probably observed in this particular film. That was pretty much the dynamic of filming this documentary and to approaching these subjects.
Question: In terms of the crew involved, were there any other people besides yourself who were there to film? And in terms of the presence of the camera, how comfortable were the people in the film with the camera? Is the opening scene shot right after you arrived there or is it shot some time later after you had been there for a while?
Zhao: Yes, it was a one-man crew. I was the only person there to film it. In terms of the specific date that the opening scene was shot, I cannot give you too many details. But I do remember that the way that they were dealing with the whole folding of the cover and the bed sheet. They did it very neatly every time, but they actually didn’t do it everyday. This is not actually a military military. Only when they are supervised that they would need to do it for show. What usually happens is that they often use their own covers, and they will put the folded ones under their beds, and that would be just supervision purposes. So they probably do this, as I will say, about three to five times a month. And it was probably after a month that I actually picked the camera and filmed the ritual that they do.
In terms of the presence of the camera and what kind of impact that it has on the interaction between me and them, I think that it does a certain kind of impact. For example, the old man who picks up scraps. I think that in China people tend to have this perception of the media: at the same time that they think it is political and for propaganda, they also think it as having something to do with justice. They think that if the camera is there, that means that “I am not on the side of the police officers.” So sometimes when the police officer locked the room, this old man would start to communicate with me, and we would be talking about how we could deal with this particular police officer in terms of apology and so on and so forth. And I do think that for me, I really want to tell him that it is best for him to apologize because I do think that the police officer would probably not react in the way that he had in this film if not for the camera. I think it is because of the presence of the camera and the mere fact that I was there that he lost his face and wanted this particular apology from this old man. So I do think that it does change the dynamic.
Question: When I was watching this, especially during the interrogation scenes, I couldn’t help being reminded of several similar kinds of behaviors during the Cultural Revolution, which is the fact that these faces, young officers invested with such authority. I know that this film is an observational documentary, have you had any reflections on how history can factor in on this particular situation? The other question that I have is just factual. I noticed that in the credits one of the producers was Wang Bing. Is that the same person as the director of Tie Xi Qu? And I was wondering the dogs, how they were used normally. Thanks.
Zhao: When I was on location as I was shooting this particular documentary, I realized how complex the situation was in terms of the connections or the relations between the local members, including the committee members, and the society that they lived in. And I do think that for this particular old man, he wasn’t wrong because he did not have the permit, his was expired. The police officers were actually doing the things that they were supposed to do to make sure that he actually renewed his license.
The situation then sidetracked as the son of the old man cursed the police officer. And I do think that that’s something that the police officer later on was not even serious about. The police officer just wanted an apology because the camera was there. To me, it is more about the absurdity of reality than anything else. And that is something that I wanted to capture with that particular sequence.
For the second question, yes, Wang Bing and I do know each other. We are actually friends. We are neighbors, and we live in the same building. In the credits you can actually see a lot of my friends. I really could not have done this without them.
As for dogs, eating dogs is something that people do practice in that part of the country, that is, the northeast part closer to North Korea. That is how they prepare for dog meat and eat it. For this particular film, I am using the dogs as a metaphor, so I’m sure that you will get the sense of what it means.
Question: The film that you are showing tomorrow, Petition, you started that film in 1996, so I believe that this film was shot afterwards. I am just curious if you originally intended to do this film from the viewpoint of the military police, to see it from a different vantage point. Do you see these two films as in a conversation with each other?
Zhao: I think there are a lot of objective reasons that I did these two different documentaries. For Petition, it would be almost impossible for me to actually approach the government officials or the police officers in that particular film because these are very political savvy Beijing police officers. They have all the former experiences before them and they know exactly what kinds of issues would damage them or what kinds of complications that would actually come out of the film, of the filming of the dynamic and interactions between the people who come to the petition village to complain, and the police. So that answers the question of why I wasn’t able to do that in Petition. As for this one, it was just by chance and also by luck, and also because that these people are politically more naive and less politically-savvy than their Beijing counterparts.
Zhao: I have a lot more of what I call “the boring footage” that I have shot but did not use in the final product. It makes me uncomfortable to actually show them including the cases of cracking down prostitution and a lot more unethical things going on. For me, I really don’t want those things seen by other people, so I left them out. I do think I have enough material other than those to fill in the documentary, which is after all just two hours’ long. I needed to make a very difficult decision.
Question: How do you want the viewers to feel after they see the film?
Zhao: I actually don’t really expect or I don’t really care about how the audience will feel about my film because that’s not my purpose. As a filmmaker, I am making films for myself, and these are the things that I want to focus on: whether I have done my job, whether I have expressed to the fullest extent, and also the form, the style, the content that are incorporated in my film, whether I have fulfilled my expectation for myself as a filmmaker to tell the story to be told. So this is more personal, I don’t expect you to get something out of it.
That’s the reason why I feel very uneasy about Q&A. I feel embarrassed. Here is something that I want to impress upon you: in China at this stage it is almost impossible to get permit or have any type of approval or permission for independent film-making, especially documentary. For me, I have to struggle with ethical concerns. As a filmmaker, this ethical issue really bothers me a lot. And I really feel uneasy answering questions. I actually have to reexamine my responsibilities as a filmmaker, where to cross the line of being an ethical filmmaker. To me, this is definitely very difficulty to deal with.
Question: Can you talk more about the political pressure faced by independent filmmakers?
Zhao: I think the whole circle of independent film-making has a lot to do with the subject matters. If the subject matter is not that sensitive politically, no one actually would care, so they will not pick on you or single you out. To me, it is not the actually pressure from the top or the government, it is more the psychological pressure you have within yourself about the idea of what-if. Right now, I do think that through my friends, indirectly, I am trying to get the sense of how they perceive Petition, which is more politically charged. And at this point, it seems to me that I get the sense that they are not going to do anything that will be explicit to me. So far they have not approached me yet. So, we will see.
Question: So what are you working on now?
Zhao: I’m actually working on a project on AIDS that was commissioned by the government.
Comment: As a member of the audience, I do understand the difficulty of being an independent filmmaker in China. The black humor in this film is something that I enjoyed very much, and also the sense of despair, the sense that there is no resolve for everything. They needed to do what they needed to do to make a living. That is something very brilliant about this film.
2. Excerpts from interview with Zhao by Kevin B. Lee:
Zhao: First, I want to say that this film does have a critical side against the state authority. Police brutality is common in China, and it needs redress. But on the other hand, I see the policemen and the thieves as victims of this distorted environment. Both can feel insecure about their positions in society. A thief probably fears that he may be mistreated by the police; a police officer, too, probably fears that one day he will let go of the right and power to arrest and interrogate people.
Lee: How big is the area?
Zhao: It is a small town, with a population of 8,000 to 10,000 approximately.
Lee: Usually in a small town like that, every one knows each other. Their way of relating to each other is probably not as strict as in big cities. However, the policemen there act like they are the big shot. They enforce a very strict-code behavior and discipline. Even the way they conduct themselves, like the ways they fold their blankets and talk to people, seems inappropriate. What do you think is the cause of the distortion in this environment?
Zhao: The police station at the China-North Korea border is a branch of China’s military force. The police officers there often do not have close ties with the locals. After a few years, most of them will get discharged and return to their birth cities to start a new career, with a few exceptions whereby the ones who are from the small villages of the town will return to their respective villages.
Lee: Does “the distorted environment” refer to this town only or China at large?
Zhao: Not just the town. I was referring to our entire political structure and institutional system.
Lee: In the film there is a garbage collector who easily catches our attention. Will you say that there is a certain class struggle associated with people like him, who come from the countryside? Why did the police suddenly pick on him for not having a permit even though it seems that he had been doing this job for a while? What is your view about it?
Zhao: I tend to think that the police has a reason to be strict in carrying out their duties. I don’t agree that the police picked on him simply because he was from the countryside. By law, the garbage collector needs a permit for doing his job. When the police checked on him, they found out that he left his permit at home. They asked him to go home and retrieve it, and he did. However, when he came back with the permit, the police found out that his permit had already expired. That was the reason they took him to the police station.
Lee: But then you see the way they treat him is very disrespectful as if their natural attitude towards him is to suspect him and not to believe his story. What does that say about the prejudice of the policemen?
Zhao: The garbage collector kept making up lies about his not having a permit. That was the reason for their long altercation. After he retrieved his permit, which was an expired one, he complained further about the fact that nobody reminded him to extend it.
Lee: As you were filming it, how did you feel about the garbage collector since he kept lying?
Zhao: On one hand, I felt that the old man only made a meagre living out of the garbage he collected, and his life must be hard. The procedures that he needs to go through in order to get a permit every year are cumbersome – he probably needs to bribe some officials to get it done for the number of permits is limited. At the same time, law enforcement in China is carried out rather haphazardly. In the past he had never been caught or punished for not having a valid permit, so he took it for granted that he could continue taking his chances.
Unfortunately, the old batch who worked at the police station was replaced by a new batch, which consisted of younger police officers who were generally less lenient. No one from the new batch recognized the old man, so obviously he was at a disadvantage. On the other hand though, I felt that the police needed not to harass the old man. The whole thing was lame.
In a twin pack of this documentary, I included a related incident. What happened there was that the well pump in a local residential area got lost. By convention, garbage collectors are the usual suspects of such public thievery. It is believed too that even if they have not done it, they must know the culprit because the person must go to them to sell the stolen thing. Therefore, from the police’s perspective, one way to such curb public thievery is through garbage collectors. Thus, the policemen in this case did have a second good reason to check on the old man.
Lee: There is one scene where the police officers are saying that they are losing their hair. What is the main cause of stress for them?
Zhao: All of them take turns to work night shifts. And since the number of police officers who work there is limited too, it is a hard job for all. They don’t usually get enough sleep. Plus the fact that they also need to take care of 110 emergency calls and be prepared for action at any minute.
Lee: Near the end of the documentary there is a scene where the police officers arrest the timber thieves and go with the thieves to their residence. This scene seems to be a very complex scene to shoot for a documentary filmmaker because it also involves a family conflict. Prior to this scene, the documentary mainly takes place in the police station, which is a very controlled environment. How were you able to film this seemingly tense and difficult situation between the policemen and the villager outside the police station? What was the villagers’ reaction to being filmed by him as they were having a fight with the policemen?
Zhao: I did not find it hard to film this scene at the time. The villagers put their trust in me because they felt that with the presence of my camera, the policemen would not dare to mistreat them. The footage could act as evidence if needed at a later point too. This was a great advantage to both my filming amongst them and the villagers themselves.
Lee: Were there other moments when you felt that the camera was having an effect on your subjects?
Zhao: It is certainly true in the case of the old man. He often spoke to me in front of my camera because the police would not sympathize with him. Occasionally I nodded at him. This simple gesture alleviated him.
Lee: Did you feel that the police acted differently in any way in front of the camera?
Zhao: Yes, they did, to varying degrees. In general, they weren’t as brash. For instance, the garbage collector’s son remonstrated the police officers at one point. Because my camera was there, the police officers felt that they would lose face if they did not pursue the investigation right to the end.