CinemaTalk: Interview with Li Ning, Director of <i>Tape</i>
Li Ning, director of Tape
Tape, a highly experimental documentary by performance artist, dancer and filmmaker Li Ning, made its European premiere last January at the Rotterdam International Film Festival. Since then it has screened at the MoMA Documentary Fortnight and won the Silver Award at the Yunnan Multicultural Visual Exhibitions, aka YunFest. The film makes its West Coast premiere at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts this Thursday April 7 as part of the series “Fearless: Chinese Independent Documentaries.”
For five grueling years, Li Ning documents his struggle to achieve success as an avant-garde artist while contending with the pressures of modern life in China. He is caught between two families: his wife, son and mother, whom he can barely support; and his enthusiastic but disorganized guerilla dance troupe. Tape shatters documentary conventions, utilizing a variety of approaches, including guerilla documentary, experimental street video, even CGI.
dGenerate’s Kevin B. Lee interviewed Li Ning at the Rotterdam International Film Festival. The following is a transcript of the interview. Translation by Amy Yiran Xu and Isabella Tianzi Cai.
dGF: You were originally a dancer, sculptor and performance artist for many years. How did you begin to make videos? Tape was originally a dance performance piece. At what time did you decide to make Tape as a video?
Li Ning: It began in 2000. I owned a DV camera then. I used it to document my performances, with my troupe, and also our training. It started simple, and I didn’t expect myself to make a documentary. Kevin knows this, I feel strongly about Jinan. I have been seeing certain scenery and objects there for over 30 years. They have left a mark in my heart and in my head. I used this crappy camera and made my first film. It was an amateurish film, which was completed 10 years ago and lasted a little over 40 minutes. In my opinion, it was closely related to Tape. And at a deeper level it shares the same things with those in Tape, such as our human condition, our changing cityscape, the choices that each human being faces.
dGF: This concept of “tape,” how did you come up with the idea of it?
dGF: And at what point did you decide that you needed to film your family?
Li Ning: In 2005, my wife was pregnant. I wanted to make some home video about it then, and it was not intended for the actually film. At the time, I filmed everything around me without any intents or purposes. It was totally random. Well, some were in fact documents of my dance troupe since some footage showed the troupe members training and their gradual changes over time. Some were of my mother, who was getting old. I only wanted to document her so that I would not regret not doing it in the future. My intentions were simplistic. I find that once I intend what I film to be a documentary, it immediately gets pretentious and practical, though still enjoyable as a film. Put it another way, such kind of art becomes rootless; it loses its roots while still showing off its fruits.
dGF: At what point did this become a difficulty? At what point did it become a problem between your mother, your wife, and yourself? In the film, sometimes they object being filmed. How did you maintain your shooting even though they were not comfortable?
Li Ning: Yesterday someone asked me something similar; it was about whether I was being harmful to my family. Fiction film directors do not have this problem because they are free to avoid it. Documentary directors cannot. I think of documentary filmmakers as people who put themselves on an altar as if they are to be sacrificed. And when they sacrifice themselves, they also sacrifice those around them like their family and friends. I think that if documentary filmmakers aren’t able to make the sacrifice, then they can’t make documentaries, unless they feel comfortable filming someone drowning while standing offshore with their cameras.
If, however, they want to film something in which they are involved, then they must be prepared to sacrifice themselves. I don’t see this psychological determination as a moral dilemma because otherwise this kind of documentary can’t be made. If someone has a video camera in hand, then it’s obligatory for him or her to show the truth – this is how I see it.
I have had many internal conflicts with myself. It is cruel for me to decide to exhibit my personal experience in public, especially my bleeding experience. However, I have been filming myself for years. I think I have been rendered numb by the constant exposure. For example, initially I could not lay my eyes on the footage of me being beaten up, but the more I watched it, the more I wanted to laugh at myself. I even thought amusingly that those thugs could hit me harder.
When I look what I film, I forget that I am still part of my family. I feel that my existence is that of a video camera. Of course, I am still a human being with rich human emotions. I love my child and I love my mother very much. I had conflicts with my wife, but we were not foes. In Tape, I inserted footage of us strolling in a park. I showed it to her. It was to restore the previous damage done to her image. And it also made me feel easier.
dGF: I want to talk about some of the projects that are in the film. There is one scene where you take off all his clothes and starts climbing a construction site, and another scene where you also take off all his clothes and dives into an icy river, and all the other activities involving your troupe performing on highways, public sidewalks and demolition sites. How did you get the idea of doing these crazy projects?
During the execution of these projects, the results were often quite unpredictable no matter how planned each step along the way was. And interestingly, the more uncustomary the planned course of action was, the more likely we were to feel our existence during the process.
I never want to harm anyone by doing whatever it is. That is why lots of details need to be taken care of. For example, we did not want to jeopardize drivers when we threw fake money on the road. We specifically avoided money that looked like real Chinese banknotes and used US dollars and spirit money instead. Accidents might occur if drivers got distracted by what we were doing. I value life a lot.
I like doing bizarre things, but my bottom line is that I will never harm others’ lives. I may harm myself though.
dGF: This movie takes a very difficult and challenging exploration of your relationships with people because there were a lot of secrets and private things involved, not just about your life but also about others, such as sexual relationships, family arguments, incidents which might embarrass most people. How do you make the decision to keep those things in the video, especially when it may involve the intimate details of others?
Li Ning: I don’t think that I have exposed too much about sex. I deliberately left space for audience to imagine things. Performances involving me being naked all took place in public space. I don’t think that I used naked bodies as a way to depict sex in Tape. In Tape, I made love with my comforter, not with a female body, not with my wife, not with any real person. I wanted to protect real people, and I wanted to give viewers space for imagination. Most people do not have a problem imagining sex when they are not showed it explicitly.
As for my relationship with my family, I have given the answer in my reply to the previous question. I try to be honest in depicting my relationship with them. I try not to contemplate whether I have indeed harmed them in the end. It is not the same as avoidance because my child will see this film when he grows up, and my wife will see it too. People who have seen this film told me that I had courage, but I know that I was just being bullheaded. I think that real courage will be shown when I answer to my child and my family members about the film many years from now.
dGF: How many in the movie have actually watched the final movie?
Li Ning: My family has watched bits and pieces. Other characters in the film have not seen it. Members of my dance troupe have all seen it.
dGF: So in some ways, your dance group is closer to you than your family.
Li Ning: Yes, I agree. This is the case for these years. I feel closer to them these years.
dGF: Can you say how your family and your dance group reacted when they saw the movie?
Before I came here, my wife and I were in some bad terms again. I was in a bad mood when I left. When I was in Beijing, just moments before I was about to board the plane, my mother called. She said she was afraid to call me. The cellphone she had was the one I used in Tape. The cellphone had always been left on, but it was off that day and she turned it on. She saw the greeting message on it, which was my will. She was scared by it and thought that I wasn’t coming back. I felt terribly sorry for my mother then. She is in her golden years yet she has to constantly worry about her adult son because he makes troubles all the time.
I joked about the will and told her that the phone was a piece of prop for my film and the message was part of a screenplay, I only left it on my phone because I was afraid that I might forget it. After she heard me saying so, she dropped her worries, asked me to be careful and not to think too much. She told me if I could, try not to get a divorce because a broken family would not be good for my child. I lied. I consoled her and told her not to worry.
As for the members of my dance troupe, they felt old when they were watching the film. They are still young, but it has been four or five years for them by now. They felt they had changed so much during this time. Some actually told me that they felt stupid about what they had done with me for the past four to five years. They realized that it was more important to go with the flow rather than try to change he status quo. But I consider myself going with the flow.
Wu Wenguang commented that my art was like an insurrection by the corporeal against the machine. I thought otherwise. I think I want to express struggle, which is instinctual, and it is different from rebel, which requires the faculty of reasoning.
dGF: Since you were talking about you mother, and you mention you lied to her, there is this issue of fiction and performance. Even though this film is documentary and trying to explore the honesty and truth of his life, there are still performances and you said some scenes are staged. How can you resolve the relationship between trying to achieve truth for your but also lying to his family and friends using fictional explanations?
Li Ning: I think I have given some answers in the previous questions. I consider myself a sacrifice, so I am psychologically prepared and anxiety-free. I want to continue doing what I have done, but I also apologize to people. Once I have set my mind to making this film, I can only keep doing it, and nothing could stop me.
There is a scene where I dived into an frozen river in Tape. All I wanted to achieve in that scene was to capture a human face beneath the ice of a frozen river. I needed to have this image for my film, and I did it without thinking about the consequences. If I had not had this image, I would not have been able to sleep, so it was better for me just to get it done. I had thought about this image for over a month before I finally filmed it. This is probably considered irresponsible and crazy. But like a poet, when he or she creates poetry, or art, he or she is prepared to sacrifice him or herself.
Even if you are not prepared to sacrifice yourself, someone else will. And when you do, you do not regret. I think I have found my place at Rotterdam. Few people have actually come to see my film, and it is not a big hit, but I know I’m presenting something truthful to the world. My point is that what’s real and true isn’t always recognized and accepted by most people, but it is beautiful. Maybe it is like soap bubbles and breaks easily, but for me, fleeting beauty is worth pursuing.