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CinemaTalk: Jian Yi at the Beijing Apple Store

This is the second of three interviews produced from the “Meet the Filmmakers” series held in Feburary 2010 at the Apple Store in Sanlitun, Beijing. The series, co-presented by the Apple Store and dGenerate Films, is an ongoing series to showcase China’s newest filmmakers powered by digital technology.

Jian Yi

Jian Yi is a filmmaker from China whose work actively engages ordinary citizens in documenting their own lives. He directed the critically acclaimed films Super, Girls! and Bamboo Shoots, and co-directed the groundbreaking China Village Documentary Project, in which ordinary villagers from across China used video cameras to record the changing rural dynamics in their home villages. Jian Yi is also the founder of the Participatory Documentary Center at Jinggangshan University and Original Studio, one of the nation’s first innovative community art centers. His documentaries and feature films, which reveal the social and cultural tensions of contemporary China, have won international awards and are shown worldwide. He is a 2010 Open Society Institute Fellow.

The video of Jian’s interview is in four parts, with an English transcript following each video. Video of Part One is below. Click through to view both videos and the full transcript. Interview conducted by Jane Zheng. Videography by Michael Cheng. English transcription and subtitles by Isabella Tianzi Cai.

Note: English subtitles for each video can be accessed by clicking on the CC button in the pop-up menu on the bottom right corner of the player.


JZ: The clip we saw just now was from Director Jian’s feature film Dong Sun (Bamboo Shoots), winner of the Bronze Zenith Award at the 31st Montreal World Film Festival. So, here’s my first question for you. I know you weren’t trained as a filmmaker. In fact, your film career spans over a wide range of related jobs. For example, you have worked as an editor, a production assistant, a producer, and also a curator for film festivals all around the world. What got you started in making films?

JY: Let me first apologize for showing you clips with only English subtitles, especially for the second one, because some of you may not understand Jiangxi dialect. Now, to answer your question, let me use this film as an example. What motivated me to make this film was a wish to realize in film what couldn’t be realized in real life. I have an uncle who works as a provincial-level civil servant. I visited him once and remember seeing at his home many local foods that weren’t available in the local marketplaces. I was curious about where they came from. I was sure that my uncle didn’t get them directly from villagers of nearby villages. It was possible that they got passed from villagers to village-level chiefs, then from village-level chiefs to town-level chiefs, and from town-level chiefs to municipal-level government officials, and from municipal-level government officials to provincial-level government officials. This chain of events must have taken place or else, the oranges would not have ended up where they were. In my film Dong Sun (Bamboo Shoots), a condom and a package of bamboo shoots replace the oranges. These two objects travel from a remote village to a large city, passing many hands during the process.

To digress a little here, I am a very insecure person. Nothing in the modern world makes me feel safe. This sense of insecurity comes from everything around me, including the food I eat, the things I drink, the clothes I wear, even the house I live in. It is also this sense of insecurity that makes me want to start a non-profit organization with a pseudonym – fang xin (literally means setting one’s mind at ease). I implanted this idea in my story. The characters in the story all feel acutely insecure because everything they eat and drink including baby milk powder can be unsafe. As a result of that, they begin their personal journeys to self-salvation, knowing that no one else is able to help them with these problems. That’s why I also think that this film can be correctly termed as a salvation or redemption film because you are the only person who can redeem yourself.

JZ: What about your other film Chao Ji Nü Sheng (Super, Girls!)? What gave birth to that story?

JY: That project started off because of the popular singing competition Chao Ji Nü Sheng (Super, Girls!) on TV. I enjoy watching it very much now. Initially I wasn’t a fan. I even told my friends who watched this show that this show was for ingénues. But everything changed in 2005 when I sat through one episode. In 2006, I started shooting my documentary Chao Ji Nü Sheng (Super, Girls!).

JZ: During the shooting, did you follow one specific girl or a group of girls? In the clip that you just showed us, many girls seem to have been interviewed.

JY: I followed the competition as it took place. First I was in Shenyang, then Guangzhou. If I am not wrong, I was the only independent videographer among everyone else who was there filming of the competition. Most were from official broadcasting agencies. In fact, because my video camera was big, sometimes people mistook me as one of them. When I was unlucky, I got kicked out; but when I was lucky, everything went smoothly. I followed five participants mainly. Among them, Wong Yulan was the focus. I think she is a very interesting person. On the day that she passed the preliminary round of the singing competition, she noticed that there weren’t enough pencils to go around. She went to buy hundreds of pencils and then sold them to her fellow participants at the competition.

JZ: How smart of her. That’s certainly someone with a business mind.

JY: Certainly. She knew too that she and I could use each other for our own gains. My observation tells me that her generation is highly aware of the media. For her in this case, she was right to think that my camera would help her sell her pencils. And she was able to accept the presence of my camera quite readily.

JZ: I would like to congratulate you on your achievements of both your feature film and your documentary, for I know that both of these films were given awards at world film festivals and screened in many places. From the perspective of a filmmaker though, the making of a feature film and that of a documentary can be very different in nature, both in terms of the plot and the presentation. How are you able to excel at and succeed in doing both? Could you share some of your experiences with us?

JY: I don’t consider myself a success at both. Many brilliant and excellent filmmaker s are out there. I really don’t consider myself as one of them. I like to do what I like, of things that I think about. That’s why it doesn’t really matter to me whether I’m making feature films, documentaries, oral histories, or photography for that matter. I will use my dream non-profit organization fang xin here as an example. I really like the idea and I constantly think about it. Though I am unable to realize this dream at the present, or in other words, I am unable to redeem myself right now, I am free to fictionalize it in my feature film, as a way of self-salvation for the characters in the story. This explains how and why I was motivated to make the film.

JZ: I see. You mean to let form serve content.

JY: Exactly. Fang xin may never be realized. If it did, it might corrupt pretty easily.

JZ: Like 315 (315 refers to China Consumer Association).

JY: It could be.

JZ: I know besides making art, you are also involved in all kinds of social projects. For instance, together with documentary director Wu Guanguang, you started a project called “Chronicling Villagers’ Images.” Could you share more about this project with us please? Who are your targeted villagers? And what are the mandates of the project? Additionally, how is it going now?

JY: We began this project in 2005. I met Wu Guanguang in 2004. From 2003 to 2006, I was part of an EU team whose mission in China was to follow Chinese village-level elections, and my job there mostly had to do with media relations. While I was on that job, I took many photographs, which few filmmakers or cinematographers could have had the opportunity to do the same. With ample time, a wealth of funds, and many valuable networks on hand, I obtained easy footage wherever I went.

In the first year, I did it on my own. People who live in China may know this: when I arrive at a place to do some films, I need to report to the provincial-level Civil Administration Office first; afterwards, someone from that office will inform the municipal-level Civil Administration Office about my arrival; from there, someone from the municipal-level civil administration office will inform an even lower Civil Administration Office about my arrival. This process basically continues until I get to whoever is in charge of the village that I want to visit.

Often by the time I met any villagers, it would be very late at night because a whole day had been wasted on meeting all the intermediate people, and some twenty civil servants often would sit with me at the table for a meal prepared for all of us by the villagers. During the second year that I was at this job, I organized a national photography competition simply because after so many similar incidences like this one, I came to the realization that what I could see with my own eyes was very limited. I wished to see what others saw. The results were not as good as I expected because many who participated submitted works that weren’t as illuminating as I thought they would.

It was around then that I met Wu Guanguang. I consider Wu to be like most of the people who participated in my competition, but he suggested to me that we can hand the cameras to villagers and let them film themselves. At the moment, I thought his suggestion amounted most to a change of mode of representation and nothing much. But Wu carried it out and matured as he did it. He knew many advertising agencies. He was also someone famous.

We made announcements of this project, and the response was good. The project was for ten specially selected peasants, each of whom would travel to Beijing and be given a free video camera and a free ten-day crash course on how to use video cameras. We planned to give them a month’s time to work on their own films in their native villages. After their time was up, they would be requested to come back to Beijing again where we would teach them how to edit their footage into a ten-minute short film in Wu’s studio.


JZ: I have noticed that you are not always interested in working with professional filmmakers, actors, etc. for your projects. Instead, you pick real people living real lives. Is it alright for me to make a connection between your filmmaking practices and your area of study in school, as well as your concern with contemporary sociopolitical issues?

JY: Yes, perhaps there is such a link. I was in a master’s degree program in International Peace Studies in the United States from 1997 to 1998. I don’t think it’s a program that many choose to go. I went because of the full scholarship that they offered to me. After I went, however, it became almost inevitable that I would be reformed in one way or another. Even though we studied international political issues, I realized that a lot of the materials that we covered were closely linked to basic human needs and shared universal values. So after my studies, I felt that I had gone through a big transformation. So . . . .

JZ: So perhaps that’s what made you return to your hometown Ji’an after graduation and set up Participatory Documentary Center with the support of Jinggangshan University. I think I see a vague resemblance between this organization and your collaboration with Wu Guanguang to teach villagers to shoot films. How is this center doing right now?

JY: Let me say more about the organization. In 2008, I lived in New York for half a year. It was another transformative period in my life. While I was there, I attended many film screenings, art exhibits, etc. I noticed that like Beijing, New York had a great number of people working in the entertainment industry. While some of them seemed to have worked to entertain themselves, others worked to entertain others. As it is often said, where there is a lot of money, there is a lot of people. Unfortunately, I am not a people’s person skilled at entertaining people.

While I was in the U.S., I visited a non-profit multi-disciplinary arts and education center called Appalshop in Kentucky. They produce documentaries, videos, among other things. They have been around for over forty years and have over 100 documentaries in their collection. They are located in a very small town called Whitesberg in Kentucky. It is so small that in China we may not even call it a town! The place is rich in coal, and people who live there have a history that goes back a long time, and often they are very conservative and very poor too.

My visit to Appalshop inspired me greatly, so after I returned to China from New York, I went back to my hometown, hoping to start a similar organization like Appalshop there, instead of staying in Beijing, which is a city that I had lived for 15 years. In October 2008, Participatory Documentary Center was formally established. It has five branches: documenting films, documenting photography, documenting oral history, documenting theater houses, and documentary village architecture and infrastructure in our socialist regime.

JZ: Documentary filmmaking must be the biggest component of your work at Participatory Documentary Center. Can I say that marketing and global outreaching are also quite important?

JY: Yes. To me, going back to my hometown to start this non-governmental organization is a very natural thing to do. As I mentioned a minute ago, both in Beijing and in New York, many people are working in the entertainment industry. I lack the appropriate spirit to work a job in the entertainment industry. I want to go to a small place to work, and I know that most Chinese don’t live in big cities like Beijing. In the beginning, it was a lot of hard work. As people all know, independent films and non-profit organizations are not easy. When you tell your local government that you want to establish a non-profit organization, your local government is likely to be suspicious about your organization. What don’t you want to make money? They ask. Conversely, they welcome organizations that have making profits as their agenda.

JZ: Ji’an is a relatively small city. The standard of living there isn’t as high as it is here. How did people there react when your first opened Participatory Documentary Center? Were they willing to participate or were they hesitant to?

JY: In the beginning they did not really understand what we were trying to do. We wanted to make it entertaining for them, but at the same time, we had to live up to our mission. That was why we could not be like some of the local television programs that catered to entertainment mainly. We run our organization bilaterally. Sometimes locals approach us and seek out opportunities to work with us, other times we approach them and persuade them to participate in our projects. To us, the most important thing is not making documentaries but making changes. We wish that our presence in this small place can help people rediscover themselves as deeply sympathetic creatures and help the local community strengthen itself.

I think that in today’s capitalist culture, interpersonal relationships have become very fragile. True, the world today is full of problems. But do we ask ourselves what we can do to improve the situation? When we speak of bad people around us, do we think about our own actions? I have a notion that the badness that we see in the world is a reflection of the badness inherent in ourselves. You can look at a photograph here taken by a high school student. Here is another one of a participant and one of our journalists.

JZ: He is an old man.

YZ: Right, that is our oldest participant. You can see the point that our goal is not to make documentaries but to build the community and strengthen interpersonal relationships. Ji’an can be summarized into eight words: sheng guan fa chai ma jiang da pai (get promotion, get rich, play mahjongg, and play cards). It could be true in other parts of China including Beijng too. These words tell us how ordinary people think and live their lives. We wish that our oral history projects or other kinds of effective use of video could awaken people from their mundane existence and start questioning themselves. We wish that they will come to some kind of self-reflection in the process.

Ultimately, we wish to open a museum about this city and its people, one that keeps alive the cultural and historical records of the city by its people. Nowadays we are flooded with television series of famous people in the past, but we do not know how life was like for ordinary people back then. The goal of our oral history project is exactly to capture ordinary people’s stories and experiences. Our documentaries are divided into two categories. One is for participants who film their own lives on a yearly basis; the other is for our young filmmakers who film local organizations for longer periods of time. For instances, one young documentarian filmed a hospital, some others filmed schools. They keep going back to these organizations year after year to complete their documentaries.

JZ: A long-term engagement in a sense. Through the images left today, we can reconstruct the life of the people in the future. They will all become valuable documents.


JZ: Since we are now in Apple Store, could you also talk about how digital technologies have facilitated your organization in achieving its goals?

JY: One advantage of digital technology is that it is cheap. It makes it easy to buy and own a video camera rather than having to rent a film camera. It is easy to carry. Its size makes it more suitable for documentary filmmaking than large-sized film cameras. I will show you another documentary we made last year to illustrate what I mean. This documentary is about China’s meat market. We consume more and more meat nowadays, both in terms of the varieties and the qualities. The documentary explores the relation between meat consumption and the climate. It was screened at last year’s Copenhagen Climate Summit just after it had been edited.


JY: This film lasts twenty some minutes. I shot it in Jiangxi. The man in the picture used to raise pigs. She said that she ate meat every day. Without meat, her meals are bland.

JZ: Did you use high definition video camera for this documentary?

JY: Yes. We also brought an Apple laptop with us as we shot. I had had the laptop for three years. We were able to transfer our raw footage to the laptop whenever we wanted. As for editing, we used Final Cut Pro. In this scene the owner of the pig farm was giving injections to his pigs. A pig has to take many injections in its lifetime, just like us. We stepped into this pig farm quite casually, and this was what we saw.

JZ: Did you hold the camera during the shooting?

JY: No. This gentleman here did. The man you saw just now was a very young entrepreneur. He smells great profit in this business. He owns the largest butcher house in the town. He wants to open the biggest pig farm in the town as well.

JZ: I’m interested in how big your team was in the making of this documentary.

JY: We wanted to have it as small as we could. We had five people who were permanent staff. Sometimes on set we only had four.

JZ: How long did it take to make this twenty-minute documentary with your five-member team?

JY: It took us half a month.

JZ: We have many videographers here today who are also interested in making their own documentaries or feature films. Besides the advantages that you just mentioned about digital technologies, could you also share with us the drawbacks too? Especially their limitation on creativity?

JY: Certainly there are drawbacks, for example, the quality of video is not as good as film. To me, film means something different from what most people perceive it to be. I guess most people are concerned with the quality of sound and images. But I am concerned with the content. For the content that you see here, if you had chosen to film it with large professional video or film cameras, this would have turned out a completely different film.

JZ: So you are more concerned with the realist portrayal that portable video cameras are able to deliver.

JY: Yes, I would say so. After my wife and I finished shooting this film…

JZ: Jian Yi’s wife is sitting among us here today.

JY: …she and I converted to vegetarians. Dr. Yu who is here with us has a bungalow in Beijing. We interviewed him too. He also became a vegetarian in the aftermath. But what’s most interesting is that towards the end of the shooting when the entire production crew was in Guangzhou, we experienced the most transformative moment of our time together. My wife Song Lin and I were gravely impacted by what we had seen. We weren’t able to bite into another piece of meat. It is like after you have seen the truth and know the truth, eating what you used to take for granted becomes nearly impossible.

So on the last day, I took over the video camera and pointed it at my crew. It made them extremely uncomfortable, and they roared! Why? What we eat is private. We are afraid of letting others see what we eat because we do not like being judged by others. Food is something we intake every day; nothing is more private than it. That was why my crew found being filmed intolerable.

JZ: Such emotions were uncontrollable.

JY: Exactly. This will go on to show that our goal in making documentaries is to establish intimate and genuine interpersonal relationships. The most meaningful thing about making this documentary is this last moment when everybody who was involved felt being influenced and transformed.

JZ: From the works that you have done, I can see that you have always wanted to make your personal experience part of the creative process. The two always go together and influence each other. Now let’s turn the floor to everyone else in the room.


JZ: After having seen Director Jian Yi’s works and listened to him talking about his filming experiences, what questions do you have for him? We will pass the microphone to anyone with a question. Now let’s begin.

Man #1: What is your goal?

JY: My goal?

Man #1: Yes. And second, what do you wish to express today?

JZ: What does he wish to express today?

JY: (Jokingly) My talk must be really lousy today. Well, one thing that had been on my mind all the while was that I only had half an hour. Half an hour was all I had.

JZ: Let me try to rephrase the question a little. Did you want to ask Director Jian Yi what he wishes to express through his works, which he just showed us today?

Man #1: The screening went by quite fast. I wasn’t able to understand what drove you to do such projects. What thoughts do you have behind them?

JY: My goal, let me see. Well, as I mentioned earlier, all the works that I do concerns me in one way or another. I have never felt like searching for a topic so as to film it. I would never go to a remote village and set a goal to film it because the village would not be something that I am truly familiar with. I am not saying that that village is unimportant. I only mean that I am not inclined to challenge myself to film something that I have no knowledge of. I like to start from myself and what I can see. I picture myself as a tiny molecule, perhaps one of the tiniest, in this big world. I would like to open up the rest of the world from me. For instance, I started from the things I ate. If you also try it, you will see that it could be quite a formidable project at first.

JZ: It is like a self-dissecting process in front of others.

JY: Not yet in front of others, only in front of myself.

Woman #1: I can sense from your talk that you have a personal philosophy that runs undercurrent throughout your work. Maybe this personal philosophy isn’t totally explicable. It’s common to many of us. That’s probably why people shoot documentaries, write music, and so on and so forth. I want to say that what you have been doing and your persistent input in making feature films and documentaries are admirable. For most people including me, even though we also have similar insightful moments in life, where our smooth-running everyday life ruptures to reveal something much deeper – for example, we feel being treated unfairly in society – we do not have the means and talent to capture those moments and make them widely known. My question for you is about your next step or your next goal. Where are you being led?

JY: What we are doing now is already a lot of work. That’s part of the reason that I don’t have in mind what my next project is going to be. As I mentioned earlier, our work (at Participatory Documentary Center) is divided into five parts. Making documentaries is only one of them. Photography is also part of our work, like the photographs that were produced by elementary school and middle school students. Besides those, we have oral history and documenting theater productions. Whatever you film, you are mediated by video cameras. But for documenting theater productions, the presence of video cameras isn’t going to be that strong. As for documenting architecture, architecture itself is already a strong link between people and the environment that they live in.

JZ: What about your ultimate goal?

JY: That’s not easy to say. I used to word “roar” earlier on. I don’t think what we are doing is simply roaring. If that was what we wanted, we would be not doing what are doing. I think that there are many things that worth roaring right now and there are many brave people who are roaring. But despite what they do, they are doing it onto others, not to themselves. How much of our time do we spend asking ourselves what we can do to help? How do changes happen in society? I don’t think our society is an automatic running machine that runs on its own but is run by people like you and me. That’s why I really don’t think that what we do is simply roaring.

Woman #1: “Roaring” is probably not an appropriate term. What I meant was a kind of roaring that requires spiritual inspirations, which ordinary people don’t experience much. For those who don’t have a much deeper understanding of the world, they may not have the ability or even the means to do the same work as you do. The act of roaring isn’t the language of roaring. I have another comment too. You want to document the history and culture of a small city. If you succeed in doing it, what you do will give us ordinary people a sense of empowerment and entitlement to our own history and culture. This is especially meaningful and important to people like me who are not from Beijing, Shanghai, and other big metropolitans. You are the first to start this kind of project and this kind of organization independent of the state, which always imposes restraints on similar projects and organizations. Thank you.

JZ: Let’s say your organization really grows and matures a few years from now, do you wish to start another one of its kind in a different city? Is that in your plan?

JY: I have had such a thought before. But it is already not easy to do it well in just one city, so I stopped dreaming about such things. I honestly think that by being there, our organization is already a success. And it could be just because of the fact that the people working there feel changed every day by doing what they do. Maybe what we do seems similar to what the local broadcasting agencies do, for instance, local community DV’s. But we are actually very different from them in essence. We are stationed in the local community whereas the local broadcasting agencies assign people to work on projects – these people will come and go.

Another point that I want to add is that as you probably know, independent documentaries do not reach a wide audience. A lot of the times, independent filmmakers could only show their works to one another. It is a closed and limited circle of people. However, from my father, I was able to change the way that I viewed independent documentaries. My sister and I bought a video camera as a gift for our father and let him film our grandmother. He had a bad relationship with her because she disapproved his marriage in the old days. She lived in an old folks’ home. Old folks’ home is a new phenomenon in China. This one became a quite extraordinary place for my father. He filmed her for a year there, during which I wished to see a change in their relationship for the better. Unfortunately what I wished didn’t happen because she passed away in the midst of it.

However, my father’s experience during this year changed his view on documentaries. In the past, he had not been interested in watching documentaries. In fact, he had had no concept of what a documentary was. After that year, he became interested in documentaries and watched every documentary that I stored at home. What I learned from my father is that my team and I are not only developing a documentary-making community but also developing our own audience, both of which are genuinely for community building.

JZ: In other words, the work acquires personal and communal meanings.

JY: That’s right. I think that it’s pointless to make films without people who can actually watch them. Those films won’t have the chance to influence people that way.

JZ: Right. Are there any more questions? Well, thanks for everyone who is here and Director Jian who shares his works and his experiences with us. Are you willing to give some conclusive remarks for today – for the coming of the Chinese New Year?

JY: Everything we do is to establish and strength interpersonal relationships. We have a small project called “Passing the Video Camera Project” right now. Many people today who have old digital cameras and old video cameras with resolutions ranging from 8 to 10 megapixels do not use them anymore. These old machines sit in their homes or get thrown out. We collect such old cameras and pass them on to children, young people, etc. in our community who seem interested. So if anyone today is willing to donate, please contact us.

JZ: That’s really meaningful. Thanks Director Jian again. Even though the event is quite short today, it is significant. I hope sincerely here that you will succeed in doing what you are doing and achieving your goal(s) in the future. And I hope that everyone here today will also succeed in your own filed. During the past three days, we have had dialogues with a bunch of independent filmmakers. I could see that all of them are very persevering. They all know clearly what they want. In my personal opinion, people who know what they want and who strive to achieve it with perseverance will succeed ultimately. Thanks everyone. Thanks, Director Jian.

Anchor: Thanks Director Jian for showing us his films and having a dialogue with us. Thanks everyone for coming to Apple Store to participate in our events. I hope you all like it and continue to participate in our future events. So thank everyone.

JZ: If anyone is interested in knowing more about the Participatory Documentary Center, we have some brochures at the back too. Thank you.


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