Re-emergence of Fanhall Films: An Interview with Zhu Rikun
ZHU Rikun is a name that should be familiar to anyone paying attention to Chinese independents.
He’s the director of festival favorite The Questioning, The Dossier, Dust and most recently, Anni, a portrait of how the Chinese government punished democracy campaigner ZHANG Lin and his daughter.
He’s been key in nurturing Chinese docs as a programmer, serving as artistic director of several independent film festivals including the influential Beijing Independent Documentary Festival, before their eventual cancellations.
Then there’s his work as a producer – ZHU was instrumental to getting the likes of Karamay, The Interceptor from My Hometown and Queer China, 'Comrade' China onto screens.
In 2001, he set up Fanhall, a banner for his production, distribution and curation work. Though authorities saw to its closure in 2011, ZHU decided during confinement to resurrect Fanhall to host online screenings. This weekend will see the start of a season celebrating ZHAO Dayong, beginning with non-fiction works Street Life and Ghost Town before following his move into narrative features spanning The High Life through to last year’s The Blessed Land.
Speaking via email, Rikun, now based in New York, explained how the web could be a safer bet to make Chinese independents more accessible, how low-tech digital video still has an allure all of its own, and how he hopes audiences will engage with ZHAO’s films.
You re-started the Fanhall website and you’ve programmed a number of online screenings over the last few months. Many people have lamented the closure of cinemas, but is there an advantage to hosting these films in online spaces?
Indie films going online is a good option for viewing and discussing. Audiences can be from anywhere and the discussion is freer than in a physical screening room. It is important for people to see and discuss films together. First, I hope the audience can see these independent films. Second, it will help the filmmakers and the audience if they could share their opinions. We need a free public space in China, even in a virtual way.
What kind of restrictions get in the way of showing these films online in China?
There is still very strict control. Most of the indie films are not allowed to be shown on Chinese streaming platforms. I have to choose the international platforms like YouTube or Vimeo, but they are banned in China. It means it is still difficult to reach Chinese audiences who are unable to access these websites. The censorship is stricter than ever. When I was showing Dayong's newest documentary One Says No, I couldn't even upload a screener to my private storage on a Chinese website. And an article about it, I was not allowed to publish on a website like WeChat.
You did a lot of important early curatorial work for festivals such as the Beijing Independent Documentary Festival and Documentary Film Festival China – how do you see independent Chinese documentary today?
The state of the independent documentary in China is worsening, as well as the whole situation of this country. I have seen some filmmakers have suspended their work because of a lack of support. And some only make films that could be approved by the censors or be shown in commercial cinemas. There is very little space for Chinese independent films these days. For big film festivals in western countries, they don't pay attention to the small budget films as they look less industrial.
You’re hosting an online retrospective of ZHAO Dayong’s films. What appeals to you about his filmmaking?
Dayong’s documentaries are good examples of direct cinema practices in China. He adapts direct cinema as a cinematic style but not as a rule to approach the objects in his film. He has found his way to explore the world through his characters. He has minimal presence in his films. Also I can see he is with the characters always.
Thinking of Street Life, Ghost Town or My Father’s House, they are all focused around groups, communities or the networks people are part of.
Yes, it seems Dayong’s documentary films are always (more) about a group than an individual. It is not rare in film history but Dayong is good at it. He is good at communicating with them and they are just like good friends. They trust each other and it makes his films unique. I like the way he observes Chinese society.
Those documentaries are filmed on digital video like many Chinese films from the ‘00s and early ‘10s. Does that low-tech aesthetic give it a greater sense of intimacy or a certain honesty?
When Dayong started to make documentary in 2002, he used expensive and heavy HD cameras, but the project failed. After that, Dayong realized that how to choose the right shooting equipment for an independent filmmaker is very important. He used smaller cameras with light accessories. I think this makes the characters not act for his films but (show) the real status of life. You use the perfect word. It is ‘honest’.
Ghost Town seems to have been the best received film of ZHAO’s amongst western audiences – why do you think that was?
Probably, Ghost Town has more depth exploring the personality and spiritual world of the characters who are living in the isolated mountain area. It is a beautiful film with a unique environment and lifestyle that looks far away from the modern urban cities. For me, I like Street Life. It is set in the metropolitan city of Shanghai and it is complicated. But it is hard to say which one is better. I think people prefer a life with more simplicity and spirit.
Three Films To Watch by Zhao Dayong in the dGenerate Films Collection
Of ZHAO’s three dGenerate-distributed films, Street Life is the knottiest. It is also the most immediate, with a vitality that makes it feel alive in a way the more stately, patient Ghost Town isn’t, and cohesive and complete in a way the shifting focus of My Father’s House doesn’t allow. Focusing on a sub-section of Shanghai’s homeless migrant workers barely getting by through rubbish-picking, it’s led by colourful characters with monikers like Black Skin and Big Fatty. But despite their enterprising élan, it doesn’t shy away from how while ransacking bins might give them a nominal wage, they’re still on the lower rungs of the circular economy, with all that brings.
Shot in longer takes that give it a ruminative beauty, Ghost Town is a set of portraits of residents within Zhiziluo, a sparsely populated old mountain town. Collectively, it provides a meditative – though not idyllic – look at one rural community and its beliefs, rituals and connections. Episodically, ZHAO extracts individual stories that work as stand-alone pieces. One 12-year old boy who, refusing to live with either of his divorced parents, chooses to live alone. A woman married off to a husband returns to nonchalantly confess that the union is one of duty, not affection. A pastor reveals his thorny relationship with his ageing father, who in turn tells of how missionaries introduced Christianity to the area. One younger man meanwhile considers leaving Zhiziluo to find work in the city. Though a welcome addition to that sub-genre of cinema fascinated by a place’s declining fortunes and disappearing ways of life, ZHAO’s appreciation for the disarming, private details of residents’ lives is its real asset.
Picking up a thread from Ghost Town, My Father’s House considers how faith groups are treated by Chinese authorities, this time from the perspective of African immigrants in Guangzhou. As we see police reading out a statement early on, non-Chinese, we learn, are not allowed to organise religious organisations. If that doesn’t deter these underground churchgoers (they continue singing), it does mean the pastor, after relocating to Hong Kong, is forced to go virtual, conducting ceremonies for the faithful over Skype. ZHAO doesn’t entirely follow this line of enquiry. Instead, he turns to one Nigerian-Chinese mixed-race couple who met through church. She worries if she has done enough to protect her husband, while he wonders why Africans in China are met with opposition when there are higher numbers of Chinese in Africa. A slight but intriguing look at how faith, family, race and rights overlap in China.