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2008/11/15  Margaret Mead Film & Video Festival

(2009-03-18 17:09:26)
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2008/11/15


Margaret Mead Film & Video Festival:Interview with Du Haibin

Du Haibin is one of China's growing number of independent and industrious cinematic journalists who, since his graduation from the Beijing Film Academy in 2000, has produced a steady and impressive body of work.

His documentary subjects span China's disadvantaged, in films such as ALONG THE RAILWAY (2000), BEAUTIFUL MEN (2005), and now UMBRELLA (2007). In his latest, the umbrella—a ubiquitous device throughout China's cities and countryside—tangibly and metaphorically links the lives of factory workers, shopkeepers, urban students, army recruits, and farmers. Their shared goal is to change the course of their destinies through economic means. Du fixes a steady lens on his subjects in alternating micro- and macroscopic fashion, and lets his viewers conclude whether this goal appears within reach.

Du belongs to the Sixth Generation of filmmakers, following the famous Fifth Generation (including Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige), whose epic and lavish historical pieces helped legitimize Chinese cinema internationally. The Sixth Generation, by contrast, is known for its often controversial, gritty storylines and characters. Also called the "Urban Generation," these new filmmakers are characterized as being responsible for recording the lives of ordinary Chinese at this time of great urbanization and economic disparity. Other members of the Urban Generation include Jia Zhangke (STILL LIFE,USELESS) and Wang Xiaoshuai (BEIJING BICYCLE, FROZEN).

Du's new documentary is notable for its unobtrusive style—a reflection of the means by which he remains largely under the radar of government censors. Critics have called his films "startling" and "powerful." Says Du, "I think as a human being, as a documentary filmmaker, I have a responsibility and a conscience to record what is really happening in China."

Eleise Jones:
In your new documentary, the umbrella is an economic thread (a "shelter") that links the lives of ordinary Chinese in urban and rural areas. You've captured the candid conversations and physical exertions of assembly line workers, shoe shiners, umbrella shop owners, young army soldiers in training, entry-level job seekers, and family farm laborers. What inspired you to bring these groups of people together in this film?

Du Haibin:
First of all, when bringing these seemingly unrelated groups of people together, there was a need for a rational process of observation. Through this process, it isn't difficult to see that these groups are all linked to the present agricultural society and so they have interlinked goals. Except for the old farmer who remains with his land, the others are young people who've left their villages to make a life in the city. Why did they want to leave their hometowns? Because they possess a common aspiration: To change the destiny of the country's peasantry, as well as their own. China's workers, peasants, and soldiers are just learning that life should entail fun. Since the early founding of China as a socialist country—after a series of economic changes—today's social strata is splitting up. What's emerging today is a class differentiation. This is what inspires me.

EJ:
Your camera has captured many raw moments in UMBRELLA, and I'm curious about the way you approached your subjects. How did you explain your intentions, and what level of interest did your subjects show in the narrative? Have any of them seen the final cut?

DH:
Of course, I can't often be certain at the outset of filming what the film's main significance will be. When we're filming, we're in the moment and cannot interpret it right then and there. This has been my past experience, as well. But actually, the shooting of this film was different from the others. I roughly knew this film's narrative direction. Even so, we had no way to interpret the material on-site. At any rate, while on site, people were concentrating on doing their own work. They didn't have the energy to care about anything apart from their work, because for them, time is money.Only a few have seen the final cut, and they are more concerned about their own appearances in the film; they're not too interested in the entire narrative. The documentary acts as an intermediary for everyday circumstances. I've attempted to explain to them my ideas, but our communication has not been very effective.

EJ:
Were there other subjects or occupations that you filmed, that didn't make the final cut?

DH:
In some rural areas there were people who wished to be filmed, and we went to shoot them, but during the editing phase we ended up not using them. There was also a real estate broker who insisted I should not take his picture, and I couldn't finish filming him. Then there were the shoe factory workers, but since we later decided to use the umbrella as a narrative structure, we gave up the shoe factory material. We also caught an unexpected shot of a government motorcade along the Bund in Shanghai. I originally felt that this portrayed our subject in a very authentic way, and it was fascinating, but after editing I felt it was a little shallow. So, I decided to abandon it.

EJ:
Your documentary subjects have been as varied as a trio of drag queens/dancers, a group of railway vagabonds, and schoolchildren. How do you decide on your subjects?

DH:
My choice is based on freedom of expression. In China we can see that the mainstream media covers the "mainstream crowd," which does not represent the living conditions of the people as a whole. But they do exist. Because of this shortcoming in the mainstream media, we have come to realize that freedom of expression is not fully respected. The railway children, the migrant workers leaving their homes, the performers in a bar, etc.—are all without status and are disadvantaged groups. They and their families are in fact this country's mainstream crowd, but in our society we seldom hear their voices. And so, I chose these people.

EJ:
Considering that you are part of the so-called "Urban Generation" of filmmakers, how do your goals as a documentary maker differ from the goals of your peers and your predecessors?

DH: In fact, we're all more or less the same. Some filmmakers are recording the changes happening in the cities and in urban life; some are recording the social inequities. Many use their own interests or sense of responsibility as their starting point. My thinking is slightly different. I would like to use a more rational means to observe the rural society, to discover the changes as well as the whole story, because I think the rural community is where we discover China's most important and fundamental issues.

EJ:
Does a documentary in China have a better chance at escaping censorship or avoiding government attention than does a fictional or commercial film?

DH:
In a sense, this is the case. This is because independent documentary filmmakers have begun to give up any cooperation with the government. Creation of these independent films are for the most part low-profile, private, and non-commercial. Documentary makers don't care so much about their financial return.

EJ:
You've produced a documentary almost every year since your graduation from the Beijing Film Academy. What's next?

DH:
My next project is a documentary at the site of this year's major earthquake in Sichuan Province. The earthquake is the film's backdrop, and I'm using the ruins as well as what has emerged from the ruins to reveal the Chinese people's awareness and concept of natural world, so as to explore the relationship between people and nature. At present, the film still in production.

UMBRELLA premiered at the 64th Venice International Film Festival as part of the Horizons Documentary program, and it garnered honorable mention at the 30th Cinéma du Réel Film Festival. Umbrella will be shown Saturday November 15, at the 2008 Margaret Mead Film & Video Festival.(By Eleise Jones)

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