The celebrated Chinese documentary filmmaker had an in-depth, career-spanning conversation with IDFA's artistic director Orwa Nyrabia.
Chinese director Wang Bing is this year's Guest of Honor at IDFA, and in addition to showing a Retrospective of six of his films, including two which world-premiered this year at Cannes, Youth (Spring) and Man in Black, and his Top 10 program, for which he decided take the audiences on a journey through contemporary Chinese cinema, he had a conversation describing his career and filmmaking approach Friday at Tuschinski with IDFA's Artistic Director Orwa Nyrabia.
Nyrabia first played a clip from Wang Bing's first film, the 2002 epic nine-hour masterpiece Tie Xi Qu: West of the Tracks, which explores the decay of China’s biggest and oldest industrial area, showing a Chinese society in transition, and the impact of a transformed economy on the hopes and dreams of the workers.
After the clip, Nyrabia said, "I want to go to the very beginning and ask, how did you find cinema first? How did you decide this was what you wanted to do?"
"I've been always contemplating this, since I was a student back in 1990–1995. I was always wondering what kind of movie it would be if I would make one someday. And back then, in 1999, I thought that was the time that I should make my first movie and that was the beginning of my career," Wang Bing replied.
Then the conversation moved on to this very film. "I have to be honest with you: I had no passion nor attention given to documentaries before I stepped into this field," Wang Bing was candid. "Everybody knows that China has quite a strict administration over feature movies, but back in 1999, documentaries were out of the scope for them. So that was that was the time and the gap that I took in order to make this documentary, based on the area where I had studied."
He then relayed how he bought his first DV set and went to Xinjiang to shoot the film. It took him a year and a half to film it.
He explained his initial approach: "Did I study consciously about documentary? No. Did I proactively approach documentary? No. But it was a period of progress of understanding, along with my shooting, through which I realized what documentary is and what is the relationship between the film and the characters, the protagonist, the people and the environment involved."
Escaping censorship and market demands
Nyrabia followed up by asking Wang Bing about the relation between him escaping censorship and the confines of the general rules of the market.
"Initially it was not a rational choice to escape from the commercial and administrative obstacles," Wang Bing recalled. "I'm not particularly fond of the big machine that runs in China, you know, the process of basically making everything in a way that comes out as propaganda. So, it was it was in my original thinking that I wanted to kind of step out from that.
"But what I noticed back in 2000 was that it was a period in China that was really hopeful. And I tried to grasp that hopefulness and to either make a change or enable a change by making my own filmmaking style. And what you saw in West of the Tracks includes all my intuitions, observations, and perspectives about the society back then," he explained.
After the success of the film which went to many international festivals, winning several awards, Wang Bing still tried his hand at fiction, with The Ditch, which world-premiered in the competition of the 2010 Venice Film Festival.
"This was another attempt, another lesson for me," said Wang Bing. "I invested a lot of effort and time in making this feature and it was also the movie, however, that made me think: what is the environment in China that I'm making films in? All the assets and the resources are under state administration and in order to make feature movies, you would have to rely on these resources and assets, which I find really difficult. So, all my films since 2010 are documentaries."
This was the cue for Nyrabia to play a clip from the film Wang Bing made exactly at that time, Alone, a shorter version of his film Three Sisters.
This film came almost as a result of a coincidence: Wang Bing went to the province of Yunnan following the death a friend and came across these three young girls.
"I had a good conversation with the sisters, and the older sister wanted to show me their home, and I realized that even though I grew up in northwest China in a village, I lost track of how in rural areas things could look like even after so many years," he recalled.
"I would never want to candidly portray poverty and make a movie only to illustrate that. However, that feeling when I first stepped into their home hit me so strongly. The mother left her home in the era when China still implemented strong birth control policies, and the family had three children instead of one. And the husband's side of the family, especially the men, gave her a lot of difficulties and pressure, so she left," he explained.
Even though the sisters had a special bond with their grandfather, their father worked in another city to support the family. This is a specific phenomenon called "stay children", children who stay in the village while the parents go to bigger cities for better opportunities.
"It was this phenomenon that triggered me but also made me think that this was probably going to last another 20 years or even longer in the society we live in," Wang Bing said.
"However, it was not my intention to portray poverty. If you look at it, it's more about the connection between children. It was the interaction and the characteristics of the children that I portrayed. It was not asking for sympathy; it was emphasizing the feeling of human beings growing up together."
Nyrabia followed up on this with the observation that in his films, Wang Bing doesn't seem to be interested in the aspect of China that displays an overwhelming economic power, with images of cities full of shiny skyscrapers. Wang Bing responded by reminding the audience that when making a film in a big city, there are a lot more restrictions. But in the cities, there are many construction sites and factories as well, and Bing went on to speak about Youth.
"I filmed it in Yangtze Delta, the most prosperous part of China, densely populated, full of factories, and in there you can also find a micro-environment where people work really hard. The cities look beautiful, but the construction site workers come from rural areas.
"And talking about the wealthy, beautiful part of China, I speculate that the richer the people get, the more private their lives become. And in society, that trust is quite often a missing element. I would not have too many opportunities to show the real side of how things work on the screen," he elaborated.
Wang Bing explained that he is not in a position to handpick who represents the China he portrays: "It's the people that I came across, the people that I met in my life that shaped my movies."
This took the Guest of Honor to the crux of his cinematic approach: "I'm not particularly interested in politics, and it was definitely not my intention. I don't want to see my films become tools for political agendas, for criticisms, to act as a weapon."
This statement made Nyrabia point out that the director always takes us to the most ordinary daily life of his characters.
"And that makes me wonder, when you are there with your camera in your location, how do you judge what makes something interesting to you?" he asked.
"The first point is the people: I feel that a person or people must create a desire for me to want to film. Secondly, it is the topic, the place, the story, the uncertainty, the random rendezvous, the newcomers that we came across because we're telling a story. In the end, I want my films to tell the story of the people rather than making it an implication of anything," Wang Bing explained.
When asked how he works on the set with the crew, the director replied that he doesn't have a crew.
"I have friends and I ask my friends. I ask them spontaneously. So, there is absolutely no team spirit," he jokes. "My funding is relatively low so I also can't hire my friends. That's why you see people getting into the production and moving out it on a half-year basis and that adds to the uncertainty which I spoke about."
This is why many of his films took a long time to make. One example is Youth, which started in 2014 and the filming was completed only in 2019. After playing an excerpt from it, Nyrabia said it's one of Wang Bing's biggest projects, much more than one film.
"Back in 2014, I went to Yunnan province to visit those villages where I met three or four young boys and girls who wanted to work in a bigger area in China. I asked them if they would bring me along, and that's how I ended up in Zhili.
"I recognized that this was a suitable place because even though the place was not big, the industry was, and consisted of smaller factories, giving me an advantage to going into those bigger, more established enterprises in Yangtze Delta.
"What we're seeing here at IDFA is part one of the whole story. Part two is still in the making, and part three is complete. So next year I expect that everything will be ready to be shared with the world," Wang Bing announced.
What does it mean to be a free filmmaker?
Bringing the talk to a close, Nyrabia asked a key question: "You told us that you do not want film to be a tool for politics. What do you want film to be?"
"The dilemma is that I live and I film in a politically sensitive society," Bing replied. "All the people that were involved in my films live in the same society with the same sensitivity. So, we cannot simply unhook ourselves from the context. And that's why I've been thinking how to how to show this in the way I would like to.
"There are many elements in my films that touch upon politics, however, to me, these are people's authentic lives and fates. And it is our very own emotions, our own fates, our own fortunes and misfortunes that I would like to focus on in my movies."
Nyrabia's final question honed in on the fact that Wang Bing has said in multiple interviews that he wants to be a free filmmaker, and asked him to explain what that means.
"There are always limitations to the freedom when I make my films, in terms of funding and administration. It is for this reason I'm more accustomed to working in a narrow environment and adapting," he replied.
For example, for the film Man in Black, the theater where he was filming was only available for three days, no matter how much he offered to pay.
"This is what I had, and I had to make it work," he said.
"And I'm very happy that you made it work, and I think it's one of the greatest films in recent years. It's an honor to have you with us, and welcome to Amsterdam," Nyrabia concluded.