Jia Zhangke opens up about her quest to document a rapidly disappearing China
Between fiction and documentary, the work of Chinese director Jia Zhangke takes many forms, often within the same film. His last, Swim until the sea turns blue, is a documentary portrait of rural China, told through the lives and words of four authors – Ma Feng, Jia Pingwa, Yu Hua and Liang Hong – whose work collectively spans from the communist revolution of 1949 to the present day . Combining reflections on the politics of each era with memories of the authors’ rural education, Jia traces China’s cultural evolution in intimate features, offering an alternate history of a country whose rapid urbanization has obscured the many struggles of its poorest regions.
In the days leading up to the film’s US release, Jia and I logged onto Zoom to discuss hidden stories and the generation gap separating today’s Chinese youth from their rural roots.
Hyperallergic: I’ve heard you refer to the new film as the third in your “artist trilogy”. When did you start to conceive of the film itself?
Jia Zhangke: I shot the first two films of the trilogy back to back. In 2006, I made Dong, on the painter Liu Xiaodong, and in 2007 I made Useless, about fashion designer Ma Ke. Immediately after, I thought I would do part three, on artists who are either architects or town planners. The reason was that at this time Chinese society was going through this dramatic transformation of urbanization and town planning, with many streets and buildings demolished, redesigned and rebuilt. I had found quite a few architects and planners who would be perfect for the project, but they didn’t seem to want to share in front of the camera the things I wanted to capture, so we postponed the project.
It was only recently that I started to rethink the third part. For the past few years, I have been going back and forth between Beijing and Jia Family Village [Note: no relation to the director], and while I was there, I noticed that they face many issues – not just Chinese issues, but global issues when it comes to the younger generations moving from rural areas to urban settings. . Nowadays in these rural areas you tend to see mostly old people; young people do not stay long in these regions. So now, when these younger generations have children, they will have no connection, no memory or understanding of their rural or agricultural roots. In the case of Jia Family Village, you go from 5,000 years of agricultural history to, in one generation, this rupture or gap due to urbanization. It was really the impetus for me to want to capture these rural memories, experiences and stories for this third installment.
H: How did you come to the four main subjects of the film? Do they have certain characteristics or styles of writing that you feel are particularly suited to the story you are trying to tell?
JZ: As I pondered who I could call to tell these rural stories, one particular element of the family village of Jia stood out: a literary tradition with very strong ties to the first writer depicted in the film, Ma Feng. He was born and raised in Jia Family Village, and has written about the area often. I thought I could use writers born in similar regions who wrote about those regions to bring this documentary to life.
For these four writers, I wanted to focus on when they were most prolific. So Ma Feng, he was born in the 20s and most prolific in the 50s and 60s, while Jia Pingwa wrote mostly in the 70s and 80s, Yu Hua in the 80s and 90s, and Liang Hong on everything. from the 90s until now. So it made sense for me to bring these writers together as a sort of relay to talk about their formative years, and even though they overlap, the most important eras for each of them represent specific moments in time. Overall, I thought I could tell the story of these villages from 1949 to today.
But the most interesting for me was that I was able to capture each author’s unique way of telling stories and their worldview through the way they speak through their memories, their life and their story, as well as the way they portray their characters. If you look at Ma Feng, for example, he was very informed by the collectivist environment and the social climate of the time, while Jia Pingwa was trying to recover a classical literary tradition and at the same time, because of the reforms brought by the Cultural revolution, establish a dialogue with artists like Gauguin and van Gogh. Meanwhile, Yu Hua was very much in tune with the contemporary literary landscape, and therefore able to evoke Kafka, Faulkner and Marx in his writings, while Liang Hong’s work is very well done under the sign of globalization and of the Internet age. In addition to learning about the last 70 years of rural history, you witness the evolution of Chinese literature.
H: Ma Feng is the only writer who is no longer alive. How did you decide to make his daughter speak for him?
JZ: For me, to have a comprehensive understanding of these rural areas in Ma Feng’s time, it was not enough to rely solely on his daughter, as I really needed this first-hand account. This is the reason why, in addition to the girl, I included two village elders, both aged 90. These elders had direct experiences and interactions with Ma Feng that I relied on to offer eyewitness accounts of what happened during this time. All three talk about the collectivization of society that occurred during Ma Feng’s time. When we look back and rethink the ideas of that time, we might now have different assessments, views or understandings of these concepts, but what I want to articulate with the film is that we have to admit that this come, no matter how we interpret what come. Through these three people, I wanted to capture the social and historical contexts of these things.
However, this also posed some problems when it came to interviews. They are very old, of course, but they also come from a society focused on collectivism rather than individualism, which means it is very difficult for them to speak in the first person, or ‘I’. It was a challenge interviewing them in such a way that they opened up in front of the camera and shared their private and subjective memories. And since they’re old, they tend not to speak in chronological order, and instead, jump, jump forward, and rewind in a way that isn’t always consistent. We had to spend a lot of time in post-production finding some coherent logic and structure in what they were saying, to distill their memories well.
H: Is that reluctance to speak in first person part of the reason you chose to shoot the interviews from multiple angles and what seems to be quite a distance away?
JZ: For me, the compositions evolve naturally within the structure of the film. For the first few interviews, I wanted things to be impressionistic, so we started with images of old people eating, and through that group concept we slowly but surely enter individual memories. In other words, I wanted to locate a visual concept that would take us from the collectivist to the individualistic way of seeing memories.
H: Much of the film deals with the official narrative of Chinese history and each author’s personal experiences, and how these are quite different. In general, what is the public understanding of these events?
JZ: When it comes to the grand narrative, the “official” version of the story is pretty much the same for everyone, at least when it comes to how people understand great historical moments. However, I think what is missing from the grand narrative are the details. Everything is stated in such an abstract or statistical way. That’s why I think movies like this are a must. You cannot sense abstract or statistical stories. There is no impact – it makes no sense. What is missing are visceral connections to history. Of course, there are plenty of ways to hide parts of the story. But what is more important to realize is that what is often hidden is not necessarily what happened, but How? ‘Or’ What things have happened, and it’s the details that I hope will, when seen, offer compelling evidence as to why we and other documentary makers make the films we make.
Swim until the sea turns blue opens in select theaters on May 28.