Producer Zhao Qi on China’s unstoppable growth and the controversial mayor intent on fast tracking one city’s modernisation.
The impressive The Chinese Mayor looks at Mayor Geng Yanbo’s transformation plan for Datong, a historically important city in desperate need of rejuvenation. Mayor Geng’s proposal is controversial, and the film gains impressive quotidian access as he seeks to carry out his plans. Through this, the documentary captures the commodification of culture, a society in flux, and the banal effects of power, all of which culminates in a bravura ending.
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BRANNAVAN GNANALINGAM: What got you interested in documentary film?
ZHAO QI: My grandpa was a journalist—he wrote stories about the great famine in Henan in 1943 and was put into prison for the writing. My father was a science journalist—he wrote and shot great science documentaries for television. I think the family traits have made me interested in factual creation. I was studying documentary for my MA at Royal Holloway College, University of London in 2002. I had the chance to watch feature length documentary film for the first time in school. It was Roger and Me by Michael Moore. I would say ever since then, I took interest in documentary film creation.
BG: You get impressive access to Geng Yanbo. How did you organise this? How comfortable did you think he was in front of the camera?
ZQ: I had always wanted to make a documentary film about the Chinese political system, but it was hard finding a good character and a story for that. I was lucky to meet Mayor Geng, as he is rarely open to the public, journalists, and documentary filmmakers. I didn’t organise anything special, we just followed Mayor Geng all the way in his inspections around the city. Mayor Geng is extremely comfortable in front of camera. I believe it is partly because he is confident in himself, and that he is doing something in good will, for the goodness of the people.
BG: He’s a complex figure and a great subject for the film. Did you know he was going to be like this? How have audiences reacted to him?
ZQ: I never expected a Mayor to be so comfortable and open to be filmed. We were able to follow him in most cases, and he did not hide his temper at all. This gives the Mayor a style and a character. Audiences have been amazed to get so close to him as a human being, and they have changed their impression of what a Chinese official should look like. The audience should have complicated feelings for him because they have a chance to listen and understand him—that is the attachment.
BG: Why did you choose Datong?
ZQ: We didn’t really choose Datong, it is more we chose Geng and he happened to be the Mayor of Datong, which makes everything more appealing.
BG: Datong is an interesting subject as a city—past glory, rapidly modernisation. Did you get a sense that the city was a metaphor for modern societies the world over (not just China) in trying to bring up the past but forgetting the present?
ZQ: Honestly speaking, we didn’t put too much focus on city development in the narrative. However, as the story is broad, it may lead to various interpretations from different parts of the film, which is exactly our intention. We don’t want the film to be a vehicle to carry one clear message, but a container with various clues for the audience to read and think. If anyone may take Datong as a metaphor, then it is indeed a metaphor, because the film is big enough to hold different understandings.
BG: There’s an interesting tension in your film between culture that’s imposed by politicians/the powerful (Geng’s plans for the city) and the culture from the street (your film capturing everyday people). Are the two reconcilable?
ZQ: Elites and civilians have different understandings of culture. For elites, culture can be a tool to serve their goal. For civilians, culture is simply their life in the street. The different concepts of the same term will likely lead to confrontations when they are using the same word but referring to different meanings. However, there is still a chance for reconciliation, but more depends on the elite to consider more of the grassroots interest. In Datong’s case, had Geng been willing to hear from his citizens more, he would have been understood and supported more overwhelmingly.
BG: Your documentary also shows the commodification of culture and history. How prevalent is this in China at the moment?
ZQ: This is indeed a phenomenon in China at the moment. As people are taking advantage of culture and history for quick turn-out, they are inclined to commodify it, so they can cash in on the market. I hope this won’t be the only attitude and reaction to culture and history. When people are more patient in life if they can slow down and wait; they may be able to find the real charm and value of culture and history.
BG: The change that is going on in the film is presented as almost uncontrollable—even the powerful cannot control it (let alone the everyday people). The style however is subtle and unobtrusive. How planned was this approach and was the style difficult to maintain given what happens in the documentary?
ZQ: Life is fast changing in China. This country, taking its population of 1.3 billion, is rolling over towards future at a high speed. Change is so normal that people don’t find it strange at all if things happen overnight. In this film, we didn’t find any trouble maintaining our style. When you place the camera anywhere, with no movement, with patience, it brings back a great moving picture, because the subject is moving fast.
BG: How much support is there for independent documentaries in China?
ZQ: There is very little support for independent documentary in China. There is no public funding open to independent documentary filmmakers and there are usually no broadcasters willing to show the films once they are made.
BG: Do you consider the approach influenced by concepts of journalism or documentary cinema—or do they inform each other?
ZQ: I always think independent social political documentary is a school of journalism, and in my film, they echoes each other. I am a journalist and a filmmaker. I choose the story with the sense of journalism, and I make it with skills of cinema.
“The Chinese Mayor” receives its final New Zealand International Film Festival screenings in Wellington on July 27th and 28th.