Born in 1977 to a family of Sichuan Opera performers, Qiu Jiongjiong quit his hometown and formal education at a young age to “bum in Beijing” and made his name as a self-taught painter of eccentric, visceral portraits. Since 2006, with the support from his painting practice, Qiu has been making independent documentaries, including Portrait of Mr. Huang (2009), the “Chatterbox Trilogy”—The Moon Palace (2007), Ode to Joy (2008), and My Mother’s Rhapsody (2011), and Madame (2010). With remarkable cinematic literacy and a singular sensitivity to drama, he crafts stories of prosaic individuals into larger-than-life epics that are humorous, intimate, and lyrical in their accounts of national history and political reality. All that is solid melts, again—but no revolutionary prophecy is made, only a commitment to “being interesting,” which is in itself a threat to official metanarratives of the modern Chinese experience.
Several years in the making, Chi (Mr. Zhang Believes) (2015) (whose multivalent Chinese title translates to “mad fool”) marks a decisive leap not only in his own filmography but also in the broader landscape of Chinese independent documentary. Part oral history, part documentary theater, the film takes head-on an entire (popular, mostly illicit) historiography of the Maoist era. It is based on the memoir—titled Life and Death in China Gulag (2007), banned in China, and published by an expatriate press in the U.S.—of Zhang Xianchi, the rebellious son of a Kuomintang official who joined the People’s Liberation Army for the Communist cause only to find himself prosecuted in the Anti-Rightist Movement in the 1950s and jailed for more than two decades. Shot in color and de-saturated into a surreal black-and-white, Zhang’s first-person account of the revolution devouring its own children is transformed by Qiu’s highly stylized set and sound design, Brechtian amateur acting, and contrapuntal editing into a dizzying shadow play of figures and objects—herein lies a profane illumination of sorts, coinciding with the elderly Zhang’s eventual coming into consciousness. No hashish involved, only smoke machines.
This interview was inspired by an off-the-record conversation that took place in the East Village over many cups of sake, almost five years after our first meeting in Beijing, when his first film retrospective was held at the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA). We talked at length about Chi and the things that have happened to our lives and the cinema we loved, with frequent digressions to the great actor Totò’s performance in Pasolini’s The Hawks and the Sparrows (1966), Anri Sala, and Qiu’s nocturnal flânerie in New York. Our subsequent exchanges over email and voice messages are reproduced here.
Kang Kang (Rail): With the recent shutdowns of the Beijing Independent Film Festival (BIFF) and the China Independent Film Festival (CIFF) in Nanjing, the situation of independent filmmaking in China today seems ever more precarious. Can you talk about some of the practical challenges you encountered while making this film?
Qiu Jiongjiong: It was a pretty low-key shoot that took place in my hometown, Leshan, in Sichuan Province. The resources were extremely limited. First of all, we didn’t have a shooting permit from the film bureau, which meant everything had to happen quietly and underground. There was no budget to build sets for the exterior scenes, so I had to finance the film out of my own pocket. A period drama was simply beyond my means. I was also running up against time—the cast and crew were all friends and volunteers, and I couldn’t take up too much of their time. Fortunately, my father’s friends offered us a 500-square-meter parking-lot space and construction supplies, with which we built a circus tent, and the month-long shoot took place entirely inside the studio with makeshift sets and no natural light. That was how we were able to have our own experimental film lab that was relatively secluded. It allowed us to follow through shooting my script and work without too many interruptions. Then, again, “unavoidable” force majeure of both natural and manmade kinds is everywhere to be found in China. For example, I had to be prepared to respond to outside questioning: “I’m making a regional dialect film. I’m paying homage to Zhua Zhuang Ding [Forced Conscription],” a film produced by the state-run August 1st Film Studio in 1963. Of course it was propaganda, but also an excellent political comedy and beloved by Sichuan audiences because it was in colloquial Sichuanese.
Another example: an earthquake happened in Sichuan the day after my crew was put together. In our age of indignities, I still locate creative freedom in this type of artisanal, craft-like mode of filmmaking, which is basically entirely separate from the industry. There was no profit to be made, and it probably involved a lot of financial and political risks for all parties. But the end product makes sure that everyone’s hard work gets seen and even amplified—you see distinctive traces of a handmade sensibility and a collaborative process. The cast and crew shared a strong sense of identification on the most rudimentary but also fundamental level. Everyone had a visceral connection to the physical and psychological labor that went into each shot, so expectations for the final product were high. Limitation and restraint forced us to make do and come up with creative solutions. A lot of mise-en-scène decisions were site-specific improvisations. The aspirations that held all of us together transformed our makeshift studio into a temporary heterotopia. It felt very much like a summer camp.
Rail: There’s a scene in the beginning of film that really struck me: old black-and-white photographs—mostly socialist-style group portraits—are soaked in puddles of water with fallen leaves and pebbles. The faces are obscure, but the image surfaces are scratched and vandalized in a humorous, almost Dadaist manner, which also reminds me of the Lettrist films of Isidore Isou.
Qiu: I’m always ready to return to aesthetic questions, like the association with Dada—perhaps it’s old-fashioned now, but it’s what I know by heart and I’m still very attracted to it. What can I say to that? This attitude is obviously related to my personal history and learning experiences—I don’t want to be the “chatterbox” here by getting into details—but I’ve internalized the Dada apparatus to the point of intuition.
These water-soaked photos appear four times in the five-and-a-half-hour director’s cut, at different historical moments: early Comintern years, the Sino-Japanese war, the dawn of the Civil War, and the Land Reform movement. Apart from their archival function, I also use the snippet as a rhythmic device to drive narrative progression. Only two of the four made it into the theatrical release. Both have to do with the figure of the Father [of Zhang], whose voice we hear but whose figure never materializes. Along a similar line, the group portraits refer to the collectivity of the era without having an indexical relationship to history.
Rail: Judging from your selection of the memoir, Mr. Zhang’s story—from the patricidal revolution to the devastation of ideology and reevaluation of values—seems to be an archetypal narrative, which exists in abundance in the post-Cultural Revolution wish-wash of historical writing. It was great to see this kind of narrative getting exploded via cinematic storytelling, which actually gives it new life. How did you find and decide on this character? Did you know that you wanted such a loaded figure before you met him?
Qiu: After the interview and oral history-oriented films, I wanted to create a more multi-dimensional figure and drive my exploration with cinematic language even further. I was filming other people when a mutual friend introduced us. It all happened by chance. I wasn’t necessarily looking for someone like him, and I was constantly thinking about rewriting his story even when I filmed his interviews.
Mr. Zhang’s hindsight or belated awakening—from lack of consciousness to heightened consciousness—was the most attractive to me. No matter which side he was on politically—left or right—his interventions and positions were loaded with meaning. He was in a unique state to experience the absurdity of it all, being swept up and carried away by a succession of political catastrophes—that of a prosecutor-cum-victim. Perhaps that was the only logical progression of events and, hence the hindsight, just like those who denounced him during the Anti-Rightist movement and were subsequently destroyed by the Cultural Revolution. The fog of history leaves people stupefied, caged in a colossal grey area, a nightmare. Zhang’s refusal to forget seems all the more significant in this context of historical disavowal. The passing of his fellow survivors compels the octogenarian to pursue writing. He’s also running up against his time.
Rail: The act of looking is in itself a complex figure: there’s public spectatorship, and the whole discussion about the theater and the political—the lineage goes from Büchner to Brecht to Peter Weiss, etc. There’s also the secret, forbidden look—whether it’s the very symbolic scene of the Communist crusade in the Liangshan Yi area, or the characters surreptitiously looking at each other through literal holes in the fabric—that make up your stage design.
Qiu: The Liangshan scene was all about the taboo of vision, because that part was completely erased in official history. Visually, the narrative fragments resemble lost film negatives that may have been discovered years later and it’s the relationship to history we could conjure up.
Rail: I remember the musicality of regional dialects in your earlier films—Northern Mandarin in Madame, Sichuan dialect in My Mother’s Rhapsody and The Moon Palace—they felt very embodied, organic, and almost comedic on a Mandarin-dominated screen. The Chinese language takes on a very different, polyphonic texture in Chi—for example, the character of Zhang Xianchi alone has three voices: the talking-head interviews foreground the old man’s idiosyncratic speech in Sichuanese, which is a continuation of your oral history series. There’s also the dramatic impersonation of his younger self, as well as the voice-over narration in Mandarin, which you did yourself in a remarkably Standard—one might even say Pekinese—cadence. You manipulate personal testimony, historical documents, and stale tropes of mass indoctrination and mobilization to the effect of de-familiarization, so that without reproducing political spectacle, the audience can’t help but reenact in their head. How did you arrange this intricate orchestration of speech, archive, and text?
Qiu: Sync sound was only used for the interviews. The rest of the soundtrack was recorded and composed in postproduction. I use sound as a self-contained narrative. You could almost count it as a separate work that runs parallel to the visual storytelling. To use your example, Mr. Zhang’s character is composed of three audio sources. First, the interviews document his verbal response to the presence of the camera, which is indispensable to any characterization of his person, his bodily presence. Second, my voice-over quotes his autobiography, which is not subjected to the violence inherent to the photographic apparatus. The text was born out of contemplation, sculpted over time with diligence and care. The physicality of that kind of writing was, in essence, incommunicable. But I still did it. I read it out aloud, embodied the text in the voice of another. As for the dubbing of Zhang’s younger self, all the lines were speculations based on my understanding of characters and events—my initial process of digesting and absorbing the evidences and testimonies I’d collected. It was a way to form a relationship with the subject and also a reflection of my own position. I was curious: does the character’s body solidify at the intersection of these voices? Or does it revert back to portraiture, to image-making?
Anyhow, since the “Chatterbox” series, I’ve been thinking about viable ways to push myself further. How can I make personal testimony and master narrative infiltrate one another in a filmic text in order to generate a malleable, organic space where the individual can be interpolated into history, like the dynamic relationship between the leopard and its spots?
Rail: Where do you get to have the conversations you find most interesting and constructive to your current work? How about Film Auteur (Dianying zuozhe), the journal for independent cinema that you’ve been part of since its founding in 2012?
Qiu: What I intended in Nanjing in 2011 was to really get into the inner workings of the artwork itself and to put emphasis on the artist’s personal account. What is critical interpretation capable of? I’m not sure. There are simply too many individual cases in China, too many different methodologies and approaches to documentary filmmaking. To locate and study all of them is almost too formidable a task for anyone. So we thought: Why not start at the innermost place of the whole process? The documentary auteur is at the bottom of the pyramid, so why don’t we start writing at that elementary level? Writing is like shooting memos or reflections on cinema and other disciplines, so that readers get to see the artists in their original, embodied multiplicities. That was where Film Auteur got started. We simply wanted to do presentations, rather than build an academic canon. I can only do what’s within my capacity, which is to help make the independent film community visible in all of its heterogeneity and commotion, allowing for a kind of multi-dimensional entry into the field. It’s not an act of resistance or seeking alternatives. I only hope to provide a meaningful supplement to the situation.
Four years into our work at Film Auteur, I must admit that my initial incentive to join the journal was to make a point of the incommensurability of artistic creation, spectatorship, and critique. I wanted to insist on the specificity of my particular identity: I’m an artist, not a scholar. I think and write about my work in my own way.
Rail: We get a sense of that from your previous solo exhibitions, all of which were titled Qiu Jiongjiong Art Festival—a jab at state-sponsored propaganda “art festivals.” Can you talk about your upcoming show in Beijing?
Qiu: The festival takes place every three years. We’re at the third edition now. Like previous ones, it’s always a combination of moving image and paintings. I’m using the director’s cut of Mr. Zhang Believes to make a video installation, and showing it alongside related paintings, film stills, manuscripts, and other archival materials to tease out their intertextuality.
Rail: How are you presenting the director’s cut? A five-and-a-half-hour long film requires a very specific act of viewing.
Qiu: I’m doing a video installation where the film is divided into three segments—“Blood Enemy,” “The Other Register,” and “Rightist”—projected onto three walls in three separate rooms. The rooms are not completely closed-off, like in the cinema. You can hear sounds from adjacent rooms, just like what they do with interrogations rooms. It’s true that the two-hour version is more like a film where the act of viewing can be singular and self-contained. The longer version poses a physical challenge and works better in a gallery, which requires a totally different spatial configuration. I’m still working on it.
Rail: On a parting note, any advice for someone who works and lives in China and doesn’t want to be cynical?
Qiu: What kind of advice can I possibly have? I have to get drunk to work up the courage to preserve some sense of integrity. A stray dog who has no ancestry, who looks unpalatable, and refuses identification—but is that really possible?
Chi (Mr. Zhang Believes) had its U.S. premiere at MoMA’s Documentary Fortnight in February.
KANG KANG is a writer and translator who has contributed to the Brooklyn Rail, LEAP, Yishu: Journal of Contemporary Chinese Art, ArtReview Asia, and other forms of publication. She holds a B.A. in Comparative Literature & Society from Columbia University and works as a Senior Production Assistant at the Rail.