Filming a Filmmaker

By Jonah Kessel

On a recent assignment for the New York Times I was tasked with filming a filmmaker. 

It was the first time I’d done this, although I’d taken portraits of photographers before. It’s hard not to have a little bit of anxiety when you know the person you are filming not only knows what you are doing, but has their own opinion on how to do it.

The idea was to create a behind-the-scenes video describing how Chinese filmmaker Zhao Liang makes his films.

The first step was getting my hands on his films, which wasn’t the easiest thing, given his films are not available in China. Why not? If you get your hands on one of them, the reasons for their unavailability will become pretty clear. For the most part, the content of Zhao’s films is not exactly the type of material the Chinese government wants you to see.

I have said previously that I am not necessarily a documentarian, but as a visual journalist working with cinematic storytelling you can see the two fields are certainly not too far removed. Regardless of how you work with video, I believe Zhao’s films can teach you something.

On my first screenings, I thought Zhao’s films didn’t necessarily have “beautiful photography”. Even from the samples of the films I used for my video, you can tell most of his films are not multi-million dollar productions or maybe not even multi-thousand dollar productions. These are truly grassroots-style productions that often use guerrilla-style photographic techniques.

While the photography isn’t necessarily “beautiful”, it is in fact extremely powerful, which in itself, I would consider beautiful.

As an image maker, I spend so much of my time trying to compose beautiful images that I had to spend some time thinking about why I felt these images were so powerful. I think the answer comes in the relationship between your content and your images.

Zhao’s films show a truthful view of China, rarely seen. The raw video footage makes the truths and injustices he reveals even more real. Let’s say that Zhao was about to use jibs, dollies or even regular tripods while filming — the visuals would feel way more contrived. There is some tripod use, but a large majority of this footage is handheld and there’s quite a bit of shakiness to it.

These things are a bit counter-intuitive to a lot of us who spend half our day thinking about gear; however, the effect is one that should be applauded. Not only does Zhao let the footage speak for itself in a digital age, but the raw nature of the images actually reaffirms the stories he is telling.

I would describe Zhao’s films as having a slower pace. He’s not in a rush to tell his stories. You can tell this — even by the mere fact he spent 12 years filming his movie Petition. However, I believe the slow pace matches that of his characters’ realities. This pace creates the opportunity for the audience to actually experience the reality of his subjects.

To visualize this Zhao has left in some less-than-exciting images and scenes. However, these images are real. There are seemingly very few contrived scenes which many other filmmakers set up to help tell their story.

Videos with an interesting story, but that have boring or disconnected images, are clearly not good. Videos with amazing imagery but broken storylines are also not good. In video journalism and documentary filmmaking, the relationship between our images and stories is what separates great productions from the pack. Whether this means holding back on production level like Zhao has, or going the opposite direction, our videos become infinitely more powerful when our images and stories work together.

And in a world where gear means so much, it’s refreshing to see Zhao showing us that you don’t need a million dollars to make a film with a million dollar impact.

The New York Times, Ai Weiwei and Zhao Liang

While my portion of this project was a “behind the scenes” look at Zhao Liang’s productions, New York Times reporter Ed Wong’s lengthy profile shows a very different side to making films in China. Wong reveals how many believe Zhao has now “switched sides” in order to continue to make films here. While Zhao is still very respected, his cooperation with the Chinese government on his recent film Together and his decision to pull out his film Petition from the Melbourne film festival has cost him friends, including the controversial artist Ai Weiwei, who only recently was released from detention.

The Times included a video from Ai Weiwei along with mine as part of Ed’s story as well as photography by Beijing based photographers Chi Yinsim and Shiho Fukada.

For journalists, cinephiles, videographers, photographers and documentarians — the piece is very interesting and I encourage you to check it out here.
— To find Zhao Liang’s movie check out dGenerate films web site.
— To read a follow up to Ed’s story, check out New Yorker writer Richard Brody’s story “China’s cultural evolution

Jonah M. Kessel is a Beijing-based freelance visual journalist and interactive art director working with photography, video, print and web design.

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