Interview: Documentary Filmmaker Zhou Hao

Zhou Hao

About the Director:
Zhou Hao was born in 1968 in China. He previously worked as a photographer at Xinhua News Agency and Southern Weekend. He started making documentary films in 2001 and now lives in Guangzhou.

Houjie Township (2003), Senior Year (2005), Using (2007), Cotton (2010), The Transition Period (2009), Cop Shop (2009), Cop Shop II (2011)

James Mudge: I believe you worked as a photographer before – what inspired you to start making documentary films?

Zhou Hao: Conventional media is not much fun, every newspaper has their point of view and is just a medium for certain voices. After staying with them for over 10 years, I want more freedom, less restriction. Documentary is a freer medium.

JM: In making Senior Year, how was it working with the high school students? The film feels very natural, and they seem to have been very much at ease with you and the camera.

ZH: Among all of my films, Senior Year is the most relaxed one. I didn’t feel much pressure when I made it.

Every June, China seemed to be led by one event, which was the Entrance Exam to Universities. But there had never been a film about it, which was a shame. That was how I started the project. From that perspective, there are too many stories in China to be made. My later films all followed the same idea.

Usually I will tell my subject why I make the film, so I enjoy a quite relaxed relationship with my subjects. I never film any scene without their knowledge. I would of course never deceive my subject either. I will not film if they do not give consent.

JM: Senior Year has been a very popular film, and though it was shot in 2005, it is still said by many to be the best film about the Chinese education system. Why do you think it has gone down so well with audiences both in China and around the world?

ZH: I think it is relatively successful. I often say if Senior Year can be called a success, it is only because one man spent one year focusing on one thing. I gave it all my efforts, I communicated with sincerity and since it is an issue of public concern, of course it would not be too badly received.

Senior Year (2005) Movie PosterJM: Do you think that the Chinese education system has changed since you made the film?

ZH: I never expected it to change. On the surface, the Entrance Exam system is the same, but compared to 30 years ago, the changes are quite obvious. My film was never meant to be changing a system. I just did what I could do. If everyone does that, the system would improve. Also, many changes take place gradually. Like the entrance exam, it has already changed.

JM: Your next film, Using, followed a drug dealer, a subject not seen very often in Chinese film – what made you choose to focus on this?

ZH: I started the filming by accident, but later I felt it was not an accident after all. Documentary making is actually human study. My film has always been like that, I studied all kinds of people. Peasants, students, drug dealers, officials… very varied groups. My films are different from other Chinese documentaries in this sense.

JM: In the film, it seems as though you and the dealer Ah Long became close, and more like friends than a film maker and subject. Did your relationship with him make filming more difficult or change the way you wanted to make the film?

ZH: You can see the change happening with the progress of the film. At the beginning I just wanted to be “the fly on the wall” and observe. But as the filming went on, I was dragged into it. Filming was not difficult, documentary is a story about the relationship between the filmmaker and the subject.

JM: How was Using received in China compared with Senior Year?

ZH: 80% Chinese audiences take Senior Year as a film encouraging them to work hard, which was of course not what I wanted to do. It received extremely high attention in China. Just a few days ago, before this year’s entrance exam, the biggest video website in China, Youku, put this film made 7 years ago online and within 24 hours, more than 2 million people watched it. The film has been watched by tens of millions of audiences in China. “Using” is a more “heavy” film and was never shown on television in China. On the contrary, Senior Year has been widely shown.

Four Clips from “Using”

JM: Quite a few of your recent films deal with controversial subjects such as the police and corrupt politicians – have you run into any trouble with the authorities as a result?

ZH: I am fine so far. I am very careful about how far I go. Actually, China is not as scary as you imagined, we have enough room to do what we want.

JM: Your recent films are quite different to Senior Year and Using, with Cop Shop and Cop Shop 2 in particular being more observational and less based on individual characters – is this a deliberate change in approach?

ZH: I haven’t deliberately changed anything, I have always been studying people. I am very interested in people’s performances in a certain time and certain circumstances. I think I will insist on observing various people in my own way.

JM: Your films have screened at festivals in Europe and around the world and are quite possibly better known to international audiences than Chinese – when making films, do you have this, or any particular kind of audience in mind?

ZH: I am not well known. And to be bold, I don’t have much interest in fame. Fame might be a good thing but it was never my goal. My joy always comes from the process of filmmaking, dealing with different kinds of people. The uncertainty fascinates me.

JM: The Chinese independent documentary movement has been much talked about in recent years and has been growing in reputation – why do you think this is?

ZH: I think that is because China is getting more attention. The lives and people’s behavior in this country is in striking difference with the West, therefore films about this look quite special.

Zhou Hao

JM: Do you think that documentary film makers enjoy more freedom than fiction film makers in China, and if so why?

ZH: The first reason is must because we have different goals. Second our expectations are different. Fiction film directors aspire for “fame” more than documentary directors. This has led them to be restricted by government’s rules; while documentary directors, at least in China this is the case, they have to “speak out”, that’s why they express themselves through documentaries, they can pay from their own pocket to do this. We live in a stressful environment, but that does not justify silence. “Freedom” might come from inside you. In China, I’m sorry to say, it is different to have both fame and freedom.

JM: Documentary film makers in China seem to be using the medium more and more to explore controversial subjects and stories not covered by mainstream media – do you see documentary film as a medium for protest and exposing subjects that might be considered difficult?

ZH: I don’t like the word “expose”. What we documented is the world we live in. It is self-flattering to say I am “protesting”, or boast your bravery to “expose” something. It is not necessarily true. You cannot make much money from documentary making, then why do people still make them? I think the only reason is that documentary making brings them joy. That’s why all these filmmakers cannot stop making them. Since it brings you “joy”, why would you keep telling others the bit of “unpleasant” experiences you suffered from.

JM: What are you working on now, and do you have any plans for the future?

ZH: I am observing my country in my own way. I probably wouldn’t’ finish filming for my present project till the end of next year. I believe it would be unprecedented. Hehe…. You have to find your own job, life is too short.

JM: Many thanks for your time, and good luck with all future projects.

(Pics of the director courtesy of dGenerate Films.)