Interview: Documentary Filmmaker Cao Dan

Cao Dan

This interview took place over two sessions at the 2012 Chinese Visual Festival in London, following the UK premiere of director Cao Dan’s feature documentary “Dragon Boat”. The interview was carried out in Chinese and English, with interpreting and translation by CVF Film Curator Xie Jingjing.


JAMES MUDGE: I believe you are an artist and designer as well as a film maker – how did you get into documentary making?

CAO DAN: In 1997 I was still working as a designer, and was invited to a documentary conference by a private organisation. They invited a lot of internationally quite famous documentary makers and showed their films. When I attended the conference I was very moved by the medium, and it struck me that this was the kind of medium that I wanted to work with, which I thought would be the perfect way for me to express myself.

After the conference I got very interested, but because at that time there weren’t any documentary courses provided by most Chinese film academies, I had to find all the literature myself. At that time I also had only very limited access to documentary films, so it was more like finding my way through my own research.

JM: For you, how does your documentary making compare with your art, and do you see them as separate?

CD: I think the main 3 things I have are my own designing, my painting and working with different kinds of paper art, and of course my work as a film maker. The processes are similar, though they have different interactions with different mediums. With documentaries, this is mainly being in contact with the world around and with what is going on in society, so there is more interaction with the public. The design work is more in contact with businesses. With my painting and art works it’s more like self-exploration into myself.

Dragon Boat (2010) Movie PosterJM: You divide your time between France and China – does this give you a different perspective on China, and when you are planning projects?

CD: Yes, it definitely affects my perspective. I left China and went to France, and then went back to China again, and although I’m in the place I grew up, because of the time away I feel distance from this place and the people and that gives me a different position to see things from, and has definitely changed my perspective.

JM: What inspired you to make Dragon Boat?

CD: It was in the year 2001, I happened to be working in Guangzhou, and was visiting my mother’s home in the area where the village is. I was carrying my video camera around like a notebook and filming everything, and I happened to film the scene with the villagers burying the dragon boat. After I shot this footage, I really got very interested, as I’m interested in Chinese folk culture and traditions, and so it was from this I decided to follow and film, though I had no idea then what was going to happen.

When I was filming the burying of the boat, two of the people became very acquainted with me, and we became friends, I would visit them often to catch up, talking about their lives. In this village, the population was made of two main professions, one being farmers and the other fishermen. Both of these men were fishermen, and by becoming a kind of family with them, this is how I got access to the village.

JM: I believe you started filming in 2001. How long did the shoot eventually last, and how many hours of footage did you end up with?

CD: 10 years in making the films and 100 hours footage.

JM: That’s a lot of footage to cut down to an hour and a half!

CD: At the beginning I did the filming by myself, but after 2009 I decided that the film needed closure, so brought in more people. From then I had another cameraman, so 2 cameras were shooting, and that’s why there was so much footage in the end.

JM: Over such a long shoot, how structured was the film? – did you spend a lot of time just turning up and filming, or did you specifically plan in advance to shoot certain things?

CD: Before 2008, mostly I just filmed whatever I saw when I went back to China to visit. It was by 2007 that the whole village had been transformed into the tourist resort, and I found this quite bizarre, a very strange result for how everything had turned out, and I thought it would be a pretty good way to end the film. From that time I decided to start planning things more, for example filming the villagers going back to their ancestral hall. After 2008 I had a much more detailed plan.

JM: The film does feel more artistic and cinematic than a lot of other new Chinese independent documentaries, which have a gritty, down to earth look. Was this a conscious decision on your part, and do you think your also being an artist had an influence on the way the film was shot?

CD: That’s mainly because I was brought up in an artist family and am an artist myself, so I’m very sensitive to the visual aspects of my films. I didn’t intentionally try to make it artistic, this is just my style.

JM: There are a lot of very strong imagery and visuals in the film, and there’s a real sense of contrast between the modern and the traditional – one of the images I always remember is the dragon boat sailing past the huge boat, as well as the burying of the boat. Was this contrast something you tried to capture?

CD: It was totally unplanned, as I couldn’t know in advance what route the boats would be taking. On that day I was there with my cameraman, and was very struck by it. There was no conscious effort to try and capture this contrast, in modern China it just exists, and you encounter it everywhere. With this scene, although it wasn’t set up, it seems much more dramatic than scenes in many Chinese fiction films.

The other scene you mentioned, with the burying of the boat, was also accidental, I just wanted to see what they were doing and put my camera there. I was quite surprised, and it was visually very striking, the men putting on the mud, slowly sinking. During the editing, I used some techniques to enhance this feeling, though the scene itself really did exist.

JM: Although the film deals with some subjects like land reclamation and government evictions, it comes across as balanced rather than angry or protest, and seems to be addressing change, rather than anything political?

Dragon Boat (2010) Movie Image

CD: Last night, at the screening, one of the audience also asked this. My focus is more on tradition and folk culture, these are the main themes. I’m of course aware that many films in China now are about confrontation and protest. One of the reasons why my film feels less like protest is because of the village itself, each village’s situation is very different. In this village, the relocation was done rather smoothly, partly due to the background of the village. In each village there is one big family with the same surname, as well as smaller families – if the big family agrees to go, the smaller families will follow. In this village you may remember the party secretary, who was from the big family, and they were in control and were leading, when they agreed to go, the others followed according to procedure, so there wasn’t much trouble.

I think it’s mentioned in the film that when the villagers look back now they do feel some regrets that they didn’t protest, as when other villages protested, the government compensation was much higher. This feeling of bitterness is getting stronger as the villagers now feel that they shouldn’t have been so obedient.

JM: In the film we see the village being turned into a folk tourist resort, which given that the villagers are trying to preserve their traditions is very ironic. Is this something that is happening a lot in China?

CD: It’s true that this is happening a lot in China, with real estate companies buying a lot of land, buying whole villages which are developed into hotels or tourist attractions. Even if villagers are not forced off their own original land, a lot of villages are being transformed like this, and though the villagers still live there, the area exists mainly for tourism and for people to observe them. I don’t think this is a China specific issue though, and it is happening everywhere.

JM: Have you revisited the village since you finished filming?

CD: I have revisited many times, recently this year I went back for the birthday of one of the villagers I got very close to. I go back to visit 2 of the families, and to say hello to all the other villagers too.

JM: The film has screened at various festivals around the world – has it played a lot in China?

Dragon Boat (2010) Movie Image

CD: My film has been touring around China through the organisation CNEX, and it has been screening a lot at universities. It was also shown at some screenings organised by consulates, like the German consulate. CNEX has its own festival in Taiwan, and it was shown there, and at a festival in Korea.

JM: Is there a growing audience in China for this kind of documentary film making?

CD: I believe there is a certain group of audience for documentaries, and there are actual documentary television channels, by the central china television broadcaster, so there is definitely a lot of activity in this area. When I showed my film in universities, a lot of people turned up and were interested, even ordinary people who came along and wanted to talk about films and documentaries.

Another aspect is that film makers in China don’t feel too offended by pirate DVDs as it shows how popular films are. I’m quite surprised that a few very difficult documentaries are turning up on pirate DVD, and I wonder who wants to buy and watch them! I knew from some resources that for pirate DVD sellers, and the minimum starting amount of copies they would make would be 3000, which means there must be a lot of people wanting to watch these films. There is definitely an audience looking for alternative and more artistic choices.

JM: Do you currently have any plans for future films or documentaries?

CD: Yes, more of a personal documentary, I’ve been making a film about my father for the last 3-4 years, a sculptor who is now in his 70s and who is still making sculptures. This will be my next project, though I don’t know when I will finish it, I’m shooting each time when I go back home.

JM: Sounds very interesting. Many thanks for your time, and good luck with all your projects.