Interview: Documentary Filmmaker Li Junhu

Li’s James Mudge, in partnership with the Chinese Visual Festival, recently sat down with documentary filmmaker Li Junhu to discuss his work, in particular his Award-winning “Where I Should Go” and “Brave Father”. Both titles will be showing in a special screening at the Curzon cinema in Soho, London on Wednesday 12th September at 6:10pm. (For tickets, visit the Curzon website.) For more on the Chinese Visual Festival, please visit their official site.

JAMES MUDGE/CHINESE VISUAL FESTIVAL: Do you see Where I Should Go as a companion piece to Brave Father? The two films deal with similar themes, though one with a father and the other with mothers.

LI JUNHU: Yes, I agree. I have been focusing on issues on Chinese rural peoples since 2003, these two films are part of my long term project. Some filmmakers can solve the issue with one film. I cannot when facing such a broad subject. I need more convincing real stories, like stories on construction workers, security guards, babysitters, waiters, cleaners and vendors etc. I hope I can build a large photo album for them in the following years.

CVF: What differences do you see between the two films?

LI: The biggest difference between Where I Should Go and Brave Father is the status of their rural homes. The two stories look similar but in Brave Father, they still have a home and can always go back. In Where I Should Go, they paid a much higher price since they chose a one-way journey. No matter whether or not they get accepted into the city, they have only one choice, to stay.

CVF: How close did you get with your subjects while filming Brave Father and Where Should I Go? Both films have a very personal and intimate feel, and it seems as if your subjects are very open and at ease with you.

LI: Documentary should have another name, “secret”. I made friends with three families with my camcorder. I cut the most dramatic footage for both Brave Father and Where I Should Go. For Brave Father, the father cried when he read aloud story of his life, I disregarded it. I also cut the footage when the mother beat her son in the second-hand market. This is what my films are like. I hid these dramatic events and kept my promise to them all through the films. They treated me as their friend, I have to keep the secrets for them.

CVF: Have you kept in touch with any of them? It’d be great to hear how Shengli is getting on.

Brave Father Documentary

LI: I have always kept in touch with them and want to help them. Meanwhile I struggle with the notion I might mess with their lives too much. Shengli returned to Xi’an later and changed several jobs. None of them went very well. He seldom talked to me about his thoughts because he always saw me as his father’s friend. His biggest concern now is he could not find a girlfriend.

CVF: It’s been more than three years since you filmed both films. How does it feel to watch them now? If possible, would you like to change anything?

LI: I hate slogans and do not want to bother about theories or academic research. That is not what I want to do. With China going through the fastest changes ever, I would rather take action. Even if I do not get a penny’s investment, I will keep filming.

CVF: I believe you graduated with a degree in photography – how did you get into documentary film making?

LI: Yes, I studied photography and used to be a cameraman working for others. I felt rather constrained since I could not express myself directly. Therefore I started directing myself. Now I have 5 assistants who have been working with me for over 3 years.

CVF: You also work for a television station in China – how does your work there compare with your own film making?

Where Should I Go Documentary Film

LI: I have a rather interesting status. On one hand, I work within The System (notes from translator: Chinese filmmakers often refer to official television, film and radio broadcasting system, as The System). On the other hand, my filmmaking style is rather independent. I very much like the title others gave me: “Independent Director within The System”. Therefore my films chose to “criticize gently”. This is exactly my understanding (of Chinese reality.) I want to inspire questions among audience with my observation. I want to pass around love in my films!

CVF: What are the main themes you try to deal with in your films?

LI: I have been focusing on issues on Chinese rural peoples since 2003. In China, half of the population are from the rural area. The notion of “rural” has been long related with poverty and backwardness. The current development in China is actually a stage of diminishing poverty. With these two films, I am not focusing on rural area itself, nor on urban lives. I wanted to explore the interaction between the rural and the urban as well as the psychology of people during the dramatic changes.

CVF: There has been a real growth in Chinese independent documentary film making over the last decade – why do you think this is?

LI: The biggest difference I have with other independent filmmakers is that I am limited by The System. I don’t think this is a bad thing, though. In China, I can reach television and internet audiences 100 times larger than the ones reached by other independent filmmakers. I do not want to resist nor confront. I want to seek a better way, and that’s the only thing I can do. I want to find a mature way out for my films.

Where Should I Go (2011) Movie Image

CVF: As a Chinese documentary director, what do you think your strengths and weakness are? Considering the big picture, what support do you think Chinese documentary film makers need mostly?

LI: In English, the word “mainstream” actually means: politically correct. In China, what path you choose is very clear. The biggest compromise I make for my films is to have them reach as much audience as possible. Sometimes when people hear I am an independent filmmaker and immediately started to question why I always chose to show the dark side of the society. I can only smile and say, all my films could be shown on television.

CVF: Are there any other film makers who have influenced or inspired you?

LI: There are too many, it is difficult for me to give names. But I think the biggest influence of my filmmaking is the technology of small camcorder. This determines my way of storytelling

CVF: What are you working on now?

LI: My current project is: what caused poverty? This is also part of my focus on rural China. Some think the origin of poverty is education, the background. I disagree. I believe it is views on the world. Views on the world can only be changed after generations, generations of education. In nowadays, a young girl can only earn a salary of 1000 yuan (about £100) as a waitress. But if they work for message salons, they can easily make 8000, or even 10,000. How could her views on the world not be messed up? Wealth is but an illusion of poverty. This is an issue on the general views on the world.