Interview: Documentary Filmmaker Yu Guangyi

Yu Guangyi

James Mudge recently had the chance to sit down with writer, producer and documentary filmmaker Yu Guangyi, the director of “Timber Gang” (also known as “The Last Lumberjacks”), which in 2007 won the Best Director and Jury Prize at the Seoul Film Festival. His second documentary, 2008’s “Survival Song” won the Jury Prize at Tokyo Filmex. His documentaries have played around the world, and his latest, “Mountain Bachelor” (read our review of the film here) recently screened at the 2012 Chinese Visual Festival.

JAMES MUDGE: I believe you grew up in Heilongjiang Province (A mountainous region in north-eastern China) – why did you decide to return there to make documentary films?

YU GUANGYI:I have stories to tell and feelings to express.

JM: Before you started making documentaries, I’ve read that you worked as a wood-block print artist – did you have any experience as a film maker prior to making Timber Gang?

YG: I did not have any experience as a film maker before. But my over 20 years wood-block printing has carved the way I make films. From my parents to my whole family, everyone is sensitive and caring. We love to help weaker people. Deep in my heart, I am compassionate. Filming Timber Gang was an accident yet a necessity.

JM: Bachelor Mountain is the third film in your ‘Hometown Trilogy’, following Timber Gang and Survival Song. What themes link the three films together?

YG: All of them were filmed in my hometown, that little village. After I finished Timber Gang, I just felt I still had a lot to say, so I kept filming.

JM: All three films have very interesting subjects and characters – how did you manage to find people like Xiao Li from Survival Song and San Liangzi from Bachelor Mountain?

Bachelor Mountain (2011) Movie Image

YG: Lao Han in Survival Song went to the army with me over 30 years ago. I had kept contact with him before my filming. In the late autumn of 2006, I took my camera and stayed his home and filmed them for a whole year. San Liangzi in Bachelor Mountain lived in the same forestry with us since we were kids. We knew each other very well. There are a lot of bachelors like him in the area. I did not find them, they have been in my life all the time.

JM: Bachelor Mountain and your other films seem to have been shot in very harsh environments and tough conditions – has this caused any problems in practical terms?

YG: I believe the greatest difficulty in documentary making is when the subject pretends and acts in front of the camera. Yet all my subjects have forgotten about the existence of my camera and me. For that reason, coldness, loneliness, transportation problem and the lack of places to recharge were all nothing. They actually helped me to understand their lives better.

JM: The three films all seem to offer a very in-depth picture of the lives of your subjects – roughly how long did you spend shooting each of them?

YG: Timber Gang, 5 months in filming, 18 months in post-production. Survival Song, 12 months in filming, 6 months in post-production. Bachelor Mountain, filming 3 years, post-production over 1 year.

JM: Although your films are observational, they have a feeling of intimacy to them as well, and it seems as if the people you are filming are very much at ease with you and the camera – how do you manage this?

YG: I have been asked this question many times by audiences as well as other filmmakers. At first I do not find it special but when I watched other films, I realised this was my strength. They were all my folks and I had known them very well before the filming. They live honestly. They have a low life but not a low personality. They face the camera with great sincerity.

The Last Lumberjacks aka Timber Gang (2006) Movie Image

JM: Do you ever go back after shooting to follow up and see how people you have filmed are getting on? (it’d be very interesting to hear how Xiao Li and San Liangzi are doing).

YG: It will take at least one to two years to film a documentary and finish the post-production. The longest takes four to five years. I face them every day on my computer. They have become my family. After I finish my films, I always try my best to care and help them.

I helped Xiao Lizi and Lao Han to pay the rest of their insurance to the company and they will get pension after 3 or 4 years. Xiao Lizi now works on various jobs in the village and his life is now greatly improved. Lao Han left home for two years and his wife divorced him. He now lives in the town in a allocated flat. He is still single. All the guys who were in the scene when Xiao Lizi sucked the bones under the candlelight are bachelors now. One of them went into the city to find his ex-wife and stabbed her lover. He was sentenced to prison for 6 years. I heard he had just come out.

The shabby flat of San Liangzi was torn down. The government helped to build a new brick bungalow. I bought him a big color TV, he sold his old small one to a second-hand appliance dealer for 10 yuan (1 pound). Wang Meizi is still working in her inn tourism business. She now drives a car. San Liangzi felt he was not in her same group and left in the spring this year to work somewhere else. He misses the hometown a lot and calls me often. He still has no wife.

JM: Although they deal with difficult subjects and conditions, your films are neither depressing nor wholly bleak – do you go out of your way to try and capture the odd moments of warmth and humour?

YG: Human will experience sufferings at any stage of their lives, but they should not be all what life is. We are depressed yet happy. Happiness is just conception.

JM: In your films, the characters come through very strongly. Do you see your films chiefly as personal stories, or as using these characters to tackle wider themes and social issues?

YG: I just wanted to objectively document the stories of small figures of our age.

Bachelor Mountain (2011) Movie Image

JM: There’s also a very powerful sense of place in your films, and a real northern spirit – how much of this do you think comes from your own personality and identity as a film maker?

YG: Good art should be an expression of the artist’s personality, an experience of his.

JM: Your films have been shown at various international festivals around the world – given that your films deal with very local and Chinese subjects, why do you think they have proved popular with audiences from other countries?

YG: True human stories and feelings can cross the boundaries of time and space. When I made my first film, I did not know it was a film. My education was not related to film either. I just employed this media to merge my childhood memories with the lives of low class Chinese. You should be an honest man and honest artist. My over 20 years artist experience before filmmaking led to my film language. Sincerity will touch people.

JM: The new Chinese documentary movement is becoming more famous and talked about around the world, with a lot of film makers using the medium to tackle controversial subjects – how do you see yourself fitting into this movement?

YG: I live in a middle-sized city in the far north in China, far away from cultural centre. I want to focus more on the soon-to-disappear things that are of great anthropological value. As for my position in the movement, I believe history is written by the future generation. So are my films.

JM: Now that you’ve completed your ‘Hometown Trilogy’, are you planning a change in subject matter for your next film?

YG: I started my 4th film in 2007 and now have spent 5 years in filming. It is about how Shaman Religion is handed down in the area. It is still filmed in my hometown. I did want to change my subject, but my root and my feelings are here in this remote mountainous area.

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

YG: Thank you very much for your interview as well.