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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: Jia Zhang-ke « Toute une mémoire collective allait disparaître »

by Interview by Jean Roy

Jia Zhang-ke “An entire collective memory was set to disappear”

Translated Saturday 25 April 2009, by Karen Grimwade

Cinema. In his film 24 City, the Chinese filmmaker Jia Zhang-ke records the transformation of his country, told through the story of a sprawling military industrial complex in Chengdu.

Not yet out of his thirties and with a dozen or so films to his name, Jia Zhang-ke is already one of the leading directors of his generation, perhaps the most important and most active. Whether making documentaries or dramas, he is a major documenter of the developments and transformations taking place within his country, of the shift from post-war policy to contemporary policy. Interview.

Huma: How did this film come about?

Jia Zhang-ke: I had wanted to make a film about Chinese workers for a long time. Many of my childhood friends come from working-class families and are now out of work. I had already written a script on this theme at the end of 2000, after filming Platform, but I wasn’t happy with what I had written as it focused on the social aspect of these unemployed workers. Then, in 2006, I read several articles about the auctioning off of the industrial complex seen in this film. The price was the highest in Chinese real estate history.

The factory had previously been classed as a military secret and employed thirty thousand people, or one hundred thousand if you include their families. All of these people were going to have to leave the factory, which was due to be demolished over a period of one year. A collective memory going back fifty years was set to disappear. The film is a collection of soon-to-be-lost memories and will stand as a testimonial to the move from a planned economy to a market economy, hence the sense of urgency surrounding its making.

Huma: What does this factory represent?

Jia Zhang-ke: The factory was a city within a city. People lived completely self-sufficient lives there. Everything took place within the factory. Even family members couldn’t access the production area. Also, many of the workers originated from the north east of China and had been moved to Chengdu. This meant that the factory had its own particular language, hence the feeling of it being a fortress unto itself.

Even after it had been closed down, I had to wait several months before I was allowed to film inside the building. There was less secrecy in the middle of the 1980’s when the workers began to be made redundant and had to go and look for work elsewhere. Furthermore, urban sprawl means that the factory, which was originally built in quite a remote suburb, is now in the city centre.

For me, the factory represents the tens of thousands of people within it. When you go from one economic model to another, you enter into a “survival of the fittest” rationale, but this is unfair. You can’t ask people to start a new life at the age of forty or fifty. I give a voice to the weakest and most oppressed.

Huma: The young woman seems to come out of everything OK…

Jia Zhang-ke: The idea was that she would symbolise the change. The oldest people spent their lives believing in the system, being subjected to the system, then being crushed by it. She, on the other hand, is able to control her destiny. She symbolises the transition from the negation of the individual to the affirmation of the individual.

Huma: Why did you decide not to make the film as a documentary?

Jia Zhang-ke: I had originally wanted to make a documentary but meeting the workers and interviewing them sparked my imagination. I realised that I would have to use fiction in order to get to the truth.

China is in the midst of a period of radical and rapid change. There is a danger of things disappearing, as I showed in Still Life, of the past being buried and forgotten. By recording this collective portrait, which retraces a fifty-year period in contemporary Chinese history, from 1958 to 2009, I’m using my camera to try to fight against oblivion.

Huma: Was the film released in China?

Jia Zhang-ke: It came out on March 6th. There was a lot of nostalgia and sadness in the room as many people have lived through this period. But I was surprised by the reaction of economists, who said that the reforms had not taken into account the people involved and that this was something that should be done in future. There was also debate as to whether or not it was right to use actors in a documentary.

Huma: Do you have any projects in the pipeline?

Jia Zhang-ke: I have several projects on the go. This year I’m going to make a short film about Shanghai and a feature-length film about the end of the Qing Dynasty, which is set around the year 1900 and is going to be my first historical film.

Why? Because of the present. Since 1900 the Chinese have been trying to modernise the country and this is still the case today. By revisiting the past 100 years, I want to show that the search for utopia has led to reforms, experimentation and revolution, but that it is the Chinese people who have paid the price.

Huma: The last time we met I asked you if you were optimistic. I would like to renew the question today…

Jia Zhang-ke: Overall, no, I am not optimistic. China hasn’t let me be optimistic.

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