Interview with Chinese documentary filmmaker Zou Xueping

The Folk Memory Project, launched by Wu Wenguang in 2010, has combined the creative approach of documentary filmmaking with humanities-based mission of collecting oral histories from the survivors of the darkest historical periods in Chinese history. With primary focus on the Great Famine of 1958-1961, the project also attempts to cover Great Leap Forward of 1958-1960, Land Reform and Collectivization of 1949-1953, the Four Cleanups Movement in 1964 and the Cultural Revolution of 1966-1976.

Since 2010, the project has sent several young filmmakers back to their hometown or ancestral village in rural China. The major task is to reclaim what has escaped from the official history via visual documentation. The material they create turns out to be the documentation of their homecoming and search of ancestral roots as well as another kind of testimony: a younger generation encountering the past that was almost only reachable through their action of collecting oral histories.

Director Zou Xueping.
Director Zou Xueping.

Zou Xueping, one of the most promising filmmakers in the Folk Memory Project, has made several documentaries over the past few years, including The Hungry Village (2010) and The Satiated Village (2011). The Hungry Village exemplifies the mission of the Folk Memory Project, presenting her interviews with elderly villagers about their experiences during the Great Famine, while The Satiated Village, the sequel to the former, turns to another direction by unveiling the fragility of historical representation.

In The Satiated Village, she showed The Hungry Village to the elderly villagers and hoped to know their thoughts. The result brought up a broader concern that speaks directly to the subtle relationship between cultural memory and the official history in China. The same fears and the same mistakes were passed on from the villagers’ past to their present, and even can be found in the reaction of children who had not known about the Great Famine until they saw Zou’s film. We saw history repeating itself in the film, mediating both the past and the present. The differences only lie in the scale itself. In her film, history also becomes extremely personal. What unfolds is an intimate portrait of how one attempts to deal with the past— regarding the reliability of oral accounts, the attempts of remembering and forgetting, and the attitude toward the reclaiming of the past. All of these make the film no longer a mere documentation but a confession that is intricately related with contemporary China.

In mid-September, I spoke to Zou Xueping prior to the screening of The Satiated Village at the UnionDocs, New York.

Zou Xueping

How did you begin involved in the Folk Memory Project?

In 2009, I saw some of the footages Fei-fei Lee shot in her village, and I was kind of attracted by the idea of filming the place you grew up. After I graduated from the New Media Department at China Academy of Arts, I participated in a film project launched by my teacher Wu Wenguang. Back then, the project was called the Hunger Project, which later became Folk Memory Project in October 2010. Right in the beginning, I wasn’t sure where to start, Wu asked me, “how about going back to your village and filming the elderly people talking about Great Famine?” That’s how it all began.

It’s so incredible that many young people have joined the Folk Memory Project and built up an extensive collection of more than 1000 interviews with elderly villagers in hundreds of villages in China since 2010. Can you talk about the work process?

We went back to the village filming and collecting materials, and then brought the footages back to our studio, Caochangdi Workstation, in Beijing for post-production. Even though we all worked independently on our own film, during the post-production stage, we usually had three to four workshops in which we provided suggestions and feedbacks and shared counterpoints with our fellow filmmakers.

There are no exact numbers of people working in Caochangdi Workstation. People come and go. Some of them are still in school, so every once in a while they need to go back to school. There are also a small number of people—around 5 or 6, including myself—who have stayed for years. As artists in residence, we used to live together, eat together, and work together in the same space. We no longer do that, but we still have discussions and workshops run on a regular basis.

It seems to me that even though many people are involved in the Folk Memory Project, there are lots of time when you are on your own. Is there any studio-based collaborative project? 

In addition to documentaries, the Folk Memory Project also produced a multimedia stage performance, entitled “Memory: Hunger.” It is a collaborative project, with more than twenty people participating in this performance. Excerpts of footages we shot were projected onto the background, while we told our stories with words and body movement on the stage. I would say it is a very experimental piece, where documentaries meet theater and dance. In the beginning, we attended several workshops organized by our teacher, Wen Hui (a pioneer of contemporary dance in China and co-founder of Living Dance Studio), and then gradually came up with what’s the most suitable for us and what we all feel comfortable with.

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How about Wu Wenguang? Did he provide a lot of guidelines and suggestions for your documentary project?

Wu actually gave us a lot of freedom. When the project was still in the start-up stage, we had no idea where to begin, so he suggested some directions that are primarily at the conceptual level. He wanted us to work more independently—only more so.

As everyone came back with their materials and gathered together at the Workstation, was there a lot of resonance among the filmmakers during the discussions and workshops?

As you mentioned, despite the fact that we are all involved in the Folk Memory Project, the film project you are working on is very much about yourself. Each of us headed to different village, met different people. It’s a very personal experience. In my case, I grew up in the village, so I feel very close with the villagers. We are like a big family. Each time, I tended to extend my period of stay a bit longer, but then I found myself spending more time adjusting to the city when I come back to the Workstation. Shooting in the village is not an easy job for sure, but I really enjoy the process. Some of our members were born and raised in the city. The village they visited might be the place where his father grew up. They feel detached, since they have little personal connection with the villagers. In that case, the trip to the village can give them a big impact. It is also harder for them to interact with the villagers and collect the oral history from them.

You have started filming the same village since 2010. It’s interesting to see how your films expanded the central concept of the Folk Memory Project and came cross various issues over the years.

There were so many things going on in the village. You focus on one specific issue this year. You might encounter another issue next year. Some people thought that I would get bored after filming the same village for two or three years, but the truth is: while shooting, I kept encountering interesting stories. Even though you are filming the same village, you never get bored.

After I made The Hungry Village (2010), I faced strong oppositions of my parents and there were all kinds of internal struggles, such as my own doubts about my profession, my decision and myself. It was the reality I needed to face every single day at that time. Also, I wanted to know what the elderly people thought about my work. I really cared about their reaction, because they are my film subject. To me, having them watching the film is the top priority. That’s why I organized a small screening event at home. During the course of shooting, the reaction of the children also came to my attention, so I did the same thing for the kids. These are all what you can see in my The Satiated Village (2011), from which I developed some of the ideas into my following work, Children’s Village (2012). I also made Trash Village (2013) and Fool’s Village. The latter is about marriage. As is often the case, the film is about the issues I encountered in my daily life. There were times when a lot of my friends got married and the topics of marriage were frequently brought up. I am still working on the subtitles, hopefully that film can be completed by the end of the year.

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In The Satiated Village (2011), you not only include the elderly’s and the children’s reaction to The Hungry Village (2010), but also your parent’s reaction — especially regarding your decision to make documentaries. Can you talk a little bit about this?

To be honest, what I fear most is having conflict with those I love. I am the kind of person who tends to avoid any quarrel and argument with others. As far as I can remember, I never went through a rebellious stage like many people did. I have never gotten into such a huge fight with my family like what you saw in The Satiated Village (2010). That was really the first time. It’s true that visiting the elderly people and making documentaries are my own decisions, but I hadn’t expected that they would feel so angry about this.

My parents cannot understand the importance of art, or the value of documentaries. They want me to be realistic and practical. They would ask me, for example, if I can earn my living solely by making documentaries. They do not consider documentary filmmaking a legitimate profession. They think I am just wasting my life away. In fact, it is quite understandable that they had a very hard time with this issue. They are angry because they care about me. No parents will want to ruin the lives of their children. Their complaints and oppositions are also the doubts I have had ever since I started my film project.

I was still young when I was working on The Satiated Village (2011). Young and short-tempered. There were a lot of direct confrontations with my parents, and that was the time when our relationship got really tense. In retrospect, I truly regret having fights with them.

As for now, I won’t say tensions are resolved, but it’s getting better. Over the past few years, my parents have learned that my work has been invited to film festivals or included in the library collections of some renowned universities. I received some income. And, there seems to be many people who support our project, so my parents feel less worried about me now. Nevertheless, tensions still exist. They never go away.

Did your parents notice some of the actual changes in the village and thereby come to realize the importance and significance of your project?

 It takes time. Two or three years is not enough. They wanted to know whether the preservation of oral history can have practical effects on my everyday life. Can I make money out of it? When will I get a regular job? These are the very things they care about most. Even now, after all these years, I don’t think they really understand what I have been doing.

However, I need to mention one thing: if it were not for my parents’ help, I wouldn’t be able to build a memorial for those who died during the Great Famine. My parents were against it at the beginning, but they hasn’t stopped providing me help. The memorial is really heavy. My dad provided his car, helped moving the memorial and asked the villagers for help. On the one hand, they were afraid that the villagers would speak ill of them if they didn’t offer any help, while on the other hand, they really want to offer their help. You can see that they were trying, even though they never admitted it. I felt really appreciated about that.

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The Satiated Village
is also a documentation about your relationship with the villagers and your family, and most importantly about yourself. Have you ever thought about the question of presentation?

In fact, I never thought about it. Basically, I filmed everything. I kept filming as long as I could. I didn’t plan everything ahead. I just followed my emotion while shooing. I filmed everyday things, collected moments, documented the events, and then I kept going. After finishing shooting, I went back to the workstation with hundreds of hours of footages and tried to figure out the main structure, from which I started to have a general sense of how my film would look like. That was a painful process. In the previous stage, the only task you have was document as much as you could, and then you moved on, while in the editing stage, you needed to go over all of the materials again and again, including some of the most painful moments you have experienced. This was truly the time when you were forced to face yourself. And one of the worst things is that your problems wouldn’t be solved by taking pains to revisit these moments. As I said, the problems were still there, they never go away. However, I do find myself more comfortable with and capable of facing my struggles.

The Satiated Village is presented as part of Cinema on the Edge: Best of Beijing Indie Film Festival film series in New York. For more detail, please see:

* The interview was conducted by Huei-Yin Chen in Mandarin and later translated into English.


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