Interview with Chao Gan: Watching films is like dreaming

by deborah on 12/29/2009

Chao Gan’s striking documentary The Red Race was the winner of Zagreb Film Festival in 2008. This year Gan was a jury member in documentary competition of the same festival. It was really a great opportunity to talk with him about his career, The Red Race and development of documentary genre in China.

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I blogged about The Red Race during the last edition of ZFF. Back then, only my bloggin’ colleague Kempton had some additional material about this amazing film. Meanwhile, the producers of the film designed a web site for this extraordinary film maker…

Chao Gan’s film deals with Chinese children – gymnasts (somewhere between 5 to 8 years old), during their trainings in the Lu Wan District Youth Athletic School in Shanghai. The Red Race has won till now large number of awards, among them: Best Social Documentary (Shanghai TV Festival), Best Documentary (Docupolis), Special Jury Prize (Silverdocs), 68th George Foster Peabody Award, Special Jury Prize (Hamptons), Platinum Award (Houston Int’l Film Festival), etc.

I believe Mr. Gan doesn’t need a special introduction after this…

When did you decide that you want to be a documentary film-maker?

CG: I studied in UK in 2001 and my mayor was TV studies. So, during that time I watched many documentaries thematizing today’s life in the cities. After my graduation, I went back to China and now I work for private TV station. My boss has asked me, which channel you want to work for? Then I spent two days watching entertaining programme, and I was rather disappointed with it. So, I didn’t know what to chose, and then my boss said, why don’t go to the documentary programme, I think it’s suitable for you.  I started to work there, and I’m working there now. That’s the start of my career in documentary.

The Red Race was really strong documentary… The film received many international awards, it was screened on major film festivals… What was the initial hint for making this film?

CG: My first intention was not to make a film about sport or about that how children are training or competing in that area. It wasn’t my first intention. I wanted to make a simple film about the childhood. You can say that it’s about education and methodology, but I started filming the children because I felt in my heart that it’s not just a film about children, but also about Chinese ordinary people like workers, peasants, or these kids who work for the country.

China has developed so quickly. There are many skyscrapers and rich people now in Shanghai, and I wanted to make a film about them. But we have to ask ourselves what is the real factor of Chinese progress? I think it’s the ordinary people. They are unseen heroes, so I wanted to make films about them. I always remind myself of my own childhood.

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One day I was playing badminton in the training centre and our hall was closed. I went down to the second floor and I met… I don’t know if you know Yao Ming or not. He is this guy who plays basketball in NBA. I met him and opened the next door. It was a gym centre. Suddenly; I saw so many small kids at training. They shocked me a lot. Some were crying, some just continued practicing one exercise again and again. Some were very new kids 5 or 6 years old, obviously came recently, they just jumped and laughed out.

So, I had an opportunity to see what children are like when they are at the beginning and what they should be like when professional. It was a long way and practically a huge room for me to take the story.

They allowed you enter into their families and private spaces… How did they react? Because, as a documentary film maker you have to be very objective. In Red Race you just let the camera capture all situations… You are not judging them, but I wonder if these people were aware of this common sense and all the burden they gave to their kidz…

CG: There are actually two points I’m going to make. First, it’s not so difficult to film them. I mean, people in China maybe aren’t similar as people in Europe. People in Europe attach much importance to their privacy. In China, especially elderly people or low class people, are much opened and very nice to us film-makers. Sometimes, they even want to see themselves on TV, no matter if we are showing their poor or rich lives. They want to be on TV, and I’m trying to make friends with them.

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Before I have started to shot the film I went to the each family and spent with them about a month. Every time I was talking with them about the basic conditions they live, because I’m also not from a rich family, I think we have something in common, this background, you know. Usually, we talk a lot and they accept me without boundaries.

They trust you…

CG: They trust me very much, especially families. And for the schools, there were some difficulties to reach them because they are sensitive and they usually ask me to get a lot of applications and permissions from the sports bureau. So, I did found in Shanghai the representative responsible for that, and he said then: why not, let him make this film because next year are Olympics.

Nobody complained while they worked with me. I mean, when I was shooting for the first time the female coach, everyone thought that she’s too strict, but she thinks that this rigorism is the true status or kind of conditions we should have in the sports, otherwise she couldn’t train good athletes in the future.

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Were there some situation during the shooting that left even you surprised?

CG: In the beginning of the shooting sometimes time goes so slow, because it’s hard to look at some things at the training. Actually, I didn’t put in the film the hardest part of their training. It’s selective. I didn’t want my audience to be too said about it. But, that’s what’s inside and it’s really enough.

At the beginning it’s really hard to watch, but for me… I’m a documentary maker and I can not interfere. I can not change the situation because it’s not only in this school. The educational message is the same in all schools. There were very little encouragement. I saw it in my school, many students who fall because they hadn’t been encouraged enough by the teacher. They became worse from exam to exam. They needed a support.

What was the reaction after the screening?

CG: After the first screening directors of sports centres, coaches and participants were not satisfied, and they wanted the film to be entitled into Hope. They said that the film is very truthful, but the problem was if we would show this film, next year they would not be able to gain new students.

After the film was over I gave it to two coaches, man and woman. The man told me that the film isn’t good because it’s not glorious; he thought that I’m going to make him glorious. And the female coach said to me that the film is not truthful, because if you put so many happy moments there, how will the results come out?! So, for the second version that I showed them – The Red Race, the female coach said, that’s what I want. She is basically honest, although very hard trainer.

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That’s very interesting… these completely different perspectives…

CG: Interesting thing happened when the TV station showed the film. Many people started to call, and some people said: When I watch gymnastics and Olympic games, I always want China to win, but these things are much more important then gold medals. That was good feedback to me, because people started to think about it. They started to think about those children. Later on, there were several round tables organized in schools in order to try to solve the problem of emotionally over-forced children who carry so much.

When did Chinese documentary scene start and how would you describe it?

CG: In China documentary scene started around 1990’s. From that time there is practically a tradition of Chinese documentaries to pay attention to those, so called ‘small characters’, that means ordinary people who are harmed, ignored by the mainstream society.

So, from that time we have started to make films about these kinds of characters. That means that you have some thoughts on social issues, and that you want to talk about it. You want to tell stories and express yourself. That’s a common idea to me and my colleagues in Shanghai. I’m telling personal stories. I’m not using any narration in the film.

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I was particularly moved by the end of the film The Red Race, a little girl watching, with her father, on the docks of river the other side of Shanghai, filled with shiny and illuminated skyscrapers….

CG: For me, like you mentioned, the city has changed so quickly and so many people pay cost to the progress of the city, you know. When you see the girl and her father standing in front of the skyscrapers, they seem to be in the same room, but actually there is quite a distance between each other. The other side of the river actually can’t be reached, but this side of the river was made by their sacrifice. So, to me the most important thing in documentaries is to sing a song for the dignity and the individual. It’s a huge country where there is no individuality.

You are travelling now either with your film or as a jury member at documentary film festivals… what do you think how do people perceive this genre now?

CG: As far as I see now, I think documentary film as genre has also changed a lot. There are two sides, one side is very traditional documentary production. In China most independent documentary film makers are staying in high mountains or in the rural areas to film the subject for two years without any payment, and they live like that. It’s a very traditional way of doing things and the films are quite slow and close to the nature of life.

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The other side are cinematic documentaries, like I’m doing and most European documentaries are about. Because for me, I don’t have much time to work. I work not only as a documentary maker but also as a kind of manager or producer. So, I need to take about millions of meetings every year to do a lot of propaganda.

I make films in my spare time, the real documentaries I want to focus on and that takes time. This year I saw here, at Zagreb Film Festival, several documentaries which are really wonderful in a very innovative way. But they are also very effective to me as audience. So, I think that documentaries today really have no boundaries or limitations. People used to say that a fiction or non fiction film can merge or can do one thing or another, but it’s really happening now. Even animation can be documentary now.

Yeah, like Ari Folman’s documentary animation ‘Waltz with Bashir’…

CG: Yeah. That’s true.

What do you think about low budget films. Internet and free software have changed a lot the situation in this field… it gave the artists a way to express themselves… Do you have to deal with the issue of equipment?

CG: I’m in advantage because I work for TV and I can use the most modern technology as I can. I like big cameras and I did post production with an international team. I had editors from Holland. But for many, like independent film-makers in China, they don’t have many funding or budget. They are working on very primitive cameras and they have to directing, editing and all the sound by themselves. So, one person is a team. Now, it’s much easier for Chinese documentary producers to connect with the world, because you can send your work to many international festivals. The cost can be different, but the quality is another issue.

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The Red Race was made in an international production. After this successful experience is it easier to find international collaborators and partners?

CG: After The Red Race it’s not so difficult to find partners in Europe, because when you have a film that people recognize that’s a direct way to the next project. For The Red Race most of the budget came from Germany’s TV channel NDR, and the rest is support for technical and staff, and all these in kind contributions from my station. I find this way of working together quite effective.

Now,  TV stations from France, Germany… are interested in my projects. I also had a meeting with IDFA director, she too finds my projects interesting. Now I can submit my projects to the funds at international institutions and festivals, as well. I think for most Chinese people, getting to the international stage is far away, but when you have courage and you dare to test the world, it opens its doors to you.

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What would you recommend to the future documentary film makers… your opinion could be very valuable…

CG: I can not say I have some suggestion because I also just started, I’m only thirteen. But in my experience with many film-makers, especially in China… You can see that suddenly there are many film-makers now with their début films, but we have to wait for 6 or 7 years for the second film. I mean, in documentary area, sometimes you get the patience, you get the courage to make a good film, but to continue your career you need more, like more things in your mind. Things deeply rooted in your mind and your knowledge and background are so important.

Documentary is about your view on the society. You can film something you are familiar with, something you live with for many years. Of course, you can make wonderful documentaries about things most people have never heard before. So, to make a step forward you need to be more professional, you need to work with more people, you need to trust people as well.

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Is there artist or artwork that have made a crucial impact on you?

CG: I watch many documentaries every year, but I’m not sure if certain film-makers affect me. I started making films in 2003. Before that I’ve read a lot literature. I think this influenced me much more then films. Even in China we can get very cheep pirate DVD’s, one dollar for each. I watch much less then my friends. My friends can watch DVD’s at home like every night. Some of them watch once a year. So, they can be film experts, but I never see they make wonderful films. That’s a problem.

I think I have learned a lot from literature on how to tell stories, how to find true solution to your subject. In China my major was Chinese literature. I’ve also read a lot of European and American novels as well. I also have a lot of favourite writers, rather then directors.

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Asian cinematography exploded in last 15, 20 years… especially in the genre of feature films… Has anybody from that scene inspired you?

CG: Yeah, of course, every time I watch other people’s films, they inspire me. I watch a lot of feature films from Asian cinematography. I find interesting the way of telling stories. Watching films is like dreaming, you just connect things that look like irrelevant to your subject, in your mind. There is always some connection.

Thank you, Chan!

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