By Ivonne Sheen and Viola Varotto
Zhang Mengqi is a Chinese documentary filmmaker and performer who has developed a series of Self-portraits in her father’s village, during a period of 11 years now, situated 47 kms from Suizhou city, a distance from which it carries its name. She first arrived to 47 km, as part of The Folk Memory Project, an ongoing participatory documentary project exploring the personal stories of villagers who lived during the Great Leap Famine in China’s countrysides during the Mao era. The project was founded in 2010 by filmmaker Wu Wenguang and choreographer Wen Hui, who asked young filmmakers to go back to villages they had relationship with, to collect the censored memory of the Great Famine in China. When Mengqi first arrived to her father’s village, she didn’t know that she was going to become part of 47 km. She has made nine films so far which unfolds as the development of her relationship with the village and the villagers along eleven years. Her film series bloomed at the same time that she had. She has recently built a Blue House, which is a creative point of encounter in the village where she currently lives. Her films has been shown in international documentary film festivals such as Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival and are preserved in the archival of The Folk Memory Project.
Ivonne: Before arriving at 47 km, what were your prospects as an artist? In Self-portrait with three women, one can already read a criticism to the conservatism of maoist ideology and its persistence in contemporary China, and at the same time a feminist approach to yourself and the women of your family.
Mengqi: You may know that I’m trained as a dancer since my childhood. Before I graduated, my life was all about dancing in a traditional sense and I tried Contemporary Dance, so Dance was the only thing for me. When I finished University I wanted to make something, to make Art, but I didn’t know how and which art I could do. I began Self-portrait with three women (2010) without knowing what to do. I didn’t have any prospect, the only thing was that I wanted to make my own piece, and not to be other’s dancer or dancing in a big group. When I went to Caochangdi Workstation, they had the young choreographer project, so I submitted my project which was about myself and my family, and I had a small economical support and also a dance space that I could use, so I began to make my own piece. Actually I didn’t know what I was doing or what kind of piece I could do, I just followed my heart, the only thing I knew was that I wanted my mother to join me in stage, but we couldn’t do this because she was in another city and I was in Beijing, so I sent her a small camera and I asked her to talk about the story of my childhood and about herself, about her hope, anything she wanted to speak with me, so this is how I started Self-portrait with three women (2010).
So before the documentary film, I did a theatrical piece called Self portrait dialogue with my mother. So it was a dialogue on stage, as you could see my mother’s image is projected over me, so I worked with my body and my mother’s memory. But when I did this performance, I felt weak, because listening to my mother’s story affected me. So I think that doing this performance during that time was like self education for myself, it was a new start, a new beginning, not following what I learnt at school. Like I ask myself in the film: who am I?
You read this criticism to the Maoist era and feminism, but in that time I didn’t know about it, I just asked my mother: why did you make me write this self-examination when I was a teenager? After the film was finished, after the discussions and talks with people who was saying that this is a feminist film, I began to think “oh ok, maybe what I’m doing is what they say in the books”. But I wasn’t very clear of what I was doing at that time. The same happened when I went back to my father’s village, 47 km, I didn’t even know how long I could do this, I just came back over here to the village because I wanted to join the Folk Memory Project. I think it was a good idea because it’s about history and I didn’t know anything about history in my village or in this country. Because when I interviewed my mother, she told me about this history in Mao’s era, so I was interested in why she was talking like this, why she said that, why this history is making her generation to teach their children this way. Because I did the first performance and first film, I found something that really interested me, but before that I didn’t know what I could do before I arrived in the village.
Viola: When you sent the camera to your mother, in some way did she showed any resistance to speak about those times during Mao’s era, or was your mother open to speak to you?
Mengqi: my mother wanted to help me with everything. Because I think she felt that her biggest dream was to send me to the university and after this, she thought that her job was finished and that she could help me with whatever I needed. So she really helped me to do this performance, so she accepted. I had different material of her speaking, she spoke about different things but I chose the story of my birth, so she was really confident to speak with me about these stories. She is very special.
Viola: Is it only your mother, or do people, in general, speak freely about these past times? Because in Latin America there’s some kind of fear to speak about the past.
Mengqi: My mother is ok, my grandmother is also ok. But in the village, people is scared to talk about the past, especially men more than women, old men.
Ivonne: How would you describe the development of your relationship with 47 km? As you mention in the credits, your films take part of the Folk Memory Project. Every film from the beginning of your film series has a theme as a metaphor and as an index of 47 km’s reality, as one of several villages around China and around the world.
Mengqi: In the Folk Memory Project (FMP), the important thing is to go back to our own villages or the one we have a relationship with and not another’s village. So some people are living in the village like me. Regarding my grandfather’s village, I wasn’t born there, I didn’t grow up there, I only had little memories about this village. I was almost eleven years old when I came for the last time, because of my families’ problems. So when I decided to find a village, I only had this village where my grandpa lived. So I think it’s also about the time that I needed to connect with this people, and my mother also agreed. So when I came back I even had lost the local language, I could only understand a little, I couldn’t speak with them, it was very strange. I call this place my hometown because its my father’s hometown but indeed I didn’t have any memory about this land.
But the project asked people to go back to the villages and collect memories, so the first time was a creative trip to retrieve the memories back. Also these memories are kept far away and we don’t have any information about them in our education, so when I listened to them I didn’t even know what they were saying, so I took a lot of time because after the interviews, we had to listen what they said and write it down, so with this process I think I got the language back to me a little bit. I think how I found the relationship with the village comes down to two things. One is that I came back every year, I kept coming back, and almost my life was all about them, listening to what they were talking and to see their memory, to watch the images, to edit, you need to watch the material again and again and again. So I felt that I got to know them by watching my footage, so when I came back to the village I felt I knew them, but I felt I had to come back to the village again and again to really get to know them. At the beginning, they felt I was very strange, because at my age there was no one like me, they thought that I didn’t had a job, they thought I just came back and I was doing something weird. When I first arrived, my uncle introduced me to them, so he said that I was a student and that I needed to do my homework, so they had the right reason to accept me and talk to me. The next year my uncle introduced me by saying that I was generous, that I needed to interview them because I would send the interview to the TV or to the newspapers, so he changed his idea of introducing me, to make people feel that I had a job, that I was serious, that I wasn’t just playing, so the first three years where like this. The girl, Fang Ho, is very important and I don’t know how to explain in detail how the evolution of my relationship with 47 km was, but old people and children are really important for me. I said I would come back to the village because I had a blood relationship with the village, but after 3-4 years I think that my friendship with the old ladies and the children was more important than the blood relationship, so something changed.
Viola: Is like choosing a family and not having a family like an obligation. Choosing your kind of family. I think people from 47 km somehow protect you.
Mengqi: Yes, especially old ladies. Always every year, there was an old lady there to meet me. It was important for me to have them, to build a relationship with these people.
Ivonne: How do you develop these themes that appear in each title of your film series: dancing, dreaming, building the bridge, dying, birth, sphinx, window. How do you choose them?
Mengqi: We opened the doors with the collecting of memories. But what marked my heart was people’s life, especially old people, they are all very alone, very lonely. Time felt very different in between me and the old people. I don’t know if you remember, a lady, she walks very slow and she helped herself to walk with a chair. The first time I met her, I wanted to interview her, I told her I wanted to interview her in the house, so I went to the house, and she took 15 minutes to get inside the house. So I was waiting for her, wondering if she would appear, but she did, she made that effort to talk to me. So she was very important for me, as someone that gave me a new meaning. Because of this specific old lady, I felt very different life and things, just by sitting there and listening to her. So all this real life was totally different to what I knew before about art. I filmed in the summer and then in winter when I was editing the first 47 km film, she passed away, so almost those were her last images, her last memories, that made me wanted to go back. This is the reason why I came back again. Because you see in the film that I felt uncomfortable, I was struggling with living in the village. But when I was editing the film, I saw this old lady again and again, I thought that I wanted to try again, so then I came back the next year, and the next year, and the next year. This was a very important time when I was editing the first film and felt my own meaning to do these things.
About the titles, because the first self-portrait was with my mother, and because I think every art piece is a sort of self portrait, I use it for every film. 47 km is such an specific location and for me its a mark of the beginning of something. The first time I used these tittles, I decided to use Self-portrait in 47 km as a title again and again, but when I came back to the village I also chose dancing, dreaming and building, because the next two or three years I came back trying to do something, like building the library, do a performance, building a tow-stone memorial, all these stories are about doing something in the village, more like activities that pushed the stories and in that time in the FMP we were talking about doing something in the village, almost everyone wanted to build a tow-stone memorial. Some people were making the kids to clean the garbage, some people were building the library, some people were creating a public space in the village. We were discussing a lot about what we could do in our villages. In the first 4 years we worked like this, every title is verbal as an action in the village.
Ivonne: Is something concrete, an action, but is also a desire… In your last films like birth, sphinx, window, there’s a change that also has to do with activities you wanted to do there?
Mengqi: Just like I said the first four years we thought about reality in China, especially in the villages. We didn’t want to use our words against something, we wanted to build something. But for myself, in 2014 we lost our station space, we had to move out after 10 years, so the projects changed, some people wanted to leave and some people joined, so it was like a square for this whole project. For myself it was an important time to rethink why I needed to do this, was I going to come back five more years? I started to question myself. That same year, my grandfather passed away. His death made me think about the important things of my relationship with the village. I stopped doing what I was doing, I just spent the whole winter sitting there and thinking, and just feeling. I needed to be quiet, to think about my grandfather’s life. So when I stopped moving around and just sitting there, I saw a different life in the village and I even saw myself differently.
I write a lot in my diary every day and my writings also changed, I started to be very focused in details, I feel that writing made me more closer to the village. This was a big change for me. So when I’m editing the film, all my goals were to talk about death, in history, all about my grandfather’s death. I asked myself, is this village a dying village? But when I was editing this film, near the end, I thought I didn’t want to talk about the village as a dying place, because I realized it’s not dying. I met Lei Xianzhen and also Fang Ho, and I put their stories at the end of the film, so I decided to broke the structure of the film and add the stories of these women an older and a younger one. When I saw the two of them I made the decision to continue the project, I wanted to try again for more years. I didn’t know whether to come back again, but these people made me find a new reason to come back. After Self-portrait: dying at 47 km (2015) comes Self-portrait: birth in 47 km (2016), Self-portrait: sphinx in 47 km (2017) and Self-portrait: window in 47 km (2019). I started to read the village through my writing, so my writing guided me in these films. So you can notice me more calm, with longer shots in these last films.
Viola: About these changes. We didn’t know about the changing of your writing, but we noticed the change in the camera you used, it seemed like a more high quality camera… It seemed that it changed the way you were looking at the village… How did you manage to do everything on your own?
Ivonne: At the beginning your were working only with a Handy-cam, the camera was an extension of your body, and then there’s more still long shots, more high-quality images, so I interpreted that as if your were sculpting a sort of new memorial through the cinematic language. I think is interesting what Viola remarks about your process, you work on your own in a small town… In the process, there’s also a sort of self-portrait.
Viola: We are interested in this because here in Latin America, we speak a lot with friends and artists involved in film about low-budget productions that also carry an aesthetic. And using cheaper equipment, low quality, small productions, it’s a way to make films from an specific political place without a great economical system. This is a common process for Latin American cinema, maybe from places from the so called Third world.
Mengqi: Yes, I changed the camera when I filmed Self-portrait: Sphinx in 47 km (2017) and also I had a new sound recorder. Is totally different as you said, because the new camera is very heavy and I have a very heavy tripod, that’s why I don’t move a lot. I never linked this to a heavy camera. I always think that I’m not a professional filmmaker, I’m not part of the Film Industry. After four years in the village, I felt that I needed to think more about the image, to take care of the image, I don’t know why, but I felt that this was what I wanted to do, I just didn’t want to record and not pay attention to the image. Every year the village has changed and I’m almost fighting with the time of what is lost, because every year someone is gone or any change happens, so I realized every year that I’m keeping a memory of something that will disappear. So images are very important and any material I have is very important, that’s why I began to take long shots, I began to shoot a lot of the same place, I go to the same river, the same mountain, to film again and again.
I don’t know what I will be doing in the future, maybe not only making a film, maybe there’s an image archive that I need to keep, so I thought that I needed to take care of every shot, and maybe after the four years filming I think my skills improved. I was very happy about having a new camera. We don’t have any funding, we only have two supporters, Duke University and White Rabbit from Australia. Duke University don’t give us any financial help, they keep a historical archive with our work. They collect it in the library and slowly upload it to the website, so anyone in the world can see the works. Then they invited us to talk with the students, to share activities of cultural exchange. And White Rabbit, they collect contemporary Chinese art but they cannot acquire our work because of it’s nature, so they give us small money for production, that’s how I have my camera, my computer, my hard disk, they support the technical requirements. We wanted to try to do something before we had support, because the FMP didn’t have any support during the first years. We’re not against having a new camera, a new computer, we need this, but we don’t pitch our films to find the money. We do what we can do little by little, this is also a way to do experimental film in China. As you know Mr. Wu is from the first generation who made independent films in China, so he has studios and he built this Caochangdi Workstation with his partner, so they had this space until the first five years of the FMP, after these years we lost the space. This was a big change, so I’m the one who continued and there are another eight people from different areas, they are all new. There is one lady, her film project is longer than mine but it was another project and now she is part of this project.
Ivonne: How does your performative practice influence your cinematographic practice? Is there any other non-artistic practice that you can consider as influential for your work?
Mengqi: Yes, I think my performance influences me a lot. Also I think is very important to keep a distance between me and the village, even if I’m living here now. Keeping the distance from the village is important, I don’t want to pretend that I’m part of this village. When I have a distance, I have a different way to see people’s lives. When I film, I put my camera there, and sometimes I feel after two minutes that the image has changed, something came, it’s like performance for me when I’m looking at the viewer. So always when I see through the camera, I see a performance, it’s in between reality and performance. I always think about this when I’m filming. You might remember this man who is trying to stop the fire with a three’s branch, but the fire will get bigger and bigger instead. I always run into this kind of image in the village, you see someone struggling with something very small in his life. So when I have this distance, I could see this as a performance. I connect this with my writing, because when I’m writing I can make these small things seem bigger. So when I’m filming right now these last years, I want to make these small things seem bigger, like zooming in. This is very interesting for me also, is very pleasant to film when I’m alone, I need to dialogue with myself, to play with my own imagination.
Viola: When and how did you exactly get to know about the Folk Memory Project?
Mengqi: After university, I got to know this Caochangdi Workstation. At that moment the FMP hadn’t started yet, at that time Mr Wu had another project called Farmer Project, in which real farmers who live in theirs villages begin to film their own lives. I went to Caochangdi Workstation, to make my own dance piece, and I got to know about the documentary film because they had two festivals which had two parts: performance and documentary films. They invited some teachers from other places, to give workshops, and I went to these workshops and I found it very interesting because it was totally different to dance, because documentary is about reality and dance is like flying. So I felt that maybe I needed this and I wanted to try it. So I filmed Self-portrait with three women in 2010, and at the same time the FMP began. Because we had a workshop that year in 2010, with Edna Politi, a filmmaker from Switzerland, but she was Jewish and one of her films was about an older generation in Israel who is building an utopia. So we talked with her about history. Everyone there wanted to make films and most of the people in the workshops asked her how to make our first films, and she said that maybe the best way to begin was asking ourselves about history in our first films. So we did that and we began to ask ourselves specially about the Great Leap Famine and the Cultural Revolution, and about the villages since everyone has a connection with a village even though we live in the city. We began to ask ourselves about the villages our families come from. So we decided that we wanted to film about this time of hunger because this doesn’t appear in our history books.
Viola: Are you a founder of the project?
Mengqi: I’m part of the first generation but Mr Wu was the one who asked us about making this project together, he is the founder. People is more involved with the Cultural Revolution and we can find books, diaries, but about the Great Leap Famine no one speaks about and the people who lived this are in the villages and they cannot read or write, so this memory dies with them. We thought that this was really important.
Viola: I’m of the idea that the complete series of your films should belong to a project on forgetfulness, more than on memory, understanding forgetfulness as a spontaneous process of the psyche that leaves out of memory what is no longer useful to live. I feel that the present is what has really taken on a forceful role, neither has the past nor the future, especially because the people who participate in the films, from the oldest to the smallest children, are alive “here and now”. Have you ever thought about leaving the Folk Memory Project?
Mengqi: This project is not only about history. All of us are interested in making art, so we are not professionals doing historical research, so as you said, collecting history is an excuse to open the field for the creative process. The history part is only a part of the project, but we have a lot of workshops in our group, we think more about this project of going back to the villages as self-education for each one. The here and now is very important for the development of this project, that’s why I’m here now building this Blue House, which is not only a project to keep the past and that’s it. If there is one person in the village or two left, this project will remain. I don’t think I will leave the project because it’s still changing like myself, we don’t have any model or format, we just do and do and try and try more. The recent years there’s a big change in art and film about engaging with villages, they’re taking artists to villages and making festivals in the villages. That’s what we don’t do, we don’t want to throw a bomb in a village, we want to experiment what one filmmaker, a writer or a painter, can do living creatively in the village during a long period, this is our final goal.
Viola: The making of the series is a regular form of the Folk Memory Project? or are you the only one making a series?
Mengqi: Everyone is making a series, but not everyone use the same title like me. Everyone use their own title related to their villages, but not the same one for every film like me.
Ivonne: How your films dialogue with the films from the other artists?
Mengqi: Everyone is in a village like me, we film and edit by ourselves, but we have group discussions about each film, we talk about it a lot, and we create different workshops. The last two years we created a core workshop, a little bit like a school, everyone is a teacher and a student, we teach other by watching everyone’s films first cut and final cuts, all the process. This year we couldn’t come together and we do it through zoom. This year we did a reading footage workshop, so we gather together and we discuss our footage, we talk about what we read and see through the footage, we asked to which direction the footage leads us, we share and discuss. This is very important to link people together as a project because not everyone is like myself who is already in the project for ten years, and this project can only support economically to one or two people, and the other have to make money by themselves working in other things. Myself and another two have support for every month, but we need to find a way to bring people together, so making film or performance is very important for us. Also, we have a group email and a lot of people send their diary and we answer to each other.
Viola: You are always talking about the project, this also has to do with funding. You speak about an Australian funding, White Rabbit, this question is because in Latin America, we live in a reality in which there is a cultural and economical colonization. USA and Europe have a lot of interest in financing cultural projects, art projects, mining projects, different kinds of industry projects. They are behind a lot of projects in a colonial way. I was thinking if the Folk Memory Project has this funding, as a collective group of artists from different ways of making art. I wonder if you talk about this, because there is a global tension between China and the USA. I asked myself about the interest behind an American Institution in supporting economically this project, if there is some kind of form or deforming, or some kind of disobedience from a young generation against the communist culture and education, because it’s not only a word or a party, is like when we think about religion, I don’t believe in god but I’m part of a catholic culture, so I think communism is also rooted in people’s life.
Mengqi: For us we’re not looking constantly for this kind of support, we began the project by ourselves and then we accepted the support that they offered us and specially when there are not political interests. We wanted to keep our archives in Chinese Universities but they couldn’t do it. Before 2014, some universities asked us to screen our films and talk about the project in classes, but now we’re only invited in art contexts to speak about this. Is not easy what we do, so we need support to maintain this, we can’t do this on our own, because they are not very professional things, we can only record it and keep it. We are really happy that we can do this, and the university system are not just giving us money to do this, this is not about the money, is more about all members being supported to do this, to film memory. White Rabbit gave us support for anything. If this project goes on, they will still support us anyway, they don’t give us any conditions on how to do things. I don’t know how is the situation in Peru, but in China there were some NGOs, and now something changed that there are less, and they had the profile you said, they came from Europe, from North America, but we’re different from the NGO. But this is not a big problem for us right now.
Viola: I wanted to ask if you have a National Film Archive in China?
Mengqi: Yes, we have, but of course they didn’t accept the works.
Viola: Who preserves all these films you have made along these 10 years?
Mengqi: We have a collaboration with Duke Library and they have a library about East Asia, so they have a teacher who is Chinese. They were only archiving books and they didn’t want to preserve footage because even for them is a huge amount of footage to archive. They have a special collective museum or library, they collect recordings, images and history, so we built this Folk Memory Archive in this special library, so we don’t say that this belongs to them or us, because we do this together. If someone else would like to join this, we think is ok, because we want to share this with people and not only keep it in our houses, because we can’t share this publicly in China. We had one blog in which we shared each one’s memories about the Great Leap Famine and Cultural Revolution, but in 2016 the blog went down and we couldn’t upload it again in the Internet. So for us is very important that Duke University preserves this, we think is a good way to do it.
Viola: how do you preserve it?
Mengqi: We keep it in hard disks. The teacher comes to China and takes the hard disks to the USA.
Viola: In some illegal way, because in the airport they can suspect.
Mengqi: Yes, sometimes when I’ve sent my films abroad in DVD, sometimes the shipping was blocked, sometimes everything was ok.
Ivonne: You currently live in the village. What makes us think that this 10 years experience is transcendental to cinema or art, it became a life experience, in which the personal and the public are strongly intertwined… What do you think about the impact of your work on the village and villagers? One can see some attempts of censorship inside the community, but at the same time how you created deep relationships with some of the villagers. This also is reflected in the building of the memorial, the library, the performance with Lei Xianzhen in “Birth”, the short film by teenager Fang Ho “My Room” and her drawings in the elder’s houses, the Blue House and many other activities, gestures, and changes in the village that has to do with your relationship with them… What are your current projects? At this point, what’s the meaning of the Blue House for yourself and for the village?
Mengqi: I think the inference is between each other, me and them, we both have inference. For myself I think, that through making this project my life already changed, I think that the relationship between me and Fang Ho, of course I want to help her and bring her what I think is good for her, but I cannot stop her from leaving the village, because she had to leave the village to go to high-school and I can see that after six years she will probably leave the village forever. I think that in the village is significant that young people can come back, I think this is very important even though I don’t have any answer, I think this is a signal about this.
So I don’t think I can change their lives in a financial way, so they can have a better life by making more money, they don’t expect me to help them like this, they want me to help them with my internet skills to help them to sell their mushrooms, they want me to help them with my camera to film what they do and create an interest for foreigners to visit the village as tourists. I think I cannot help them with this. Because going back to the village to live here is very unusual in China, so my uncle’s generation is the last generation living in the village and their children don’t come back to the village anymore. So I asked myself what is the future. So I question myself also what I can do when I know that this place will be changed or will disappear, so this is a new question for myself during this year that I live here. I enjoy living here, I never thought that I will have a life like this here. Is not easy to explain because this year was a big change to spend around six or seven months in the village, I can also see a lot of things happening around the world, I can see there are a lot of things going on, but I’m very quiet here, so sometimes I am very nervous about it because “I am a young, but my life is so quiet”. Sometimes I have this problem, but sometimes I think this is very good for me to focus on doing something. I think is very good to live in here and I like making food for myself, growing my food, and I spend little money in the village. My relationship between me and my uncle changed, so we share food together very often. This life is totally different to life in the city, this is more like an original world, more like an old world. I think this is very important to think about this during this year, what kind of life I can choose, I can control, I cannot force to live in. I don’t have a very clear answer. Maybe in a couple of years I could tell.
But regarding the Blue House, this is what I want to share with the people in the village, like the children they come back often, they go to the school in the cities and they come back every week, they just come back right away to the Blue House. Not just go home and play in the phone or something like that. We discussed about membership with the FMP because other participants and Mr. Wu were living here for months and we built the backyard, so probably the next year or next next, we will move the project’s themes to the Blue House, so there would be another Caochangdi Workstation in the Blue House. Another thing is that I would also probably change my way of filmmaking this year, I will stop making long feature films of 60-100 min duration to present to something. Because the feeling has changed, now I go out and I spend time with one person and their story can become into one film, so next year I would present two or three films, because I think is important to rethink the way, why are you making films, what is the film you want to make and who will see this film. So I have thought about this and my ideas have changed. Five years ago I wanted to do something with a big format but now I want to go little by little.
Viola: Your work goes beyond the cinematographic, dance, performative, art in general, because without a proposal, you overcome the false need to represent “others” and transform reality, as when someone comes into your life and everything changes and no longer you remember how it was before. Now that you are facing coexistence in 47 KM with the settlers, are you happy?
Mengqi: Yes, I’m happy. Is very strange and amazing, we’re living in a bizarre time, but when I came here, we felt that we were facing a big crisis because of the coronavirus, but in the village everyone faces their own problem, and their problems are related to the land. This year, the village had a big rain and the water flooded the whole land, they had to face these kind of problems, and after the raining time, there was very dry weather, so for my eyes, this year is really 2020, but for them every year they have to fix out something, that’s what’s important for them, so there are a lot of things I learn from them, a lot of details. So I find more details while I’m living here, more things I learn from them than when I didn’t live here. I don’t think I can represent them because I learn from them more than I represent them. They have their own wisdom but you cannot see it, even when I came back for ten winters, I can recently say that I’ve learned about the relationship they have with the mountain, those are really amazing things, how they live. I think is true wisdom about humanity, I don’t think we are really learning something in universities, and they are here really learning something about nature.
Ivonne: So now you have your own backyard and you are learning to grow your own food.
Mengqi: I think that living here is like diving into the deepness of the ocean, you find another world…
Ivonne: how did the decision to move to the 47 km came to you?
Mengqi: I couldn’t decide because of the shutdown, so I only stayed here, but I don’t think it would be like this every year, maybe I think in September I can go to Beijing. Maybe next year, I’ll spend half time here or half time outside, or just living here full time.
Viola: In Latin America, there is an idealization of communism in some places here, so China and Russia were a referent to follow in the ’70s, countries that made possible socialists ideas.
Ivonne: But it didn’t last so much, we live now in neoliberal societies which are quite dependent on the global economy. Something that moved us from your films was the similarity to Peruvian reality, since there are a lot of villages in Peru, like 47 km, which are really away from the cities and where a lot of people emigrate from.
Mengqi: This country is ran by a communist party but now is overall a capitalist country, so everything is about money. This year we had a lot of discussions about the young generation working in the city, like Fang Ho’s sister. In the cities, there are a lot of people from the village and they work as delivery people, you see a lot of young people doing this work, because they earn money very quickly, you work more and you get more money. No one have any answer, so it’s a very important time to think about what kind of life they want here. For me I think is a good thing to have the Blue House, otherwise, I don’t know how it would be this year.
Viola: We loved all the films, but there are some scenes that we loved more. I wanted to tell you that we loved this walking with the old woman and the cats for example, or the scene of your hands touching with the older woman’s hands.
Ivonne: We were really paying attention to different details like the kitchens and the chairs. Everyone in the village have the same chair.
Mengqi: You mean the small chairs.
Viola: Yes, all the families have the same chair, we want to build one.
Ivonne: Yes, we want to build one. There’s another meaningful scene when you ask your grandfather about dreaming and he said that you have to be educated to know how to dream.
Viola: In Self-portrait: Dreaming in 47 km (2013), you created a fictional narrative in which you appear dancing, and at the end you appear like a bird trying to fly.
Ivonne: Dreaming has this black and white parallel narrative that is more oneiric. For me this is a really powerful film, when you are holding the handy-cam and walking away from your grandfather, saying goodbye, and the children following you and asking you to come back. For me is really amazing, is how you’re very open about your own vulnerability, you are very transparent about how this experience is changing you as a person, meanwhile is happening. Also when you talk in front of the camera wearing your father’s clothes and there’s a strong wind that doesn’t let us listen to you and you seem very nervous. Its quite impressive to see that you are not sure of what you’re doing and it seems more like a series of rituals that are part of your growing relationship with this place. This scene in Birth with the old lady and her stories about her abusive marriage and her births, is a powerful and quite beautiful aesthetically moment with your hands performing together and the sound you are making with your mouths, and then we see the intimate moment you are sharing together while doing this, that takes us to the reality of the beauty, it’s not only an aesthetically search, but a result of a closeness with someone. For us it’s one of the most powerful and strong values of your films, because usually artists and filmmakers have clear positions when they’re making their films, they don’t leave their role as filmmakers as someone making a film, but in your films you’re Mengqi also as filmmaker, but you’re quite present as a person affected by the relationship you’re creating.
Now I wonder about the reception of your films in general, in Film Festivals for example. If there’s another filmmaker from The Folk Memory Project who has also shown his or her films?
Mengqi: When we finish our films we send them to some festivals, first we had three Independent Film Festivals in China, but not anymore. One way we share our films is by sending them to festivals. I hope we would be able to share them in universities, we find that better than Film Festivals. We’re trying to work with some universities from abroad like the University of New Castle in England to archive the films and share them in the Internet. So far right now in the FMP, we only send them to festivals, now its the only way to make people to see our films.
Ivonne: In Yamagata they’re showing three of your films…
Mengqi: Yes, they’re a very especial Film Festival, almost like China Independent Film Festival, where they founded independent filmmaking because they supported young filmmakers work. They don’t have any pitches, they just share the films with the local audience with a really close relationship with the filmmakers, the founder of this Film Festival is Shinsuke Ogawa, he’s also in a village in Yamagata, Mr Wu was inspired by Ogawa to have projects in villages and then created the Folk Memory Project.