Zhao Liang’s Shang fang (Petition, 2009) is one of the most celebrated – and grueling – works of the independent Chinese documentary movement. Filmed over more than a decade spent among some of the most disadvantaged and persecuted people in China, the film is a searing indictment of a justice system utterly beholden to political interests.

Zhao began his documentary career back in the mid-1990s, shooting the dying days of Beijing’s now-legendary Yuanmingyuan artists’ village as its residents succumbed to police pressure and gradually moved out of the area. His raw footage was finally edited into a feature-length film in 2006, entitled Gaobie Yuanmingyuan (Farewell, Yuanmingyuan). In the years since, Zhao has maintained close ties to the art world through a series of photographic and gallery-based video works produced alongside his documentaries.

Petition

During the decade he spent shooting Petition, Zhao completed two other documentaries: Zhi feiji (Paper Airplane, 2001) about the downward trajectory of a group of heroin addicts on the fringes of Beijing’s turn-of-the-century rock community, and Zui yu fa (Crime and Punishment, 2007), about the daily workings of a unit of the paramilitary People’s Armed Police in a small town on China’s border with North Korea.

In 2010, Zhao took the controversial step of making a film within China’s state-sanctioned system, with all the attention and censorship that implies. Zai yiqi (Together) is ostensibly a making-of documentary about Gu Changwei’s drama Zui ai (Life is a Miracle, aka Love for Life, 2011), but the most interesting parts of Zhao’s film focus on his interactions with a range of real-life HIV suffers struggling in a society in which the disease is still widely feared and misunderstood.

I was privileged to spend several hours with Zhao at his Beijing studio in December 2010, chatting about his career, working in and outside the system, and the ethical complications that come with his deeply involved style of documentary making. Thanks to Wang Yi for her help translating the interview.

How did you come to study at the Beijing Film Academy in the mid-1990s?

After my graduation from Lu Xun Fine Art Academy in Shenyang [northeast China], I worked at the local TV station for a year. Personally I liked photography, but in the TV station it was all about moving pictures. I didn’t really like it. I made a documentary in 1992 about kids in a remote rural area who had to travel miles to school every day, but it didn’t pass the censor. But they still liked me, and later I talked to the director of the TV station and told him I wanted to study cinematography at the Beijing Film Academy. He agreed, and I came to Beijing and stayed on after my graduation.

Did you have a clear idea then that you wanted to make documentaries?

Actually in the beginning I didn’t. But back then we didn’t even have digital cameras, and if you wanted to be a feature film director there were a lot of conditions it was impossible for me to meet. But I had studied art, so I started to use a 35mm camera to make short films. In 1995 I began to shoot in Yuanmingyuan art village using Hi-8 video. I preferred to start with what I had rather than waiting.

How did you become involved in the Yuanmingyuan arts community?

At that time the artists’ village was famous all over China. When I studied at the Lu Xun Fine Art Academy I knew about it. Other students studying at Lu Xun went there after graduation and became independent artists, so when I came to Beijing I contacted them. We went there and had a very good relationship. Sometimes I’m very sensitive to history and have a very strong ability to judge myself from a historical perspective. I could sense that it was a unique historical moment. Every day I was just hanging around until the police came and all the people were like small animals hiding. I realised I had to shoot it, so I borrowed a camera from a friend. It was Hi-8 and the quality was very rough. My ability to structure a film was very limited at that time, so I left it until 2006.

When you started your career in the 1990s were you influenced by other early Chinese documentary makers like Wu Wenguang?

I know Wu Wenguang, Jiang Yue and Duan Jinchuan and I’ve seen their work, although I don’t especially like it. But I think for that time it was really great. Jia Zhangke didn’t make documentaries early on, but he used his special perspective to observe small cities that we were so familiar with they were almost invisible. I liked it very much. I don’t really like his recent work like Dong [2006] and I Wish I Knew [Hai shang chuan qi, 2010] – I prefer his early film Xiao Wu [1998], which uses documentary elements to record life in a small city. I like the film’s sharp sense of character. He also had a short documentary called In Public [Gong gong chang suo, 2001] which I really liked. Those early films made me reflect upon my own environment.

How did you become involved with the group of drug users featured in your next film, Paper Airplane?

From 1997 I was shooting rock ‘n’ roll bands. Punk was just starting to get popular in China at that time. They were very new and strange, and attracted me. I shot quite a lot of footage but at that time it was hard for me to structure everything, so I picked out the drug use.

From your earliest documentaries, your relationship with your subjects has played a central role in the films’ drama and meaning. As a filmmaker, do you see yourself as an observer of these people’s lives, or a participant?

In fact I felt that in the majority of my films I was one of the characters. To deal with the relationship between the director and the subject in the film, to balance it, is a kind of art. You shouldn’t get too close. In fact in Paper Airplane I was too involved. I needed to work together with them to solve some problems and overcome difficulties. The relationship was like between brothers. Although you live with them you shouldn’t forget that you are the one shooting. In terms of documentary ethics, every director needs to think about this. While you are shooting a lot of complicated situations will develop. For example, if someone is being chased do you really want to keep shooting or do you really want to help them? Actually the line between these two is blurry. You can offer genuine help, but you always need to bear in mind you are there to record.

How did you gain access to the police station we see in your next film Crime and Punishment?

In China there are some things you need to achieve through connections. My friend’s friend’s friend introduced me. When I was in the police station I told them I just wanted to experience life there to write a drama script.

There are moments in the film, such as when they are beating suspects, when the police ask you to turn off the camera. Were there aspects of their work they didn’t let you film at all?

Actually in China this is a very common phenomenon – beating people up in police stations. That station was relatively good – they didn’t beat anyone to death. They just slapped and kicked people. I didn’t see more than that. But they were very passionate about catching prostitutes and their clients because they could fine them. They would wait outside “hair salons” [late night salons are usually fronts for brothels in China], and after the men and women had agreed on a price they would go to the rooms the prostitutes rent. The police would follow them and after a while they would bust in to collect the condoms for evidence. One time there was a prostitute who was really scared. She was hanging off the balcony. It was on the third floor, and the police caught her in a spotlight. I couldn’t keep shooting that – it was too much.

The final shot in Crime and Punishment of the peasants carrying furniture across the snow in front of the church is a very surprising, open-ended conclusion to the film. Can you talk a bit about your decision to end the film there?

The reason I think there are a lot of ugly things in China is the lack of religious belief and a lack of connection with culture, so I arranged that scene as a metaphor. The town where I shot the film had a pretty little church, but I wasn’t referring specifically to Christianity. It just refers to belief generally.

You were making Petition throughout the period you made Paper Airplane and Crime and Punishment. How did you become involved in the petitioners’ community around Beijing South Railway Station?

In 1996 I got my first digital camera. I was looking for a subject, and one day there was a photographer who went to shoot petitioners. He used to be a journalist so he knew about that place. The first day I went there… It was already the 1990s but it felt like they were living in the past, isolated from the present era. Outsiders didn’t know about them or understand them. They live in a “grey past tense” [a phrase that refers to people trapped in the past]. So I started to shoot them the first day I went there.

So that was 1996?

Yes, it was autumn 1996. At that time no-one was shooting the petitioners, and no-one listened to them, so everyone wanted to talk to me. I found Qi and her daughter Juan on the first day. They didn’t say anything, but they wanted to see the guy with the camera and find out what was happening. I saw Juan and liked her from the first moment, so I started to get to know them and focused on shooting their lives.

You shot the film over more than 10 years, but how much time did you actually spend in the petitioners’ village and how often did you go there?

From very early on I went there whenever I had time. It was very hard – sometimes when you went the petitioners had been arrested and you couldn’t find them. A lot of people who had shot petitioners earlier had given up half way through.

Ethical questions regarding the relationship between a documentary maker and his subjects came to a head in Petition, particularly in the scene where Juan gives you a letter to pass on to her mother to say that she’s leaving Beijing. Can you talk about how you felt about that situation at the time?

I agreed with Juan’s decision to leave. There was no need for her to waste her youth in a place like Beijing South Railway Station. On and off I was hinting to Qi that Juan might leave some day, but she refused to believe it because she was afraid of being separated from her daughter. If Juan had given the letter to her mother she would have stopped her leaving. So Juan gave the letter to me to pass on. I knew it would be ugly. Before I had an OK relationship with the mother, but when I gave her the letter, her reaction was as I predicted. She wouldn’t listen to any explanation and wasn’t willing to think about it from any other perspective.

At that time the struggle I had was whether to shoot or not. As a professional documentary maker I knew this would be important, so I had to shoot it. When I edited the film I saw that because I was so focused on talking to the mother, her head was cut off in the picture – including later when she ran off and I was chasing her. All the footage is of the ground or my feet. So I didn’t use all the footage, but I really regret that now. The footage of me chasing her is so cruel for the audience to watch, but if I could have included the scenes of me speaking to her it would have helped the audience understand better and I would have been less criticised.

Have you stayed in touch with any of the petitioners from the film?

Yes, some of the main characters. I lost contact with Juan’s mother, but I’m still in touch with Juan.

Do you usually work alone or with a small crew?

When I made Yuanmingyuan and Paper Airplane I worked by myself, with no support at all. But Petition was a bit different. Because it was a special situation I was very nervous so I worked with an assistant. But not all the time – sometimes he was there, sometimes not. I just needed him to keep an eye out for any danger.

Together

Your most recent film Together has quite an upbeat feel, especially compared to Petition. What made you decide to adopt such a different tone?

The aim of that film was to improve the attitude towards HIV+ patients. I don’t really agree the tone is upbeat – actually it’s kind of blurred, but it gives people hope. Our aim was to give people a better understanding of AIDS in order to reduce people’s prejudices.

Together was the first of your films passed for release in China. Did you have to make any changes to the film to get it approved?

Sure did! To pass it the censor wanted some cuts. For example, because the Party [the Chinese Communist Party] doesn’t admit that sex workers exist, we couldn’t talk directly about prostitutes.

Did you find it hard working within the system for the first time and having to make those changes?

I thought the film achieved its main objective. Although it is different from my own version I didn’t flatter the government and it didn’t violate my principles. In fact every official knows very well what the problems are, but they are on a really big boat and they need to be careful about their rice bowls [in other words, they want to preserve their incomes and privileges]. They don’t want to take any responsibility and they don’t want to make any mistakes. This system creates a vicious circle for society.

What are you presently working on? Do you have more plans to produce films within the system that can be released in China, or do you still prefer generally to work independently?

I’m very eager to shoot a new film and hope I can find some money to help me with my project. It will not pass the censors, because the topic itself makes it impossible to cooperate. I want to find some educated people to travel all around the country, to look for and discuss contemporary China during the journey. It’s about looking for something. For example, I am about to shoot a poet who spent seven years behind bars. He had a lot of manuscripts that were gradually smuggled out of jail. When he was released he couldn’t find any of them, so he’s looking for them. I want to go with him and film his search.

Zhao Liang’s films Petition and Crime and Punishment will be screened as part of the “Street Level Visions: Indie Docs from China” strand at the 2012 Melbourne International Film Festival.