May 23, 2024

Selected as this year’s Guest of Honor at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA), Chinese director Wang Bing sat down with the festival’s artistic director Orwa Nyrabia for an in-depth talk on his career on Friday at the imposing Tuschinski Theatre in the Dutch capital.

Bing commented on not wanting his films to be “political” while reflecting on the entirety of his career, from his nine-hour-long debut “West of the Tracks” to the recent Cannes competition title “Youth (Spring)” — “I’m not particularly interested in politics (…) I don’t want my films to become a political tool. The movies I watched in my childhood were full of politics, ideology and an agenda. I don’t want people to find these elements in the movies I make.”

When prodded by Nyrabia on the subject, the director stated: “I live in a politically sensitive society. All the people involved in my movies live in the same society, so we cannot simply unhook ourselves from the context. I will film things that contain political topics but I will never make my movies a tool for politics.”

The director wrapped the topic by saying, “These are people’s authentic lives. So I am not going to dodge these topics, but based on my subjective understanding of film, I would never politically affiliate my films. It is our own fates, fortunes and misfortunes that I like to focus on in my movies. And that’s what I hope you focus on in my movies, too.”

China’s control over the country’s artistic output was mentioned throughout the conversation, with the strict national policies having directly oriented Bing’s first steps into filmmaking. “Since I was a student in 1995, I always wondered: If I were to make a movie, what would that movie be like?” said the director about his early career. “Everybody knows that China has quite a strict administration over feature movies — actually, over all kinds of movies — but back in 1999, feature movies were targets. Back then, documentaries were harder for them to look at so that was the time and the gap that I took.”

When asked by Nyrabia about how he tried to escape both the “limitations of censorship” and the “general rules of the market,” Bing said: “Initially it was not a rational thing. I was just taking it step by step. I have to be honest here, I’m not particularly fond of the big machine that runs in China, the process of basically making everything propaganda in a way. I wanted to step away from it.”

“What I noticed back in 2000 was a period in China that was really hopeful and I tried to grasp that hopefulness. I wanted to either make a change or enable the change by making my movies. ‘West of the Track’ includes all my intuitions, observations and perspectives about society back then.”

Another project discussed in depth was 2012’s “Alone,” which follows three sisters living in poverty in the Chinese province of Yunnan. Bing was steadfast in denying having set out to portray poverty in itself, but instead reflected on how the situation in the film acts as a starting point to reflect on social issues, such as birth control policies and the separation between parents and children once providers need to leave rural areas to put food on the table.

“It was not my storytelling intention to portray poverty,” Bing said. “The film is about the connection between children. It was the interactions between the children that I portrayed — it was not begging for sympathy, it was emphasising the feeling of human beings growing up together.”

Speaking about his latest, Bing said “Youth (Spring)” was born out of meeting a group of teenagers wanting to work in bigger areas of China in search of better salaries and more opportunities. The filmmaker began following the teens, a sprawling journey that will result in a trilogy, with the director having already completed chapters one and three and hoping to finish the second film in 2024.

On top of being IDFA’s Guest of Honor, Bing is the subject of a special six-film retrospective and has curated this year’s Top 10 selection at the festival. The selection, which can be viewed in full here, is a journey through contemporary Chinese cinema and includes Li Ma’s “Born in Beijing,” Tong Xhu’s “Wheat Harvest” and Lina Yang’s “Old Men.”

IDFA runs from Nov. 8-19.

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