It is not easy to keep optimistically working during the COVID-19 pandemic, especially in a time fraught with uncertainty for those who work as independent filmmakers. But despite the anxiety and incertitude about the future, at Colectivo Piloto we keep doing our best to promote talented young filmmakers by giving them a platform to showcase their work.
It is for this reason that we are excited and proud to release the short documentary “Before He Starts” directed by Xin Fang, a talented young filmmaker from China living in New York City.
“Before He Starts” tells the story of Zhang Hongtu, a Chinese artist who emigrated to the US during the 80’s. His work explores the freedom to criticize the Chinese authorities afforded to an artist living in the West and reflects on themes of authority and belief (specifically the power of iconic imagery) and cross-cultural ‘East and West’ connections. These themes are largely derived from his “outsider” standing as a Muslim in China and, after his move to the United States, as a Chinese citizen in the Western world.
We spoke with Xin Fang about “Before He Starts,” what moves her work as a young documentary filmmaker and how she sees the future as an independent documentary filmmaker during and after these pandemic times.
How did you decide to come to the US and what moved you to become a documentary filmmaker?
I moved to the United States at the age of seventeen to pursue my degree in visual journalism and sociology. As I continued studying journalism and worked on a few investigative reports, I gradually realized what motivates me. I guess there are signs showing that I will be a documentary filmmaker at some point. It’s very difficult to explain, but I’m always interested in topics like social class, race, identity, and gender. As an Asian woman living in the western country, I constantly feel alienated, and that sense of ‘finding my identity’ pushes me to think critically and creatively – and how can I translate the struggle into my art. In this sense, through the medium of film. I’m an emerging documentary filmmaker and having the experience to make this short film really encourages me to keep working.
“Before He Starts” is about a Chinese artist who emigrated to the US during the 80’s. It is not an easy adventure to compress a life in 20 minutes. What premises and pivotal elements in the life of Zhang Hongtu have you taken to structure the story and make it work in 20 minutes?
At first, and due to the short format, I did not plan to use too much time explaining the historical part in the film. I spent a lot of time figuring out the story line – having meetings with my advisors, hearing the feedback and critiques from my peers and asking myself questions. It’s a process, and definitely a long one. The editing part is the fun part yet very dreadful, and I spent a long time watching movies and short videos for inspiration. There is another short documentary about Zhang Hongtu made about ten years ago. I was very tempted to watch it because I wanted to know how other people tell the story about my character. But I didn’t, because I didn’t want my imagination to be conditioned by other points of view.
As long as I realized it, I wrote down several possible story lines, edited a few versions, and sent them out to the people I trusted for opinions. As I gathered enough feedback and analyzed my character again I figured out the importance of the film. I realized that it is not all about the history of my character but his present and his future. The historical part is indeed a transcendental element for visual, political, and cultural reasons. However, The historical part is not the main point in “Before He Starts”. The point is to show how the artist has grown and how his work is influenced by his ideology as a result of the historical process that he has had to live. It was also very inspiring for me to know him and learn from him.
Why did you decide to tell the story of Zhang Hongtu?
Zhang Hongtu’s artworks caught my attention the first time I saw it during a collective exhibition called “Art and China After 1989: Theater of the World ” at the NYC Guggenheim Museum in 2017. Darkly amusing and often associated with “Political Pop,” his early works examine the freedom of criticism as a survivor of the Cultural Revolution and as a Muslim Chinese immigrant in the United States. However, it was only after I started filming Hongtu that I came to see a simple fact amidst the politics and art complexities – what drives you in the first place to create something you genuinely believe in?
“Before He Starts” is riddled with poetic elements that reinforce both, the character’s daily actions and the historical moments that determined the character’s life. I assume that this is “your personal style” to tell stories and I really like it. What criteria do you use to pick these poetic shots?
I think my early practice as a visual journalist influences my style subconsciously. Some would argue that documentary should be objective and not put into your own opinion, but to me documentary is just another medium to express the content. Personally speaking, I don’t like wasting time on excessive shots, and I’m a firm believer that the less the better. When I first visited Hongtu’s studio, the house settings and decorations really grabbed my attention. Every detail of the house shows the artist’s personality, and I think it’s important to translate that feeling into a concrete one. I started to watch films that specifically talk about artists, and I found that aesthetic shots are the common part. If the film is about a sculptor, I will focus on the tools and the action to show the feeling without telling it explicitly. That applies to this film too. I’m glad that I was able to translate the emotions to the audience in an organically way.
In “Before He Starts” there is also an element of contrast as a resource to show moods, such as a sudden pause in visual and audio to show and explain emotional changes.
What filmmakers inspire you?
Abbas Kiarostami, Andrei Tarkovsky, Jia Zhangke (Mountain May Apart), Pedro Almodovar, Greta Gerwig, Yorgos Lanthimos just to name a few. I like a great variety of films, and sometimes, the name of the filmmaker doesn’t guarantee his/her/their contents. For example, Stalker is one of the few films I’ve watched three times. The first time I fell asleep because it’s too long and too abstract. The second time I watched it at Lincoln Center, and I wasn’t sure if I understood it fully. The film leaves me puzzled, and Tarkovsky doesn’t offer an explanation. It’s a classic film and I highly recommend people to watch it if they haven’t.
Are you currently working on a new project?
I’m at the early-stage of a new project. I want to do a hybrid film, it could be experimental or narrative/documentary or perhaps a performance. I’m still working on the idea and doing research.
As an independent women young documentary filmmaker, how do you see this pandemic will affect your work?
It’s a bit different and difficult to think about the future during a pandemic situation. I think everything will take some time to get back to normal and we will have to adjust our lives and work to a new reality that we don’t even know how it would be… It definitely hits us hard, as I know, including myself, that many filmmakers/freelancers have been laid off due to the pandemic. I try to stay positive and sane, and think about what I can do as a human being first. Then to think about what I can do as a documentary filmmaker. I know some of my peers have been filming during the quarantine that happened in China, and I admired what they’ve been doing. For me, I’d like to take some time and think thoroughly about what to do next. It got me to think if film, as a medium, is the right way to portray the world. Or, if there’s a better way to tell a story that would engage the audiences. During the pandemic, I realize the sudden abundant time that leaves us feeling anxious. It’s not just in the film industry but as an individual in this society. There are many new questions that are raised quickly: socio-economic, politics, class, etc. The world will not be the same when all of this is over, and we need to be prepared for it. Even before the pandemic, the landscape for the documentary industry has slowly evolved with the rise of online streaming platforms and many publications starting their own documentary channels. It’s difficult for me to predict what the industry will be, but it can be both a challenge and an opportunity for all of us.
“Before He Starts” Xin Fang 2020 (Full Documentary)
After encountering a number of political incidents in China since the 1950s, Chinese artist Zhang Hongtu reveals his life experience that inspired his art. This film intends to explore the relationship between art and politics, the role of Western academics and market in shaping the definition of contemporary Chinese art since the 90s, and the way Zhang rediscovers his initial pulse of being an artist after a long journey.
This interview was first published by Colectivo Piloto. April 12, 2020.