Filmmaker takes off blinkers of prejudice for fresh look at history

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 07 February, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 07 February, 2010, 12:00am

Zhou Bing , 41, gained national fame for his documentary series The Forbidden City in 2005. He explains his passion for history and why it is challenging to look at things from a different perspective.

Most of your productions are about history. Why?

I've been passionate about history since I was a kid. History was my best subject in middle school. I just feel like I was born to do it. After The Forbidden City, I also made a documentary about Dunhuang , the Forbidden City in Taiwan, and now I am finishing one about the Bund in Shanghai. What people in my generation or younger need to know more about is the finest culture of our ancestors. History is a very complicated matter that one should not simply jump to the conclusion that such was a good or bad guy, or what happened was a good or bad thing. What I have been trying to do is to present the truest history that I know without making any judgment.

But this will be quite a tall order in China where stories have to be told in a certain way. How do you deal with restrictions on sensitive issues?

What I want to change is our attitude towards history. Our knowledge of history is often one-sided. But I think there are a lot of details and events in history that we don't know. As a result we won't have a complete knowledge of what really happened. This will affect our judgment. When we look at history only from the perspective of our time, we won't be able to fully understand why people made a decision and said something that later became part of history. For example, when in my latest production about the Bund, we found that Du Yuesheng, the gangster that allied with the Kuomintang's Chiang Kai-shek against the Communist Party, was not entirely a bad guy. People always see him in a negative light, but he also had some positive streak.

When you want to make a change, it's inevitable that you will draw criticisms.

The restriction on sensitive issues is partly why I focus more on pre-modern history. But I won't stop doing anything because there are restrictions. My approach is to restore history with help from scholars and experts. But if there are regulations and taboos that certain issues shouldn't be touched, I will not touch them. To be honest, this is for our survival. After all I am an employee of state-run media. My company is partly funded by CCTV.

One of the controversies about The Forbidden City is that you told the story with the help of animation and employed actors. How did you come up with the idea?

I began experimenting in documentaries by using actors back in 1995. My colleagues and I in CCTV spent five years to make a series of documentaries on 30 greatest Chinese people, like the literary greats Lu Xun and Shen Chongwen , in modern China history. But the series drew criticisms from other fellow directors and officials, because they thought it was not appropriate for documentaries to have actors. The series was banned for about a year but was later broadcast on CCTV. But I still think I am just using modern technologies to help me present history. Those actors in the CCTV series and in the The Forbidden City didn't have any dialogue. It's quite challenging to film The Forbidden City because aesthetically the architecture and scale are very monotonous. So I tried to use every advanced technology that we could get, such as those used in shooting TV commercials and music video, to make it more interesting. That's why I applied animation and hired actors.

What was it like to be filming in the Forbidden City?

We had to be extremely cautious and careful about the relics in the palace. The museum gave us a set of regulations and we compiled a thick handbook for our crew members. Before every shooting, we had to hold a meeting and brief the crew about the security measures. For example, every piece of relic should be handled by the museum staff and we should not lay our hands on it. And the lighting we would use should be examined by their technology experts because the lighting could harm the relics.

What about your latest production, The Bund?

It was my idea, but I was approached by the Shanghai Media Group because they wanted to do something special for the Shanghai World Expo. It tells stories about people famous and ordinary. The Bund played a very crucial role not only in Shanghai's but also in China's development in the modern times. The development of modern China began in Shanghai. It's the meeting point of Chinese and Western cultures, science and technology, arts and great thoughts. In the first half of the last century, the Bund was where people from outside brought in new things and took Chinese culture abroad. According to my research, 90 per cent of the great figures that had influenced modern Chinese history went abroad from the Bund. From there, they went to the US, Japan and Europe. They include great minds like Lu Xun and Ji Xianlin [late Indologist and linguist], Communist leaders like Zhou Enlai , Deng Xiaoping , and KMT leaders like Chiang Kai-shek. The Forbidden City is a very different matter. It's a manifestation of a Confucian ruler's perception of the world. But what I was most interested in were the historical relics stored in the Forbidden City, they are an extension of the artists' thoughts and wisdom.

Have you ever thought about making a documentary of your own, an independent one?

I am making two independent documentaries. One is about Tibetan Buddhism because I am a follower. The other one is about a pair of parents who lost their child in the Sichuan earthquake. Shooting for these two projects is on-and-off. It's my personal project.

Tibetan Buddhism would be a very sensitive subject?

From what I know about history, Tibet has been under Chinese rule since the Yuan dynasty (1279-1368). It was British interference that made the whole Tibet issue complicated.

Zhou Bing talked to Kristine Kwok