The view finder
Seeing young filmmakers express their perspective is what drives Jia Zhangke, writes Mathew Scott
The irony is not lost on Jia Zhangke when he says the most surprising thing about his recent stint in charge of a collection of Asia's most promising young filmmakers is how much he has learned from the experience.
"It opened my eyes," the director says. "I was learning how they see the world after telling them how I see the world. I didn't really expect that, but for me this was like utopia. The idea was to give the students a wider vision - and that's what I walked away with, too. That's what cinema is all about."
Last month saw Jia installed as dean of the Busan International Film Festival's Asian Film Academy (AFA), which this year selected 23 young filmmakers from across the region and put them through their paces at seminars and workshops spread over 18 days.
The role enabled the festival to tap into Jia's skills as a storyteller and as an independent Chinese director, skills that have seen the 42-year-old pick up the Golden Lion at Venice with Still Life (2006) and be nominated for Cannes' Palme D'Or twice (for Unknown Pleasures in 2002 and 24 City in 2008). It also made use of his emerging role as a producer and mentor.
"This is something I take very seriously," Jia says while taking a break from AFA activities. "Apart from making my own films, my production company [Xstream Pictures] helps young filmmakers - we have made four films [with] new directors since we started in 2003. I am lucky to have found freedom in my career and I want to help others to enjoy it too."
When Jia first emerged in the 1990s, his focus was fixed on the society he saw evolving around him. His films were lauded by critics for their unflinching look at the lives of ordinary Chinese, be they the villagers in Still Life or theme park workers in The World (2004). "I have always had a lot of things I want to tell people about life and about China," he says.
"Making films for me is a way to look for a freedom to be able to do that, without restrictions. I like to make honest films and films that will make people think."
The director says he has walked away from the AFA knowing more about the circumstances that are shaping the artistic community across the region: the group of students represented 18 countries.
"All young filmmakers are eager to express themselves. It was the same with me. They have to face their own lives," Jia says.
"Some of the students I had have faced war, every one of them has faced relationships, and from those things they tell their stories. I was astonished by the films from Iraq, from Afghanistan, because these young people have faced war, something I have never experienced. But that is what cinema can do - it can show you sides of life you have never experienced."
Jia says he has been stressing to young filmmakers the important role international festivals play in exposing their work to the outside world. The director himself first came to notice outside China when his short film Xiao Shan Going Home walked away with the top prize at the 1997 Hong Kong Independent Short Film and Video Awards. Jia's first feature film - 1998's Xia Wu - then won the New Currents award for first- or second-time Asian filmmakers in Busan.
"It was important for my development as a filmmaker that I was exposed to what was happening outside China, too, and that I could see and hear how other people responded to the films I was making. You have to reach an audience, wherever that may be."
There is certainly more of an audience on the mainland now than ever before. Box office takings are soaring to record levels: US$2 billion in takings last year, and rising year on year by more than 40 per cent during the first half of this year. And there are an estimated 10,000 cinema screens now where there were around just 1,500 a decade ago.
"The rise in box office has meant more people want to invest in films. One of the good signs is that there are those who want to invest who have a vision - they want to invest in art-house films," he says. "What we need to do now is make sure these films can make it into cinemas. Distribution remains a problem but we are working to solve this."
Jia's production house had director Song Fang's Memories Look at Me screening at Busan, while the company recently saw the documentary it made with Algerian director Damien Ounouri, Fidai, screen in Toronto.
The director is about to step behind the camera as work begins on his first big-budget feature, a historical epic with the working title In the Qing Dynasty.
Jia returns again to the notion of artistic freedom when asked about another project he has on the boil, the Renaissance Foundation funding programme for young artists he is now helping organise alongside fellow filmmaker Pang Ho-cheung, author Han Han and musician Anthony Wong Yiu-ming.
"People from across the creative industry want to foster a more independent cultural atmosphere because [on the mainland] there are often quite a lot of restrictions for young artists - that's why we are establishing it in Hong Kong. It is all about giving young artists the freedom to create. Through that freedom comes honesty - and artists should be honest."