DREAM WORLD I was born in Beijing in 1983, but spent my early childhood in Shanxi and Henan, and then went back to Beijing for junior high school. I wasn't interested in making films at first, I studied painting. As a child, I used to write down everything I could remember from my dreams but, when I retold the stories to my friends, they were bored. I felt like I didn't have the ability to use words to express myself well. Then, one day, we all went to the cinema and it struck me how much like a dream the movie was. I don't remember the name of the film but it made me think that if I wanted to retell the stories in my dreams, using film would be the best way.
NO MORE NOMADS? I majored in film at Beijing Normal University. While I was a student, I travelled to Tibet. When I got to Litang (in western Sichuan province), I stayed with a nomad family on the grasslands. There were about 20 families living there. That was 2004. I had a camera with me so I took lots of photos of them and promised the families I would send them the pictures. The following year I went back to those grasslands, but only 10 of the families were still there. The others had been relocated by a government programme that moves nomads into permanent housing near towns and cities. I handed out the photos and asked the remaining families to pass them on to those who had been moved. The next year, I went back again, and this time there were just three families left. It really brought home to me how fast change was happening there. When I go back to the areas where I grew up, all the people and places (I remember) are no longer there; there's a feeling of emptiness about it all.
CONTINENTAL DRIFT After university, I moved to Paris to attend a three-month course on documentary filmmaking. A documentary I had made (at that time) was nominated in a French film festival. Without You was about a middle-aged Chinese woman (I had befriended) living as an illegal immigrant in Paris. She had fallen in love with another Chinese illegal immigrant but he had a family back in China, and had left her to return home. She had really loved him and now felt lonely. It was a story of impossible love. When I first met her, I was moved by how incredibly tough she was. She couldn't speak any French and survived by collecting the stuff other people threw out; taking it home, cleaning it up and selling it at flea markets. When I asked her if I could film her she refused but, two weeks later, she called me to ask if I still wanted to do it. A week into shooting, I asked her why she had changed her mind. She said, "Just look around you. Look at this seven-square-metre room I spend my days in. This is where I lived with my lover. Everything reminds me of him. Having you film me is a distraction. It stops me thinking so much about him. I just want to talk to someone."
In 2009, I returned to France to spend two years studying plastic and visual arts at the prestigious Ecole des Beaux-Arts de Paris. I felt like a foreigner, so distant from the people and the culture, and the Chinese diaspora. This distance got me thinking again about our identity and our culture, and that was also an important element of Butter Lamp. In France, there's a lot more freedom to make films than there is in China. There's more tolerance. You have such a diversity of film, from artistic to commercial, and there's an audience for all of it. But in China, the space is limited and the market is dominated by commercial films. The film industry in France is so much more professional and mature than in China.
POSTER BOY Globalisation and modernisation and the conflict between ideology and faith are bringing about great changes, and they're happening all over the world. But these changes are very stark in Tibet. That's why I made Butter Lamp (a short film about Tibetan nomads having their portraits taken by an itinerant photographer) in Tibet, and not in Peru, for example. I don't know if these changes are good or bad, but I wanted to use this film to get people thinking about these changes, and how they are changing us. Where are we headed? I chose to feature a picture of the controversial Panchen Lama in Butter Lamp because I don't want us to forget him as our world changes. It's a reminder that he exists. That he existed. (The boy in the picture disappeared in 1995, soon after the Dalai Lama identified the six-year-old as being the 11th Panchen Lama.) I'm trying to record facts, objective truths, that may one day be forgotten in the stream of history. I won an award (for Butter Lamp) last year in Shenzhen at the China International New Media Short Film Festival, which is run by the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television. Perhaps they didn't recognise (the Panchen Lama) or maybe they've forgotten all about him and it's just not a sensitive issue anymore.
BACK TO ACTION My next project is another short, which I'll make in June. It will be experimental, with just one actor, and shot in a rainforest in Vancouver, Seattle or Oregon. Winning an Oscar (this month) would be a great encouragement to make more films, but it's not going to change the kind of films I will make. I need freedom to make my films.