Chinese filmmaker who documented labour activists’ fight for workers’ rights in southern China tells of exile in Hong Kong

Huang Wenhai lived with the threat of violence – from Chinese security officials and thugs hired by Guangdong factory owners – for years before joining exodus of filmmakers to Hong Kong, where he relishes freedom to cast his net wider

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 15 February, 2017, 6:45am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 21 February, 2017, 12:45pm

Now into its 46th edition, the International Film Festival Rotterdam has provided fertile ground for mainland Chinese directors during the past three decades.

In the 1980s, a young Chen Kaige was feted in the Dutch city for his early films, including Yellow Earth. He Jianjun’s Postman was one of three winners of the festival’s inaugural Tiger Awards for short films in 1995. Zhang Yuan’s Sons (1996), Lou Ye’s Suzhou River (2000), Han Jie’s Walking on the Wild Side (2006) and Huang Ji’s Egg and Stone (2011) all went on to win prizes. Wang Bing received his first break in Rotterdam, with the festival providing him funds to finish Tie Xi Qu: West of the Tracks, a monumental nine-hour debut exploring decaying landscapes occupied by China’s state-owned industries.

This year, it’s the turn of Huang Wenhai, a native of Hunan province whose latest feature-length documentary premiered on January 31 in Rotterdam. Bookended by dazzling imagery of vast Chinese shipyards and factories, the three-hour-long We, the Workers is a detailed, intimate and at times terrifying record of labour activists’ risky campaigns against unscrupulous employers, their menacing minders, and indifferent – or downright hostile – national security officials.

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Huang spent a year living in cramped quarters in Guangdong alongside the film’s subjects: activists from NGOs Panyu Workers’ Centre and Haige Labour Centre. The film depicts frustrations and angst as the activists challenge factory owners over unpaid wages, and encourage workers to unite and fight for their rights. The most harrowing scene sees its central character, a visibly bruised labourer-turned-campaigner Peng Jiayong, reveal how thugs beat him up and left him for dead in a clearing the previous night.

Sitting in the comfort and safety of the festival’s main screening venue, Huang recalls how he was almost abducted along with Peng that evening.

“We were talking to an [injured] female worker at a hospital, and I was aware I shouldn’t be too intrusive – I used a small GoPro camera to film our conversation,” Huang says.

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Then, he adds, a nurse walked into the ward, saw him, and immediately left. Peng suspected she was going to call the police, so Huang stopped filming and left the ward. Shortly afterwards, Huang tried to call the activists, but no one answered the phone so he went for dinner.

They asked if I was trying to film the Dalai Lama
Huang Wenhai

“I came back and still couldn’t reach them. Finally I managed to find [Peng’s supervisor Chen] Huihai, who said the activists had been placed ‘under control’. Later [Peng] and his colleagues returned to Panyu, and it turned out he’d been given a heavy beating. I could have been caught up in that if I had left that ward a few minutes later.”

He says although the incident shocked him, the threat of violence had hovered over him long before this episode. National security officials started following him after he interviewed dissident writer Liu Xiaobo for his 2008 documentary, simply entitled We.

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Three months after the premiere of We at the Venice Film Festival, Liu was arrested for writing and signing Charter 08, a manifesto demanding social and economic reforms in China. Two years later, Huang was himself taken away for questioning following his return to Beijing after screening two new documentaries in Venice. One of them, Reconstructing Faith, was about Buddhists in a small city in Hunan province.

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“They asked if I was trying to film the Dalai Lama,” he recalls, adding that security officers told him he’d been on their radar since We.

Shaken by the experience, Huang spent months living in a monastery – his artistic alias, Wen Hai, stems from the religious name he received there – before leaving for far-flung Yunnan, where Wang Bing was filming footage that would eventually become documentary Three Sisters.

“I felt I’d be in trouble and they’d come asking me who I was working with and what I was doing,” Huang says. “So I just went and joined Wang Bing. It wouldn’t sound so sensitive – me being a cinematographer on a film about children in villages.”

Security officials backed off during his two years in Yunnan, he says, but knocked at his door again once he returned to the capital, where he had studied at the Beijing Film Academy. When the University of Hong Kong’s Journalism and Media Studies Centre approached him in 2013 to write a book on the recent history of Chinese independent documentaries, he accepted the offer and moved to the city. (The tome, titled The Gaze of Exile – the Testimony of China’s Independent Documentaries, was published last month.)

A lot of the people who appeared in our film were arrested ... Now that they have been released, we have to worry about how the film might affect their safety
Zeng Jinyan, producer of We, the Workers

Huang says his latest film is the first he has been able to finish with relative peace of mind. Although shot entirely in China, production on We, the Workers was finished in Hong Kong. It was his first completed feature since leaving Beijing in 2013.

By moving to the city, he joins a small but growing coterie of filmmakers from China working and living in self-imposed exile in Hong Kong. The most prominent among them is Ying Liang, who has been living and teaching in Hong Kong since 2012, when he reported receiving threats against him and his family because of his film When Night Falls, which centres on a possible miscarriage of justice behind a young man’s killing spree at a police station.

Then there’s Zeng Jinyan. Huang’s producer for We, the Workers, Zeng is better known for her work as a human rights activist – and being the former partner of dissident Hu Jia. Together they made Prisoners of Freedom City, a half-hour documentary about their time under house arrest from August 2006 to March 2007.

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Zeng recalls being “very tense” when she heard the authorities were rounding up the labour activists they’d befriended and filmed in 2014 for We, the Workers. “A lot of the people who appeared in our film were arrested in December 2015,” she says. “We have to take care of a lot of things. Now that they have been released, we have to worry about how the film might affect their safety, too.”

Huang has been involved in documentary making since joining state-owned China Central Television after graduating from the academy in 1996. There, he made investigative journalism programmes that commanded millions of viewers. In 2000, however, he decided to leave the system and make his own documentaries.

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This coincided with the start of the “golden era” for independent documentary filmmakers, he says. “There was more space for civil society to operate, and there was a lot of discussion in film schools about what we could do.”

During this thaw, he made his three first independent documentaries: In the Military Training Camp (2002), about the virtues and vices of young participants in a fortnight-long boot camp; Floating Dust (2004), a portrayal of working-class ennui in a small city in Hunan; and Dream Walking (2005), which highlights the plight of artists living on the margins of society.

The thaw ended in 2011, when the authorities began to suppress independent film festivals across the country, a campaign concluding with the police shutdown of the Beijing Independent Film Festival in 2014. By then, Huang – who had worked with that festival’s organisers and served as a juror – had already fled to Hong Kong.

While admitting to feeling “lonely, sad and stuck in the margins”, Huang says he tries to be more upbeat about how he can use his freedom in exile. He has organised regular screenings and seminars under the banner of the Chinese Independent Documentary Lab, an organisation he co-founded with Zeng and other scholars and filmmakers in the city.

Having spent years away from China and a few months last year filming footage around the Mediterranean coast for artist Ai Weiwei’s upcoming documentary on migrants, Huang says he no longer feels constrained by his nationality.

“I don’t think it matters if I were to make documentaries with a Chinese theme,” he says. “I think we’re just a bit too limited by this national concept. What I want to look at is the individual human being ... I don’t think you should shackle yourself to just one place in this globalised world.”

Zeng, who has lived in Hong Kong for nearly five years with her young daughter, says she feels free, comfortable and “in her element” in her new home. “A lot of people who have left Hong Kong uproot themselves completely,” she says. “Even if you could read the news about China anywhere you live, you might have swapped the people your work should talk to. Are you talking to those who live on Chinese soil? Or people in the West, who need the basic things about the country spelt out for them?”