How Chinese artist Xu Bing made an entire film out of surveillance camera footage
Dragonfly Eyes, ostensibly a love story told through publicly accessible footage compiled from surveillance cameras, is yet another example of Xu having to wait for reality to catch up with his initial concept
Xu Bing has visited Hong Kong many times as one of China’s leading conceptual artists of the past few decades. Here on this occasion for the 42nd Hong Kong International Film Festival, however, it is the first time he has come to the city to promote a movie rather than install an exhibition.
“It’s surely more convenient this way,” says Xu with a smile. “But there is little convenience about the way we made this movie.”
Since its world premiere at the Locarno Festival last August, Dragonfly Eyes, Xu’s debut feature, has been touring an international film festival circuit that was previously alien territory for the first-time director who is much better known as an artist than a filmmaker.
The idea for Dragonfly Eyes, which ostensibly tells a love story between a man and a woman through images compiled from publicly accessible surveillance camera footage, came about when Xu saw some security camera recordings on television back in 2013.
“I had the feeling then that these images hold a special kind of attraction to me,” he recalls. “They are ultra-realistic in the way they manage to reflect the relaxed state of people going about their daily life. I thought it would be really meaningful if I could turn these images into a narrative film. Why? Because all the existing fiction films that we watch are made with acting.”
When Xu got his hands on his first batch of surveillance video through a friend, footage of a hospital car park immediately had his imagination running wild. “In the video, a woman takes a meal box into the hospital hurriedly. A man comes out of his car. They then speak to each other, and go their separate ways. When I started to make up stories about them, I knew that this idea should work.”
A lack of available footage put Xu’s project on hold for a couple of years. But in 2015 he discovered that huge amounts of such videos were being uploaded by people onto public online platforms or cloud services – and not just from China, but lots of other countries as well.
“Then we started again. We used over 20 computers to download the footage, 24 hours a day. There were between four and five people on our team. It took over a year to collect and process these materials. Throughout, we kept preparing for the screenplay and the editing. It then took about a year of editing. In that year, our 20-plus computers were still working non-stop.”
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Despite his day job as a pre-eminent artist, Xu insists that Dragonfly Eyes was conceived as a feature film from the very beginning. “My mind likes to explore territories that other people might not be very aware of,” he says.
“For instance, ordinary people would think that this footage is ideal for a video art work or a short film. But I think it would be meaningless to use the material that way, because it would just be following the way everyone thinks. Most people – including those in the film industry – were not convinced a film could be made like this. But if someone really pulls it off, it would help to expand people’s minds.”
An installation artist who started his art practice in calligraphy and printmaking, Xu believes his new film is consistent with his other works. “My works have never been about the formats, styles or schools of thought that they may appear to be related to. I don’t think those are important. For a real artist, his life’s work is ultimately about extracting creative energy from society.”
In particular, Xu singles out the similarities between Dragonfly Eyes and Book from the Ground, a novel of sorts that he “wrote” with icons and symbols used mainly in social media and messaging tools.
“The materials they used and the processes by which they were made are quite relevant to each other,” he says. “In Book from the Ground, all the icons and emojis were collected – none were created by me.”
Another common attribute that Xu sees in both works is that he had to wait for reality to catch up with his initial concept. Just as he had to wait for surveillance footage to become readily available to finally realise Dragonfly Eyes, the artist says he was made to wait when he conceived Book from the Ground some 14 years ago.
“It was impossible to make the work then because the icons and emojis were not as diverse as they are now,” he explains. “I published Book from the Ground after those emojis had gone through a decade of rapid growth in diversity. At one point, they became abundant enough to meet my concept. It’s the same for this film.”
The painstaking method of production for Dragonfly Eyes also recalls the monumental effort that Xu put in to create the woodblock print Book from the Sky, an iconic work that he made by inventing an unreadable language and writing a whole book with it. Xu insists, however, that “the consumption of time and physical effort is not the problem. The most important component is the concept.”
For both works, Xu describes his way of expression as being “very serious in constructing a reality”. “But the fact is that the reality [I created] is detached from our [usual] thinking. The results have a touch of uncertainty and illusion to them. Dragonfly Eyes is ostensibly a classical love story, but is, in fact, less about telling its story than musing on various other issues of the contemporary world.”
Xu says he especially likes the comparison between his film and The Truman Show, the 1998 sci-fi drama in which Jim Carrey’s character is raised to live inside a simulated television show. “The vision of the world in that film has been proved by Dragonfly Eyes. The world today is but a huge movie set. Surveillance video is everywhere; it’s uploaded or even broadcast live at any minute.”
Does he plan to make more films in the future? “I have no way of telling – but I do like this way of working with contemporary civilisation,” he says. “I’ve often compared it to Didi [a ride-sharing service in China]. That company doesn’t own a single car, but every car in the city is working for it. It’s just like us: we don’t have a single cameraman, but all the surveillance cameras in the world – as long as they’re connected online and made public – are our cameramen.”
Dragonfly Eyes will be screened on April 6 at The Grand Cinema in West Kowloon as part of the Hong Kong International Film Festival.
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