YIDFF 2017 New Asian Currents
Self Portrait: Birth in 47 KM
An Interview with Zhang Mengqi (Director)

Cinematic Expression as Communication

Q: In a film that revolves around two women of different generations, a village grandmother and a young woman, why did you focus particularly on the experience of giving birth?

ZM: As part of the Fork Memory Project, which deals with memories of developments like the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, or the difficulties under the Great Chinese Famine, the numerous interviews I’ve held in the village have led me to be really conscious of how men and women tell these stories differently. Unlike men, who tend to refer to a big framework informed by politics, many of the women focused on their own experiences, such as how they underwent starvation, how they gave birth and raised their children. What’s more, it’s been seven years since I started conducting interviews in the village, but every time I went to the interviews, I got the sense that the village was losing its energy and heading towards extinction. But if you look closer, you’ll see that there is also a vitality amidst all of that. For example, the grandmother in the film is very old, but she lives independently. Also, there is new life being born in the village. Because of this, I made birth the subject of this film.

Q: Why did you structure the film with an earlier half focusing on the village women telling their stories, and a latter half that included expressive elements like performances or songs?

ZM: As part of my interactions with the villagers thus far, I’ve participated in various activities involving dance and performance. I think that in the past, I would have taken such activities as my film’s subject. That’s because I would have assumed that such activities would bring about even just a small change in the village. However, whenever I am in this dying village, I feel that my influence is quite negligible. Even so, I’ve realized that in continuing interviews, the act of communicating with the villagers itself is very important. I’ve come to think that the times when the women are dancing together, or when I am talking with the grandmother, are themselves significant results that I’ve achieved in the village.

Q: Why have you continued to deal with the theme of “self-portrait” in your films, including this one, your seventh?

ZM: I’ve continued to make films on the subject of self-portraits because I am bound up with the question of how I should be as a creator. I’ve been searching for a mode of expression that is entirely my own. The process by which the subject first begins with me, then unfolds out into my family, and then the village, is also the process by which I see the nature of the relationship between myself and the environment around me. Every year, I’ve made one film, though it might not be perfect. It’s a process of creation where each film becomes a piece of the record of my growth—a process completely unlike the method of taking a number of years to make a more polished film.

Q: I was really struck by the scene of you laying your hands over the grandmother’s hands. Why did you include such a scene?

ZM: The circumstances that led to filming that scene were quite simple. She was telling me about the misfortunes in her life, and it seemed that the more she spoke, the angrier she got. I thought that if speaking couldn’t calm her emotions, then it might be better not to speak at all. So I reached out to enfold her hands in mine, and it was like magic. Though she first responded with dismissal, she simultaneously gave off a sense of having wanted the same thing all along. That was the moment when I felt that my understanding of her—of the life she had lived until that moment, and what it meant to connect with her—was exceptionally rich. For me, it was a moment of magic, so much so that I could cry from recalling it even now.

(Compiled by Nakane Wakae)

Interviewers: Nakane Wakae, Sato Hiroaki / Interpreter: Akiyama Tamako / Translator: Joelle Tapas
Photography: Toba Rio / Video: Oki Kayako / 2017-10-09