For more than two and a half decades, the films of Jia Zhangke have given the world a poetic and deeply personal account of the shifting social plains of modern China. From early masterworks The World (2004) and Still Life (2006), to the baroque genre leanings of A Touch of Sin (2013) and–more recently–the far-reaching epics of Mountains May Depart (2015) and Ash is Purest White (2018), his work has organically documented that sea change without ever zooming out too much from the human lives within.

Jia makes a rare return to documentary filmmaking, his first in ten years, with Swimming Out Till The Sea Turns Blue, a movie that sees the director looking back once again. It is an account of the urbanization of his native Chanxi province, although this time told through the memories of four authors (three living and one dead). Swimming Out recently premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival where Jia managed to appear in-person–quite an incredible feat, given everything going on in the world.

The Film Stage: It must have been difficult for you to be here. Can you talk about it?

Jia Zhangke: I do think that personally, in terms of my emotions, it’s very mixed. On the one hand we can actually choose not to come. It’s a very easy decision because of the difficulty and challenges we are facing but at the same time I also felt that the Berlin Film Festival already announced that the film would be shown and I really wanted to keep my promise. And that’s the reason why I have overcome all the challenges in trying to make my way here. And I do think that right now it’s a difficult time, not only for Chinese people in general but for the Chinese film industry. It’s one of the biggest crises we have experienced because a lot of cineplexes, they cannot run the operations for probably another six months. And that would be very detrimental and very disastrous for these cineplexes in China. And on the production side of it also, a lot of film productions have ceased their operations. So whether or not these films can be made, and when, it’s very questionable. So I do think that for me to be here, it’s to bring some light during this particularly dark time. To show the world that we can stand up, we can somehow overcome this.

The movie speaks about writers that went back to their homeland to find inspiration. Did you feel the same as a director, Is it important to go back to your origins?

I do think that it’s very important. When I first started making fictional films, the reason why I shot my films in my home province, it’s because it’s very familiar to me. And also the dialect, the linguistic side of it, it’s very important because that dictates how I think and how I process information.

In terms of this particular documentary film, I have witnessed a dramatic urbanization happening right now in China, that a lot of people have migrated to find work. They have migrated from rural towns to urban cities to find work, to find opportunities. And I do think that the younger generation, especially, that’s all they know: the urban society, the urban culture, urban communities. Those are all the things they know. They have very little understanding of what it’s like to have a rural history, rural culture, communities. But when you want to understand China, you cannot not look at rural culture because that’s where everything started.

So in order for us to understand what it’s like to have poverty, what it’s like to have hunger in the past, temporally speaking you need to look back into history, into memories. So temporally we need to somehow find a different orientation, a different perspective. Also spatially, in terms of locality, we need to travel back to the rural areas. That’s where Chinese history started, from these rural towns, and that’s the reason why I think it’s very important to go back to Chanxi and go back to the past. It is to combine these temporal and spatial angles to look at what the reality of China is.

After the release of Touch of Sin you said you wanted to look into the “deeper emotions” that have arisen from these changes in Chinese society. How much is this a continuation of that process?

Yes, indeed. It is a continuation of this exploration of what changes in terms of internal, psychological, spiritual. That’s the reason why I selected these authors as my subjects, not because I somehow want to use this particular film to examine or explore or to talk about their literary works. For me, the reason why I wanted to select them as my subjects is because these are keen observers of society. They have been very brave, using their own expressions through written words to really become the messengers of the time and the messengers of their community. The messengers of their era.

So I see them as a way of capturing that particular reality because they are not only keen observers, they are very good storytellers. How they talk about what happened to them is what drew me to somehow make a film about this.  So instead of capturing this idea, I wanted to capture the aural histories through the way they express themselves aurally rather than through written words. I wanted to see how they, as authors, tell their story–in their own words–and then I captured it almost like a symposium on film.

There’s this melancholic name and very serious subject matter, and yet it’s also quite a funny film at times–the writer Yu Hua especially. Did you intend it to be?

That’s just typical Yu Hua [laughs]. It’s exactly how he tells stories, with that satirical sense, a lot like dark humor. For Yu Hua as an author, he was actually born ten years after Jia Pingwa, the second author, so at the time for him to write about certain things in this sense of humor was a way of being subversive. That’s a way to showcase how rebellious he is because it is almost the expression of that particular generation, the use of self-effacing humor to really talk about their personal life and talk about society. And also to create that kind of conflict or to use humor as a way to address those issues because sometimes things are so bad that you don’t know how else to talk about it.

How did you choose the authors? Did you know their stories before making the film?

The four authors, of course, one already deceased and three living, of these four people I know only Yu Hua. The rest I didn’t know before the project. It’s not until we’ve done our research and gathered information. I then reached out to Jia Pingwa and Liang Hong. From what we researched, we probably only know one-tenth of what they actually talk about in front of the camera. We only know the very basic information. So we knew during the research process that Jia Pingwa, as an author, he suffered a lot during the cultural revolution because of his family origin, because of his father. But we didn’t know about all the details, how things happened, why his father was somehow labeled in one of the five black categories.

How did you feel about going back to documentary filmmaking after so long?

Unlike fictional films, documentary takes a lot of research in the beginning to decide what subject matters that we want to capture or interview. So that is something that is painstaking and takes a lot of time to do. But the enjoyable part of making documentary films is that there are so many unknowns. A lot of things just happen spontaneously, a lot of new discoveries along the way. So I really see this as an enjoyable journey of discoveries.

Another level of enjoyment comes from the subject–and when I say subjects I don’t mean just those authors I’m trying to showcase with the interviews, the subjects could be those ordinary people in public spaces, in the train stations or just in the streets. These are images of ordinary people in public spaces that are also witnesses of what happened at the time. These are exactly the people these writers write about in their stories so I think they are just as important. And to film them will provide me even more freedom because I can really spontaneously just capture how these people carry themselves in public–how these people look in public.

Did taking the historical perspective create extra challenges? The history of China since 1949 is quite a contested narrative. Were there any restrictions or did you feel there where any areas where you had to restrict yourself?

I do think that I’m trying to be as objective as possible with my attitude when I make these films because if you think about, in terms of the stories and what happened after 1949, it is something people can talk about and we do discuss in our daily lives. But at the same time this film is not a [way] for me to somehow use these narratives as a social critique. I think that it’s important to record memory in its totality, without any judgment. And whether or not, in the past, this collectivism experiment brought progress to our society or disasters, that is not something I’m trying to make a judgement on. What I want to do is to somehow, honestly and objectively and in its entirety, capture what happened through personal accounts, through eye-witness accounts. To record this type of testimony so that we can, for the future generation and for now, look back on what had happened in order for us to appreciate and to understand the current changes that we’re experiencing right now.

In terms of the boundaries, for them to express themselves, to talk about this so honestly, so intimately, about very sensitive topics and issues–these are first-hand account witnesses. So even for people in charge of the censorship, they cannot deny how true or how real or how authentic these expressions are. So I’m almost using this as a way to push the boundary of how much you can talk about. And it’s unique in documentary films because these are the people talking about what happened to them. They are the witness, and they’re offering testimony, so they are therefore undeniable.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. The questions and Jia Zhangke’s answers were translated via an interpreter.

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