Chinese Documentary Explores Relationship Between Humans and Nature

This is the second in a series of interviews with Chinese filmmakers participating in the 2017 International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam. 

Standing on the deck of his boat in sub-zero temperatures, 42-year-old Tian Shan breaks the icy surface of the water with a shovel. He is the only fisherman who refused to give up sailing on the frozen sea in the winter.

The harsh life of a fisherman on the Bohai Sea in northeastern China is the subject of Ning Jiawei’s latest work, “Awaken.” The stark contrast between one tiny man and the formidable power of nature caught Ning’s attention while wandering through a small village near his hometown of Dalian, a harbor city in the northeastern province of Liaoning. To depict the complicated relationship between the fisherman and the sea, Ning spent three months with Tian, from the depths of winter to the arrival of spring.

Though he was born and raised in the coastal city of Dalian, the 29-year-old filmmaker had never felt any special connection to the water. But while living with the fisherman, Ning’s perception of the sea began to change. “I even started seeing it as something with emotions, just like a person: joy, anger, sorrow, and happiness,” Ning told Sixth Tone.

“Awaken” — Ning’s 2016 thesis project at southwestern China’s Sichuan Fine Arts Institute — is an experimental film with no character introduction, dialogue, narration, or major conflicts. Instead, it centers on one person and his mundane daily routine. Much of the story is told from the fisherman’s point of view, and many of the shots were taken by the fisherman himself with a GoPro. The sea also becomes a character in the story, and the ambient sound under and above the water are the lines it speaks. The hourlong film was short-listed in the Mid-Length Documentary category at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA), the world’s largest documentary film festival, which took place in November.

Sixth Tone talked to Ning about breaking the traditional storytelling mold and the relationship between humans and nature. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

A portrait of filmmaker Ning Jiawei, Aug. 7, 2015. Courtesy of Ning Jiawei

Sixth Tone: What themes did you want to explore in this film?

Ning Jiawei: Fishermen’s livelihoods. First of all, work in the fishing industry is seasonal, especially in the Bohai Sea area near Dalian. The fisherman [in the film] sails his boat on the sea, but he doesn’t catch many fish. This reflects the damages to the marine environment from human activities, including overfishing. Even as the temperature warms up, his catch numbers so few that he can’t even earn back the money he spent on fuel for the boat.

I asked him once why he chose to fish instead of looking for jobs in the city. He said he wanted freedom. Though fishing is exhausting, he still doesn’t want to be controlled by others. Freedom is what he values most.

Sixth Tone: Why did you choose this unique narrative format — with no dialogue or major conflicts — for the documentary?

Ning Jiawei: The storyline is so weak that one can say it has no conflicts. At the end, the fisherman struggles [to sail against the waves], which I think is a kind of conflict. From the perspective of an ordinary audience, this is not like the action-packed commercial films screened in theater chains. The pace is very slow, with some shots standing still for an extremely long time.

I have watched Chinese documentaries by award-winning directors, and I feel that traditional Chinese documentaries usually focus on political events. But recently, I have noticed that artistic and cinematographic styles are changing. When I edited this film, I thought about experimenting with unconventional narration. I tried to avoid verbal interactions and to tell the whole story without showing the protagonist’s face.

I don’t think being short-listed [at the IDFA] is an indication of success for my experiment. But I do think it’s time for a change [in the documentary genre]: We can’t just keep telling stories based on political events. It’s important to introduce odd characters and narratives, and I prefer to showcase them visually.

Sixth Tone: There are some similarities between Ernest Hemingway’s novel “The Old Man and the Sea” and your film “Awaken,” which also depicts a fisherman’s journey. What are your thoughts on this comparison?

Ning Jiawei: They [the fishermen in both works] are both struggling, but in different time periods. I don’t disagree with those who say [“Awaken”] is a modern version of “The Old Man and the Sea.”

The sea can be fierce sometimes, devouring human lives. I took many wide-angle and panoramic shots of the surroundings to show how tiny human beings are in nature.

The fisherman [in my film] must engage in a dialogue with nature. He worships at the nearby Temple of the Sea God before he sets sail and prays the sea will reward him.

At first, I thought the fisherman was quite bold and careless. But one of the shots shows him counting the links on a chain aboard the ship — so he is actually very meticulous and cares about every step of the preparation process before heading out to sea, because overlooking one small detail could cost him his life.

Sixth Tone: What are some of the challenges of making a documentary, particularly for a young filmmaker like yourself?

Ning Jiawei: Interacting with different people under different circumstances is what makes filming documentaries both enjoyable and difficult. It’s not like making a dramatic film, where everything is planned. Although we can follow a schedule as well, we are dependent on real-life circumstances most of the time.

Recommended ReadingQ&A With Fan Jian on Documentaries of DesireBy Jinghua Qian

A still frame from the documentary ‘Awaken.’ Courtesy of Ning Jiawei

Money is a great hurdle, too. I usually take on side jobs, such as making promotional videos, to support my documentaries. The reason I attend film festivals is to show more people quality films and solicit support for our creations.

I find that nowadays, Chinese audiences are paying more attention to arthouse films and documentaries. Even though experimental films and artworks have low commercial value, I still hope more investors, collectors, and businessmen will help support these artists in the future.

Editor: Doris Wang.


– This article originally appeared on Sixth Tone