Q&A With Fan Jian on Documentaries of Desire

Award-winning documentary filmmaker delves into gender and poetics.

Photo: Gong Yuanhua for Sixth Tone

Photo: Gong Yuanhua for Sixth Tone

“Really, it’s the same whether I’m doing you or getting done by you, it’s only/ the force of flesh colliding,” begins Yu Xiuhua’s most famous poem, “Crossing Half of China to Sleep With You.”

Yu is a farmer and a poet who has cerebral palsy, and the subject of veteran filmmaker Fan Jian’s latest documentary, Still Tomorrow — or “The Staggering, Shaky World,” as it is directly translated from Chinese. Last month, the film won the Special Jury Award for Feature-Length Documentary at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA), the world’s biggest festival for the genre.

Fan follows 40-year-old Yu as her increasing fame takes her from the quiet, windswept fields of her home in central China’s Hubei province to book signings, university lectures, national television — and a long-awaited divorce.

It is thorny enough for any woman to speak frankly about sex in a public forum, unless she frames it in terms of marriage and family. For Yu to openly voice her desire for romance and pleasure, against the expectation that she should be satisfied with a marriage that provides materially, is especially bold. Fan documents how Yu’s confidence in her desires grows alongside her fame, and how she becomes more resolute in her decision to leave her loveless marriage, despite her family’s objections.

Fan’s previous films have explored farmers’ struggles to keep their land in the face of forced relocation and romance between young migrant workers laboring in factories in the Pearl River Delta. Still Tomorrow, too, touches on several tensions at the center of a changing China: between individual desire and social expectation, between urban and rural life, between women and men.

What do you think Yu’s poetry and fame say about changing attitudes to sex and relationships in China now?

Fan Jian: My feeling is that Yu Xiuhua doesn’t represent anyone other than herself, any other women in China. Her courage and candor are absolutely her own. I think her character is such a product of her specific circumstances: When she was just 19, she was married off by her parents, so she never got the love she wanted as a young woman, and she hasn’t had a sex life with her husband for many years. Her poetry is both an expression of that, perhaps, and a sort of release.

More than half of her poems are love poems. The parts of her work that people consider perhaps a little pornographic — “Crossing Half of China to Sleep With You,” for example — are an ordinary part of human desire; she is just more direct than others. She’s an Aries. I tell her, “You Aries, you’re too impulsive, you have to say everything,” and she tells me, “I can’t control it, and I don’t feel the need to.”

A lot of women are constrained by the pressures of their everyday lives, without the space to pursue their emotional or spiritual needs, or to express their desires. For a woman — and a rural disabled woman at that — to be able to write these very direct poems, I think it amazes city women that she’s been able to give voice to what for them has been unspeakable.

You can see this conflict between women and men. Yu’s husband talks about how she asked him to pay if he wanted to have sex with her, and he responds with an attitude that he’s entitled to it as her husband. He doesn’t understand that she’s not literally asking for money, but rather expressing her unhappiness. In the film, her husband’s friend says, “Women are pigs, you have to spoil them.” In Chinese we talk about zhinanai [“straight male cancer”] when men use a patriarchal and male supremacist perspective to understand women. There is this gap in understanding.

What was it in particular that drew you to Yu Xiuhua’s story?

Fan Jian: The biggest part of the film is on love and marriage, women, gender, and family. That’s the core of the film, the elements that touched me the most and provided the richest stories. Everything else is background. When I met Yu Xiuhua, I never thought of her as someone with cerebral palsy, as a disabled person. I was interested in her interior world, her emotions and desires, how she produced her poetry.

In China today, I think the life of the soul has been submerged, suppressed by material demands. Poetry is getting farther and farther away from us. Before Yu Xiuhua became famous, I was already interested in making a film about amateur poets whose everyday lives had nothing to do with their poetry, but rather provided a contrast. But I never found anyone who fit the bill. In January 2015, [video-streaming site] Youku discovered Yu Xiuhua just as she was becoming famous and commissioned me to film a documentary about her. Her work touched me immediately. She was exactly the kind of poet I had been looking for.

In the past, your films have dealt more directly with social issues facing a particular demographic for example, migrant farmers or young factory workers. But in this case, it seems you feel Yu’s story is quite exceptional. Why were you interested in making a more character-driven film?

Fan Jian: In the last few years, my creative direction has shifted somewhat. I’m less interested in big social issues now and more interested in people’s psychology. That’s a transformation or a development in how I understand the art of documentary.

Even in my past films, I was always interested in people’s personal lives, in delving into their individuality. In “My Land,” a big part was looking at the relationships and emotions in [migrant farmer couple] Chen Jun and Xiao Feng’s family. There was little that directly addressed social problems. I left that for audiences to reflect on themselves, merely creating a space in which they could consider those issues.

I want to eliminate the topic-ness, eliminate the Chinese-ness, because when a Chinese documentary appears on the international stage, people see it as an analysis of contemporary China and its issues. That’s not really what I want to do as a creator.

Sixth Tone: How does the international response to your work compare to that of Chinese viewers?

Fan Jian: [Still Tomorrow] hasn’t publicly screened in China yet. It’s only started screening on the international festival circuit, though of course there are a few Chinese viewers who attend these events.

For foreign audiences, they’re more concerned with the questions of gender, women’s experiences, and family, which I’m happy with because that’s what I set out to highlight.

My Land had very different responses around the world. Western audiences would view it more in terms of social issues in China, with some sense of curiosity, because they don’t share these experiences of rapid, mass urbanization and what comes along with them. They have a lot of questions: Why do so many people want to move to the city? Why is there this hukou system of household registration? Why do these problems exist? Primarily, they view the film as a lens for understanding China, while Chinese audiences are more interested in the film’s characters.

How are documentary films from China received internationally?

Fan Jian: First, it’s really only independent documentary films that international audiences are interested in. People aren’t interested in hearing the official perspective, so documentaries produced by television stations, for instance, won’t get accepted to international festivals.

I’ll just talk about IDFA because it’s the largest and most important festival for documentary films. The first time I went, 10 years ago, we were really just observers. Slowly, Chinese films began entering the competition stream. By last year, there were seven Chinese films in contention for awards. This year, there were five Chinese films, and two won major prizes [Still Tomorrow, and Wang Jiuliang’s Plastic China, which took the Special Jury Award for First Appearance]. They did well at the box office, too; audiences were very enthusiastic.

Chinese filmmakers have also participated in the festival industry forum, which meant that we’d find opportunities for international collaborations, co-productions, or investment. That was very instructive for Chinese documentary filmmakers, and for helping the industry here to grow and mature.

Sixth Tone: Has the growth of international interest impacted the direction of domestic film and media production?

Fan Jian: Domestic interest in documentary films is still quite low. It’s considered quite decent just to break even after ticket sales, and documentaries won’t get many screenings. The public tends to think documentaries aren’t as watchable as narrative fiction films or Hollywood films. We have to work hard as documentary filmmakers to change that perception and to develop a taste for documentary among Chinese audiences.

The other issue is that we need to pass censors to get shown in cinemas. I don’t think about censorship when I’m making a film because there are so many places in the world a film can screen. But if there’s a chance it can pass, as with Still Tomorrow, then I’ll go for it.

 A version of this article originally appeared on Sixth Tone. With contributions from Fu Danni.