Ke Dingding and Guo Jing are not your typical independent Chinese filmmakers. They don’t live in Beijing; their films aren't explicitly political; and they’re not distributed by the New York indie operation, dGenerate Films. Far from living beneath the radar, Ke and Guo have day jobs at Shanghai TV, and make their own independent docos on the side. Intelligent, personal and often profoundly sad, these documentaries are a reminder of the diversity of Chinese independent filmmaking: it’s not only the underground DIY crew who demonstrate courage and a critical eye.
At Shanghai TV, Ke and Guo have made programs about celebrity blogger, Han Han, and the much-admired choreographer, and transgender role-model, Jin Xing. In their own time, however, they make intimate films about everyday people in contemporary Shanghai, often focussing on the pressures Chinese society puts upon its children.
Their documentary, Circus School, is a particularly painful film about a school for children training for China’s highly competitive circus industry. First Period: The War Of Growing Up follows the lives of three students at one of Shanghai’s most prestigious primary schools, revealing similar cycles of stress, expectation and a fear-driven need to succeed. More complex still, When My Child is Born exposes – piece by careful piece – the conflicts and burdens of a young Shanghai couple. After the birth of their daughter, the couple long for their independence, yet find themselves more bound by obligations to their parents than ever.
These are just three of Ke and Guo’s more well-known films, and those that are available internationally. However if you can get a hand on anything they’ve made it will be rewarding. Keep your eyes peeled for their names in film festival catalogues and television schedules.
Below are excerpts from a brief interview I conducted with them by email recently.
CC: It must be difficult to make films outside the demands of your day jobs. Why do you do it?
KDD + GJ: The stories are all so important, we feel that they need to be told. And then in our own independent films we can experiment with all kinds of different ways to tell a story, or ways to shoot, and we enjoy this freedom. When you’re enjoying yourself, hard work doesn’t feel so hard.
CC: You seem to make a lot of films about children. Are the lives of Chinese children a particular concern of yours? Why?
KDD + GJ: We’re not only focussed on the issues of children or education – it’s almost a coincidence that we’ve made so many of these films – but we do think there are many problems in China’s education system, and this system has a huge influence on our children’s future, and on our society in general. Our work is trying to find the reasons behind this system, and why it operates in this way.
CC: What are the problems of the Chinese education system, in your view?
KDD + GJ: If you’re talking about children’s development, the system couldn’t really be much worse. It never considers the happiness or the general well-being of the child. In the end it’s just there to satisfy the desires and hopes of the adults. Within the Chinese education system, the child is simply a tool. The child is there to make others happy, rather than the system being there for the child. Very few Chinese adults will admit this, but this is most definitely what they do.
CC: Do you have children of your own? Does your relationship with them affect your filmmaking?
KDD + GJ: Dinging has a daughter who is 15 years old, and we made First Period for her. When she was a student in primary school she used to tell Dingding what happened to her at school every day and, after five years of these stories, Dingding was furious about China’s education system.
So we decided to make a film about these children, and luckily we were given permission to do so by the principal. We stayed in the classroom for more than one year, and when we showed our film to Dingding’s daughter she cried. She said it was exactly the same as her life at school.
CC: In particular, I found watching Circus School very traumatic, watching these kids being – literally – thrown about and their tiny bodies and spirits broken. One of the most painful things to me about that film though was the fact that the trainers had all been through circus school themselves, and were now suffering long-term injuries. And even now, years after their careers as acrobats, they were still being pressured by the school to perform and succeed through the children. It reminded me of the way the parents in First Period are spoken to by the school’s teachers. There is this feeling of a cycle of abuse: a system in which everybody is told how tough life is, has orders barked at them, is scolded for their lack of ambition – and then they do it to the next generation. Watching these films left me with the question of ‘why’. Why is it so important to be so ambitious, to be able to do a double back-flip from the trapeze, to have better marks than everybody else? Does life really have to be that tough in China, or is it more a state of mind?
KDD + GJ: The lives of Chinese people are just that: a cycle of pain and abuse. Perhaps this has been going on for thousands of years; perhaps this is part of our tradition. What surprises us though is that Chinese people never seem to ask themselves Why? Why do we do this? And so few people even try to change.
There was a writer who proposed a very good answer to this question: a Western writer actually who had been living in China for a very long time, and was speaking about the Chinese people he knew. He said that: Chinese people live as if they will never die, but when they die, it’s as if they never actually lived.
This is Chinese people to us, and our films are an attempt to make Chinese people see this for themselves.
CC: A lot of documentaries about China these days are about very big political issues, but your films are very personal. Private, even. Is this a conscious decision?
KDD+GJ: We are very interested in political topics and we talk about these things a lot. But for us political things are the background. We see the deeper reasons for China’s current situation in our cultural traditions and aspects of our humanity – and then contemporary politics are created by these. Also, as you know, it’s dangerous to talk about political issues directly in China.
CC: Where do you show your own films? Do you show at Chinese film festivals, foreign festivals?
KDD + GJ: Our films have been screened in many Chinese and international film festivals, and most of them have been broadcasted by Shanghai TV; The BBC; Japanese broadcaster, NHK; Denmark's DR; and Finland's YLE. English speakers can find Circus School on the ITVS website, look out for our films on TV, and go to the cinemas during international film festivals.