What does it look like to have unparalleled access to a world that operates full-time in discretion? Ask Zhao Qi, the producer of The Chinese Mayor, this year’s winner of just that — Sundance’s Special Jury Award for Unparalleled Access. With the rare opportunity that producing The Chinese Mayor held, we spoke with Zhao Qi about filming Chinese bureaucracy, generational differences, and misrepresentation in Western media.
Rooftop Films: What drew you to the story of Mayor Geng and Datong, in particular?
Zhao Qi: I have always wanted to make a film about the Chinese political system and the workings of its government, both of which remain mysterious to Western world. When I happened to learn of Mayor Geng, I believed that his story would make a good documentary — something about Chinese politics could be reflected through this man’s intriguing career, as well as through his journey to change a city. On top of that, Mayor Geng is more open than usual for Chinese political officials, which was important for creating an honest portrait of his character.
In what ways do you think the Chinese government, on both local and national levels, is most misrepresented in contemporary Western media?
Perhaps the role of media in the West is to scrutinize the deeds of the government in the minutest detail, as well as to investigate anything that isn’t transparent. The Chinese run a different political system; it’s hard for the press [in the West] to paint a picture of China with a moderate and neutral attitude. China is too large, too populated and too complicated a country for conclusions to be drawn from one-sided evidence. We hope our film complicates any understanding of the [political situation in China], to reflect how complex that situation really is. You can’t simply state whether it’s good or bad — which, in most cases, is how Western media is inclined to make the situation.
What is the Chinese documentary filmmaking community like?
The Chinese documentary filmmaking community is very loose, with no associations and no support system. There are people trying to organize activities and build platforms on which to show the films, but for various reasons, it is hard to sustain. In general, documentary filmmakers in China are all working on their own, with almost no financial support, no market information and no distribution channels.
At decisive moments, the camera focuses on Mao Zedong. How do you process the stories of people you met, especially in terms of people from different generations?
We tried to remain true to the attitudes and points of view of people in the film to be inclusive of different opinions, as well as create a comprehensive picture of the situation that Mayor Geng was facing, and attempting to fix. It’s interesting to observe the people from different generations in the film, as older people tend to dislike Mayor Geng’s plan, and younger ones are more in favor of it.
Did the story of Mayor Geng, as told in The Chinese Mayor, reveal itself in the process of filming? Did new narratives unfold while editing?
In the beginning, we had a rough idea of the direction we were going in, but we never anticipated the story and narratives of the film until Mayor Geng moved away from his post. We intended to shoot as much as possible so that we would have enough material to construct a story with confronting and conflicting perspectives. We worked with different narratives during editing. I am glad the one we have now works, to some extent.
**Meet Zhao Qi on the roof of the Old American Can Factory this Saturday (7/18) after the screening of The Chinese Mayor.**