By Anita Malhotra
Renowned Chinese documentary filmmaker Zhou Bing has directed and produced over 100 documentaries, many of them on historical and cultural topics.
After completing a PhD in art history at Nankai University, he worked for CCTV (China Central Television) for 20 years. In 2014, he launched his own company, Sun Media International, which has offices in Hong Kong, Beijing and Los Angeles.
Zhou Bing’s award-winning productions include Dunhuang, Forbidden City, When the Louvre Meets the Forbidden City, The Bund, A Century with Cars, South of the Ocean, Millennium Bodhi Road and Snow Leopard.
They have been broadcast on CCTV as well as internationally on National Geographic, History, Sky TV, NDR Fernsehen, ARTE and elsewhere.
His most recent film, Hong Kong Moments, follows seven Hong Kong residents (a front-line protestor, police officer, volunteer paramedic, taxi driver, tea-house owner, and two candidates in local elections) during the protests that took place in Hong Kong in 2019.
The film is being shown via digital streaming at the 2020 Hot Docs Festival Online until June 24.
Anita Malhotra spoke with Zhou Bing, who was in Los Angeles, on May 29, 2020 via Zoom and with translation by Executive Producer Ricky Choy.
AM: Why did you decide to make a film about the Hong Kong protests?
ZB: I am a new immigrant to Hong Kong but I love Hong Kong, and have always wanted to make a documentary about Hong Kong. Three or four years ago I had the idea to make a documentary with people from different backgrounds to show their life in Hong Kong – their dreams and hopes.
So when this movement happened I decided to combine the original concept I had with this movement.
We have seven protagonists in the film and they are from different backgrounds, so we wanted to show all the different points of view and lives of these people to the audience. For me, it’s also a very important historic moment to record as a documentary director.
AM: Was it difficult to get the participation of the protagonists?
ZB: It was not easy to get their participation, especially the front-line protester, the first-aider [volunteer paramedic] and the police officer.
They were concerned that we might cause damage to them or the groups that they represent by shooting something that was not real and presenting something fake to an audience.
So we took two months to prepare everything, including the communications with all the protagonists to earn their trust. Also, for the police officer, we made an application through the PR department.
We spent time communicating with all the protagonists, telling them we wanted to make a film from a neutral standpoint. And that’s why they ultimately agreed to be filmed – because they wanted to speak in their own voices to the world.
Our producer, Ricky, also played an important role by organizing the entire crew. We had a large film crew, and many of them were local people from Hong Kong. They were very professional and very passionate about the film, and because of them it was easier for us to communicate with the protester.
AM: The film has no voice-over but is told through images and the voices of the protagonists. Why did you choose that approach?
ZB: I used this approach for two reasons. The first is I really admire the American director [Frederick] Wiseman, who always uses this “direct cinema” approach to tell a story. So from a creative perspective, I preferred to use this approach.
And the second reason is that because of the special nature of the subject of the film, it helped me stay more neutral to not have the voice-over of the director and to instead use the voices of the protagonists themselves.
AM: What was the biggest challenge in making this documentary?
ZB: The biggest challenge was to keep a neutral standpoint, because it is easy to lose yourself in the standpoint of the protagonists and their emotions.
So it was really important for me to remind myself that I was recording this movement with the perspective of history and that, in the future, when people see this film, they could feel the reality of when this movement happened.
AM: Where did the funding for the film come from?
ZB: Because I had the idea to make a documentary about Hong Kong a few years ago, I had already been raising funds for a few years. Some of the funding comes from my own company and some from my friends in Hong Kong and the U.S. Also, we have a co-producer in Germany and they raised some funds for us from ARTE.
AM: At the end of the film there’s a quotation from the Book of Genesis – “Let there be light.” Why did you use this quote?
ZB: I really love Hong Kong, and the first reason I used this quote is because I think Hong Kong right now is in the middle of a tragedy of conflict, and I hope that Hong Kong can emerge from this pain and go towards a better, brighter future.
The second reason is that it’s a kind of blessing for the audience – the people who are in the middle of this conflict. I hope that when people see the end of the film they can have hope that Hong Kong will not stay in this state of pain and conflict forever. That they will see light.
AM: Are you planning to do any more filming related to the protests?
ZB: We are continuing to observe all the protagonists, so we will see how their stories develop. And if we can find new funding, perhaps we will keep shooting some of the protagonists.
AM: How do you see your overall mission as a documentary filmmaker?
ZB: When I was younger, I was educated as a documentary director to use the technology of documentary to record real history and to document the thoughts and emotions of people.
That’s the mission of my generation of documentary directors – to record the reality of history so that future audiences can see the real moments that happened before. I have also made many films about history to discover what took place historically and to uncover the treasures in human history.
AM: Did the protagonists see the film yet?
ZB: They haven’t seen the film yet. After the film festivals, we are planning to do a screening in Hong Kong and we might invite them to come to see the film together.
AM: Are you working on any other projects?
ZB: I have some other projects because I am a director as well as a producer. I have a team in Hong Kong as well as one in Mainland China and one in the U.S. So I have a few different kinds of projects going on.
There’s one about modern dance and one about a Hong Kong culture scholar, and also I’m making a documentary about Asians in America being involved in politics and participating in elections. I’m also doing several series and some videos about traditional Chinese medicine.
Hong Kong Moments is available for streaming in Ontario at the 2020 Hot Docs Festival Online until June 24, 2020. For more information about Zhou Bing and his work, please visit Sun Media International.