Like criss-crossing rail lines denoting movement both forwards and backwards, so the documentary Jia Zhangke: A Guy From Fenyang, directed by Walter Salles, focuses on Jia and his memories both personal and filmic. The constant interweaving of them results in what drew Salles’ attention to Jia in the first place back in the early 2000s: the parallel development of Jia’s career — and, by extension, a specific trajectory within modern mainland Chinese cinema — and the country’s immense socioeconomic transformations since the late 1970s.
Despite its unremarkable visual form, the documentary is nevertheless remarkable for its themes and structure. Thematically, the film’s emotional and historiographic power lies in the constant commingling, if not conflict, of the past and present, autobiography and national history, individual and collective experiences, centered on Jia. Though most well-known for being behind the camera, Jia is not only comfortable in front of the camera but also quite frank about speaking of incredibly personal memories and subjects (particularly those concerning his late father), which simultaneously touch upon specific historical periods. Such direct honesty, in turn, is a testament to Salles’ openness to the project on Jia and the sincerity of his intention, regardless of the culturo-linguistic divide that separates the two filmmakers.
What Jia and Salles do share on a level of filmmaking that is present in the documentary are the aspects of movement and journey and of allowing spaces/places to tell their own hi/stories, as it were, through them. Frequently filming Jia from behind, Salles accompanies him to the commercial streets of Fenyang, remarking on the changes with his friend Wang Hongwei; to courtyard #5 in Fenyang, which used to be a prison before his family moved there (and which he had not revisited in twenty-nine years); to other locations that found their way into his films and still remain, however much time has shifted their appearance. Memories and their cinematisation is thus a strong element for Jia, to a point that one could call his films autobiographies to a certain extent, and the documentary itself. As Jia states at one point regarding a scene in Unknown Pleasures, ‘this shot carries a memory within it,’ and more generally, ‘There are very personal emotions in my films.’ Faced with the possibility (or inevitability) of the courtyards, walls, and/or houses of his hometown being torn down in the years to come, which would leave him with no more physical traces of his childhood memories, Jia counters, ‘What I can do is record everything in my films.’ In a sense, Salles makes the documentary a way to continue and honour this promise.
To help fulfill this promise, structurally, the film is an informal, friendly conversation, not between Jia and Salles per se but between interviews primarily with Jia (either by himself or with others) and clips from his films, from his debut feature Xiao Wu (1998) to A Touch of Sin (2013, his most recently completed film at the time of the documentary’s filming). Significantly, Salles never appears on-screen to impose a directorial hand in the conversation; instead, the camera is devoted exclusively to Jia as a space in which to share his memories and perspectives.
Also part of this promise is Jia sharing the space of the film with his family members, friends, and film colleagues — which significantly reflects his approach to filmmaking, the stories he tells, and the people with whom he collaborates — such as his friend and Beijing Film Academy classmate Wang, his cousin Sanming, and his frequent collaborator/muse Zhao Tao (though filmed separately and given her own distinct interview space). They reciprocate by speaking openly about their own memories and perspectives related to Jia. Such reciprocity sometimes gives way to sweet, humourous anecdotes that ground the film’s portrait of Jia as a person over and above whatever his profession is, such as his mother recounting how as a child Jia fetched water from a wall since there was no running water (‘I always say he stopped growing because he carried too much’); Jia and a childhood friend who also starred in Xiao Wu singing the theme song of Awara (1951) as a part of their shared cinephilia; and former neighbours calling him by his childhood nickname of ‘Lailai’ (Badbad). Such reciprocity also further highlights the individual and collective constantly informing each other in the documentary and Jia’s work.
Salles thus manages to (subtly) express directorial/editorial choices that help to shape the overall film’s movement and express his own take on Jia’s significance as a filmmaker. Particularly notable is the way he stages a dialogue between Jia, historical periods, and his films, through the choice of clips that bookend or ‘interrupt’ an interview.
Jia Zhangke: A Guy From Fenyang ultimately positions Jia as perhaps the most important contemporary mainland Chinese filmmaking figure through whom one can understand the local, psychological changes that stem from or coincide with the physical changes that the country has been experiencing on the one hand and the internationally inflected audiovisual representation of these changes on the other hand — and whose representations challenge official, mainstream media discourse. And the film makes it difficult to think otherwise.
Jia Zhangke: A Guy From Fenyang begins a week-long theatrical run in New York City on 27 May.