Journalist Ian Johnson interviews for the New York Review of Book one of the famous Chinese documentary filmmakers, Hu Jie, whose films have never been shown in China itself, covering subjects like Mao, the Cultural Revolution and the Great Famine. A life of dealing with tough issues.
So your education only restarted around middle school?
Yes, but we didn’t really learn anything. People of my generation, we basically didn’t learn anything at school. On the other hand, I learned to struggle. When I was young I had to raise chickens, geese, sheep—even though we were in the city. It was the only way to get a bit of money. I learned to take care of myself. Boys fought a lot and I often ended up with a bloody nose and a swollen face.
How did you become interested in film and art? I suppose you had little exposure to it, growing up amid such turmoil.
I went to the People’s Liberation Army Arts College in Beijing from 1989 to 1991. It had a huge impact on me because I got to know Beijing’s art scene and how art can express social problems. It was just after June 4 and society was gloomy. No one spoke too openly. But by meeting these artists, I got to exchange ideas, and learn new things.
After you left the PLA in 1992, you began to wander around China quite a bit. You lived in the Old Summer Palace and began to film.
Not too many people were making documentary films then. In fact, almost no one. Back then, you couldn’t even find a book on how to make documentary films. I felt that the problems in society were so serious, but the media was just broadcasting propaganda. There was such a gap. I thought then: Why don’t those journalists tell the truth? Then I thought: Why don’t you try yourself, try to say something true? A friend who had returned from Japan had a Super 8 camera and I bought it. So I left with a camera and traveled. I went to Qinghai. I went to mines. I made a lot of films. Everything was at the grassroots. I stayed with people so poor they had nothing.
Then you briefly worked for Xinhua, the state news agency.
It was an interesting job. I was hired to make short documentary films. You could film corrupt officials. They would have just been arrested and you could go to the prison and interview them. They’d open their hearts to you, crying and weeping. Once I was sent to a village to interview a village chief. The village party secretary was beaten up by thugs and told to follow their orders. You saw things like that. But then I think they knew I was filming other things on my own, and I was asked to leave.
That was because of the Lin Zhao film?
I never let anyone know that I was filming the story. Working at Xinhua, I knew how the government likes to keep secrets, and doesn’t want ordinary people to know about this sort of thing. But I felt it was too important. In China at that time, no one dared say anything, but one person did. Everyone was scared of death but one person wasn’t scared to die. While I was making the Lin Zhao film, and interviewing people, I felt that the history I had learned, that I didn’t know it.
Are you looking for more experts in cultural change in China? Do check out this list.