For many in contemporary China, the past is another country – and a hazy, dimly lit one at that. It’s not uncommon to meet young people in China who can recite every dynasty in the nation’s 5,000 year history, yet can barely muster more than a few lines about the Maoist era of the 1950s and 60s. Independent documentarian Hu Jie was no different – by his own admission he knew little about China’s recent past when he stumbled upon the story of the dissident Lin Zhao, executed in 1968 for her outspoken criticism of Mao’s totalitarian ways. As Hu travelled the length and breadth of China looking for those who knew Lin, he felt like he had “found the door of history, opened it and walked in.” The stories he uncovered have been fuelling his filmmaking ever since.
In August two of Hu Jie’s best-known works, Searching for Lin Zhao’s Soul (2004) and Though I Am Gone (2006) will screen at the Melbourne International Film Festival, as part of the program “Street Level Visions: Chinese Independent Docos”. This is a rare chance for Australian audiences to see some of the most challenging films coming out of contemporary China.
Searching for Lin Zhao’s Soul uses interviews with many of Lin’s friends and associates to trace the young writer’s journey from an ardent supporter of Mao’s revolution to an impassioned dissident imprisoned in Shanghai. When she was denied writing materials in jail, Lin composed thousands of words of essays and poems using her own blood. Though I Am Gone tells the story of Bian Zhongyun, the deputy headmistress of a prominent Beijing girl’s school attended by many daughters of the party elite, who was beaten to death by her own student in the opening weeks of the Cultural Revolution in August 1966. Incredibly, Bian’s husband secretly photographed the events leading up to her death and his wife’s battered corpse – images he reveals to Hu Jie’s lens in the course of recounting his wife’s story.
In March 2010 I was privileged to interview Hu Jie via phone at his home in Nanjing for an article in RealTime. It’s an indication of the enduring sensitivity of China’s Maoist past that our conversation was interrupted by police monitoring Hu’s calls. Nevertheless, he persisted with the interview, and I’d like to thank him for taking the time and associated risks to speak to me.
To celebrate the screening of Hu Jie’s films in Melbourne this August, ArtSpace China presents the full 2010 interview for the first time. Thanks to my translator during the interview, who has asked to remain anonymous.