interview | director of BEST DOCUMENTARY “COTTON” of the 51st Taiwan Golden Horse Film Festival
Within a large nation that produces and consumes cotton, we seem to be more concerned with the brand of the clothing we wear everyday rather than cotton as a raw material. Documentary filmmaker Zhou Hao therefore has turned the focus to the raw material of “Cotton”, filming a documentary that narrates the people behind the entire cotton production chain. The film, which on the surface is about people, but actually reflects the state of China’s economy, received the award for Best Documentary at the 51st Taiwan Golden Horse Film Festival in 2014.
The Chinese Visual Festival, which brings dramas, documentaries, and art films from Sinophone countries to audiences in the UK, has invited Zhou Hao to screen his film “Cotton”. One of our editors in London had the opportunity of interviewing Zhou Hao, who had his own expectations, understandings, and even regrets for his film that he shared.
To use Zhou Hao’s words, because of being a journalist, he took a strong interest in social topics. Yet, Zhou Hao, a documentary filmmaker who has a background in photojournalism, has an unusual way of filming that is both poetic and self-assured. There is no shaky camera work, nor an excess of editing that shows the film’s subjects communicating with each other. The first major work focusing on farm laborers Houjie (2002), the film Senior Year (2006) that discussed the college entrance exam, as well as winner of the 2014 Taiwan Golden Horse Film Festival Best Documentary, Cotton, are all films that use an anthropological perspective to examine social issues.
Making films is a way of life
Interview: Shanshan Chen / / / Editing: TS / / / Translation: Ross Donovan
NeochaEDGE: How did you first decide you wanted to film Cotton?
Zhou Hao: My own background is in journalism, and I am interested in social issues. Every year there are tens of thousands of farm laborers [who travel to Xinjiang to pick cotton], mostly coming from Sichuan, Gansu, and Yunnan. Since this is a social phenomenon, many media outlets have followed it. In the early stages of filming, Chinese media sources would often have reports like these. NHK (Japanese Broadcasting Corporation) as well as several documentary filmmakers had made films on the topic. But these films and reports were limited to just the cotton-picking process, whereas I wanted to cover the story from beginning to end.
NeochaEDGE: Cotton followed several groups of people, from the laborers who planted the cotton to the women laborers in the cotton mills and the denim factory workers, and from the sellers to the employers. How were you able to come into contact with these groups?
Zhou Hao: The filming happened on and off over a nine-year period. Just filming the cotton picking took two years. Like in the case of this woman who would pick cotton, the first year you would take a trip to Xinjiang to find the people you wanted to film. In the first year you can only investigate, and then in the second year you can follow her. After filming for so long, there were also those who refused to let me film them. If someone refuses you, you must find the next person. Being refused by people and then having to find others can really delay the time. Having filmed two or three people I had found, the film could be edited down to a level that audiences could enjoy.
NeochaEDGE: Most of the characters in the film were nameless, and the sense of geography was hazy. Was this intentional, or a kind of symbolism on your part?
Zhou Hao: One could say that, yes. Not necessarily symbolism, but maybe just a kind of diluting. I didn’t intentionally replace their names; these are the stories of ordinary people, ordinary to the point where their names will not be remembered. You mentioned intention, and there was intention in this decision, because the names were not included.
Filming early on, someone told me that I should do a map, in order to provide a better depiction of the production chain. But when you look at the film, the production chain is not covered so comprehensively. For example, it did not include the component of cotton weaving. This film uses the theme of “cotton” to narrate the stories of everyday Chinese people, as well as what China’s production industry means to these people, so less attention was paid to the production chain itself.
After seeing the opening scene of the film, everyone thought I would proceed to investigate who was making off with all the profits. Why would I not look into who the major beneficiaries were? Pursuing these questions would dilute the film. Even if I found the person who was benefiting the most, it doesn’t mean I would find the heart of the problem.
You may feel that the person planting the cotton is under great hardship, but he will also drive a hard bargain when hiring laborers, he will underpay the laborers, and he will argue with those picking the cotton. They are simply different points on the production line. I cannot simplify this issue and attribute this conflict to the capitalists. I think that might be unfair to the capitalists as well.
NeochaEDGE: Following the release of the film, and especially after the film won the Golden Horse award, were there any effects on the cotton industry or the film’s subjects?
Zhou Hao: The impact was very small. Every one of us wishes to change the world, but to use this as a starting point is very painful. This is just a simple film, it is just a film created around the topic of cotton. As for the impact it has on society, I have no way of controlling that.
Because of the long span of filming, the family of cotton planters early on in Xinjiang, the women laborers who pick cotton, those in the cotton mills, they may not be able to see the whole film. But after one part was finished, you could then edit it and send it to them (the film’s subjects). After such a long time, many phone numbers were lost. Once I received the Golden Horse award, the first person to contact me was the head of the denim jeans factory. He still had my contact information, and I still had his WeChat in my phone contacts.
NeochaEDGE: What were the biggest difficulties and regrets with the length of the filming?
Zhou Hao: This was a film completed by the efforts of one individual. Finding people to film was one obstacle. Once the filming process was mostly complete, the editing work also presented difficulties for me. You have to think of how to harness the material, how to present an intriguing story to an audience in 90 minutes. This film was produced in its final stages in France, and the film’s editors were French. They were a huge help to me.
I feel quite a bit of regret with this film. Even though I spent eight, nine years on it, I still can’t say I’m proud. The production process seemed as if to happen within a single year, like it didn’t reflect the actual span. Maybe this is another film. I had no plans of taking it deeper, and I then moved on to other films.
NeochaEDGE: Going forward, do you have any hopes or expectations for Cotton?
Zhou Hao: I have no expectations for the sales and distribution of the film, nor do I pay those things much attention. If I were to put my energy all on the superficial, it would be a reversing of priorities. Once I finish one film, I start on the next. My next film is about children who are left at home, and focuses on children’s development. This is a generation of children with parents who are working away from the home. After a period of time I may look into the stories of the children as they get older. In one year I can film three or four times, keeping track of the lives of the film’s subjects, and that’s enough. At the same time I am able to work on other films. I may spend three years, maybe five, on this film—I don’t have much of a plan. I also have some other films that I am thinking about right now. Even with the eight years of filming Cotton, I have also had five or six other films that have come out.
I identify myself as an author, and I don’t worry about the rest. I am also not too concerned with film festivals. For me, making films is a way of life.
（Chinese Visual Festival brings dramas, documentaries, and art films from Sinophone countries to audiences in the UK.）
BEST DOCUMENTARY “COTTON” of the 51st Taiwan Golden Horse Film Festival Part 1///
BEST DOCUMENTARY “COTTON” of the 51st Taiwan Golden Horse Film Festival Part 2///