2017 Locarno Golden Leopard winner Wang Bing talks to BDE about his new project, dealing with African migration to Guangzhou (China), whose realisation is temporarily interrupted by the global pandemic.
In his new documentary Chinese director Wang Bing sets out to tackle the problems faced by African migrants to China, both of integration and in providing financially for their families back home.
The film focusses ostensibly on two characters, both from Nigeria. Kingsley wants to start and register an import/export company in Guangzhou but has problems raising the cash to do so. Meanwhile we are introduced to the troubled Evelyn, mother of a six-year old child with another on the way. Shooting of the documentary was well under way in both China and Africa before the pandemic halted progress.
“Africans have been living in Guangzhou for a long time, and in quite large numbers, leading to a wide range of reactions among the local population, many of them negative,” says the director of his choice of topic. “China is a monolingual society and ethnically overwhelmingly East Asian. Differences of language and skin colour often cause suspicion, including of people from other parts of the country. That is why I am interested in filming the lives of Africans in China.”
He further expounds on the subject and modus operandi, at the same time illustrating the extent to which he interacts with his characters. “When I choose a story to tell, I don’t consider its uniqueness but rather whether I’m interested in the story itself, firstly, and secondly, in the people that I will be getting to know to be able to tell that story, whether I like them and they inspire me to make their story into a film.”
“For example, when I started filming Evelyn, a Nigerian woman in Guangzhou, she was pregnant and had nowhere to live because of the epidemic,” he continues. “She was staying with friends, but her life was hard. While filming her, I helped her out by getting her food and finding her a place to stay, and then with all the formalities when the baby was born.
“Before that I had met Kingsley, also a Nigerian, who at that time was getting by as a barber, but had no fixed abode and spent his nights sleeping in a Macdonald’s to save money. I went back with him to Lagos to visit his home and filmed him there with his wife and son and other members of his family. In this way I could get up close to film the reality of his everyday life, instead of generalities or abstractions.
“Personally, I’m not interested in presenting an analysis of the story in terms of the various participants’ ethnic and geographical origins. I want my film to accompany its characters, whatever their skin colour, ethnicity, or origin. The people I film are the starting point, not these other factors.”
The director explains his production/filming method. “Usually when I make a documentary film (apart from some specific topics that require interview format) I usually begin by following the characters and filming them for a while in their everyday lives, then finally use the film medium to tell the story. That’s my favourite method, and that’s how most of my films are made: filming at close range and using those recordings of real people’s everyday lives to gradually build up a film.”
Wang had just finished filming Kingsley in Lagos and had returned to Guangzhou in December 2019. The plan had been for Kingsley to follow in January 2020 and to continue shooting, but a rampant Covid-19 put a halt to proceedings. By April, with strong signs that the pandemic was under control in China, the director had met Evelyn and immediately decided to make her the second character in his film. He is currently waiting to hear if Kingsley will be granted permission to return to China so that he can finalise both parts of his film.
“We have just finishing shooting Evelyn’s part – and she has just given birth. I am also taking a break. One issue is the production budget, which originally foresaw completion of shooting in February. But with the interruption due to the epidemic, and the extension made necessary by the addition of a second character, our already tight budget is now exhausted and we have had to stop filming. We hope to find the new funding we need to finish shooting by around October this year, and then go into post-production to finally complete the film by next summer,” Wang comments.
The Chinese director won the Golden Leopard in 2017 for his Mrs Fang, about a sexagenarian woman residing in a rural southern Chinese village and suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. Like many of Wang’s films, the Locarno winner placed the poor and disadvantaged directly in the spotlight. How did its success affect or benefit Wang’s profile across the international industry, and engagement with international audiences?
“I was obviously delighted to receive the Golden Leopard award for Mrs Fang, and it has had a big impact on my work,” he answers. “As you know, a film-maker’s career is a long personal journey with many challenges. My films don’t make money, and our production company receives virtually no support from China. Funds have to be found by the director and the producer, and we can only afford small budgets. But I have to press on regardless, and keep filming. That’s the reality of film-making: it’s never smooth, there’s always pressure, but you have to find a way to make each film as good as it can possibly be.”