Chinese filmmaker Zhao Qi and produer of the 2010 Grandy Jury Prize: Documentary-nominated “Last Train Home,” made his directorial debut with “Fallen City” in the World Cinema Documentary Competition. The film documents the recovery of three survivors of the devestating 2008 earthquare in Beichuan, China over the course of three years as the government works to rebuild the ruins.
What It’s About: The remaking of earthquake-destroyed Beichuan city unfolds as a tale of human choice and purpose in 21st Century China. Mr. Peng lost his 11-yr old daughter, teenager Hong Shihao, his father, and Ms. Li lost almost her entire family to the Sichuan earthquake that took 90,000 lives. But the Chinese construction miracle rebuilt a new city in just three years and what began as a journey to restore hope gets entangled with dreams of an upgrade life, inter-generational strife and corruption.
And So It’s Really About: This film is about the choices we make in life. Mr Peng, Hong and Ms Li all made a character-revealing choice three years after the earthquake – and they surprised us. As survivors of China’s worst disaster in decades, they lacked post-trauma support from society but they also became agents of their own condition. In China today, we are more well-off but not necessarily happier. Many grumble about life and our many unfulfilled entitlements. We make decisions, sometimes seemingly forced upon us, sometimes subconsciously. But we are seldom conscious of that fundamental freedom we have to choose our lives, to live purposefully, in a multi-valued society. We often fail ourselves as masters of our own fate.
What’s been your path to filmmaking? I was brought up in a family of journalists. My grandfather was a reporter in the 1930s. He was the first Chinese journalist to cover the 1942 great famine in Henan, for which he was imprisoned. My father was one of the first Chinese science TV journalists and produced over 50 documentaries. My father believed that language would help me step into the world so I began to study English at the age of 12. I wrote my first English letter to NASA, sending my condolences for the crash of the HMS Challenger space aircraft in 1986. I developed an interest in filming from a young age having followed my father on his shooting trips. In 1996, upon graduation, I joined China Central Television. Six years later I went to the UK to study documentary-making and produced Last Train Home and China Heavy Weight when I returned to China. Fallen City is my first film as a director.
What was your single biggest challenge in bringing this to the screen: Life in the aftermath of the earthquake was nothing but tears for the survivors. In the first two years, I amassed hours and hours of similar footage. I didn’t have a story. Then in the third year, things started to happen. But in a way I could never have anticipated. So I had to re-clue all the scenes to build up a narrative. My views about the incidents and characters also changed, from pure sympathy to a more complex inquiry. In many ways, the narrative was only revealed to me in the last minute.
Are there more films in your future? I have two original scripts I am working on: Romantica, a social comedy set inside a waxing salon, and Heidelberg, about a Philosophy Student trying to free himself from University and embrace the real world . I am also working on a documentary about my grandfather, a jewish immigrant in Chile who died in jail in the 50s.
What will you expect of Sundance audiences? I always want the audience to enjoy the experience of watching the film as one would enjoy a trip to an unknown place. Without expectations but with open eyes and ears. To feel and to think in equal proportions. To be surprised and excited. To laugh. To feel close to everything even if they know to be far-away. Overall, I want them to watch the whole thing without leaving the room or picking up their phones.
Indiewire invited Sundance Film Festival directors to tell us about their films, including what inspired them, the challenges they faced and what they’re doing next. We’ll be publishing their responses leading up to the 2013 festival.
Keep checking HERE every day up to the launch of the festival on January 17 for the latest profiles.