Self-Portrait: 47 Kilometers 2020 was this year’s official selection of the BFI’s London Film Festival. We took the liberty to meet with its director, ZHANG Mengqi, to learn more about her vision.

In October, Diaoyutai Village, located 47 kilometres from Yindian Town in Suizhou, Hubei, entered the season of harvest. For director Zhang Mengqi, who has dedicated over 13 years to documenting her hometown Diaoyutai, this October also marked her harvest season. Her documentary, Self-Portrait: 47 Kilometers 2020 (2020), recently received the “Awards of Excellence” at the Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival in Japan. After that, she hurriedly traveled to London for the film’s premiere at the BFI London Film Festival. It was rare for a documentary to be placed in the official competition of the London Film Festival. The unusual inclusion highlighted the significance of Mengqi’s work and the festival’s acknowledgement of her talent.

During the interview, I consistently sensed Mengqi’s natural curiosity as a documentary director. As our conversation concluded, in line with my customary inquiry about additional comments, Mengqi spontaneously turned the conversation towards me, asking me about where I come from and how life is from my place—reflecting her relentless exploration in her daily life and also her ongoing “Self-Portrait” series. For Mengqi, as long as there are things in her hometown village that make her curious and excited, she will continue to capture the stories through her films.

About the film

As the coronavirus begins to sweep the globe, Zhang returns to her father’s village with her camera, seeking to understand where the extraordinary phenomenon might sit in the grand palimpsest of China’s history. As with all of Zhang’s work, this is a committed, reflective, formally assured non-fiction film, grounded in collaboration and blessed with an uncanny sense of unhurried time. (Hyun Jin Cho)

Congratulations on your documentary “Self-Portrait 47 Kilometers 2020” being selected for the official competition of the London Film Festival. Could you introduce yourself and this documentary to us?

Yes, of course. All my works are titled “Self-Portrait.” To me, whether it is documentary creation or my previous studies in dance and theatre, it is a process of getting to know myself through creation, it is a way of growing in a broad social environment. So, I am this kind of creator. Self-Portrait: 47 Kilometers 2020 is my tenth film shot in my hometown of Yindian Town, Suizhou, Hubei, in a village called Diaoyutai. It is also the eleventh film in my “Self-Portrait” series.

Why do you use “Self-Portrait” as the title for all of your documentaries?

I started learning dancing when I was young, and at that time, my mom and the people around me believed that a girl should learn a form of art. However, the definition of art at that time was a talent, a skill, or a kind of temperament — it is an abstract concept.

As I grew up and began to think about my artistic creation and the true meaning of art, I realised that art should be related to real life. Now I don’t see artistic creation as a result but as a process. I’ve been creating independently since I was 21, and I see this creative process as a way of personal growth. I chose the title of “Self-Portrait” because whether I am shooting myself, my family, or my village, it involves the relationship and changes between myself and the world. It is a way for me to archive my life.

In the past, you used to return to the village for shooting in a certain period each year. However, “2020” was shot in the village throughout the whole year. How it differ from your previous works in terms of the filming process or presentation?

My creative works related to this village originated from a project called the “Folk Memory Project” at the Caochangdi Workstation. This project started in 2010, and the common motivation of the participants at that time was to return to their villages and interview the elderly who had experienced the Great Famine. These elderly people might be our ancestors, but they were unknown, possessing many memories and stories that were untold or unwritten. Therefore, we used the form of documentaries, as well as a form of oral history, to return to the village for filming. Because the “Folk Memory Project” did not have a clear template, goal, plan, or schedule, participants had to return to the village for shooting, observe what happened, hear what stories were told, and then gradually figure out the direction of the project.

So far, this project has continued for 13 years. Before 2019, I only returned home in winter since I had more free time along with the Chinese New Year. I will return home for three to four months to shoot in the village. During the rest of the time, I would return to Beijing and continue my other work in the studio, including editing, etc.

Until 2018-2019, I started thinking about establishing my own studio in the village, so at least I could have a place to stay. Previously, I had been staying with my uncle, without a private space I could use. In 2018, one of my films received an award from the DMZ International Documentary Film Festival in South Korea, and with their funding, I built my studio.

Having my own place in the village made my time more flexible, and I didn’t have to wait until the Chinese New Year to come back. However, unexpectedly, the COVID-19 pandemic broke out in 2020, but the environment in the village was significantly different from the city. Despite the lock-down, life in the village was more convenient than in the city, and everyone could continue working. So, I lived in the village for the entire year and shot the documentary.

The film is divided into chapters according to the 24 solar terms. Was this format planned from the beginning, or was it decided after the shooting?

I decided to use this format after the shooting was completed. Although I spent a long time in the village, my focus was always on history. Because I hadn’t spent much time observing how people in the village worked, this crucial aspect of agricultural society had been overlooked in my previous works.

In that year, I had a complete period to observe how people in the village worked—whether it was cultivating the land, growing mushrooms in workshops, searching for medicinal herbs in the mountains, or catching insects. These were crucial parts of their daily lives.

During that year, I had a feeling of ignorance, despite filming in the village for such a long time. This year suddenly refreshed my understanding of the people in the village. I started to rethink their lives and the differences between them and me, as someone born and raised in the city. An essential difference was the possession of their own time.

While the rest of the world was experiencing a shared disaster and public crisis in 2020, there was an independent sense of time in the village. People scheduled their work based on the changes in the solar terms. They preserved their own concept of time, and their lives were not entirely deprived by the pandemic in 2020. So, I chose to use the seemingly simple but crucial 24 solar terms to structure the film.

A crucial aspect of shooting a documentary is interviewing or uncovering information. Could you share how you communicate and interact with the people in the village?

I didn’t follow the traditional approach, nor did I conduct extensive research or preparation before shooting. However, I have been consistently returning to the village for filming since 2010, gradually deepening my relationship with the villagers. Hence, extensive preparation is usually not necessary as continuous filming and accumulating experiences in the village serve as a form of “preparation” for me. Especially when interacting with the children, they naturally engage with me, and our discussions typically arise spontaneously. One memorable scene in the film involves my aunt, who, while digging soil, spontaneously shared stories about the pandemic in Wuhan and happenings on the mountain opposite the village. It was an entirely natural response, and I didn’t need to ask anything for her to start sharing these things with me.

Are the villagers conscious of the presence of the camera?

Yes, they are. They are very familiar with it now. Initially, there might have been some wariness, especially from villagers less familiar with the process. Over the past decade, they have become very accustomed to being filmed. For instance, an elderly villager I used to interview frequently, Guo Chuanfu, who has since passed away, had difficulty recognising faces at the age of 90. However, when I took out my camera, he remembered me instantly. So, in their impression of me, besides being a descendant of the Ding family, I am someone who engages in films, even though they may not articulate the significance of this. For instance, if a road is under construction in the village, villagers will voluntarily inform me, urging me to go and film. The dynamic has shifted to them actively helping me to find stories for documentation.

You often attend film festivals worldwide. After returning from a big city like London to the village, do you feel a sense of disconnection?

Actually, I used to commute between Beijing and the village, but after the pandemic, I have spent most of the past few years in the village. So, I have experienced a reverse kind of “disconnection”. A few days ago I went to Beijing, where I hadn’t been in a long time, after living in the city for a few days, I felt very strange, like, what’s going on? To me, the once-longed-for Beijing has now become an environment that is hard to live in. Everything has been comodified, everyone is extremely busy, and people’s time is strictly divided, presenting a significant contrast to the concept of time I experience in the village. London felt different because it was a whole new place and culture that I didn’t experience much. People are still busy, but, as a tourist experience during my short visit, it offered me a fresh perspective.

However, returning to a Beijing I am familiar with but has transformed into another Beijing, there is a sense of disconnection and a bit of sadness. But now, I may lean more towards a life where individuals can seek and own their rhythm and time, rather than being pushed by an invisible system.

What was your special experience or impression of the London Film Festival this year?

I think it was somewhat unexpected for the London Film Festival to choose my film to compete for awards. Although the festival has a documentary section, they decided to place my film alongside feature films in the official competition. People from the LFF team mentioned that it seemed like the first time a documentary was included in this section. Since my approach to filmmaking is highly personal and differs from the industrial system, my film’s credits probably have the fewest names. I don’t have a producer, a production company, or a distribution company. I handle all aspects of filming, editing, sound, and managing the DCP on my own.

It’s quite refreshing for such a personal work to be featured on such a significant platform as the BFI London Film Festival. Most of my works have been featured in documentary-focused film festivals, like the ones in Japan (YIDFF) and Switzerland (Visions du Réel). However, the London Film Festival encompasses various genres. I thought LFF might have typically focused on films within the industrial system, but this time I realised the festival is quite inclusive. I watched several experimental works during the festival. In such a huge film festival event, there are numerous choices for different audiences.

In recent years, major film festivals seem to pay more attention to documentaries. For example, this year, Wang Bing’s work was selected at Cannes. Do you think Chinese documentary creators are gaining more international attention? Do you think that the creation environment for Chinese creators is getting better?

I don’t know about that, but I hope so. In fact, the attention to Chinese documentaries at international film festivals has never waned. China is indeed a country that cannot be ignored in various aspects. As a form of artistic expression that allows the voices of individuals to be expressed, documentaries have always been present. The creative group at Caochangdi Workstation is organising a film screening with the theme of “mother” to explore what the young creators are doing. We discovered that more and more creators are using documentaries to express themselves and even attempting to confront real challenges in the creative process. I could say that creators have never been absent.

I remember during the Q&A session at the LFF, the first question came from a UK audience who asked about the ownership of the land in the village. This question surprised me, as I took it for granted that all audiences already had the same knowledge about rural China as I did. When you present your documentaries in different countries, do people perceive your films differently?

I think it’s because every audience has very different experiences. My understanding of foreigners is limited, especially when it comes to specific individuals, their ways of thinking, and the historical background they have experienced are very different from mine. Engaging in a dialogue when presenting the work is an interesting process to understand specific people.

As for who the audience is, I haven’t differentiated them based on different perspectives. When creating, the first audience for my work is myself. I view my work from an individual’s perspective. Based on this, the problems I encounter and the feedback from different audiences are a very rich and entirely new dialogue. It’s interesting whether the audience is more interested in certain issues or more intrigued by artistic aspects.

Finally, could you share what you’ve been up to lately? Any upcoming filming plans?

Recently, I have been filming in the village. My approach to filming has become more of a daily routine, unlike before when it was completed within a specific time period. Because I have lived here for almost the entire year, I am gradually trying to transform filming into a more routine behaviour, where filming is a part of life. Naturally, a new film is in the process of taking shape.

So, will the upcoming film still be part of the “Self-Portrait” series? Have you considered making films outside of the “Self-Portrait” series?

For me, the village is a piece of land, a natural gift, and as long as you cultivate it, there is an endless feeling of giving. In fact, from the beginning until now, people have asked me if there is anything left to film, any more stories to capture. But, as we just discussed, it wasn’t until 2020 that I realised, for the villagers relying on agricultural life, that the aspect of labouring was completely absent in my work. I feel both ashamed and, at the same time, life is so vast.

Having lived in the village for a few years now, my relationship with the village has undergone many changes. So, I think, as long as life continues, my emotions toward the people here and the village will change. I will still have that sense of excitement, and the “Self-Portrait” series will always be a work in progress.