Zhang Yimou and Annemarie Jacir

A year of mentoring

Overview (Chapter 1 of 6)

The spectacular, exquisitely coloured scenes and riveting storylines created by Zhang Yimou in some of contemporary cinema’s most iconic works, including Raise the Red Lantern, To Live and Hero, have won the Chinese director an unparalleled global audience, going far beyond the normal fan base for “foreign films”. Now a young, Palestinian film-maker gets a rare opportunity to see exactly how this unique director creates each element of his masterpieces.

Zhang Yimou and Annemarie Jacir

A year of mentoring

First impressions (Chapter 2 of 6)

June 2010

An interview with Annemarie Jacir before the beginning of her mentoring year with Zhang Yimou.

Can you tell me what your new film is about and when it will be released?
My new film, set in the late 1960s, is about a mother and son who become refugees from Palestine to Jordan. It continues the thread of my first feature,Salt of the Sea. While the film is a coming-of-age story about a boy, it is really about borders. I am obsessed with borders – I dislike them so much. The plight of refugees all over the world is another theme of mine. As we still need to complete financing, shooting may be postponed from fall to spring, but we’re still not sure.

Do you envision sharing the knowledge you receive from Zhang Yimou with other young film-makers?
Absolutely. There are few opportunities to learn about film in the Middle East. However, a real thirst for knowledge about films exists, especially about cinema from the East. I am currently teaching a screen-writing course and I hope to pass on what I learn from Zhang Yimou to my students. The way he designs and creates films is unique. Of course, I am not Zhang Yimou nor a master of cinema, but I will try my best to pass along what I can.

Have you ever had a mentor before?
No, I have not had a real mentor. When I attended film school at Columbia University in New York, two professors, in particular, took me under their wing. But a real mentoring programme offers what no film school can. As a young film-maker there are basic things you need advice on, but I have had few people to turn to. The situation is beginning to change as there are more and more film-makers working here. We still have a long way to go, though, before film mentorship is a common practice. For right now, I am trying to share my knowledge with others and to seek my own inspiration too.

How do you expect to benefit from the mentoring experience?
Basically, I would like to improve my craft. And film-making is a craft. We can never stop learning and I am sure that I will benefit from being part of all stages of Zhang Yimou’s work on his latest film. For example, I hope to observe how he works with his editor, his director of photography, his art director. I have carried out many jobs on Hollywood sets, but I was not near the decision-making process. I have never worked with a master of his craft before and I look forward to being inspired by such an artist.

What key knowledge do you expect to acquire from your mentor?
As a young director in the Middle East, I work in a very different way from Zhang Yimou. My low-budget films are made guerrilla style. We often shoot until the police stop us! Zhang Yimou’s films are much bigger productions. That said, he was part of a new generation of film-makers who set out to tell personal stories. As an Arab film-maker, I am similarly trying to present personal stories, an approach he can help me develop. Also, Zhang Yimou deals with historical issues, which interests me. I look forward to learning how to bring history alive in my films and make it relevant to the present day.

What are some of the difficulties that film-makers face in the developing world?
In speaking about the Middle East, we lack a support system here, especially by the government. Jordan has a film commission, but there is not a lot of support on the ground in other places. Raising funds for films is a big struggle – like it is all over the world. Today, there are a lot of Gulf film festivals offering funding, but there is the threat of censorship. As film-makers, we must be independent.

Can you please comment on how Zhang Yimou’s films influenced you at an early stage in your life?
I grew up in Saudi Arabia where there was no theatre and cinema. This changed when I was 17 and moved to the United States. One of the first films I rented from Blockbuster [video rental store] wasRaise the Red Lantern. I immediately felt moved and artistically connected to it. It was the beginning of my film education that cinema was not just Hollywood. Later, in New York, where I was studying, I attended film festivals and saw more of Zhang Yimou’s work. His films are like paintings. They are both socially and politically rich.

How can you communicate with your mentor, as he does not speak English and you do not speak Chinese?
Despite the language barrier, when I met Zhang Yimou at the interview, he was very warm and we got along very well. We were even able to joke [with the help of a translator]. Language is not just about words, but about understanding and communication. I have lived in many countries and you learn how to communicate in other ways. I think we connected when we met and will continue to do so in our future work together.

Have your distinctions at the Cannes film festival had an impact on your career?
Having my short film liketwenty impossibleschosen [as an Official Selection] at Cannes really put me on the radar and had a profound effect on my career. French producers saw the film there and because they liked it they decided to back my first feature,Salt of the Sea. They were willing to take a risk with me as a first-time feature director and also as a woman director. The film [the first feature film by a female Palestinian director] won the FIPRESCI Critics Award and was an entry for Best Foreign Film at the Academy Awards. Getting a second feature off the ground is proving more difficult in some ways.

Do you envisage living in Jordan, your new home, permanently?
My next film will be shot in Jordan and I will be here for a year or two. After that, who knows?

Zhang Yimou and Annemarie Jacir

A year of mentoring

First steps with the mentor (Chapter 3 of 6)

October 2010

Palestinian director Annemarie Jacir has one highly awarded feature film to her credit and is now working on the second. In it she addresses an issue that brings conflict and suffering not only to her region, but to many parts of the world – borders. In her new film, borders and the troubles they bring will be seen through the eyes of a young boy.

Jacir was interviewed recently in Jordan, where she lives, about her new film, her hopes for her mentoring year with leading Chinese director Zhang Yimou and her professional life as a film-maker in the Middle East.

What have you been working on in recent months?
I have been working on my second feature film, a coming-of-age story about a boy. I’m in the casting process now. I have secured the location here in Jordan. I’ve seen about 200 boys aged between 11 and 13 as I chose the main actor. We begin filming in March 2011 and I’m very excited, as it’s been a while since my last feature [Salt of this Sea] in 2007.

Since then, I’ve been working on other people’s films as a freelance editor and screenwriter, and I miss being on my own set. I've also been busy with the U.S. cinema release of Salt of this Sea. Although the film was released in many countries, the U.S. release took some time to secure. So I'm very excited about that.

When we last interviewed you, you said your new film would be about borders between countries. You added that you hated borders. Why?
Borders to me are arbitrary and manmade. In the film, the boy who is the main character doesn’t understand what a border is and no one can really answer that question. Borders are ways to separate human beings from each other. I don’t see any positive purpose in them. They’ve done nothing but separate human beings and ruin the world.

When will you finish the film?
We will shoot for five weeks. And then it depends how things are organized with Zhang Yimou. I might go to China after the shoot to see him at work on his new film. And then I could start the post-production process on my own film later.

Has the mentorship already brought you any benefits?
Yes, I feel very honoured to have been chosen by Zhang Yimou. And I’ve been surprized at the number of people who know about the programme. People at film festivals have congratulated me for being selected as protégée. Some of them didn’t know who my mentor would be, so that’s their first question. When I say it’s Zhang Yimou, they say: “Wow!”

The other great thing was going to New York recently for a gathering with the five other protégés. It was wonderful to be among that group of people and be able to discover their work. They all work across artistic disciplines like I do in [Jacir is very interested in photography and writes poetry and fiction.] We, all of the protégés, had that common experience of delving into other disciplines.

Are you working on any other films or projects at present?
I’m working on a film for a producer from Singapore. I’m working on the script – doing an adaptation for a book. The story is set in Beirut. And I’m teaching too, teaching scriptwriting to people in a wide age group, from their 20s to their 50s. That’s part time. I really enjoy the work and it supplements my income. Just recently I participated in an art show where my installation addressed censorship. I’ve also been busy working as an editor for a couple of films by other directors.

I do a lot of different things. Independent film-makers need to keep busy because projects can take years to come to fruition.

You have previously spoken of your admiration for Zhang Yimou’s films. What sets him apart from other directors?
He has a distinctive style. His style is also very different from my style and that’s what makes me so excited about the mentoring year with him. He’s working on such a large scale compared to the tiny scale I’m working on, in terms of budget, story and actors. I’m excited to see how he works and especially the composition of his frames, which is so perfect. I want to see how he works with his team. His films are very beautiful to watch, but it’s not just about pretty pictures. He addresses a lot politically and socially, without it being heavy-handed. He has won a huge international following and his films are very entertaining, but it’s not shallow entertainment.

Middle Eastern culture is changing, with both an affirmation of Middle Eastern values and a willingness, in at least some countries in the region, to allow western cultural influences, with the opening of museums and universities with links to Europe. Is any of this making it easier for young, female film-makers like you to make their way?
The openness already exists. In Iran the breakdown of film directors is roughly 50-50 between men and women. And it’s similar in the Arab world. Film-making is new in the region, so there is no film establishment with prejudices against women. In Hollywood, for example, film-directing is traditionally a male environment. At festivals in the U.S., you won’t see that many female directors. At an Arab film festival, most of the directors are Arab women. So in some ways it is actually easier for women than it would be in Hollywood.

I’ve always noticed this. Having worked in many different parts of the world, I don’t feel labelled. When I work in the Arab world, I am a director. When I’m at a film festival in the U.S., I’m seen as a female film-maker and I always feel boxed in, I feel as though I’m encouraged to participate in women’s film festivals. It’s limiting.

Here in the Middle East, they don’t label me like that. There are other problems here, of course – but that’s for another interview!

Zhang Yimou and Annemarie Jacir

A year of mentoring

The art and heart of making films (Chapter 4 of 6)

“Wow!” exclaims Annemarie Jacir. She has just stepped on to the set of Zhang Yimou’s latest film,13 Flowers of Nanking. The set recreates entire streets and buildings of the war-torn city of Nanking and looms large and grey in a snowbound landscape against a sombre sky.

During her year as protégée to China’s greatest film director, Jacir has privileged access as Zhang, with a budget of $US90 million, tells the story of the Rape of Nanking in the winter of 1937. His international cast and crew include Hollywood’s Christian Bale, as the star, and the renowned Taneda Yohei, as art director. Taneda took a year to design the set and another six months to build it, creating a spectacular setting for Zhang’s 22nd film.

Jacir is also in mid-production of her own film in Jordan, where she is based.When I Saw You, her second feature, tells the story of Palestinian refugees in the 1960s. With a budget of $400,000, she relies on nature to provide spectacular settings – a desert, a national forest and a field of flowers on the Jordan-Syria-Israel border. An international entourage surrounds Zhang; she works with a small crew and cast, including a 13-year-old non-professional actor from a refugee camp.

Jacir is Zhang’s first-ever protégée and this visit is her first immersion into the world of Chinese film. From China and Palestine – two of today’s political hotspots – they seem worlds apart. But much unites them. Both are passionate about film. Both are focused on technique, but believe that something deeper is essential for excellence in cinema – great film-making, both are convinced, comes down to an artist’s intuition.

Jacir sees this in Zhang’s “perfect compositions”, in his sumptuous images. She observes how these images are achieved as she sits beside Zhang in his director’s tent, re-working take after take on the monitors lined up before him. He shifts from fixed to handheld camera to get, in his words, the “right thrill” of anticipation as a schoolgirl hurries to a window to watch 13 prostitutes arrive at a church for sanctuary. Zhang spends hours refining this point-of-view shot through stained glass. He creates a quivering voyeurism in a single shot – a blend of sacred and profane that links schoolgirl virgins and whores with hearts of gold to a universal story of sacrifice and war. His intuition is yielding cinematic treasure.

Watching Zhang at work, Jacir reflects on her own film-making. “He knows exactly what he wants.” Then, she adds thoughtfully that she’s just learning to trust her intuition as a film-maker. “He’s such a great artist. I think it’s about his intuition and that’s why he gets so obsessed with a particular shot that doesn’t feel right.” Indeed, Zhang says that all his films are about “gut feeling”.

His “gut feeling” comes from honing his art through persistence and hard work, virtues that are evident in the way he overcame his difficult beginnings. From a “bad” class background, he laboured as a youth in villages and factories, famously selling his own blood to buy his first camera. He directed his first film,Red Sorghum, in 1987. Today, Zhang showcases China to the world. The opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, which he directed, turned centuries of Chinese history into glorious spectacle. Commentators saw it as a shock-and-awe announcement to the world of China’s rise to superpower status.

“I’ve travelled your path making low-budget films,” Zhang tells Jacir. “I was 37, older than you, when I directed my first feature. There’s a Chinese saying that ‘great vessels take years to make’, just as great talent takes years to mature. So don’t ever give up.”

Extracted from an article written by Mary Farquhar forMentor & Protégé, a magazine documenting the 2010/2011 cycle of the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative.

Zhang Yimou and Annemarie Jacir

A year of mentoring

After a year with a master (Chapter 5 of 6)

Annemarie Jacir Talks about her Year as a Rolex Protégée

What has the Rolex programme meant to you?
I’m so lucky. Rolex has given me the chance to work with Zhang Yimou, passing knowledge between generations of artists. That’s a very rare privilege.

How was your first day working with Zhang Yimou?
At first I was terrified. Now I make fun of his solar-powered jacket. And he laughs. He even gave me a cool "Star Wars" laser pointer that he uses. We have different ways of working and different techniques with actors, monitors [screens], budgets and so on, but we have really similar ideas and goals.

What do you most admire about him?
I admire his modesty and his work ethic. He never sleeps!

Zhang Yimou is a great artist who’s constantly questioning himself and his work. I really respect that. And he’s such a perfectionist. He knows exactly what he wants out of every actor, every shot and every scene, and he’ll shoot and shoot – maybe 100 takes – to get what he wants.

For him, film is not about huge cranes, huge crews, super special effects and fancy post-production. I agree with that. It’s the way he tells his stories. All the rest is fluff. If you took everything away from him tomorrow and just gave him a camera, he’d still make a fabulous film.

How relevant is his current film on theRape of Nanking, to your own work?
It’s on a totally different scale. His budget is almost 200 times bigger than mine. I shoot for five weeks; he shoots for five-and-a-half months. And his set is amazing, the most beautiful I’ve ever seen.

When I first joined him on location, I thought: “Wow, what a privilege to make a film about your own history, your own people, and your own life in a way that’s true to the real event.” And yet it’s still cinema, alive and magical.

His film is one small story within a huge historical event: the Nanking massacre. The scale of the massacre, when 300,000 people were slaughtered, is often denied. I relate to this as a Palestinian because much of our history is also denied. So we’re both telling stories about us, our own people.

You are shooting your second feature film,When I Saw You. How does it fit into your own work so far?
It’s different from my first feature,Salt of this Sea, which was for Palestinians, for us. The main female character is politicized and angry, and so she’s perhaps difficult to relate to unless you’re Palestinian or you’ve been to Palestine.

When I Saw Youis more universal. It’s set against a springtime landscape in the 1960s, a period brimming with hope. The story is a coming-of-age saga for both a mother and her 12-year-old son, Tarek. It’s from the boy’s point of view. He is naïve, curious and open, refusing to become a refugee. Tarek meets a group of people who change his life and his mother learns to live again through him.

Where to from here, Annemarie?
Well, I’ll join Zhang Yimou again during production and post-production of his film. And he will read my script and see the rough cut ofWhen I Saw You. We’re shooting in parallel and we finish at about the same time. Maybe we’ll meet at the same film festival. I’ll go to his screening and he’ll come to mine.

Zhang Yimou and Annemarie Jacir

A year of mentoring

Interview with the mentor (Chapter 6 of 6)

Interview with Zhang Yimou

You’ve never had a protégé before. Why now?
It was fate. Cai Guo-Qiang, the renowned fireworks artist, was involved in the Rolex Arts Initiative [as a member of the Advisory Board] and was part of my team when I was directing the 2008 Beijing Olympic ceremonies. Cai told me all about the Rolex programme. I think it’s great – a serious and farsighted plan to nurture young talent.

Why did you choose Annemarie Jacir as your protégée?
Originally I told Rolex: “I don’t want to choose, it’s embarrassing.” But I had to choose. So I chose Annemarie because of her work and background. We Chinese have a special affinity with Third World countries like Palestine. I fully support people from developing nations who dream of filming in their own land.

During the mentoring year with Annemarie, you’ve been working on a film about the historical Rape of Nanking in World War II. Why did you choose this theme?
It was accidental. I read a novel that takes a particular perspective on the Nanking massacre. In the story, a group of prostitutes sacrifice themselves to save schoolgirls who are threatened with rape and murder by the Japanese. I liked the book, bought the film rights and started work on it after the 2008 Olympics.

The novel features two foreigners, whom I collapsed into one character. I invited Hollywood’s Christian Bale to take the male lead because I want more people to know about this history. There are lots of World War II films, about the Nazis, for example, which are past human tragedies. But the power of the story is the characters’ heroism and humanity. This spirit is everlasting. It is the essence of the film.

What can a famous Chinese film-maker teach a young woman director from war-torn Palestine?
To tell you the truth, I’ve travelled the same road and understand low-budget film-making, even though it’s a long way from my work today. When I was a student, I absorbed what I saw on set and searched for my own style. So I believe in thinking for yourself – that’s a director’s most valuable quality.

The mentor-protégé relationship is not about learning at the feet of a master. If you met and talked to Martin Scorsese [who was a mentor in the Rolex Arts Initiative in 2008/2009], for example, you’d still need to go away and think about it, figure out what works for you, internalize these elements and then weave them throughout your own films. Thinking for yourself can’t be taught.

There’s an ancient Chinese saying about the importance of experiencing life for yourself: “Walk 10,000 miles and read 10,000 books.” It means travel a lot, see a lot and read a lot to gain knowledge. This is what the Rolex programme offers. So I thought the best way to manage the mentorship was during the filming process. Annemarie is not a novice; she has experience. She’ll gain much more from seeing a shoot than from a talkfest.

I have a fervent wish. I’d love to go and see how a great director such as Martin Scorsese actually works on location. Perhaps Rolex can find me a mentor!

Annemarie must wonder whether you ever sleep as she shadows you on the set. Is your pu’er tea [post-fermented tea, an ancient favourite in China] a magic elixir? Should she buy heated boots like yours?
[Laughs.] My boots are broken! And it’s going to snow tomorrow. Lots of people ask me what I eat and where I get my energy. I don’t know. I just love this work. It’s hard, but I’m happy because I love film. Film-making is like making Chinese medicine, slowly boiling the mixture, day after day, to make a life-giving mouthful. Chinese directors work with different ingredients: they simmer their own flesh, their own blood, their own bones and even their own hearts to make a “mouthful” of film.

Actually, I have a major fault. With each film I make I’m always afraid that I’ll be disappointed with it once it’s finished. And then, I start to dream: next time I’ll find a great script and next time I’ll make a better film.

Remembering your own background, how would you advise Annemarie at the early stage of her career?
“Don’t ever give up. Don’t be discouraged. You’ll always have problems throughout your life. Just wait for better times.”

Now imagine the end of your career. You’re sick of fame and about to retire to Mount Emei [in Sichuan province, home to many temples and one of Buddhism’s holiest sites] as a hermit. What would you say to your only protégée?
I’d say: “You’ll also retire one day.” Youth has energy and ambition for fame, fortune and success, which Buddhists consider ephemeral “red dust”. One day you’ll see through this red dust and leave ambition behind you. Life is like that. I’ll keep on making films while I can. Anyway, it’s no use talking about this to Annemarie. She’s still young.