Talking to Wang Bing isn’t easy, first of all because of the language. The pre-eminent documentarian prefers to speak in Chinese during interviews, and the need for an interpreter often gives the impression of lost nuance. Nevertheless, listening to his answers fills the distance in the same way watching his movies does — movies that make us discover new human universes and their everyday life, conveyed with clarity of mind and participation.
Wang is one of the great cinematographic storytellers of the contemporary world: China, as conveyed through his movies since West of the Tracks (2003) reflects our time, its conflicts and contradictions. The same is true with Ta’ang, inexplicably presented in the Berlin Film Festival’s “Forum” selection for experimental film rather than in the Berlinale’s main competition.
The movie follows refugees escaping Myanmar across its border with China. The Ta’angs, who give the movie its name, are an ethnic minority trapped in the Golden Triangle amid the violence of war, the interests of Burma’s government and the control of drug traffickers.
They are mostly women and children, with whom Wang builds in his images a moving closeness, achieved with the use of space, time and the proximity between the camera, people and things. As opposed to his other movies, Wang’s usual search for a single point of view from which to tell the story clashes here with the urgency of a reality in perpetual movement and full of danger. It’s the war and the fear of fragile people on the run, unable to imagine any future.
Ta’ang was filmed while you were working on another movie. What made you switch projects?
That former film told the story of very young Chinese kids leaving their homes to work in Shanghai. Following some of them we reached the border between China and Burma, in Yunnan Province, when the war had just started. I met women on the run with their children and decided to film the refugees. In that moment no one was there to help them: no NGOs or anyone else. We were not embedded with the government in any way, and therefore filming immediately proved to be very dangerous.
What do you mean?
There were soldiers, gangs, drug traffickers and those criminals who thrive on people’s desperation. They all knew we didn’t have the permits to shoot and tried to stop us in every possible way. Also, it wasn’t easy for the refugees to accept the presence of the camera: Many were scared of being filmed, and because of this we shot mainly at night rather than in daylight. When we arrived at the camp we didn’t start shooting right away. There was a certain tension on our part as well, we were very worried about the situation around us and we asked ourselves how to proceed. We were wondering how to film those people, how to frame them and so on. Little by little we formed a relationship with some of them, we started to get to know each other and we found a way to go on.
How many people formed the troupe?
Three. Me, the producer and the operator.
Most of the refugees are women and children. The story’s meaning and feeling is discovered through their eyes.
Men remained behind to take care of their homes, properties and the elders who weren’t able to endure the journey. It’s up to the women to save the children from war.
You talked about the choice of filming at night. Was it made only to protect the refugees?
The image of people sitting around the fire also has a theatrical force. It almost allows you to put words on stage. It evokes an oral and collective dimension: In this case the narration of their lives in that moment, which I wanted to take this shape in the movie. Moreover, at night the atmosphere was more intimate. I am thinking of the sequence where women talk in the corn field, that I find especially beautiful. … In the editing room we had to make choices: I had hours of material shot mostly in the first days when the situation was calmer. When the conflict worsened we underwent all sorts of pressures. I wanted to go back to those women, but it was no longer possible.
Your presence in the movie is declared. At times refugees look and seem to speak directly at you. The choice not to hide in a work like this is both very powerful and beautiful.
I’ve asked myself all the time if the camera might bother those people who were suffering such a terrible tragedy. I’ve decided to keep the moments when they look at me because it happened, and most of all because it has to do with my role as director. To face a reality like this it is necessary to put yourself on the line, to be concentrated and to respect who’s in front of you. I couldn’t have done it differently.
The refugees are followed up with at different places. Which ones?
We shot in two refugee camps: Maidhe and Chachang. In both places the refugees’ condition was always changing. New people were constantly coming in. Some of them tried to go deeper into Chinese territory. Others moved in order to work, harvesting sugar cane for the Chinese farmers.
In Chachang camp we met Jin Xiaoman and Jin Xiaoda, who escaped with their children and some elders from their village. Like the others, they are afraid. They worry all the time about what might happen to their husbands who remained in Burma. They lost everything. They would like to give more to their children but can’t make enough money.
Are there any NGOs helping them?
Yes, although when we reached out to them they only stood in our way. They bring rice and some other little things to the refugees who are, however, mostly left to themselves.
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