Zhang Tian’ai: ‘I’m not compromising, but I’m finding a way out’

As the global film community turns its eyes toward the Shanghai International Film Festival, a leading documentary maker spells out the importance of her craft for China.

By Xing Zhao

Clip from Zhang Tian’ai’s film “Cultural Revolution II” (2009) which follows Feng Lun, a Chinese capitalist and well-known businessman, during his negotiations to set up a China center on the top floors of the Freedom Tower, which was built on the site of the World Trade Center in New York.

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After working in Beijing as a soprano soloist with the Performing Arts Ensemble of the Chinese Armed Forces, and as a presenter and producer at Yunnan Television in Kunming, picking up the camera seemed a natural step for documentary maker Zhang Tian’ai.

“For a year and a half, I hosted a TV program that let people express their dissatisfaction about the unfair things happening to them,” says Zhang. “But I was just a host, so I decided that I had to shift my focus.

“How to dress and how to look nice as a TV host no longer appealed to me, and I became more interested and involved in people’s lives and society.”

In 2007, Zhang moved to Britain to study for her master’s degree in documentary filmmaking at the National Film and Television School at Beaconsfield just outside London.

During her time abroad, she turned into a film buff, becoming familiar with her future genre and producing several of her own projects.

“Life of Lily and Bob” (2007) followed the lives of two wealthy Chinese high school students caught between alienation in Britain and their distant families in China.

Her graduation film “Cultural Revolution II” (2009) follows Feng Lun, a Chinese capitalist and well-known businessman, during his negotiations to set up a China center on the top floors of the Freedom Tower, which was built on the site of the World Trade Center in New York.

“At the time I was seeing China from the outside,” says Zhang, who has moved back to her native Kunming to work as a documentary film director for Yunnan TV, “and now that I’m back in China my perspective is more from the inside — literally and figuratively.”

Making her own way

Although Zhang says making documentaries has made her a more honest person, now she has relocated to China, she realizes the challenges that she faces in her new role.

“I was in the [Chinese entertainment] system before I went to study in Britain, and now I’m in it again,,” she says, expressing her frustration. “The system often conflicts with what I want to pursue, though that could be the case in any country. However, I do believe there is room between an individual’s ideas and what the system wants to tell people. The key is finding a way to balance the two.”

Zhang is currently working on a documentary about several South Asian societies including India, Myanmar, Nepal and Bhutan. After spending time researching and shooting footage in these countries, Zhang has found the message she’d like to deliver.

India, for example, has so much poverty, chaos and sufferings, but for the people there, with their faith in their God, they don’t seem to suffer so much spiritually,” says Zhang. “People in China, on the other hand, have no faith at all and don’t believe in anything. People’s lives are very hard.”

Determined to make this film push people’s mental comfort zones and think differently, Zhang is keenly aware of the limitations inside the current film establishment.

If I make a film to show people a new different way of thinking and living, at least someone will see it. That’s what I can do to help make a change.— Zhang Tian’an, Chinese film maker

“The film I’m currently working on, ‘The South Faces’ (南行記), is rather different from documentary topics people in China are familiar with,” she points out. “People still see documentaries as merely about history, landscape or animals, and they still aren’t able to look or think out of the box yet.”

“There will come the time when people will change how they view documentaries in China,” she continues. “But before that, I’ll have to find away to make my own breakthrough. I’m not compromising, but I’m finding a way out.”

Hope on film

With a continually climbing GDP, many people in the Chinese media try to paint a picture of a harmonious society; however, Zhang doesn’t always agree with the mainstream thought-process.

“People are becoming more and more crazy — we are constantly bombarded by news,” says Zhang shaking her head, “people can almost do anything for money, there are no more moral limitations.”

“The education in China today is to teach people how to make more money and how to become greedy,” she continues, “our society is in a total confusion.”

She says she hopes her films provide a counter balance to the current situation.

Far from a pessimist though, Zhang says her current focus in film making is on “hope,” the feeling she has for modern China, despite all its flaws.

“As someone working in the media, we must keep a clear mind,” she concludes. “If I make a film to show people a new, different way of thinking and living, at least someone will see it. That’s what I can do to help make a change.”

This story originally appeared on CNN.
Xing Zhao

Xing Zhao is a Shanghai-based writer and editor specializing in travel, lifestyle, arts and culture. His writing has appeared in CNN, Time Out, OutThere Magazine, City Weekend, Zing, Metropolis, and Men’s Uno. He writes in both English and Mandarin Chinese. To contact him, please email at kapazhao@gmail.com.

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