Combining art and functionality can produce powerful documentaries, explains controversial Chinese filmmaker

Documentary filmmaker Zhao Liang believes that all films, whether documentaries or feature films, should also be works of art.

Zhao explained his approach of combining art with practical value—such as carrying a social message—during a lecture at The University of Hong Kong on 30 March.

‘When you combine art and functionality more tightly, the power of a film will be increased,’ he said. ‘I want to break the rules, to think of how to use these good (artistic) shots.’

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Zhao Liang speaking with moderator for the session, David Bandurski

Zhao was speaking as part of the ‘Dialogue with Filmmakers’ lecture series, organised by the Hong Kong International Film Festival and the JMSC’s Hong Kong Documentary Initiative, which is led by Oscar-winning director Ruby Yang.

Nine international directors and producers joined students and members of the public for the lectures between 23 March and 1 April. In addition to lectures, the series also included screenings of the filmmakers’ work.

Zhao spoke following the screening of one of his earlier films, ‘Crime and Punishment’, a dark law enforcement piece revealing the goings-on inside a police station on China’s North Korean border. Like some of Zhao’s other films—which tend to explore the relationship between the Chinese government and its citizens―the film isn’t allowed to be publicly screened inside mainland China.

His latest film, ‘Behemoth’, which deals with environmental destruction from the toxic mining industry in Inner Mongolia, won the Firebird Award for Best Documentary at this year’s Hong Kong International Film Festival. It has been described as a breakthrough in terms of aesthetics, and in blurring the lines between art and documentary.

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Chinese documentary filmmaker, Zhao Liang

Zhao explained: ‘Over the years, I have been polishing off how to integrate both documentary content and film art together. While I was making ‘Behemoth’, I filmed many artistic shots, and in the end, these turned out to be very useful. They help you to jump out from the narration of the traditional documentary style.’

Zhao said filmmakers also have to be creative to gain access to sensitive locations, like the police station where ‘Crime and Punishment’ was filmed, or the mines and ironworks where he shot ‘Behemoth’.

‘It’s very important that film ideas are possible to implement—this also depends on your social and interpersonal skills,’ he said.

Established in September 2015, Hong Kong Documentary Initiative aims to harness local and international expertise in order to build a dynamic documentary filmmaking scene in Hong Kong.

Click here for more photos and highlights from the ‘Dialogue with Filmmakers’ series.