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“The idea was to promote a constant East-West exchange”

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Marco Müller and Jia Zhangke • Organisers, Pingyao Film Festival

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- The men behind the first edition of the Pingyao Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon International Film Festival, Marco Müller and Jia Zhangke, discuss its “year zero”

Marco Müller and Jia Zhangke  • Organisers, Pingyao Film Festival

After stints at Locarno, Venice and Rome, among others, veteran festival director Marco Müller teamed up with acclaimed Chinese film director Jia Zhangke to create the Pingyao Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon International Film Festival, a meeting point where the audience and filmmakers would be free to exchange ideas – in the exact same place where the latter has shot parts of his most important films, including Platform and A Touch of Sin.

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Cineuropa: Why did you decide to launch a festival so close to your actual hometown?
Jia Zhangke:
 All of my films are about Shanxi province. This is the place I know and love the most. I always wanted to tell stories about it because we rarely see them on the big screen. China is growing so fast, but it’s an unbalanced growth, which is why in my films I want to go back to where it all begins, because those are the real people.

When I shot Platform, young filmmakers were struggling due to a lack of funding. Now, money is not the biggest issue, but rather the fact that nobody seems to care about arthouse cinema any more. I hate going to multiplexes, so I wanted to create an independent space for the audience and filmmakers to really immerse themselves in film. Pingyao is China’s best-preserved historical city; its history dates back some 2,700 years. If you combine all of that with cinema, you might end up with something truly magical.

Marco Müller: Jia Zhangke’s idea was very simple: “I’ve spent one-third of my life at foreign film festivals,” he said. “Why can’t I have one in my hometown?” Pingyao is not exactly his hometown, but it’s close enough to Fenyang, and he shot huge chunks of his most important films here. When I first visited it, having been disappointed by my previous experiences, I thought that these were the perfect conditions to set it up. So in a sense, yes – we are here to fulfil his dreams. But this initiative is also a natural continuation of what I have already tried to do at festivals in Beijing, Fuzhou and Macau: to establish an autonomous space, different from the way the Chinese market functions.

It is surprising to see how many European titles you decided to showcase, with the Jean-Pierre Melville retrospective tying it all together. 
MM: The idea was to promote a constant East-West exchange. There is this unwritten rule for Chinese festivals that says that the number of foreign films has to be equivalent to the number of Chinese films, but I think we created a nice balance between Western Europe and the former Soviet Union, with an added sprinkling of Latin America. As for the retrospective, it’s important to point out that Melville watched all the Hollywood film-noir classics, but also Asian gangster films. John Woo, Johnnie To… They were all inspired by him. 

JZ: By showing the works of old masters, we want to encourage young filmmakers to learn about film history and to learn from Rossellini, Melville or the great Chinese filmmaker Fei Mu. Officially, we don’t have a competition. But we have the Rossellini jury, the Fei Mu jury and the Work in Progress jury, not to mention the fact that the name of this year’s edition was a direct nod to Rossellini’s Germany, Year Zero. It’s all connected.

Is it called “year zero” because you are still figuring things out?
MM:
 There is a reason why we call it a “boutique festival”. There was this gigantic political event hanging over us, and a number of complications that started appearing as soon as the theatres were built. But also, I don’t think it should be a major event: it should be a useful event. A small place in a hospitable environment where people come together quite naturally, like at the Midnight Sun Film Festival, where you have the Kaurismäki brothers sitting in a bar, making themselves available to the guests. So that’s what we want to happen. It’s by exchanging opinions and trying to understand each other that we will finally be able to change the rules in this country. It will take time, but there is already an awareness across the whole of China that this place could be something special. There is nothing quite like it.

JZ: There is this concept in Chinese philosophy that says: “Start from zero and move to one.” Move from nothing to something. It’s a very young festival – in fact, it has just been born. In China, we only have a few of them, and usually, they are held in big cities with established film industries and infrastructures. Here, in Pingyao, we are building up everything from scratch. 

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