I had arranged to interview Shu Haolun, an independent documentary filmmaker and teacher at the Shanghai University Film and Television School, following the June premier of his second directorial effort, Nostalgia, at the Shanghai Film Library in Hongkou District. However, after the screening and a heated Q&A session with the audience, Shu, a graduate of Southern Illinois University, was far too agitated to answer any more questions, especially questions posed in English.

Instead, we arranged to meet the next day, and though the temperature was fiery, Shu appeared composed. Needless to say, appearances are deceiving. In short time, the 34 year-old filmmaker revealed himself as a man of passion, one who relies on his gut instincts. Indeed, Shu is as intense as the summerís heat, though his energies are filtered through the camera lens. Which is to say he shines a bright light on selective subjects: his family, the city in which he was born, Chinaís rapid development and its effect on ordinary Chinese people.

While that may seem a rather broad spectrum, itís not. Shuís brand of non-fiction filmmaking is highly personal. Nostalgia puts his family center stage, along with his own memories of growing up in a neighborhood of shikumen (stone-gate houses), one that has been slotted for demolition. Though Shuís documentary is highly subjective (in one scene he recalls a childhood sweetheart), his sense of nostalgia, indeed his memories of Da Zhongli, an area of 7,000 residents in the Jingían district, is one that has universal appeal, grounded, as it is, in humanist principles.

As mentioned above, Shu is passionate, but he is also compassionate. A trait that is evident in his directorial debut, Struggle (2001), a film that concerns three migrant workers who lost their hands while working in one of Shenzhenís sweatshops, and their struggle, aided by lawyer Zhou Litai, for a better life, fundamental rights and justice. While in production, Shu became intimate with the workers and their lawyer, and as a result, Struggle is more than just an exposť; it expresses an undeniable sympathy with the suffering (and the struggle for human dignity) of its subjects.

For his next project, Shu will revisit territory covered in an earlier work, How Yukong Moved the Mountain, a 12 episode, 763 minute documentary on the ďcultural revolutionĒ by the late Dutch documentary filmmaker Joris Ivens (1898-1989). Entitled A Letter to Ivens Ė a revisit to Yukong, Shuís version will once again center on the experiences of his family, childhood and his hometown.

thatís: Why did you chose to study filmmaking in the US?
Shu Haolun: At the time [mid-1990s], the only film school [in China] was the Beijing Film Academy (BFA). It was quite a closed system; you had to be extremely smart and to perform very well in the entrance examination to [gain admission]. Or you needed to have the right connections. I failed the entrance exam [and wasnít connected]. So it seemed impossible for me to enter the BFA, which had a superior air because of its monopoly, as if it were the kingdom of filmmaking in the Middle Kingdom. So I studied English and went to the USA. I wanted to see other parts of the world, and I think Iíve made the right choice.

thatís: What inspired you to make documentaries?
SH: Back in 1998, I was studying at the Southern Illinois University [SIU]. My university advisor signed me up for the documentary classes. I had already missed the orientation week because I was late due to some visa issues and didnít know what the classes were about. One of them was about documentary history, from the late 1960s to late 1990s.
In China, we werenít much exposed to documentaries. The films I was watching in the US were very different, like Chris Markerís La Jetťe (1962) and Alain Resnaisí Night and Fog (1955). Later on, I saw a documentary that blew my mind, Barbara Koppleís American Dream (1990). It was about a workersí union at a meat factory. It wasnít done in the style of 1960s Cinťma Vťritť, but it was a very powerful work, maybe one of the most powerful non-fiction films [Iíve seen].

thatís: Why did you return to China?
SH: At SIU, we had to make a film as an assigned project. At the time, I wanted to make a fictional film. But I couldnít get approval from the teachersí committee, who wanted a more realist story. That upset me, so I came back to China to make films.

thatís: How did you choose Struggle as your first project?
SH: The story is fascinating; thereís no question about it. I think the human aspect of the film is also very strong. One of the migrant workers, Xiao Hongxing, is from Hubei Province; his family couldnít support his studies, so he went to a technical school instead of college and got a technical degree. Later, he went to Shenzhen [as a migrant worker], and unfortunately suffered an industrial accident that left him crippled. The story of Xiao and the other workers is shocking.

Although we live in different worlds and have almost nothing in common, besides nationality and language, I felt we were connected. In the beginning, they called me Ďjournalist Shuí. I am not a journalist, but they basically thought that anyone with a camera was a journalist. But gradually I won their confidence, and they told me their story. After they knew me better, they called me Xiao Shu, or ĎLittle Shuí. And these victims from the newspapers became human beings to me. We developed a personal bond.

thatís: You had European funding for this project.
SH: I applied for, and received, funding from the Netherlandsí Jan Vrijman Fund, and from the Swiss Agency. So I was well funded for my very first project, which surprised my US professors. Back in China I started to work on topics I really liked. And this time, no one said the subject wasnít realistic enough. Later Struggle was screened at many festivals around the world and won the Best Documentary Award at the Fribourg International Film Festival (Switzerland).

thatís: Letís talk about Nostalgia and your motives in keeping memories of an old Shanghai neighborhood alive.
SH: In 2002, as I was finishing my studies in the US, I learned that the place where Iíd always lived in Shanghai, the neighborhood of Da Zhongli, was sold to a Hong Kong real estate developer who planned to build skyscrapers in place of the existing shikumen.
Da Zhongli is our family home, the place my family has always lived. I was worried that if I didnít film it then, the opportunity would be lost forever. Another source of inspiration was a series of essays in the Shanghai Literature magazine entitled My City Map, which described the writersí favorite places in Shanghai, be it their birthplaces or where they grew up. Nostalgia was my own My City Map but in the form of a documentary film. This project was personal; I really wanted to do something for my home and my family.

thatís: You might have named your documentary My Home, rather than Nostalgia.
SH: Not exactly, because I miss my home and the 1980s. I miss that particular place and time, which are mixed together; itís not possible for me to separate them. I also show [in Nostalgia] my personal experiences when I was a teenager.

thatís: Both Struggle and Nostalgia examine some of the negative effects of rapid modernization. Does that mean you are a conservative?
SH: No, I think everybody likes modernization. Nobody wants to live in a cave like during the Stone Age. However, modernization shouldnít mean unhealthy development.
A while ago I went to Jakarta, Indonesia, but I wasnít able to see much. The traffic was so packed that if I wanted to go anywhere it would have taken at least two hours. Yes, there are super highways across the city, but the city is not designed on a human scale. You can also see a lot of foreign cars and banks and international brands Ė itís like anywhere else in the US. I am afraid that might happen in Shanghai. Modernization isnít about how many skyscrapers and highways a city has. Itís about how we can share wealth and how everybody can enjoy it. In other words, if modernization is about money itís wrong; if itís about people itís right.

thatís: What about your next project, A Letter to Ivens?

SH: This documentary, currently in development, is about Joris Ivens, who in the early 1970s was invited by then Prime Minister Zhou [Enlai] to make a film about almost every aspect of the ďcultural revolutionĒ [in How Yukong Moved the Mountain (1971-1977)]. It ran to 12 episodes, but I will only revisit three. One of them is about a factory in Shanghai that produces generators, a typical Soviet-style factory where they have everything (a school, hospital, dormitories), and where my father worked for decades until he retired. Iíve a personal connection with this place; I used to go to the swimming pool there when I was young. The second episodeís about a [local] pharmacy, which is more representative of a small working environment, while the third episode is about the Da Qing oil fields.

thatís: Is this project a comment on Ivensí documentary?
SH: The whole project is about how Ivens portrayed the events of that period. I am not interested in whether his work is true or not; my angle is to shoot discussions with common people who experienced that time. Currently, Iím negotiating the rights for footage from Ivensí film Ė my concept is to reunite past and present images.

For more information see Shu Haolun's homepage:

This article also features in Shu Haolun's homepage

(c) that's Shanghai Magazine
Chief editor: Steven Crane
August 2006 issue