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Tian Zhuangzhuang a Rare Insight Director

Tian Zhuangzhuang followed the lives of 11 villagers in remote China in his latest documentary film Delamu, which is screened as part of the Shanghai International Film Festival.

In an exclusive interview with Michelle Qiao, Tian talks about the making of this incredible picture Delamu is the only documentary film screened at the Shanghai International Film Festival and one of the few documentaries ever to be shown in Chinese cinemas.

It tells the incredible tale of villagers from a remote village in Yunnan Province -- an area famous for Chamagudao, the ancient tea route which was a major transport road for tea, salt and grains for more than 1,000 years. In the Tibetan language, Delamu means the Goddess of Safe and Sound.

"I'm a casual man and I gave the film that name simply because the mule that I
had was named Delamu," says director Tian Zhuangzhuang. The 52-year-old gained an international reputation when he took away the best film award for Blue Kite at the Tokyo Film Festival and the San Marco Prize at the Venice Film Festival for Springtime in a Small Town. In his latest film, Tian devotes almost the entire length to the lives of 11 local villagers.

He lets them talk candidly about their lives and relationship with this ancient road. "In the early 1990s, the Chinese film industry deteriorated because of the strict censorship and control on moviemaking," says Tian, who stopped making films for 10 years after Blue Kite in 1991. "Feeling that it wasn't any fun making films, I bought a DV camera and traveled to Yunnan, where I happened to meet a few experts.

I followed them around as part of my research in the province for three years and I thought this legendary land might make an excellent TV documentary. When I finished making the documentary many people persuaded me to make the film." Delamu reveals the true stories of local villagers who are literally living in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by mountains.

It follows the story of a young man who suffers heartbreak and becomes a Buddhist, a lonely school teacher, a husband who's wife has left him and a 104-year-old blind widow who recalls the disappearance of her husband 50 years ago. Their lives start to change as a modern road makes its way to their village.

The documentary also captures the incredible scenery of this magnificent area. Breathtaking images of the rocky mountainside are set against intimate scenes of smoke rising from iron fire basin in a darkened room. "This is a place where several religions coexist. I met a couple where the husband is a lama and his wife is Catholic," says Tian.

"I discovered the value and function of religions here." Tian says his primary motive for making the documentary, which will be aired to the public in local cinemas at the end this month, was to show his love and respect of the villagers. "I respect those who don't judge others," he says. "Regardless of your wealth or social status, they give you their best wine brewed from old corn. You can walk into their home and pick up a baked small potato from the iron fire basin and eat it.

They feel happy when they are giving. They feel grateful for everything they've got and they treat animals like family members. Their emotions are deep, and they live their lives peacefully with no complaints." "The most touching part is not the stunning scenery but the expressive stories of the villagers," says Li Yizhuang, a professor at Zhongshan University in Guangzhou, who watched the film when it premiered there a week ago.

"Tian has successfully allowed these people, who have never had contact with the outside world, to face the camera and share intimate parts of their lives." One criticism is on the interviews with the villagers. Some say they are too long and a bit boring, but Tian defends the unedited style. "The local language is much longer than Mandarin," says Tian. "I didn't want to emphasize my questions. I just chatted with them and didn't cut their stories in case I distorted what they were trying to say.

I just left the camera running. Sometimes the translator totally forgot I was there and chatted happily with the interviewees!" Working in the region, says the director, was like being in an oasis, and his team was reluctant to return home despite working incredibly hard during the shooting.

"Excitement, depression, tiredness, fear and worry. The first day we traveled there, we had 70 horses and 40 people -- it was unforgettable," recalls Tian. "We walked for seven hours to pass through four mountains. My cameraman said his legs couldn't stop trembling. As night fell, the Tibetans chanted Buddhist scripts, which suddenly calmed me down to sleep.

"I want to show this peaceful lifestyle to people in big cities," he adds. "It might just make you feel the warmth of life and be satisfied with it -- that's what I have felt. In this highly material society we have become selfish, greedy and aggressive creatures."

Tian says there are many more stories from that region and hopes to work with other documentary filmmakers. In fact, Tian was born to be a filmmaker. His father Tian Fang was a noted actor in the 1930s and a director at the Beijing Film Studio. His mother, Yu Lan, was a popular 1950s film star, who later became the head of Beijing's Children's Film Studio. "Tian is a very interesting director who has kept the fifth-generation flame burning," says Paul Clark, a New Zealand professor on Chinese films who will publish a book on 10 Chinese fifth-generation directors.

"His films are a product of his own thinking and attitude." "I have grown old but my heart hasn't. Making a film is like building a house, but making a documentary is like digging for an ancient tomb," Tian laughs. "You can estimate but never know what's exactly inside. If you don't have an appreciation for everything that comes your way you might throw valuable things away."

(eastday.com June 14, 2004)

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