Writer/Director Hu Wei is on a roll. Having gathered an impressive 70 international awards and 200 further nominations, his short film ‘Butter Lamp’ is nominated for an Academy Award tonight.
Butter Lamp sees a young photographer and his assistant attempt to weave unique links between various Tibetan nomads by convincing them to have their picture taken against different backdrops..
After Nyne were delighted to meet Hu Wei to enter the mind behind this highly original film.
Hu Wei, great to meet you. Tell us to start..why a career in filmmaking? Was there that one inspirational moment?
At first I wanted to be a painter, but I found out pretty quickly that I was not good enough to be a painter. Also, ever since I was a little child, I always wanted to share my dreams but when I was telling them to my friends, they were always disappointed, they couldn’t find the interest in them. Later on, I remember that I went to see a movie with a few friends, but during the screening I fell asleep. Afterwards when we stepped outside of the theatre, my friends asked me what I thought about the film and said that I slept through it. When I asked him what he thought about it, and he told me that the film felt like a dream to him, sleeping at some points, but awake at others. I understood at that time, that sharing dreams is impossible with words, we can only reach the limited amount through language, but with film, you can show all emotion. So, today, I throw myself into my work as a filmmaker, so that I can express the dreams I have in mind.
What was the genesis of the idea for Butter Lamp?
I think the still frame is what works tremendously in this film and that its propose is such a radical dispositive than if you would throw out its still frame and image. This way it creates a wide open door for your imagination.
Watching Butter Lamp it occurred to me that a connection between film and photography; the moving and the still image are reflected upon – cinema not only as an offshoot of literature but also fundamentally of photography and painting. What are your thoughts on such an assessment and how it ties into your short film?
I think cinema is a particular art. The only art that cinema is close to would be music. These are the only two arts that build up and play with time laps. When I make a painting or when I look at a photo, the work is done and it is dead already. But cinema shows the process of it. When I make films I always think a lot about temporality.
With Butter Lamp were you also consciously trying to emphasis the story of the creative process as well as the story capable of being held and expressed within just a single still image?
Once again throw out it’s still image and the dynamics change considerably, the propose was to create a short open window of the world. I need the emphasis of the audience to enter that window and from what he sees, so he can imagine the rest of the world and create it him selves.
Butter Lamp appears to address or touch upon the manipulation of the idea of ‘truth and image’, and how the image or creative art forms whilst deriving from reality are able to create an ‘independent truth’ or ‘reality’ within the still and moving images? Your thoughts on how Butter Lamp relates to this idea?
If we talk about reality, then it concerns the consciousness of each of us. If we talk to someone how doesn’t have the same consciousness as yours, then we cannot settle the same level of reality. So I’ll talk about my personal vision of it.
In my early years of studying in Paris when I was at Beaux Arts de Paris, I studied Michel Foucault and his writings. When I was working on the script of Butter Lamp I always kept these texts in mind.
First there are the utopias. Utopias are sites with no real place. They are sites that have a general relation of direct or inverted analogy with the real space of Society. They present society itself in a perfected form, or else society turned upside down, but in any case these utopias are fundamentally unreal spaces. There are also, probably in every culture, in every civilization, real places — places that do exist and that which are something like counter are formed in the very founding of society — sites, a kind of effectively enacted utopia in which the real sites, all the other real sites that can be found within the culture, are simultaneously represented, contested, and inverted.
Places of this kind are outside of all places, even though it may be possible to indicate their location in reality. Because these places are absolutely different from all the sites that they reflect and speak about, I shall call them, by way of contrast to utopias, heterotopias. I believe that between utopias and these quite other sites, these heterotopias, there might be a sort of mixed, joint experience, which would be the mirror. The mirror is, after all, a utopia, since it is a placeless place. In the mirror, I see myself there where I am not, in an unreal, virtual space that opens up behind the surface; I am over there, there where I am not, a sort of shadow that gives my own visibility to myself, that enables me to see myself there where I am absent: such is the utopia of the mirror.
But it is also a heterotopia in so far as the mirror does exist in reality, where it exerts a sort of counteraction on the position that I occupy. From the standpoint of the mirror I discover my absence from the place where I am since I see myself over there. Starting from this gaze that is, as it were, directed toward me, from the ground of this virtual space that is on the other side of the glass, I come back toward myself; I begin again to direct my eyes toward myself and to reconstitute myself there where I am. The mirror functions as a heterotopia in this respect: it makes this place that I occupy at the moment when I look at myself in the glass at once absolutely real, connected with all the space that surrounds it, and absolutely unreal, since in order to be perceived it has to pass through this virtual point which is over there.
(cf Michel Foucault – « Des espaces autres – 1967).
When we settled to prepare the shooting, we had the background picture in front of the mountains. Opposite of it, facing the camera, we had the Tibetan people. This place that we created became a heterotopia just as a theatre where cinema is screened is also a heterotopic place. So when people look at the movie I want them to have that kind of confused feeling for example when you are in front of a mirror seeing yourself or, as the movie does, seeing an image of two heterotopic places reflecting on one another. The Tibetans are looking at the audience that is looking at them through the camera and the screen.
The presence of the creators of the image or the vocal voice of the photographer – the creator of the image – speaks of the individuality of art through the individual who is often credited with its creation; whether it is the auteur in film, the writer in literature or the painter in art. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on the individual creation versus collaboration especially in film and how it differs to other artistic mediums from your own experiences and point of view.
Each art has its advantage and disadvantages. I’m also a painter, which is an individual art. When my painting is done it stays very close to my original idea. On collective art, like cinema, the result can differ from the original idea. So collective art can get better through the process. It can be stimulated by others people’s ideas. You can sometime go further into your research. But I do not have a preference, I can just identify the differences.
Looking ahead to your feature directorial debut, how invaluable have Butter Lamp and Le Proprietaire been in preparing you for your transition into feature filmmaking?
After those two films, I’m confident into taking a path that exploits a research cinematographic. After those two films, I do believe that cinema has a lot of potential and possibilities. I do not trust when people says that language cinematographic has already been found. I’m convinced that there still is potential of innovation.
Does every film become comparable to a single step of a long journey, and if as Christopher Sharrett says “cinema, at its best, addresses basic questions of daily life”, do you perceive your films say something about you and offer us a window through which to view life or do you view them as a counter to such introspective/reflective ideas?
I totally agree with that quote from Christopher Sharett. Cinema could be like a mirror-less complexion. When you have light you can see, but when it is dark you see yourself in introspection. So it is not just a widow, it is more a mirror.
Writer-directors often talk to me about how the two inform one another – how as they are writing they are in fact directing. How do you view the way that writing, directing and editing processes all inform one another?
Writing, directing and editing are three very different processes. Writing is intimate work; you do it alone. Directing is a collective one. And I would say that editing appears to be like installation work, using ready made ‘objects’ made by the camera. But each step takes re-writing of the story, going out through those three different processes. The writing is fundamental in terms of the work that has to be made on the writing. It is, for me, the hardest phase in creating a film. Again it is a very personal response, it might not share my opinion with other directors.
What is the place of the short film in modern day cinema?
Being a filmmaker is working on duration of time. You succeed into working on a short duration, by using rhythm, silence, speed or anything related to it. I think that we cannot discredit a short film only due to his short duration; it is the same as a long feature films. In literature we have major writers, recognized everywhere in the world, who got there noble of art through novels that they have written. We don’t judge them because of the length of their novels, and I think it should be the same in cinema.
With long form television drama in the midst of a golden age, do you think that film could be described as a short form medium and if so what does this do to redefine short films?
Yes, it is a golden age for television today, but we still need poetry. For me, short film is poetry.
I read that your intentions were, “to create a film between fiction and documentary, reality and drama, modern civilization and traditional habits.” This strikes me as being the essence of cinema that in telling stories finds itself between reality and drama, the screen in its own way capable of being defined as reality, and the ability of film through globalization to more than ever cross over boundaries. For you what is it that allows cinema to be able to achieve this?
The idea that I like to bring through my filmmaking is to propose some kind of a reality that is not objective, a vision of the world where the audience have the place to create their own fiction using their imagination. Film should not give answers to the audience but let them be built in each spectators mind.
Can you share with us anything about your upcoming projects?
I’m working on a new short film. It will be a very mysterious film; its form should be a little more close to a more classical live action film, following one character inside a strange and outstanding forest and lake. I am shooting this summer.