"Get your protective suit": How Chen Weixi gains access to news events in China
Issue #19: In part 2 of our exclusive Q&A, Chen talks about capturing decisive moments and his Oscar-shortlisted film 76 Days.
Beimeng here. In our previous issue, I spoke with Chen Weixi about his short film "Happiness Is £4 Million," which tells the story of an intern's tricky assignment to interview China's most successful real estate investor. We explored the film’s storyline, ethics, and differing reception within China and internationally. I hope you liked it. If you haven’t read it yet, here’s a shortcut to part 1 of the Q&A.
This week, our continuing conversation delves into how Chen always seems to make the right call, be it gaining access to impossible places or collaborating to grow a larger international audience. What impresses me the most is his unmatched editing speed churning out films with high production values, matched with an uncanny ability to show up in developing news scenes. Chen always seems to be able to capture stories closeup and transport his audience to impossible places while the news is still hot.
Two examples bear this out. Early in the pandemic, Wuhan’s hospitals were one of these “impossible news sites” that no one could document , but Chen managed to get a story out as early as March 9, 2020, a little more than a month into Wuhan’s unprecedented lockdown, with his 33-minute documentary The Sixth Floor: Wuhan Critical Care Unit, published by Esquire China (we wrote about it here). Some of its stories and footage were later included in the Oscar-shortlisted 76 Days (2020).
Then, when Henan province experienced historic flooding in the summer of 2021, Chen filmed from a rescue boat, capturing the surreality of dense urban areas underwater.
So how does Chen do it all? Before we delve into his answer, we’d like to share with you a reflection post on our learnings from participating in the Newmark J-School’s Entrepreneurial Journalism Creator Program. Our post is titled, “Why we need local perspectives to visualize China”.
In the piece, we talk about our journey starting this newsletter, our accomplishments, and the importance of sufficient revenue as one of the three crucial pillars of sustainability. If you enjoy our work, we kindly ask for your support by becoming a paid subscriber and helping us spread the word. Your support is essential to keeping this newsletter going.
Beimeng: I remember when The Sixth Floor was first published by Esquire China, it beat other publications in both speed and quality. That was early March 2020, when the story was still developing and there was a lack of understanding about the virus. How did you get access to hospitals in Wuhan?
Weixi: On the eighth or ninth day after I got to Wuhan in January 2020, I saw a post on my cousin’s WeChat Moments. It was about people she knew at a Nanjing hospital who were flying to Wuhan to help fight Covid. I immediately asked her for a contact and got in touch with the team. They also wanted to document what they were doing for publicity, but they wouldn’t let me join them because they might be held accountable if anything happened. They agreed to meet me, though, so I brought my camera to the airport.
I only shot for a bit. Then I put down my camera and helped them with their equipment. I followed their bosses everywhere, trying to flatter them, which really increased my standing with the team.
They asked for permission for me to film, on my behalf. But everyone was too busy to make any decisions, from the hospital they were stationed in, to the general manager of their hospital back home to the propaganda department of the local district. So I just showed up every day in the hospital and tried to make a good impression, even though I was still not allowed into the medical wards.
On the day they were ready to receive new patients, I asked the general manager again. I said, “I’m really moved by your hard work. I want to document the heroic moment of you receiving the first patient.” The manager was quite emotional. He patted me on my shoulder, and said, “OK. Go get your protective suit.”
Honestly speaking, I don’t know how to think about this film now. In 2022, even as our understanding of COVID-19 had evolved (along with the virus and its variants), the country was still treating Covid the same way it did when I was filming the story. I felt uncomfortable about it but I figured I was being completely honest when documenting scenes in the hospital.
Beimeng: Did you fall ill?
Weixi: I think I did. I got a fever on my second day in Wuhan and it lasted for seven days. I even wrote my will.
Beimeng: You are really good at getting access. Can you speak a bit more about how you communicate with people?
Weixi: There are many different types of stories, and I’m good at dealing with certain types of people. For example, I’m not very good at having a deep conversation with, say, academics, because I don’t think I have the intellectual depth. However, I’m good at dealing with marginalized people, for example small-town residents, local hooligans, or street vendors. I’m also good at dealing with the police. It would be awkward for me to try to strike up a conversation with introverts.
Beimeng: How do you deal with hooligans specifically?
Weixi: It’s actually quite easy if you let yourself blend into their group. Caixin did a story about opioid abuse among young people in some Shenyang clubs. The medicines they took were widely available at pharmacies.
Photographer Ding Gang and I found an apartment building full of young people who were using opioids so we went undercover first. We went into one apartment and quickly mingled with them. We followed them to karaoke bars, drinking, smoking and chatting. We did everything except take the drug, and they began to see us as one of them. Then we told them why we were there, and asked if we could document their opioid use. We also offered to protect their identity, coming up with ways of filming them without exposing their face. Eventually, they agreed to be filmed.
Beimeng: Did you manage to get their trust on the first day? Or did it take a while?
Weixi: It took two or three days.
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Beimeng: You worked with Hao Wu, an acclaimed US-based documentary director and producer, first on 76 Days, then for Happiness is £4 Million. It seems that Wu was a crucial person who introduced you and your work to an international audience. Can you tell us about how you met and how you started working together?
Weixi: I’ve never studied abroad, but Hao Wu and I have many mutual friends, because more than half of my peers working in documentary film in China have studied abroad before. I got to know him when I had just started filming in Wuhan. For me, the Wuhan lockdown seemed like a once-in-a-lifetime event, so I went on my own. I had a discussion with my workplace and we agreed that I’d self-fund my trip and see what I could film. I didn’t think I’d make a feature documentary film at the time.
Beimeng: So how do you work together now?
Weixi: First of all, he’s a good friend of mine now. We call each other every now and then. We talk about random things, but we also discuss story ideas. He has seen the raw footage for most of my films. I like to receive his feedback on my stories and to see if he’s interested in working as a producer for my films. So for me he’s a very good friend, someone from the previous generation that I look up to.
Beimeng: Your training and practice are all based in China, but Hao Wu has been in the U.S. for years. You could say that he’s good at making films and telling China’s stories for a western audience. What are some of the different approaches or sensibilities he brings to the editing room?
Weixi: If we don’t take into account cultural differences, he’s good at keeping the balance while editing. In a way, he’s removing some of the edges I have as an auteur. In Happiness is £4 Million, his editing made Ou a more three-dimensional character. He put in some of the footage we didn’t use, introducing who Ou is. It’s hard to say if he’s doing it for a western audience. For me, he’s just providing more context, making it easier to understand the story, especially for people who know very little about China.
Beimeng: Do you have a “core issue” that you pursue in your career? I couldn’t tell just by watching your films. You don’t have to have one, though, I’m just asking out of personal experience as I find myself losing interest in telling stories like Ou’s.
Weixi: I’d previously been focused on current events and social issues. However, as I reflect on my work, I realize that I am someone who seeks novelty, and through chasing that, I try to express something meaningful and valuable to society.
It's fascinating for me to be able to immerse myself in the lives of others, and interact with people I would otherwise never encounter. My background is in journalism, and my previous films were mainly for the general public. But I'm no longer as preoccupied with news as I used to be. I think all my films, from Happiness Is £4 Million and 76 days, to the Vagrant Master (currently in production, about a drifter whose life spins out of control after finding viral fame for being a bookworm) reflect a certain public sentiment of the times.
Who we are:
Yan Cong is a former photojournalist currently pursuing a research MA in new media and digital culture in Amsterdam.
Beimeng Fu is a video journalist based in Shanghai. She is a lover of languages and documentaries.
Ye Charlotte Ming is a journalist and visual editor covering stories about culture, history, and identity. She’s based in Berlin.
Interviewer: Beimeng Fu; Editor and Translator: Yan Cong and Ye Charlotte Ming; Copy editor: Krish Raghav
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