Dear American Viewers
Reflections on the film "Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue" by Jia Zhang-ke
“Dear American Viewers…” This how the most recent documentary I watched opened. It was a message from the director, Jia Zhangke; in it he talks about why he made the film but most of it is to provide context about the people and places in the film. This was the first time a director has done this in a film I’ve watched, and it worked really well. Context is everything in a documentary, a scene of someone sitting in a coffee shop can be lonely and sad or a powerful testament to their perseverance; all with the right context. But the other and arguably more important thing that the monologue did was place me (the viewer) in the correct frame of mind. We can’t get lost in the world of the film when the first eight minutes is the director talking about the region of northwestern China that the interviews take place in. I was still mesmerized by the film, this in no way took away from the impact or how cinematic the film and specifically the interviews were. Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue is a masterclass on how to frame and choose interview locations.
Instead of the entire frame devoted to the interview it feels like a slice of life observational shot and the interviewee has joined the moment.
The first one is an old man talking about growing up in rural china, he’s sitting on one side of a round table in a kitchen. On the other are multiple generations of his family making dumplings, talking, living their life. The sound design is perfect, at no point do we struggle with understanding and focusing on the old man yet we can hear the white noise of life, not room tone. Combined with the activity, this creates a dynamic and cinematic interview that so few talking head documentaries are able to do. Another interview has a writer sitting at the outdoor tables of a coffee shop and you see life happening in the background, blurry and fuzzy. The last one I’ll touch on takes place in the front section of a seamstress shop. The door to the front is behind the interviewee but also behind camera you can hear just enough comings and goings of the workers, subsequently you also see motion outside the store. In all of these there was motion and depth to the shot, between the camera and the subject but also the subject and background.
At nearly two hours long (excluding opening monologue) this film pushes the boundaries for a talking head documentary in my mind. At the same time I don’t have a scene or story from interview I can really say “has to go”. Each story, moment and scene builds upon previous. Towards the end we see the son of one of the writers unable to speak in the dialect of the town his mother is from and where he spent part of his child hood. At face value, yeah sure, I get it; kids these days are forgetting where they come from. But after seeing, hearing and learning about the cultural shift that’s happened in a 5,000 year old civilization in the past 50 years, it hits home; to a white guy from Seattle who’s never been to China and before “Dear Americans..” had no idea a town in northwest China was home to some of the most influential writers in the country.
One reason I particularly love this film is I was able to take away a lot as a filmmaker not simply a viewer.
I’m going to be approaching how I frame my interviews differently now, a focus on adding depth as much as I can and motion when appropriate. A lot of the interviews also used objects in the foreground, blurred; that I found quite nice, yet unobtrusive to the overall shot. It’s a film I’m going to re-watch over the years and use as a reference in my own work and if I’m successful maybe one day I can start out a film “ Dear Chinese viewers…”