This interview has also been translated into Chinese, and can be read in full on the Mettrograph Journal here.
Anyone who has been following interviews given by the Portuguese director Pedro Costa over the past two decades may have noted that, when discussing living filmmakers, a certain name pops up time and again: “Wang Bing is the only one,” Costa said in 2014, a sentiment he’s repeated many times since.
The admiration is mutual. The pair met at festivals in the 2000s—around the time of Costa’s digital turn, from In Vanda’s Room (2000) onwards, to more honestly capture the inhabitants of Fontainhas, a now-razed slum neighborhood of his home city, Lisbon; and of Wang’s nine-hour debut West of the Tracks (2003), and follow-up Fengming, a Chinese Memoir (2007), two investigative chronicles of lives in a volatile and rapidly changing China. They became good friends.
Both Wang and Costa are often viewed as somewhat rebellious, stridently independent artists pursuing a very personal, patient vision of what cinema can and should be. They share a tireless work ethic; a preference for lightweight digital equipment and as-small-as-possible crews; for shooting mountains of footage (in Wang’s case, sometimes thousands of hours); and a commitment to justly depicting those at the margins of society.
There’s also a tendency to make films that grow out of chance encounters—for example, Bitter Money (2016), for which Wang travelled up from Yunnan with some teenage girls he met during the shooting of Three Sisters (2012). They were headed to Zhili to work in a garment factory, a subject Wang returned to in the 2017 single-take installation 15 Hours, and in his 2023 film Youth (Spring), the first entry of a planned trilogy.
Earlier this year, the felt kinship between their practices was given more formal recognition when the Cannes Film Festival paired their newest short works: Wang’s Man in Black and Costa’s The Daughters of Fire. Through dramatically different approaches, their films continue to offer powerful exorcisms of recent history—there’s a shadow of Ventura, the cloudy-eyed, ageing Cape Verdean immigrant haunting the hallways of Costa’s Horse Money (2014) in the figure of exiled composer Wang Xilin, naked and pacing the Paris theater in Man in Black, recounting his experiences in post-revolutionary China.
Connecting over Zoom, Costa, in Lisbon, and Wang, in Paris, where he now lives, reflected on their parallel practices, long friendship, and shared desire for freedom. Immense thanks to Robin Setton for his assistance translating.—Annabel Brady-Brown
Bitter Money (2016)
ANNABEL BRADY-BROWN: When did you first encounter each other’s films? Pedro, I believe you told me that you were on a festival jury when West of the Tracks played and it, uh, inspired high emotions.
PEDRO COSTA: I never do festivals juries, or I’ve never done it since. I was asked to do this jury, the documentary festival in Lisbon [DocLisboa], for its first edition. One of the films was West of the Tracks. It was not the final version, the West of the Tracks as we know it today, it was a little shorter [Ed: The five-hour cut, rather than the nine-hour cut that premiered in 2003]. Me and the three or four other jury members, we had no doubts that it was the film to give the prize to. But we had a problem because we had this woman, from Variety, she was completely opposed. She was really menacing, saying, “If you give a prize to this film, I will—” So we had a lot of trouble. But [in the end] we gave the Grand Prize to Wang Bing. It was quite a bit of money, and I think he used it for film production. This was my first encounter… I think the person from Variety is still working.
WANG BING: [My first encounter] was at the Berlin Film Festival, 2002; Pedro was there and he had heard about my film. I didn’t know him at that time, I didn’t know his films. It was only after, around 2003, that I got to know him. We gradually became more familiar with each other’s work.
The first [film of his] I saw was In Vanda’s Room. It was a pirate DVD. At that time, there were a lot of pirate DVDs of European and American directors on sale in China. Slightly unusual or off-the-beaten-track films were readily available in pirate DVDs in those days, but after the 2000s, gradually, they began to dwindle; they’re hard to get hold of, those kind of films, in China now. And then, Pedro had a film in Cannes: Colossal Youth (2006).
PC: Yeah. In 2006 I was in Cannes with Colossal Youth and I was in competition. I heard that the jury in Cannes proceeded the same way as with Wang Bing. One of them—I think it was the president—said he would resign if Colossal Youth had a prize. So, we are even.
ABB: Though you’ve independently reached your own ideas about filmmaking, both of your practices are driven by a set of beliefs that often overlap. In your discussions about filmmaking, is there anything you strongly disagree on?
WB: I’ve got to the point where I don’t really feel the need or temptation to look at a film thinking what I like about it, what I don’t like, what I’m for, what I’m against. I focus on trying to understand what the artistic intention is, and what the concept of cinema is, as shown in that film.
O Sangue (1989)
PC: Every time I see one of Wang Bing’s films, I feel that I should probably have more confidence, or I should trust a little more some things that I don’t trust. I still need a lot of retouching or rhetoric to make a film. I need what we call “fiction,” or something like that. I’m not saying that Wang Bing is just doing documentaries—that’s a word I don’t think we like that much—but I need to organize reality in a way so that it still very much belongs to the rhetoric of cinema… I need a lot of things from cinema, [whereas] each time I see one of his films, it’s freer, I think, than mine are. I’ve always said that reality helps him a lot, and reality bothers me a lot, it creates obstacles and difficulties that I have to solve and jump over. So I build, I start building. I do much more complicated things.
WB: Yeah, it’s interesting. But my understanding of what Pedro has just said, my explanation is that his point of departure, his starting point for making a film, is not the same as mine. He has behind him the whole background of European cinema—there’s a very strong, rich tradition common across Italian, Spanish, French, Portuguese [filmmakers], and other countries—and that is very different from the Chinese filmmaking environment; the whole idea of how you start with a seed, that leads to the growth into a tree, that becomes the film.
When Pedro talks about his need to sort of cinematize reality, to me, that is something that flows naturally from his film education, his film background—his conditioning, if you like. Whereas my film background, what conditioned me, there’s no similar tradition in China; the only tradition is a Communist filmmaking rhetoric. I have no historical basis provided to me for a starting point. There’s a traditional rhetoric, if you can call it that, in China, but that is one I can’t accept. I have to scrap the whole thing and start from scratch. So the difference [between us]: it’s almost as if when Pedro Costa makes a film, he is starting from the North Pole and I am starting from the South Pole.
In other words, the obstacles and challenges Pedro describes that he faces when making a film, I don’t think they’re so much his personal challenges, due to him himself, but they’re placed there by history, and by the demands of that conditioning. I can be more relaxed in my circumstances, starting from scratch, because I don’t have to consider or take into account any older forms; I don’t have to follow an idiom or do anything that responds to a certain cinema tradition, I can freewheel. At the same time, while I seem more free and vigorous for that reason, there’s also a naivety to my films, there’s something childish about them, compared to these films against a traditional backdrop. Pedro’s films are made more powerful by their cultural connection to a long filmic tradition.
Youth (Spring) (2023)
PC: I would say, Wang Bing, everything that you’ve said you are, and that your films have, it’s true. But Wang Bing is unique today in the sense that he has always had this subject, this reality, that is very obvious and natural, it’s almost organic: it’s his body, it’s China. When you have such a subject—such a landscape, human and psychological and historical—you can probably say to yourself, “This is my film, this is cinema, for me, China.” I don’t have that. I’ve done films about certain communities in my country, filming people who are misplaced, who are immigrants in my country—and I think it says a lot about what I want to do, and which side I’m on—but they’re not my country.
[Wang Bing] can immediately do something which is very, very difficult in film to have at the same time: the particular, the personal, the individual, and the general, the whole community. He has that. And he does it beautifully. There were a few filmmakers, great filmmakers, in the past who could do that also: some Russians, [Alexander] Dovzhenko for instance. Wang Bing is one of those, he is of that race. He has this thematic flow. Nobody else does today. I don’t know if it’s an advantage or a punishment, it must be both… Probably now, much more a punishment than anything else.
WB: It’s hard to say, what we can do or not do in film depends on the society we’re in. It can go any way… I have no way of predicting what the future holds.
PC: People say we are marginal, or documentary [filmmakers], or difficult filmmakers. That puts us in a sort of prison. But even with all these limitations—from society, and from film itself—I still feel that Wang Bing has this confidence vis-à-vis reality that that will always be there for him. It’s a two-way conversation he has with reality. He talks to reality and reality talks back to him. And he solves some mysteries, much more than I do.
Casa de Lava (1994)
ABB: In interviews over the years, and even in this conversation, both of you have often spoken about this desire to be “free” in your filmmaking. Sometimes that’s practical, at other times, it’s more philosophical. Do you believe there is such a thing as a free filmmaker?
WB: I can only tell you from my experience, from my very first contact with cinema. First of all, none of the films I’ve made correspond to my idea of an ideal film. In my country, the environment from the very start imposed very, very big restrictions. You had to follow certain guidelines for the plot, for the ideology you portrayed; follow certain procedures, rules, approvals; work with the authorities; always comply with the current reality or the current focus. And I refuse that. Because there were so many obstacles, that’s what made me try to be a free filmmaker. We seek freedom when we lack it; that’s what drives us to seek it.
PC: As you know, I had a different experience from Wang Bing’s. I began working in film in a very classic, conventional way; I was assistant director for 10 years, and then I was doing all kinds of jobs, assistant production, etc. Eventually, I did my first film [O Sangue, 1989], and second [Casa de Lava, 1994], and so on. I began inside the conventional ways of doing films, let’s say, with crews, and with the very strong presence of money, which gave this way of doing films a very conventional form. I saw the worst things… the worst things you can see in film, they were like a mirror to the worst things in the capitalistic society. What I learned was to hate this way of doing films. And for a moment, I thought I had a problem because I didn’t want to do this kind of awful job for the rest of my life. I thought I had an artistic problem because I wanted to make films, but I couldn’t do it this way.
Suddenly one day, after two or three films, I understood that it was a production problem; I needed to get away from this this commercial way of making films, to find a certain kind of freedom, or the possibility, or a very small margin of freedom. So I did: I just went far away. I made In Vanda’s Room—alone, with a video camera, a little camcorder, the first camcorder that was around—and I began the second part of my filmmaker’s life.
[Since then] I’ve been doing my films with two or three people. It’s much more domestic, let’s say, we do it at home. It’s very low budget, of course—it’s difficult to get money, difficult to convince people to give me money... [But] this way, I’m a bit more free. At least I’m away from the show-off world of the conventional cinema. But I still create, or fantasize, a lot of limitations for myself, just to work. Sometimes I think I need to be closed inside four walls in order to look at the world.
Annabel Brady-Brown is an editor at Metrograph, and the co-founder of Fireflies Press.
Three Sisters (2012)