TORONTO — Chinese artist Xu Bing has made a career out of appropriating and recontextualizing objects and cultural artifacts, while playing with a viewer’s sense of recognition of such materials. His first major work, “A Book from the Sky” (1987–91) was an installation of what looked like traditional books and scrolls, but the writing on them, while looking like Chinese characters, was completely meaningless. In 1990, for “Ghosts Pounding the Wall,” he made rubbings on the Great Wall. He authored Book from the Ground, a novel written entirely in symbols, meant to be understood by anyone in the world.
Now, Xu has premiered his first feature film, Dragonfly Eyes, at the Toronto International Film Festival. The movie tells a story of love and obsession through footage culled entirely from videos uploaded to Chinese streaming sites. While there are clips from vlogs and dashboard cameras, most of the images are from personal, consumer-bought surveillance cameras which stream 24/7. The result is an omniscient, omnipresent, voyeur’s eye view of the world. We sat down with Xu and a translator at the festival to talk about how he put this film together.
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Dan Schindel: What are these Chinese sites where users post surveillance video, of all things?
Xu Bing: There are maybe four or five big websites that stream the content of security cameras. People can buy these cameras and set them up to stream to the sites, and everybody can watch the broadcast. They started to appear in 2015. There are lots of people who are willing to share their lives or footage this way.
We went to meet some of the people who posted videos we used in the film, to ask their permission. [Depending on privacy settings], some streams have GPS locations, and we can go to find them. We were surprised there was a stream from a Buddhist temple, for example. The reason they do this is to make an advertisement about them, so that believers will come. Also, it shows the practice of Buddhism, like prayers and rituals, to outsiders.
DS: Did you start with a script and then find the footage you needed for it, or did the footage you find dictate the story as you made the film?
XB: From the streaming channels, we knew what kind of locations we could have, and so the writers [Yongming Zhai and Hanyi Zhang] wrote the script based on that. There was a lot of footage from the temple and a milk factory, so we used those as main settings.
When they started to write the story, the main idea was to make it about plastic surgery. They knew that there would not be one real person in the streams to follow — we needed to have several, maybe ten. So we had to change the face of the main character a few times.
When we started editing, we had the script, which was written the same as any normal feature film script. But we sometimes couldn’t find the “actors” performing what the script needed, so we changed it based on the footage we were able to find. So it was really a collaboration between the script, the streams, and the editor, and changing all the time. Sometimes new footage would appear on a website that was good, so we’d try to put it in the film, adding new scenes or dialogue.
DS: What is an example of such a change you’d make?
XB: What is very complex is that in all this footage we find, these people are not acting for us, but we need to match our dialogue to their lips and their emotions, facial expressions, things like this. In hours of footage, we need to find maybe the two people in a frame who are matching the dialogue of the scene and the physical gestures of the characters. When we found a good part, we’d adapt the written dialogue to better sync to their lip movements and expressions.
DS: You incorporate footage of accidents – a woman falling in a river, a collapsing construction site, a plane crash – that aren’t part of the story. What was the purpose of your inclusion of that material?
XB: Action like this is something very specific to surveillance camera footage. These cameras are rolling 24 hours, so they are able to record these types of events, which take place in one or two seconds, which normal film crews cannot catch, not as easily. Seeing all these accidents, it made my vision of the world change a bit. It shows that as a society, we cannot control everything. Anything can happen at any minute. This film is about a very classical, intimate love story between two people. I wanted to put that story inside this dangerous world, and see how all this danger can have an effect on this simple love story.
DS: A lot of your work involves appropriating and cobbling together material. This film seems like an extension of this.
XB: The work of mine I compare it most to is Book from the Ground. With both Dragonfly Eyes and Book from the Ground, I started out on them working with material that was not very mature at the time. During the 10 years of making the book, the use of emoticons exploded. They were everywhere, and now in all of the countries, we are using mostly the same emoticons.
With Dragonfly Eyes, it’s the same, I think. When I started in 2013, there wasn’t much surveillance footage one could find. And then in 2015, all these streaming websites appeared, and we could get a lot of material.
DS: What effect do you think this self-recording has on people, on society?
XB: The connection between people nowadays and surveillance cameras is very different from how it was during the Cold War. Until recently, surveillance cameras were all controlled by the government. But now individuals, citizens, can use them for themselves. That’s something very new. It’s a way for them to express themselves and prove themselves to the world — a way to put a mark on the world. Nowadays, we’re like a post-surveillance civilization. You can say that Dragonfly Eyes is a post-surveillance film.
DS: If everyone is doing it, then it’s not surveillance; it’s a new level of reality.
XB: In Chinese, the word for surveillance is jiānkòng. Jiān means “watching,” and kòng means “control.” So when people stream their own surveillance footage, they feel they are in control.