[Editor’s note: An abridged version of this interview originally appeared on the Grolsch Film Works website. This is the full transcript.]
Shun Li and the Poet, in UK cinemas now, is the beautifully observed story of the titular Chinese immigrant (Xhao Tao) who finds herself unexpectedly transferred from a textiles factory on the outskirts of Rome to Chiogga, a small Venetian fishing village. Lonely and concerned only with attaining the documents to secure the safe import of her 8-year-old son, she strikes up a tentative friendship with Bepi (Rade Sherbediga), a friendly fisherman of Slavic origin.
I thoroughly enjoyed this tender and poetic film, so it was a delight to sit down with its director, the charming – and wondrously bearded – Andrea Segre, for a chat.
[PPH in bold]: It’s obvious you come at the story from a humanistic perspective. How did your previous work on social issue documentaries and ethnographic studies influence you?
[Segre in regular]: When people ask me why I have an interest in this story as a filmmaker, the answer is that the direction is the opposite. I reached the cinema – became a filmmaker – starting from the interests I had in this story. I didn’t study cinema. I studied sociology and started to have an interest in these topics, these lives. I didn’t know that I wanted to be a director. I became a director through just speaking about this stuff. The reason I had an interest in the story is that it’s related to my experience. I grew up in a country that wasn’t an immigration country. In my class at school in Italy, we were all Italians, in the village. Nowadays in the village in my daughter’s class, there are children from all around the world. This change in Italy happened in my life; I grew up in the 15-20 years of this change. For me to research the story of this change was very important. I wanted to know what caused the tension in the society; not only the Italian one but others too. To be able somehow to use the normal difficulties you have in intercultural relations in a positive way is one of the most important challenges we have to build a better place, a better world.
How did you research the Chinese story in particular?
I researched it for this film only, I didn’t research especially about China before. Before this film I researched specifically Eastern countries, the Balkan areas, Albania, Moldova, the former Yugoslavia, Ukraine. In 2005 I moved more to the south side of the Mediterranean, to Tunisia, Libya, then to Senegal, Nigeria, Ghana. The research was connected to my sociology research. My thesis was about the social communication of NGOs working in post-civil war Yugoslavia. After that I was working as an academic researcher and an NGO activist/militant. I was working on the policies of securitarian countries against so-called illegal immigrants. All of this ran parallel to my filmmaking interests. I was in the middle of this context of social activism, academic research and the filmmaking profession.
The distribution of my documentaries always has a social and political goal. My documentaries have been used to increase knowledge about the injustices produced by this wave of securitarian politics that the European Union has built in the last ten years. It’s something that makes me interested because one major challenge of the future is if we are going to be able to keep our humanity while we insist on the necessity of controlling our space. We have decided that somehow we have to control people’s movements. But to control someone who is moving because he needs to move, that you have to beat him, put him in prison, deport him? That you have to use violence against a human being who didn’t do anything criminal against you? It’s the human challenge. The human subject of these stories that really interests me. I want my films to be used politically to stop injustices, but what is inside my interests as artist, as a storyteller, is the human tension that everyone can feel. You have to ask yourself if it’s just or not to stop a human being in this way.
Political cinema can sometimes beat the audience over the head with its points. But your film is very subtle in this respect. It’s about the community, the characters and their relationships…
Thank you. Everything started six or seven years when I went to the osteria [fisherman’s bar] that we used in the real film. I knew this osteria because it’s in my mother’s village. It’s like a living room for a fisherman – part of your house! The bar woman plays a very important role in the fishermen’s lives. They speak with, communicate in an intimate way, confide, drink a couple of glasses of wine. She’s the only woman so you speak with her in a way that you don’t speak with the clients. Suddenly she’s Chinese! It’s a difficult change. You don’t have the instrument in your daily life to have an intercultural relationship with her. I’m a fisherman… what is this intercultural relationship!? They started to have a problem, a real one.
Some use this problem to create a public fear. To use it in a xenophobic, demagogic way. That is what the politicians try to do because it is very easy. They say, “your life is going very bad because she is Chinese”. That’s easy and politicians have done that for a long time. But a part of this demagogic side of the problem is that for them it is a [genuine] difficulty, and I thought that was also really important to respect. I didn’t want a stereotypical portrait of them as racists. Yes, there are members of them who are violent and use this fear who don’t have the tools to deal with these difficulties so they react with arrogance. But I try be with them in the film, not to fight against them. In the osteria I involved some of them in the story, they are non-professional actors. They are real Chioggia fisherman. I wanted to build a portrait of this community which was going through an identity crisis. They were born in a poor fisherman’s village and Italy has changed in the last 40 years. We were a poor country made by fishermen, farmers and so on. In the last 20-25 years – even though the recent crisis is changing this again – we became richer and also the identity of the people changed. They know that their world is going to die. In this microcosm I had the opportunity to build a metaphor for what is happening to our country.
The music in the film is powerful. Can you tell me more about it?
Most of the music has been played by the composer Francois Couterrier, but everything started from the piano music you hear when Shun Li first arrives in Chioggia. That is a piano played by an Australian pianist. He tried to build melodies using a destroyed piano. He was trying reveal melodies from an instrument that was no longer producing melodies. I loved this combination of harmony and disharmony and I asked Francois to work in this way. We preferred piano and accordion. We didn’t work on a Chinese atmosphere specifically but maybe we put some in there somehow! What we tried to do was build a harmony between the voice of Shun Li and the music because she is speaking about poetry and it was important to feel that her voice and the music were going well together.
Zhao Tao is wonderful in the lead role. Can you talk about her casting and performance?
I wanted to have her since I saw Still Life, the Jia Zhangke film which won the Golden Lion at Venice in 2006. I really loved the mixture of simplicity and profundity that she has. You believe that she’s a real Chinese woman working in a bar but you feel that she has something else. However, she doesn’t show that she has something else. She finds a way to make you feel what she’s feeling. That is something very difficult and wonderful to do in acting. Another thing that was important for me was that she became an actress with her husband Jia Zhangke and so I knew that she was used to working on the border between documentary and fiction – Zhangke is a master of that. I sent her the script, I asked her if she wanted to play it. She was looking for a project to play outside of China. She’d only ever been to Italy once (for the Venice festival) and for her it was great for her to a play an emigrating Chinese woman for the first time she acted out of Italy.
With Rade [Sherbediga] when I asked him to play Bepi, he said, “How did you know I was an actor as well as a fisherman?!” I didn’t know!
Though it’s being released now, the film was made in 2011. What have you been up to since?
Well, the life of the film has been incredible. But after Shun Li and the Poet, I made a documentary called Closed Sea. It’s the story of the pushing back policy of the Italian police against the immigrants coming from Libya. After that I made another documentary about music in Greece that’s also about the economic crisis. That’s called Indebito. And I made a feature which will hopefully screen later this year in Venice, called The First Snow. It’s a story based in a small valley in the mountains of Northern Italy, about a son who has lost a father, and a father who doesn’t know how to be a father to be his daughter. This son is Italian and the father is African. I’m always trying not to make political cinema, but to make a cinema that doesn’t stress its political content to the audience, rather it makes the audience think about it.
Shun Li and the Poet is released on 21 June at Renoir and Curzon Home Cinema.