Su Qing: Life Extended in Documentary Films

China notes

Born and raised in Inner Mongolia and now living in Beijing, Su is an independent documentary film director who worked at Chongqing TV and China Central Television between 1998 and 2002. During that time, several of his productions were released globally, including the TV serial drama Chinese Cultural Relics and the documentary series the Stories of the Chinese People. He then started to work freelance, with several of his works thereafter, such as the White Tower, the Age of Sign Language, Mr. Tang, and My Dear Beloved, throwing a spotlight on the lives of disabled people in China.

In the Songzhuang Art Park of Tongzhou District, Beijing, sits a Sichuan-style restaurant called Mina. The sun shines through its large plank roof. A couple of bamboo tables and chairs lay in the yard, with pots of plants dotted in between as if echoing the greenery on the outside. Photos of rock and roll stars like John Lennon and Bob Dylan hang on the walls, exuding an artistic aura that is part of Songzhuang.

Artists flock to this area to pursue their careers, forming the largest art community ever seen in Beijing or indeed anywhere else in the country. At its height a few years back, Songzhuang was a hive of activity. Following film premieres or art shows, Mina was the place to go for meals, drinks and chats. Its owner Su Qing said that he felt good when one day he strolled around and found that everyone had a familiar face. Now Mina’s name has travelled far and wide, welcoming more and more new customers who come to enjoy not only its graceful environment but, more importantly, the service – all of the service staff are deaf. Besides running the restaurant, Su and his wife have a main line of business: independent documentary filming. And their “subjects” are all people with disabilities.

At Mina, a request for service requires you to raise your hand as a gesture to attract attention. Then the waiter places your order on a food delivery EPOS. A smartphone or a pen could be used for more elaborate communication. This gives the restaurant an unusual air of tranquility until late towards the evening, when a folk music band springs to life, adding a touch of fun.

On Fridays, Su hurries to the restaurant around 5 PM. The business owner loves to catch up with old customers, while addressing urgent matters with the band. Dressed in jeans topped off by a fedora hat, Su first greets all the acquaintances and friends, old and new, as he enters. He looks cool, but he speaks in a rather slow and patient tone. In these years, by running the restaurant and making documentaries, he has tried to show a line between the able-bodied and the disabled and bring the two communities closer.

Documentary filming: time of companionship

There are quite a few difficulties to overcome when working as an independent documentary director: low viewing figures, tricky releases, and low profits. Of all his productions since 2001, only the Age of Sign Language is available to be viewed online. The toughest days are now over. With a steady source of income from the catering business to live on, more opportunities arise as more people get to know both his restaurant and his films.

When he was young, Su was always close to his deaf brother, who often came home with classmates. By observing their interaction, he became the only family member with a knowledge of sign language. His parents had to rely on him to communicate with their eldest son. Once during the Spring Festival holiday, his brother “told” Su, who by then had left to work in Chongqing and came back only once a year: “I don’t come back when you’re away. Not much fun here as I can’t talk with our parents. Things are a lot better with you around.” It was only then that Su came to realize how lonely his brother felt.

Su moved to Beijing in 2001 as he was looking for a better place to pursue his goal of filming documentaries about the deaf community. This was a decision he made right from the start, wishing to shed light on people like his brother.

In 2002, Su started his first production in Zhengzhou City, Henan. One year later, the White Tower, the love story of a deaf man named Jingming, was premiered at the Marseille Festival of Documentary Film and was a surprise winner of the First Film Award and the Renaud Victor Award. He did not make the film just to win awards but rather in memory of his brother, who died unexpectedly in 2006. What’s more, he wanted to give a voice to the deaf community. Next came the Age of Sign Language, a documentary film of an investigative nature featuring the deaf community. It was filmed in many cities across the country, with a focus on deaf people’s concerns in education, employment, and marriage. The interviewees gave an account of their experiences in front of the camera using sign language. All was in silence, yet emotionally powerful, inviting the audience to understand and sympathize as the sad or dignified stories unfolded.

Su Qing
Su Qing

Su would not easily change his narrative style. He knew that the audience loves stories that have a fair share of twists and turns, ups and downs, tension and release. He knew how to cut the footage to control the emotional flow. But he never did that. He never wanted to show how his protagonists worked things out or overcame difficulties. Instead, he wanted his filming process to be some kind of companionship for them and a way to identify with their joys and sorrows. He hoped that his audience would emotionally share the amount of care, love, and openness he tried to convey through his works. Doubts were unavoidable. “What is your film trying to sell to the audience?” He was asked. “Just feelings” was his reply. “Do you mean you’ve put feelings up for sale?”

In 2011, he started to film My Dear Beloved in the same city – Zhengzhou. Out of all the special schools he had investigated the previous time, he chose a better one, hoping to prevent his protagonists from being subjected to an overdose of sympathy and use. The film has a gentle touch, featuring the girls’ memorable faces. The deaf child, Li Cong, introduces her tortoise in sign language: “Pretty loves to look at herself in the mirror, she’s so conceited.” Another girl called Hanzi is practicing hugs with her instructor. Yet another blind girl named Wang Yiwen, in a brightly sunlit classroom, is singing the famous Italian aria Caro Mio Ben (My Dear Beloved) – after which the film is named. Not a single story was narrated in full; only a miscellany of scenes of genuine daily activities was presented, with the children’s inner feelings trickling out under phoenix trees on campus. Su hoped that this pure depiction of personal growth amid everyday trivia would allow the audience to enter the children’s world and to experience lives that are similar to, yet different from, their own.

The phoenix trees in this film are as old as the school itself. For 50 years, they have grown together with generations of students. Su used them to symbolize companionship for the children, the kind of company that the audience, the trees, the teachers and parents, and obviously Su himself have provided.

My Dear Beloved took five years to finish. Initially, Su feared that whatever he said might hurt the children’s feelings. A simple greeting like “long time, no see” would cause a great deal of trepidation when addressed to a blind child. After a while, he found the children much less sensitive than he was. “They are extraordinarily expressive and visually inspiring.” A slant angle against backlight was found best to film these blind children. Some viewers observed, “The director loved the children in his scenes so much that he did not want to intrude. The children were just left in their most natural and authentic state.” In a narrative pattern with no beginning, development, climax, or end, Su was still able to bring his audience along and let them feel his care for his characters.

When asked whether he would accept funding to film a documentary with strong tensions and a clear story line that moves the audience to laughter and tears, Su gave a resounding answer: “No, I definitely would not.” His next production, titled “The Singing Just Around the Corner”, tells of a blind lady pursuing her education with the Shanghai Conservatory of Music. She is none other than one of the characters in My Dear Beloved – Wang Yiwen. Cost and time wise, few would be willing to track the growth of a blind child across a span of ten years since the previous film, but Su has done it.

Catering business: only a means of subsistence

Man sitting crosslegged“I always feel that those young people in whose company I spent so long would soon be forgotten when the filming was over.” This upset Su. “They provided me with source material, but there was no way for me to bring substantial change to their lives. I’ve had my films broadcast on TV and my messages discussed, but the people I interviewed received nothing. It was as though nothing ever happened.” This is why Su, thinking that he might as well follow a more practical path, decided to open a restaurant in Songzhuang with his wife Mina and hire deaf workers as an extension of his films. From renovation to menu design to logistics to recruitment, the couple were on their own. Step by step they built up the business from scratch. The manager, Chen Fangfang, a main character in the Age of Sign Language, was the first of their deaf employees. Now 12 deaf workers are on board.

“If we are in any way different from other ‘silent restaurants’, it’s that I’ve never intended to exploit them, to use them as a money-making gimmick.” Quite a few of Su’s friends asked him to refer some deaf people to their companies, but he would only do so on one condition: the employer must know sign language. “No sign language means no communication and no reciprocity. The use of sign language can change that. It enables a normal exchange that brings joy, meaning, and goodness in life. I feel this is the most important thing. It’s beyond what a job has to offer.”

Despite his knowledge of sign language, however, Su faces many challenges in personnel management. At first, he used sign language to exchange ideas and hold meetings with the staff, only to find some members unable to understand him. He consulted Chen Fangfang about the precision of his gestures, and she said by gesturing, “It’s not a matter of being imprecise. Rather, it’s too precise. What you said is beyond their comprehension.” As Su discovered, single-mindedness happened to be both the overriding strength and the overwhelming shortcoming among his staff. “When I told them to go to bed at 10 PM, they would definitely do so. That’s because they don’t have all the social sophistication. But once they are told of a better-paid and more desirable job, they will leave the next day without any hesitation.” As this keeps happening, the turnover of the restaurant staff remains high.

Peacemaking is also part of Su’s job, as a casual glance from the hearing workers often leads to their deaf colleagues suspecting that they are disparaging them. Such misunderstandings can only be solved by reconciliation. Even things as simple as fingernail hygiene need Su’s repeated reminders until the message is driven home.

For Su, running a restaurant is as important as filming documentaries. He hopes to keep his catering business for as long as he can, so that these people will maintain their livelihoods and support themselves. He also has the same hope for his filming career.

In foreign countries where Su’s works were released, all the audience were deaf. When they learned that Su is a hearing man who knows sign language, they raised a question: “You’re not deaf. How can you say you’re filming deaf people?” Su replied in defiance, “I can use sign language really well and I really wish I were deaf.” He was somewhat defensive as he said this. In fact, he is a quiet man, not a rhetorical type. He plays guitar and loves drawing, but now he has no time or inclination for these hobbies. He is the boss who must respond to a host of issues at the restaurant: leaking pipes to be fixed, dissents among dozens of employees to be settled, and their personal needs to be taken care of. In the film-making industry, he also abides by his rules as an independent documentary director. In both roles, Su always stays focused on these special individuals, extending them the warmth of his companionship.

by Wang Yumeng

Photography, Bai Fan

This story is part of a series of articles published as an
exclusive editorial exchange between China Press for People
with Disabilities & Spring Breeze and ABILITY Magazine

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