Interview 9th June at Amilal, Gulou
KL: So, you’re primarily a photographer?
AG: I came, actually, from a film background. I’ve been working more as a photographer in China because there are a whole lot less start up costs in any given project.
KL: I notice you’ve done portraiture for bands.
AG: Yeah, I just kinda started with The Harridans, I think a year or two ago now. Dan was seeing a photographer and she was unable to do a shoot so they asked me at the last minute. I think over an awful lot of baijiu at, if you remember, La Bas, they asked if I was available to shoot it and everyone involved was pleased with the result so I just kept doing photos with them and it opened the door to some other bands.
KL: Is that something that you enjoy doing? Is band photography a focus?
AG: Oh yeah, definitely. I’m happy shooting anything and bands are a lot more fun than kettles.
KL: Do you do a lot of commercial work?
AG: No, you know, I’ve done a little bit of food photography in the past and I’m available for it but, in my own mind, human beings are a whole lot more interesting than inanimate objects or even cute animals.
KL: Does video work come up very often? Obviously I’ve seen the Moon Tiger video, have you done many others?
AG: In Beijing it hasn’t come up as much. Video has been something that I have been pursuing my own projects on and I’ve spent a good chunk of my time over the past few years in Beijing but also leaving the country for at least four months every year and working abroad, where I’m still working in film, mainly documentaries.
KL: What role do you take on those projects?
AG: It depends, I used to work in the camera department then I was also ADing for awhile, which was never exactly my cup of tea, and these days on documentaries I’ll be camera operator, I will work as a second unit director and just take on roles like that for the most part. If the production is big enough or interesting enough I’ll work as a first AC, which is a focus puller.
KL: How do you find that work? How does it come about?
AG: Mainly good luck. No, I grew up in a film family. My mum was an art director, now she’s more of a producer and my dad’s a director and producer, Sturla Gunnarsson. Yeah, I kind of started out working on sets as a kid and, from there, moved into crewing when I was 16 or 17. Actually no, I might have been 15. I worked construction building a beer hall in Iceland. Yeah, I still would have been 15 then.
KL: If this comes from your family, did you ever want to do anything else? Is this like some families are like, you’ll be a lawyer, son, just like me?
AG: No, I think my parents did everything possible to push me towards a more stable career path. Based on growing up in a film family, when I was younger, I had an impulse to do anything else and avoid it at all costs… until I did and realised I didn’t like any of that stuff. So after stints in sales and labour, and I did a bit of teaching abroad, and realised I wasn’t too interested in any of those jobs. Particularly any job that isn’t project based. Working on something that has no end, for me, just sounds so horrible.
KL: I never thought about it like that but it’s so true. When something has an end goal it’s so much more satisfying.
AG: When you see what you’ve accomplished in a day in relation to something that will one day be completed and that you believe in, you can move mountains. You can do anything. The idea of sitting and fulfilling the same role in an endless process for the rest of my life, or until I save enough to stop doing it, is just grim.
KL: Did you move to China with the intent to actually concentrate on film and photography?
AG: I actually, first wound up in Asia through Japan. I’d been working on a documentary film in my last year in university which was called Force of Nature. I worked with my dad on that one, in the camera department. This was a film about David Suzuki, a last lecture he was giving trying to sum up his life, just about his life in general and his philosophy about things and that film took us, for about ten days, to Japan, to Tokyo and Hiroshima where his grandparents had been from and, after World War II in Canada, they eventually resettled in because, I don’t know if you know much Canadian history but, the Japanese were interned during the war and, following the war, they were told to resettle either east of the Rockies or return to Japan but they were not welcome back on the west coast of the country. So I ended up in Japan and, I’ve been all over the world, but I’ve never been to a place that was so completely alien to everything I knew. It fascinated me so I ended up going back there and teaching English for a few months and then for another year after that moving to Tokyo and modelling for a bit. From there, I didn’t want to do that for the rest of my life so I went to Korea. I didn’t like that too much so I hopped on a boat and ended up in China. I think the original plan was to travel down the coast of the country and then through Indochina eventually to Indonesia and just go as far as my money could take me and then go back to Canada and start real life. But I got to Beijing [brief interlude while Ari wrestles his sunglasses from an exuberant kitten, he may have called the kitten an asshole but the kitten deserved it] So I got on the boat from Incheon and five hours later I was in Tianjin. I didn’t speak a word of Chinese or have any idea what I was doing. I hopped in a taxi with some people who were heading to Beijing and, yeah, just kinda fell in love with the place and decided to stick around. I travelled around China a bit but realised it was kind of a special moment. This was back in 2012 and I’ve been spending a good chunk of my life here ever since.
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KL: Do you think that you can define that quality that Beijing has that makes it so appealing?
AG: I don’t know if I could define it right now but I can give you an example of it. A friend, Li Nian, he’s an actor here in China, if you saw Gone With the Bullets, he was the big general, the father of the girl and spoiled son with the big beard. So, I knew him from Canada, he worked as an actor in Canada for about eight years and then moved back to China and married a Belgian woman and they have two children. When I came to Beijing the first time, I got in touch with them and they let me stay in their siheyuan. It’s no longer there it’s been bulldozed to make a neo-classical hotel but it was a beautiful Ming dynasty siheyuan with a temple attached which was their art gallery. I got to stay in the east room and their children had the west room and they had the north room and it was about as spoiled an existence as I could get here in Beijing. He, today, as well as being an actor, playwright and director is also a furniture designer. He took me out to his furniture factory outside of the sixth ring road, way, way outside, it might have been Hebei, I don’t know. He took me out a few times to show me his operation, he had a big Tibetan dog out there he’d received as a gift from a monk that he was very proud of. We would drive out there and at one point it was farm fields and about two weeks later we came back and there was no farm fields anymore, it had all been dug up, the foundation was complete and the first storey of some major housing estate. A few weeks later I came back and the housing development was finished and the units were sold and he mentioned to me that this was all zoned agriculturally, whoever had done this had to have paid someone off to build the units and then no one would dare evict all these people en masse. I think, that level of energy and speed of development, not just in development but in everything, that appealed to me. Everyone here is a shark, they have to keep moving or they die.
KL: How does that work with your collaborative process? Do you find that you’re constantly meeting people who want to work with or that you want to work with?
AG: I’m constantly meeting people that I’d want to work with, in the film world. I have a very particular aesthetic and I, unfortunately, haven’t yet met too many people that are long-term collaborative partners here. I’ve worked with many people who are talented, and who I respect, but are not the basis of a long-term relationship.
KL: Not your soulmate?
AG: No, not yet.
KL: You said a lot of what you do here is your own work, what is an Ari Gunnarsson passion project?
AG: The one I’m working on right now is a film about migratory beekeepers. When I first arrived here in Beijing, back in Canada, I knew a documentary maker, Yung Chang, he made Up the Yangtze, and he suggested that I get in touch with his brother who was studying Chinese medicine. I was very late to a dinner in Dongsishisitiao which I thought was a different number at the time and he was a lovely person but I ended up stuck at the wrong end of the table with some very dull people. They worked in the cosmetics business and they were trying to move into organic cosmetics and they were very bitterly discussing the difficulty of getting Chinese organic honey because the beekeepers are migratory so there is no way to verify whether the flowers are organic or not. And I was struck with, there are migratory beekeepers, what the hell does that mean? They told me a bit, they didn’t know too much. I was just fascinated with this idea of a guy in a truck, travelling around China with a lot of bees so I did a little research, it’s actually a very difficult thing to research, there’s not much literature on it in English or Chinese, but eventually I found a beekeeping journal that sort of charted the course of one of these guys. I couldn’t get in touch with the guy but I got on the road and figured out where he was likely to be and thought there’d be other beekeepers there and got on a train and it was at Qinghai Lake where I found them. They were all set up around the lake and I walked along from beekeeper to beekeeper until found a guy that I found interesting. I didn’t know what the story was when I got into it, I just figured, a guy driving around China going from, the original course was Ningbo to Gansu via Qinghai but, the guy I ended up speaking to was from Hanzhong, Sha’anxi, and he goes from there to Yunnan, to Sichuan, back to to Sha’anxi, into Qinghai then up to Gansu so it’s pretty much the entire west of the country.
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KL: This is all done by car?
AG: This guy has over 200 crates of bees so several million bees and he and his wife basically set up and when they are looking to head out of town they look for a truck that’s going in the same direction they’re going, they pay the guy a fee to haul them to their next location and drop them off on the side of the road and they set up camp again.
KL: So, they’re living a purely nomadic lifestyle following their bees?
AG: They’re basically following the youcaihua and pingguohua, rape and apple flowers. The bees can basically feed off any flower and in the west bees are kept in a single location, the sort of honey that’s produced changes throughout the year as apples come in, or pears come in, whatever is growing they’re pollinating it and of course every plant’s pollen and nectar have different flavours and so does the honey. What these guys have found is that the honey produced by the youcaihua and the pingguohua is more profitable and better tasting so they follow these ones. When they get to Gansu there are certain high-altitude wild flowers that only grow there. They say that honey is the best they get but it’s a very narrow window.
KL: This is incredible. What kind of lifestyle do they lead? Do they earn much money?
AG: You know, the guy I’m talking to, I think he’s done quite well. He’s a well-connected man. He was actually a school teacher before he got into this. He grew up during a politically sensitive period and was unable to finish his education and he always felt like somewhat of a fraud teaching children when he had not been properly educated himself. He only received the post because his father had been a teacher and, I don’t know the exact details about this, in China there were the proper full teachers at the schools and there are different teachers who are less than that and the government made a deal with his father that after X number of years at the lower category, he would be made the full teacher. The father died a year before that happened and the officials in the town felt that the way to make good on the promise to the family was to give that job to his son who is the man that I’m following. Teaching didn’t agree with him. I think, for a number of reasons he doesn’t talk about as well as the ones he does and he said that he was giving his notice, they offered to train him and educate him and he said he’d already made up his mind. He wanted to be free, that life in small village as a farmer and a teacher, there’s no freedom there’s just obligations. On the road, he’s his own boss. It’s a hard life but he’s able to live the way he wants.
KL: Is it idyllic? Is it more hard work or more spending all day in fields of wildflowers?
AG: It seems like both. They work all day, especially him. He’s sort of a godfather of beekeepers up there. People come to him asking for advice - he’s been doing this for 26 years. He and his wife are working pretty well round the clock but once the sun goes down, there’s nothing to be done. With 200 hundred crates of bees, making royal jelly as well as honey plus pollen, they’re saving this pollen, some for sale some for feeding the bees in lean times. So, they’re busy but it’s not backbreaking labour. With the royal jelly it’s produced in little capsule they have for the bees about half the size of last part of my pinky finger and just scooping out these little things and filling little buckets with this very valuable jelly. And just going through and taking the racks out of the crates and putting them in a centrifuge and spinning the honey out, putting them back in and just sort of keeping track of the hive, making sure the bees are healthy. So, it’s hard work but there in some of the most beautiful places in China in the most beautiful times of year. You know, he seems like a very happy man. For his children he doesn’t want the same life, he wants them to have the exact life he turned his back on but he has no regrets about the decision himself. I think the greatest difficulty is that they live in an aluminium and canvas tent they set up with a satellite on the roof to watch television and army cot bunk beds and they travel with a couple dozen chickens, a goat or two and some dogs to guard the whole thing. They have their eggs going, meat for special occasions.
KL: What are the logistics of filming them? Do you speak Chinese well?
AG: You know, I speak decent Chinese, if I’m conducting an interview, I’d say at this point I understand about 90 per cent of what’s said. I can expect to understand 90 per cent of what’s said and I can express myself adequately. I still work through an interpreter because, that last ten per cent, you can’t be without it.
KL: How big is your team?
AG: Well up to this point, I’ve been going with basically a team of two. I’m just going with my girlfriend who has been interpreting for me and going around shooting myself. I’ve put together a perfect concept and I probably have enough material to make the film. What I’m now trying to do is get the funding to get myself maybe two Red Epics and a particular DP that I like and go back and basically shoot it now knowing the story beginning to end. Starting at Spring Festival as his children come back from school and spend Spring Festival on the road before they return to the home town where the grandparents watch them and going from there, in every location trying to get at least five days. I was thinking basically getting two to three days on the arrival and set up and two to three days on their departure and then do the same thing in the next city. Their life is pretty stable once their set up, the drama is in the move. That’s when anything that’s interesting is going to be taking place.
KL: So where do you look to for funding?
AG: I’ve been looking in Canada to the various cultural funds, which has been of some use, but, unfortunately, without a Canadian subject it doesn’t fall under a lot of the mandates. Having grown up in the film business in Canada and having worked there a good amount, I have some people I’ve taken it to over there and have been able to secure a bit more out of that. Now in China, I’m trying to find a number to round that off with. It’s the kind of thing, I’ve yet to determine if it’s possible to serialise it rather than it being a feature documentary that I’m making, I could sell it to a documentary station here as a six part miniseries because travelogues are always popular here, interesting people and interesting places and it’s related to food.
KL: So other than heading out to shoot what will you fill the rest of your time with?
AG: Well, various things. Right now, I’m putting together a TV show with Su [Zixu], it’s called Brunch with Su.
KL: Oh my God, tell me more about brunch with Su and then invite me to brunch with Su.
AG: One day I was speaking to Su and he invited me for brunch. I hadn’t seen him in awhile and I didn’t know brunch had become a big thing for him. I assumed it was some joke he was telling that I didn’t get. When I realised he was sincere in his brunch invitation, I went for brunch him, it was a great time and before coming here I’d been thinking of doing something to show the Beijing music scene off to a wider audience, outside of the city itself, domestically and also internationally. When you leave this country and tell people about what’s going on, they look at you as though you’ve drank the Cool Aid, gone mad and live in North Korea and don’t know it. So I’d been trying to think of a good vehicle for this project and I suddenly realised, Su! He’s got a great personality, great presence, he’s entertaining and he knows everyone.
KL: And everyone loves him.
AG: Yeah, you sit down, talk music, talk life with Su and record a couple of sets to break the thing up with and feature a couple of brunch spots to get our brunch for free.
KL: Have you made any yet?
AG: No, right now, I’ve got Su on-board and we’re looking to shoot our pilot on the 15th. I’m actually looking to lock down our first interview today. I’m cautiously optimistic. I thought Su and Da Wei would be a perfect opening. Everyone’s friends so it should be able to guilt people into doing things either way.
KL: Is it going to be purely local musicians?
AG: I want to mix it up with whoever is doing interesting things in the music scene right now so it will be foreigners, it will be Chinese, it will be mixes of things. I think separating the Beijing music scene into Chinese bands and foreign bands is stupid. The form itself has come from abroad and been adopted here in China and there’s a lot of bands nowadays doing their very own take on it and the foreign bands, I think, have been influenced by China just as much as the Chinese bands have been influenced by foreign form.
KL: So many of the bands are not purely one or the other now. There are people from all over.
AG: Exactly, that’s what’s so fucking wonderful about it.
KL: That’s excellent! I’m looking forward to watching Su.
AG: I’m also looking to do a small companion piece but if I’m going to tell you about that you will have to turn the recorder off.
And that is our enigmatic end. I know and you don’t. Keep watching Ari and you might find out.
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Ari Gunnarsson is a Canadian photographer and filmmaker living in China. He is a graduate of University of Kings College and McMaster University in Canada and has studied Chinese at Bejing Normal University. Gunnarsson has worked on film productions in India, Japan, Iceland and Canada, as cinematographer, camera assistant and second unit director. Chasing Spring is his first feature documentary.