Interview on February 24 at Más, Beixinqiao
KL: I’ve watched your films in the last two days, do you intend to do more filmmaking in China?
HK-H: Yeah, definitely! I’m always dreaming about it in my head. I have a good feeling about it and I don’t want to do anything commercial at all. I don’t have ambitions to become a famous director in China but I’m really interested in visuals and there are so many visuals everywhere in the streets. I just do it for myself really and now I’ve just got a new job so I will also be paid to do a part of what I want to do but, sure, in my spare time I will definitely do more experimental stuff.
KL: Looking at some of your experimental stuff it’s not so much about narrative as it is about the sense of something so when it comes to China the themes that you want to explore, are they Chinese or expat in China themes?
HK-H: No, I think they’re kind of, I don’t like the word universal because I don’t think there is such a thing, I don’t think they’d be specifically my expat viewpoint on China at all. I think anyone could do it the way I do it or similarly but… I’m honest and I know I’m a foreigner in this country, you can’t get away from that, and maybe something I shoot will unconsciously turn out to be foreign to a Chinese audience but I don’t think it will stand out as an expat video or anything like that. The thing is, when you are in a foreign country, it’s easier to notice the things that are right under your nose. My point is, I might choose a topic or theme that, through the perspective of a Chinese person, is very “everyday” and “boring,” but then again, that’s also to generalize. It might just be the case that for a Chinese person who has spent the whole life living in China, it’s more difficult to see the attraction of that everyday-ness. But for a foreigner in China, almost everything stands out as “Chinese” in a way and through that it’s easy to find charming elements simply or partly due to them being foreign. However, I’ve been around for a few years now, and to be frank I feel more at home in Beijing than say Stockholm. Neither China nor Beijing is exotic anymore. But the everyday-ness of daily scenes grows on me. That’s what attracts me now. And a hypothetical film would probably be an expression of that everyday-ness.
KL: The strong sense that I got from a lot of your work was the idea of Europe and Europeans coming together but also that diversity comes through – there are language difficulties particularly in La Macabra, in that dialogue quite often he speaks and she doesn’t know what he’s talking about or she asks him to say something in her accent. You get this really strong sense of what it means to be European. Do you think that is something that you bring to the expat experience in Beijing that idea of being foreign within your own continent?
HK-H: No I don’t think so at all. I like languages and in that specific film you mentioned La Macabra there’s my friend Boris Kanchev from Bulgaria who speaks in English, he’s fluent in English but he also has this heavy mix of accents of Bulgarian and English, it’s also a kind of British accent, and then also he can speak fluent French so he turns to French also in the film and then he also speaks quite fluent Spanish so he also speaks Spanish and we also have Georgina Román, a Mexican filmmaker who is situated in Europe who speaks great Spanish of course but she’s not so fluent in English so there is a language barrier that I find interesting. So really it’s a lot about languages and for me it’s nice to be in China because I’ve learned to speak fluent Chinese so I can interact with Chinese people without a problem but the thing in China is I look foreign and everything I do here will be foreign, you cannot get away from that and I think it’s a good thing to be aware that you don’t want to change and be a Chinese and try to make a Chinese film at all. I mean just do whatever you want. Just do it the way it comes at the moment and don’t pretend and be pretentious. Like it will never happen. It’s just languages and languages are fine but sure they are bound with cultures too and cultural backgrounds and maybe that clash of language barriers and cultures can be interesting here but I don’t intend to make a fiction film with foreigners meeting Chinese people, I’d rather make a fiction film totally with Chinese people actually. I don’t want to become a Chinese filmmaker. I’m myself. I don’t even like to consider myself Swedish. In terms of national identities, I’d much rather be without these boundaries. However, if my personal background is somehow reflected in my work, then I welcome it. I’m sure it’s unavoidable and necessary.
KL: From an English speaking background there is a certain amount of arrogance, the Chinese are forced to learn English, but with your European background there seems to be something more inherently essential in this need to find a common tongue.
HK-H: Hmmm… Yeah, I really don’t think so much about national identities but I guess it’s very natural to put films in those different categories and I agree that some great filmmakers have really strong ties to their nations and they make great films because they know their culture so well but I don’t really know what benefit I can derive from Swedish culture and bring to China. I think it’s totally weird. I wouldn’t know how I would do that.
KL: But does your weirdness give you a special insight?
HK-H: It might but I’ve never thought about maybe putting a Swede in a film with a Chinese in Beijing. I’m not so interested in that. I love to learn, because now I live in China and I’ve lived in China before also and there’s still a lot of things that I want to learn about social life here. I don’t want to mix it with other cultures so much. So either I stick to really visual stuff, like in my photography I also just kind of click when the moment comes, and some of my experimental films are also like that, they just happened. When I had a sudden idea I just went and realised it, so maybe I would do that in the street because I’ve also thought about maybe filming in the subway in Beijing – doing a whole full-length film just in the subway, not a fiction film, I don’t like “experimental” either as a word, just a documentary in the subway, just people, maybe in totally different areas of Beijing - a full-length film like that and maybe a voice over. So maybe I’d do that or maybe a fictional film in a more conventional way with actors and direct it but I think I’d rather do a plot with only Chinese people just to understand and learn more about their social life here and cultural backgrounds.
KL: Artists often refer to what they do as self-expression – this outward impulse to share what is inside of them - but it seems that for you there is an element of using your art form as an educational tool for yourself.
HK-H: Yes, otherwise it would be totally pointless. I wouldn’t know what to do. I would feel alienated and estranged, you know, I wouldn’t know how to do it and I wouldn’t do it, I couldn’t do it! It would just be pointless and it would not be good at all, I’m sure. It would not work. I have to feel something and I have to be inspired otherwise I can’t do it, and I know that if I forced something out it would turn to utter shit. Even if a picture comes out aesthetically appealing to someone, maybe even to someone who is a professional in the field of photography, but I happened to take that particular picture when I wasn’t inspired, I’d feel like it’s trash. Maybe a few years would go by and I pick up that picture, I might say Oh, this is nice, and I might not even remember that I wasn’t inspired. However, like anyone in this field would testify, it’s much easier to work if you feel it.
KL: We’ve spoken before because you do such beautiful portrait work in Beijing, do you find that this ability to get such great portraits comes somewhat from your proficiency in Chinese? Do you interact with your subjects?
HK-H: For sure. Sometimes I click the camera without talking to people in special locations but I think even more commonly, I feel I have to say something to them. I don’t want to be too rude a photographer especially in these times where we’re constantly being watched by surveillance cameras and stuff, I don’t want to be another surveillance camera in people’s private lives, but yes, sometimes I click when I don’t have the time to ask, I just do need to take this picture. I do like the interactions and being fluent in Chinese helps a lot. It doesn’t have to be a long deep conversation it’s just like: You look interesting, may I take your picture? You’re the nicest person I’ve seen so far today, and they are intrigued or maybe they are shy and I’m not so good at loosening them up but I can say something like, Do you mind if I take a picture of you? And they will be like, Why do you want to take a picture of me? And I’m just like, You are really are something, aren’t you? And then, maybe they’re not so confident about it, it will certainly bring out something, even that discomfort. I don’t want to be a fly on the wall, I don’t want to be a surveillance camera, I don’t want it to be objective, it’s my subjective view and if they are uncomfortable, sure it can come out of the picture, make the viewer feel uncomfortable about the discomfort in their expression. It’s very performative what we’re doing all the time, in all kinds of art and you cannot control it, and you SHOULDN’T control it, it’s just life and interactions. You know what I mean?
KL: Definitely. The interesting thing with your photography is it’s not often you do see that discomfort, often there’s a warmth there that makes your portrait work stand out, even if they’re not looking at the lens there’s a certain joy in being noticed that actually comes through. A lot of people are trying to capture “truth” but there’s something about your portraits that reflects the moment of being seen. Is that something you intend to do?
HK-H: To acknowledge them?
KL: To see that spark in your portraits where the person sees you, maybe you’ve spoken to them beforehand, and it comes through, this moment of self-acknowledgment that: I’m worthy of a camera lens.
HK-H: I want that, I think that’s great and those people are really beautiful. Maybe, especially in Beijing for some reason, I feel everyone is kind of beautiful all the time so I always take too many pictures. I really want to, like I said, I don’t want to be this fly on the wall, I want them to kind of feel that I am around and they actually, as soon as I am there with my lens, are performing, They are not just walking to the school or walking to the store or walking to the hospital anymore they are actually being documented. So, yeah, if that can come out as an expression, an acknowledgment or maybe even gratefulness and warmth then I’m super happy. I think the pictures I like the most that I’ve taken are the ones when the subject is aware of my presence. Like this picture here [see below] I saw them playing badminton in a hutong and I wanted them to continue playing and I asked them, Can I take a photo of you? and then they said, Sure, and of course they stood a little bit, didn’t know what to do, almost like they joined together – two in a portrait like that – and I said, Just continue playing as you wer,e and then of course it was much more fun because it was kind of crowded in this alley and the bikes came past him all the time, there was disturbance and I think he was smiling a little bit because I was talking to him and joking with him a little bit that he was going to fall. Yeah, I’m quite satisfied with the result, actually.
KL: Looking at your photography, it’s quite personal and there are beautiful individual portraits compared to a lot of your filmmaking, which seems much more driven by the aesthetic rather than the personal. What’s the difference between what you are trying to achieve with a film compared to your photography?
HK-H: I think it’s just more difficult to work with people when there’s a movie camera. The thing about today’s digital cameras is that you can actually use them and kind of secretly – pretending you’re taking a photo when you’re actually filming – which can be a great effect and it’s super tempting to use as a tool to convey that sort of performativity, but maybe that’s also where I draw my ethical line. I feel too naughty to do that. I do it sometimes but if I’m too close to the subject and I’m filming instead I just feel too naughty, because by doing that I am truly trespassing on their privacy. I think that’s why in films it’s more about the visuals because it’s much easier to work with, you can work with objects or just scenes from a longer distance – you don’t have to be so close to the subject- and recently I’ve watched some of the films by Chantal Ackerman, she’s a documentary and fiction filmmaker from Belgium who made some great films from the seventies. She passed away last year and I’ve been totally inspired by some of her early films which are visuals of street scenes with voice overs so that’s why I was talking about that earlier - if I would do something now in Beijing I would probably do something documentary-ish - I would maybe not be too invasive and I would just make moving visuals of the street scenes which are great and they can be so beautiful in Beijing, like super Chinese style of street scenes. That’s kind of an answer to your question, I guess. Or maybe more straight to the point, I don’t think my films are less personal, it’s just that they are more saturated by the editing effects of the film medium. Somehow I find still photographs more cinematic than the 24 frames a second equivalent. The moving image is too close to what we see with our own eyes.
KL: One of your films is using audio from Delia Derbyshire [electronic music pioneer and composer of the original Doctor Who theme, check her out!] , how much do you get inspired by other mediums to do something visual? Was that a case where you heard that piece and wanted to put visuals to it or did you start filming and then thought it would be the perfect accompaniment?
HK-H: Hmmm… Maybe I was inspired by two things at that time, I was inspired by poetry but I was also inspired by early electronic music. I love that piece by Delia Derbyshire and I was in this place in Italy and I found a really huge cemetery, two cemeteries really huge, with lots of sculptures and death masks from Victorian era, I guess and they were quite expressive. I was also at the same time inspired a little bit by early Super 8 time lapse but moving time lapse not animation. When you move in 3D with your body in a setting just clicking with your camera and putting it together so it kind of moves in a dreamy way and also the piece is called The Dreams that’s also the name of the song by Delia. So those were my inspiration and yeah I do get super inspired by music. Maybe it’s a little bit paradoxical I like the old traditional soundtracks when picture and sound were really synchronised, like for example in the Czechoslovakian New Wave they have this amazing film composer called Zdeněk Liška who was a genius, he should have been more acknowledged for sure, no one knows about him either.
KL: What films was he involved with?
HK-H: He did a lot of music for an animator, stop-motion filmmaker, also from Czechoslovakia at that time who is still alive, Jan Švankmajer. He did a lot of work for Jan Švankmajer and when Zdeněk Liška passed away he wasn’t interested in hiring any other guy, he just used classical music for his pieces instead, but they had a really nice filmmaking relationship and Zdeněk was a genius – he kind of edited Švankmajer’s films himself to make the music go so well with it. I like that but I also really like the soundtracks by for instance Simon Fisher Turner for Derek Jarman’s films. They have nothing to do with the content, they don’t make sounds, sure maybe at some points, but they are much more poetic and ambient, like a voice over and really ambient sounds of nature, birds, grass. Lately I’ve been more inspired by that, I think. I’m especially inspired by music, but also other media, like paintings, I guess…
KL: What about collaboration? Have you ever considered trying to find that person who could score your films in a way… that there was a certain level of synchronicity or symbiosis were you could work together on a shared vision? Would you be interested in a relationship, do you ever seek that out?
HK-H: No, but I really want it. I want to be in that kind of relationship but I’m too much of a control freak, I guess, and to this point I’ve sort of made everything myself unless someone was acting for me or delivering lines for me, I did most of the filming, editing, effects myself but, sure, I’d love to find someone who I like working with but that hasn’t really happened… yet.
KL: I notice you use Boris Kanchev regularly, is he an actor that you particularly like working with?
HK-H: Yeah, he’s an amazing person. I mean totally out of control and that’s what I like about him – you cannot control him. He is delivering himself. I have a few more pieces with him that you haven’t seen but he’s an art object in himself, I don’t have to direct him, he’s just doing it. Sure, he’s a good collaborator but he’s not someone that, I don’t know…
KL: He interprets your ideas…
HK-H: He’s a great interpreter and he interprets it in a way that I never thought about that’s why he’s a true artist, I think, I haven’t really met anyone like him before. We still keep in touch and I would like to work with him again in a more controlled setting.
KL: I have to mention the film you sent me in which you’re the actor. You have incredible screen presence, have you ever considered doing more acting?
HK-H: If I get the chance, and if I like the idea. I don’t think I’m going to seek it out myself but if the opportunity comes and I like it, I would totally do it because I enjoy and I also like interpreting stuff like that.
Hannes Knutsson-Hall is a photographer and filmmaker living and working in Beijing, China. More considering himself as a documentarian, he explores through the lens the everyday scenes and the “laobaixing-ness” (老百姓 – laobaoxing is a very Chinese expression for ”common people”) in China. His European film work concerns themes like language, alienation and memory, as well as staging in documentary settings. Having now settled down long-term, he hopes to further develop his ideas in the Jing. His photography is currently being exhibited in Más.