Exclusive Interview with Zeqian Han | Observation

Zhang, Tomás and Shaotian are three of many expatriate workers from a giant Chinese oil company. They stationed in Peru and share a four- bedroom apartment together. Due to this unforeseen outbreak of COVID-19 in South America, they are confined in the apartment and have to follow strict quarantine protocols ordered by their company, which constantly monitoring its employees through CCTV surveillance. Meanwhile, Han, a cousin of Tomás, comes to Lima as a tourist just before Peru's pandemic lockdown. Han is stranded in the apartment and has witnessed series of incidents happened during this seemingly endless confinement that eventually lead to a tragic yet inevitable ending.

1 – Firstly, congratulations on this achievement. We see that one of the central themes of the film is how to deal with what happened during the year of the pandemic in 2020. How do you think this affected your community, from the cultural or cinematographic perspective to the general social everyday life?

Thank you. It is an honor to be part of BUEIFF 2021. The film Observation is a story of four foreigners’ lockdown life in Lima, Peru when the pandemic began to swipe in South America, loosely based on my personal experiences in early 2020.

My residence in Peru has giant wrap-around windows, facing an intersection of two main streets of Lima so that I could observe the changes in the entire community unobstructed through these windows. I tried to document the changes with my camera, which eventually became some of the scenery shots in the finished film.

As the pandemic worsened, people began to experience various degrees of anxiety, irritability, and depression, thus resulting in having severe problems in personal and work lives. The actions of the government cannot alleviate the impact on people’s hearts. The psychological problems caused by this sense of powerlessness became the original intention of this film.

When I returned to China, I was surprised to see that all the public areas that you can think of, instruments that can detect your face ID and body temperature, just like in the opening scene of the film, are installed. I can’t help wondering whether the monitoring of our personal data carried out on the premise of pandemic prevention is justified. If it is defined as an observation method, then what kind of results and conclusions can ultimately be drawn from this extremely aggressive monitoring system?


2- The cinematographic aesthetic has a very specific style and takes you straight to the title of the film itself. How did you think of this way of approaching the artistic piece? Was it your first choice? And if it wasn’t your first choice, what other ways had you thought of?

In fact, after completing the script, the natural choice of filming is, of course, the conventional way. However, during the process of preparation and casting, I realized not only that cannot achieve my original intention, but also will be a strong obstacle for the whole creation. I wanted the audiences to feel the characters’ feelings, and live their lives, just like an invisible roommate of the characters. However, if using a large camera, complicated lighting, and sound equipment, plus professional actors, it will only make the film go against the meaning it should express. Even a fill light can make a scene look unnatural.

I decided to abandon all conventional shooting techniques but to take the risk to try an experimental method- hiding the cameras, putting a non-professional IT engineer with no acting experience among the actors to restore reality, and having no written dialogue but only the plot. Crew members were also required to follow the confinement policy strictly during filming, not allowed to step out of the door of the studio. Before the shooting is complete, no one can predict the outcome, nor is it sure whether it will become a film as we hoped. Luckily, the risk paid off.

3- We see how the film shows how difficult it is to have lived through the pandemic in every sense of the word, but if you are also outside your home country, this becomes even more distressing. How do you think this factor affects an individual? What do you consider more valuable now after having experienced this?

During the pandemic when everything has stagnated and the future seems will never come, I have enough time to reflect on my life. We could merely use purposeless, busying daily tasks to conceal problems.  Only by facing the deep, unresolved issues from the past can we clear up the current confusions, clarify the purpose and direction of life, and alleviate the feeling of powerlessness.

The world was flooded with various anti-virus policies and new rules and regulations during the epidemic periods. However, these measures cannot solve any personal problems. What brought me out of the predicament was my family- their support and love. It is the care between people, not the guarantee of any system, that can lead us stranded, lost people back home. When the stranded tourists share quarantine and flight information with each other, a kind of humanitarian, caring bond is established between those. In times of crisis like COVID, any system becomes fragile and the power of loving for one another becomes extremely strong. Things like this are what made me decide that I have to make a film with a humanitarian perspective of the world that we live in today.

4- How do you think the experiences of the beginning of the post-pandemic may affect the world of art? How does it affect you as an artist?

Based on the film works or other works of art that I have come into contact with, artists today could be loosely divided into two categories.

A group of artists and their works follow the pre-pandemic trajectory. In their perception, the pandemic is only one page in history, and a book will eventually be turning pages, so there is no need to worry. Those who are scared are the ones who hold on to the past the most. They fear change and will gain great satisfaction from routines.

The opposite type of works and artists began to reflect on the existence of self. Before the epidemic with the development of social media and globalization, the ego of we as artists reached a state of madness. Only people who agreed with artists’ opinions and perspectives will follow his/her works, and thus sub-cultural groups were at their peaks. After the pandemic, some artists began to change, placing the meaning of their works ahead of themselves, and showing more care for their kind and ethnic groups, and more respect for objective facts and natural laws. This has become the path I choose to follow now—respect for objectivity and other individuals.

5- We see that the editing has a very laborious job in the film. We would like to ask you how this process was and how you built it?

When I decided to abandon traditional shooting methods, the first question that came up was editing.

In this film Observation, every scene is shot uninterrupted, without breakdown shots nor retake. Not one scenario has the same take: the dialogue changes, the emotion of the characters changes, and the movement change which means that we must employ a technique that complements the aesthetic of this film. How to keep the film with so many jump-cuts flowing and how to emotionally invite the audience into a long reaction shot without losing their attention become two major obstacles during the editing process.

The hardest work is watching the footage over and over again. We need to find the keyframe from the best shooting angle to grasp the audience’s attention. By forgetting traditional techniques, while maintaining the continuity of emotions, we try to bring the audience into the scene, just like sitting at an optimal viewing position onset. Jump-cuts seem to be merely a time difference that occurs naturally when eyeballs move and eyelids blink, thus maximizing the sense of reality and audience involvement.

In addition, the surveillance lens and the handheld camera shots are used interchangeably, controlling the distance between the audience and the characters as the story unfolds.

6- Would you like to highlight or tell about the realization of this piece, any anecdote that has been left out of the material?

I have to say that the smooth completion of this film is due to the fact that no one has diseases such as high blood pressure in the entire crew. Due to the need to restore reality, the development of all plots has no restriction nor limitation. The set often bursts out too strong emotions, and the actors often suffer from a sudden rise in blood pressure because they are so emotionally invested and cannot calm down even after calling a Cut.

As the shooting progress further, the actors have completely let go of their accustomed professional habits, and more personal privacy and secret personal experiences have been dug up. This almost becomes a problem that bothers me the most. Because of the need to protect individual privacy, so many touching and shocking contents must be withdrawn from the finished work.

7- Do you have more musical and audiovisual projects in mind for the future?

Before making the film Observation, I had fallen into the misunderstanding that many young directors would have: hoping to improve the quality of the work by using better technical equipment, working under ideal shooting conditions, and so on.

However, through the production of this film, I think it is more important to employ suitable shooting methods according to the unique aesthetics of individual films. It is difficult to break through the limitations of cinema using traditional shooting methods. Observation has opened up a new window for me, whether through its perspective presentation or actor guidance. I cannot wait to explore the visual angle that focuses on the individual’s heart further in my upcoming two projects; one is a psycho-thriller about a couple living in a foreign country and how their love for each other consumes their lives.

8- Having already spent the whole year 2020 of the pandemic, what thoughts does that year leave you from the vision as an artist?

The pandemic has opened up a new way of understanding relationships between people. We all have different feelings and experiences, and there should be no rules to limit our feelings and thoughts. When I wanted to express my thoughts through the work Observation, I found that cinema has its unique way of reaching out to people with the fewest limitations, as no other art form can do.

We as artists need to have the courage to take the risk of being unaccepted, to break through the illusion of limitations, and most importantly to show the essence of things beneath the surface accurately. Being selected and shortlisted by BUIFF is undoubtedly a great encouragement for a unique film like Observation.

Year completed: March 10, 2021 Runtime: 2 hours 54 minutes 11 seconds Language: Mandarin Chinese, Spanish Country: China Director: Zeqian Han

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