Berlinale-Blogger 2017 "I wanted to leave the stage to the patients"

Inmates | © Ma Li

Ma Li is a highly regarded documentary filmmaker in China, with two festival-acclaimed documentaries – “Mirror of Emptiness” (2010) and “Born in Beijing” (2011) – already under her belt. In this 287-minute documentary with heavily desaturated colours, she observes patients at a mental asylum in northern China and questions the distinction between madness and sanity. It is an extremely empathetic film that gives respect and dignity back to such patients, who tend to have been ignored for a long time.

Where did the idea for "Qiu" come from? How did you find and decide on the shooting location and obtain permission to film?

The idea for Qiu came about for two reasons. Firstly, when I was shooting my previous documentary Born in Beijing, there was a character who had been labelled mentally ill and whose life had taken a different turn ever since. He began a petition to have this label removed, but abruptly died from an illness during the process. This weighed on me heavily. Secondly, I have been preparing several topics for my “Plight as a Human Being” trilogy ever since my first documentary Mirror of Emptiness. After shooting Born in Beijing, a mental hospital naturally became my first choice, though I could not find a way to film in a mental hospital at that time. In the end I chose to film in this particular mental hospital because I have connections that meant I was allowed to enter the hospital to make the film.

How long did the shooting take? What was the most difficult part during shooting?

Shooting took around a year and half in total. The most difficult part was during the first phase, because I needed to be able to recognise different kinds of diseases and be accepted by the patients. It was especially difficult because I chose to film in the confined area for more serious cases. Most of the patients there have severe schizophrenia. They are extremely sensitive and much more aware of the camera, so I had to guarantee that my presence and my camera would not harm them in any way. The first therapy session for severe cases usually takes three months, before the patients gradually become more conscious and understand my thoughts. For around three months I stayed in the confined area without switching on my camera because I did not want to start with a ‘predatory shoot’. I lived with them throughout this time, explaining to them continuously why I was there. I also wanted them to understand that they had the right to refuse to be filmed. It was a very difficult and long process.

How did you gain their trust and enter their inner world?

This had to do with my attitude towards them. I did not have any particular expectations about the shooting. I just wanted to understand their world, and at the same time I completely accepted their right to refuse me. I did not tell myself that I had to come out with a film. It was probably this attitude that made it easier to get closer to them. Most of the time it was they who asked to be filmed themselves.

However, I didn’t always film even then. Patients suffering from schizophrenia found it difficult to suppress their deep-seated feelings of suspicion and open up to me. I needed a lot of knowledge of psychiatry while I talked with them, so I was always very careful when choosing what to film.

Sometimes I feel that it is they who entered my inner world and disentangled the knots in my heart.

There must be an enormous amount of raw footage for a film of more than 280 minutes. How did you make decisions when editing?

It was an enormous amount of material indeed, around 250 hours.

I also filmed a lot of daily life, including doctors’ consultations, which was also very vivid but was not considered during editing. I wanted to leave the stage to the patients themselves and give a voice to those who otherwise would not have one.

What was your thinking behind the film’s name, Qiu (Inmates 囚)?

Poster of “Qiu” Poster of “Qiu” | © Ma Li In making this film, it was my goal to change the stereotypical image of a schizophrenic patient as being someone with a body stiff from medication, lifeless behaviour, delirious words and violence during their schizophrenic episodes. I would like them to be perceived as normal people again – normal people who happen to have a mental illness. They did behave in a crazy manner because of the disease, but their craziness is a reflection of absurd social unrest. Since the disease cannot be cured, they might be falling apart inside and suffering from this repeatedly throughout their lives, without any chance to liberate themselves or return to their original self.

That is why I named this film Qiu. I asked a painter friend of mine to draw the Chinese character, which is full of meaning simply on account of its shape, and hope that the shape of the person within those walls conveys the meaning properly.