Zhu Rikun, you are one of the most prominent voice in the landscape of Chinese independent documentary filmmaking, you are internationally known for putting under the spotlight hot issues in the present day Chinese society. After “Dust” where you drew attention to the lung disease afflicting workers in Sichuan province and “Welcome”, a raw document about the methods of power and censorship, with your latest doc ANNI you turn your camera on children. ANNI recounts an incredible touching and outrageous true story of a young girl Anni, she was 10 years old when she was prevented attending school because of his father, Zhang Lin, a political dissident for the Chinese authority. How did you come across the story?
Five years ago the story of Anni was an important issue. I heard about it from Internet, from Weibo, the popular Chinese social media. Many people talked about this story. I wanted to pay attention to it because it was clear an important issue, the story of a 10-year-old not allowed to go to school. First, I went to the city where Anni was from, I wanted to know what had happened there.
Your documentary Anni is about schooling, the children of dissidents and about forced relocations. What about the link between forced relocations and dissidents? Do they need to get a permit to move from one city to another?
In China the education system is really complicated for every family, not only for political dissidents. You are not free to attend any school you want in any city. You need to provide a lot of documents to register in a school. You must prove income, residence permit. We have the Hukou system, it is a household registration system to control citizens, limiting where a person is allowed to live.
Let’s come back to Anni’s story and forced relocations for dissidents and their families. Is it really so widespread? How many Anni can we find in China? Is it an extraordinary case or quite common?
It is an extraordinary case because Anni’s father did want to compromise. If he had, Anni would have been allowed to attend school in the city where they lived before. Dissidents are normally not allowed to move from one city to another. Zhang Lin did it all the same because he had lost job, house.
In your documentary you give voice to people aiming for democracy. Predictably there are some critics to Xi Jinping and his political course, particularly they focus on the escalation in the harassment on dissidents by the Chinese authorities. Over one thousand four hundred political prisoners are currently jailed. How do you image the path to democracy in China? Is there any chance the regime can loosen the grip and if so, can the urban middle class be the avant-garde of mobilization for democracy?
In the last thirty years there was economic development in China but it mostly regarded the power of the government, it did not foster democracy. Yes, there are lots of people with better living conditions as you say a thriving urban middle income class. But they don’t care about any kind of democracy progress, they care about profit and economy. To some extent, it depends on government control on political topics, if you want to get involved in democratic or political issues you would be prosecuted by the government. Even if government has more power than before, on the other side people have little free space in China, more and more people are scared and more controlled. About the role of the Chinese middle class, as I have told before they don’t care about it.
You touched another hot topic of present day China, that is the Web. A lot of activists and common people gathered and stand up for Anni’s rights. Almost all of them admit to use fake names in the Web. It seems it worked as they managed to gather in Heifei and organize a sit-in bypassing the controls.
In China the media and social media are strictly controlled and censored. Weibo also is not totally free but it allows some posts, some news as the one regarding the story of Anni. This case was retained not extremely sensitive and could have a little bit space to discuss. People posted some images, some scenes. There were used key words to organize the gathering. In China Internet users have their way to speak out. They know how to do to bypass censorship. But the sit-in wasn’t successful all the same. The police broke uo the crowd, Anni moved to the States with her sister, Zhang Lin was arrested, he fled from China and reached his two daugthers. I know they are both well now.