Interview with Utopia Group – Deng Dafei & He Hai
How did you come up with the idea of the short film festival?
Deng: Our name, Utopia Group, is self-explanatory on our constant interested and attention on Utopia related topics. North Korea is currently the only one country in the world that claims to be communism and we think it is, in a way, a well-systemized utopia. Of course, it’s really ironic how it went for power-centralized politics, leading the country to the opposite direction with the ideal utopia. It started with good will but ended up with tragedy. This is actually not far from China, if we look back on our history, like Culture Revolution. Nowadays, news on North Korean on all sorts of media platforms has for sure drawn much attention from the public. Apart from some objective reposts on its poverty and its fast developing military performance, there has also been many people who make fun of the Kim family’s and North Korean’s underdeveloped life style. We think those people who make joke on North Korean are seeking for some kind of superiority. Here many Chinese people talk about North Korean, about the ridiculousness of Kim family and about people’s ignorance posed by government, as if we were so much better than them. Last year, we encountered artist Wang Guofeng, who has been doing photography work on North Korea. He shared to us about this international film festival in the capital Pyongyang. Unlike in the history where government would only show the films to manipulate people’s minds, there are actually many films from outside North Korean. We found that, even the government raised the prices and limited number of tickets, people were extremely enthusiastic about this and every film was crowded. There we could see that even in an exclusive environment, people still crave for information on outside world. From here I think that, even though every individual lives in different political system with different life status, art is something that relates to everyone, instead of just a group of narcissism artiest who elite themselves with capital and price tags. Through this project, we think maybe we could refer to the form of film festival, providing a wide, accessible, platform for everyone, who wants to express his or her opinions. And through this topic on North Korea, we could dive in to the next deeper level. Therefore this is not just some funny, ridiculous irony towards central powered politics. I hope we could generate more thoughts reflecting back to our lives, and at the same time express out feelings and ideas.
He Hai: There are also some other people in the circle that are interested in North Korea and we’ve always wanted to dive into the topic. 2 years ago artist Gu Zhenqing tried to organize a group of artiest for a trip to North Korea and we were planning on doing some performance art there, but unfortunately the plan to North Korea didn’t work out. So instead we organized a book read event focusing on North Korean and totalitarianism, hosted by Zhu Qi. Many artists participated in it and we read two books together and shared our thoughts on North Korea. One direct reason led us to start the project is the fact that we found out even an exclusive country like North Korea has had film festival and even North Korea is trying to become more international. Since we couldn’t find any of the film showed at the festival, we started to imagine. Then we thought why not throw our own film festival for North Korea? That’s how everything started. Of course, the films we picked are not like the ones showed in North Korea, where all celebrate the country’s greatness. But we don’t want to criticize also. You just need to have your own position on the topic. That makes an interesting film festival! Another reason why we chose film festival is that in our opinion, North Korea politics is like a film crew, everyday presenting something new and dramatic to the people and to the world. So in this way, Kim is the most powerful film director.
Is part of the reason you are doing this North Korean film festival that it has been so popular on the Internet? For a long time, North Korea is portrayed as a joke in the media. Do you also want to through this way, make some buzz out there?
He: Of course, the frequent news coming out of North Korea has influenced us. But we didn’t focus on it just because it’s popular. We’ve been paying attention to it for a while. To the concept of utopia we pay our greatest respect, but we criticize anyone or any country that claim the existence of utopia politics in the real world. And North Korea is the extreme representative of the latter. It’s impossible for us to not pay attention to it. Also, North Korea’s ridiculous stories in recent year provide us a good opportunity to start our project. People often take North Korea as a joke, and I admit, it does seem ridiculous in many aspects. But joke is not a bad thing. To some artists, theorists and philosophers, they are important, like Mikhail Bakhtin and his Carnivalesque. So the key is how you look at it. If for you North Korea is just something funny to talk about after dinner, or something where you get a sense of superiority, it’s meaningless. But if we use joke to talk about something more serious, to reflect our own problem from the joke, even on a bigger level, joke might become something even more powerful than those tedious theories and statements. Deng Dafei: Actually, there are many popular topics on the Internet, and North Korea is just one of them. Many Chinese people still think it has nothing to do with them. But from my understanding, I think North Korea’s actions are like a show, a political show. They emphasize on enemies’ powerfulness to legalize and centralized the Kim Family, making it the only truth. This is interesting because every political system would have something similar, like China would sometimes make some kind of “miracles” like Olympics, Expo, and astronaut giving national classes. North Korean is ridiculous because the politicians keep putting on shows for their people, but for people from the outside, they are just playing and fooling with their people like their monkeys. From this perspective we see all politics get their power through performance, just in different methods. This concerns with our individual freedom and for me, I am interested in how individuals react facing the power and the political systems.
How do you think of the art commercialization on artists that’s been controversial in recent years?
Deng Dafei: I don’t think this is that big of a deal. Art driven by capital, that’s how it works in current Chinese communism society. Many people despise it but this is the reality. As an artist, you need to play with capital. Without the involvement of capital and profit chain, there’s no big scale and influence. Choosing to embrace the reality or keep it to his own way, depend on the artist’s choice. Many artists make arts to make money and there’s nothing wrong with it, as long as he believes in the purity of art. What’s really important is that a real artist needs to think about his relationship with art and where is art taking you.
How could Chinese artists become more international?
Deng Dafei: Many people think the differences between western world and the oriental are big deals that’s standing in between, but I think that should not be the problem. Artists should give more thoughts on how to make art that is easier for people, no matter where they from, to understand. Many people think it is easy to achieve, but it’s actually very hard to achieve.
Conducted and Translated by Ina Yinan Li