As It Happens

Chinese artist weaves 10,000 hours of surveillance footage into feature film Dragonfly Eyes

Chinese artist Xu Bing brings his debut feature film to TIFF. It's called Dragonfly Eyes, and it's a fictional film created entirely from CCTV surveillance-camera recordings.
A still from Xu Bing's first feature film Dragonfly Eyes. The Chinese artist stitched the fictional film together using over 10,000 hours of surveillance video footage. (Xu Bing Studio)
Xu Bing is a Chinese artist famous for his printmaking skills and installations. But this year, he embarked on his most ambitious project yet: his first feature-length film. 
(Xu Bing Studio)
The film is called Dragonfly Eyes. It's about a young woman who undergoes a dramatic transformation after she leaves a Buddhist temple looking for a new life in the city. It's already being described as a "cinema studies staple" because Xu managed to create the fictional film by only using real-life surveillance-camera recordings. 
Artist Xu Bing's first feature film Dragonfly Eyes premieres Tuesday in Toronto at the Toronto International Film Festival. (Xu Bing Studio)

Dragonfly Eyes premieres on Tuesday at the Toronto International Film Festival. Ahead of the film's screening, Xu joined Carol in the As It Happens studio for a feature interview. He was also accompanied by Mengchen Wen, who helped interpret the interview. Here is part of their conversation.

Xu Bing, how did you come up with the idea to make a film based on surveillance videos?

The idea is actually from 2013. I saw lots of television programs which [were] about legal and I thought that the surveillance camera footage inside is very interesting. They are very real, which is different from the footage we saw from the feature film. So I came up with the idea that we can probably use this footage to be a lens [for a] feature film that will be very interesting. 
(Xu Bing Studio)

This film footage that you got is obviously from hundreds of different sources. How did you pull it all together? How did you actually get it — as I understand, between 7,000 and 10,000 hours?

At the beginning, I asked my friend from the television station to give me their surveillance footage. But there was very little, not enough. We stopped the project in 2014. At the end of 2014, we found that there was lots of surveillance video online.

That was in the cloud?

Yes, in a cloud database. So we started this project again and in our studio there are 20 computers. We use those computers to download those videos. After that we collected over 10,000 [hours] of this kind of footage to make this film. 
(Xu Bing Studio)

You capture horrible accidents, planes falling from skies, subway trains being wrecked, car accidents that are so violent, children who almost get run over. And then the other ones are very claustrophobic, very tight. You're looking at intimate places where people are changing their clothes in changing rooms or they're in restaurants. How did you feel when you were watching all of this real footage? What effect did that have on you?

Yes, when we saw those videos for a long time we feel very uncomfortable and we were very careful when we get out of our home. We feel very uncomfortable and insecure, actually, because there are lots of camera outside of the home. The CCTV footage is sometimes very quiet. You have to wait for something to happen, maybe over 10 or more hours. But sometimes, it just suddenly happens. So that's the thing I want to show in this film. 

And the people in your video are real, so are they aware that you've got their images and put them together in this video?

Yes, they know they are actually in the camera. I feel nervous when the project was in the middle. I wanted to know the idea of the characters in the footage. So we actually created a life out of their real life. We started to find them to let them know they are actually inside of our film.

And you got permission from everybody.

We got permission from them because of the copyright. We needed to go to find them and get permission. I wanted to talk to them and have their idea about using their image put in our film. We created this fake story cut into their life. 

I wonder how many of these cameras are there in China? How many cameras are actually watching people in China?

We did do some research about some of the cameras in China. The exact sum I cannot remember. But there are many. I can provide you with a statistic that 15 per cent rate of cameras will be increased every year in China. There are lots of cameras in the world, actually, not just in China. What I want to say is the world we live in is like a shooting studio — that we're actually characters inside. 
Interpreter Mengchen Wen, Carol Off, director Xu Bing and film editor Matthieu Laclau in the As It Happens studio. (CBC)

You say it's like a studio where we're all characters inside, like a Truman movie. But at the same time, people care about their privacy. Others would say this is like Big Brother is watching you and not like we're in a movie. People here care about how much surveillance there is — what do people in China think about that?

I think the relationship between ours and the surveillance video is different from the Big Brother time because in that time the surveillance video or CCTV video belong to the government. But right now, actually those surveillance camera belong to the private person, private company. So I call this time as post-CCTV time. The attitude of people towards the civilized video is different from the Big Brother's time, I think. 
(Xu Bing Studio)

We know there is a lot of censorship of artists and even persecution of artists in China. How difficult is it for you to actually work, to do what you want to do in China?

There, indeed, is some censorship in China. In the past, the government didn't understand contemporary art. Well, I am a contemporary art artist so I do suffer sometimes, before. But right now, the government found that contemporary art actually from their personal idea of the artist, is not related to the public. I think the government has started to give more space to the contemporary art artist, to give them more space to do their art. But in the film industry it's still a very sensitive thing. In China we do have the censorship of a film. They examine if there is any sexy footage or political footage inside of your film. But this is the first time I made a film, so I didn't realize.

And have you been censored? Did the Chinese authorities screen your film and say what could be shown?

We already submitted our film to the SARFT, which is a censorship institute in China but we didn't get any reply from them yet so we're still waiting for the answer. 

Written and produced by Samantha Lui. This interview has been edited for length and clarity. For more on this story listen to our full interview with Xu Bing.



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