Clocking in at 82 minutes, Written In Dust is Rees's first feature, despite a 15-year-long career in the film industry. Its format is calculated to draw the audience into the cinematic experience in a way that modern-day talkies fail to do, introducing elements of improvisation and accident at any given screening. He synopsizes the film as such:
"A compelling, lyrical and moving tale of three friends seeking the new life in contemporary Beijing. The tensions created by the pursuit of money and the repression of love lead to moral corruption, betrayal, lies and the ultimate tragedy."
Written In Dust is finishing up its current run at Là-bas: catch it while you can, on Thursday June 25 (with guitar, cello, and flute accompaniment), or Monday, June 29 (with guitar, cello, and guzheng). Full info in the event listing.
I asked Rees a few questions about why he chose to shoot a silent film in the 21st century, how his practice engages with other elements of Beijing's creative underground, and the particular environment for making and showing independent film in Beijing:
SmartBeijing: Can you introduce yourself? How long have you been making films? How long have you been in Beijing? What is your day-to-day life here like?
Gareth Rees: I'm Gareth Rees and I've been making films for about 15 years. Independent filmmaker, with experience in documentary (festivals and UK TV), short fiction (festivals) and experimental films, which involved editing the film live to live music performance (festivals and galleries). Written In Dust is my first feature fiction film.
I spend half the year in BJ, and half in UK. Been doing that since 2009.
Day to day life is always full of the unexpected, as most people comment about their time in this fine city. Filmmaking is hard work, especially when doing it without money; even putting on these shows at Là-bas takes a great deal of time and energy, and things always take me longer as I am not nearly good enough with my Mandarin. But, I love being in Beijing, as there is such a strong creative energy here and people always step forward to help.
SmBJ: Written in Dust is a "contemporary silent film". What gave you the idea to do something like this? Is it common to make silent films in the 21st century?
GR: Many reasons behind this idea! First of all though, it is absolutely not common to do this, especially not to make them to always be shown with live music. The Artist is an obvious contemporarily-made silent film, although set in the final days of mainstream silent cinema, and it is not shown with live music. If it ever is, it has to be shown with the same score as the cinema release, and the producers rarely give permission. My project is all about working with different musicians, in different genres and to encourage improvisation and new music creation.
Back to the reasons:
1: My earlier experimental film work explored ideas of liveness in cinema, to make the moment in that venue at that time unique. Silent narrative film with live music is a continuation of that exploration. I like bringing chance and the present moment into the film viewing (and making) experience. Also, I am interested in Vertovian ideas of pure cinema, in which a dominantly visual communication is what makes cinema distinct from theatre drama, for example.
2: In London and the UK there are many screenings of the classic silent films with live music, usually piano accompaniment. As a member of the audience, I found these shows to be captivating, engaging and quite distinct to our contemporary mainstream cinema experience. I wanted to explore that as a filmmaker.
3: It is a lovely gift to give a film audience a live music experience too. A very special, and for many people never before experienced, genre of performance.
4: Considering my characters' social position, that the film is silent means there is an extra metaphorical resonance.
5: There is a fairly widespread view that silent film was an early, and finished, phase of filmmaking, and there is no place for it today. I wanted to use the genre to tell a contemporary story for a contemporary audience, and to emphasize that it can be a vivid and vital way of filmmaking that has lots to offer the contemporary audience, and can take that audience to a rarely experienced, perhaps liminal, space.
SmBJ: Can you briefly describe the plot of Written in Dust? From what I've read it seems like a very Beijing-specific film...
GR: Actually, although of course the particulars of the story and characters are Beijing specific, my intention is also to explore themes and storylines which are resonant on a wider, perhaps universal, level. It is a classic narrative of newcomers to the city, starting out with nothing: friends, money, love, lies and betrayal. Underlying themes and contexts concern urbanization, community, tradition and modernity, frontier capitalism, materialism, shame, and the perils of lies. All of these things are present in every continent, but the particulars of their manifestation are specifically located. In Written in Dust, the three friends who arrive in the city are Chinese rural migrants in their 20s.
Also, as a contemporary silent film, I am unavoidably engaging with cinematic history, and the urban or city film was a strong theme in the 1920s, in both dystopian and utopian narrative. I am telling a tale set in Beijing, rather than making a docu-drama, but that does involve trying to be true to that context.
SmBJ: What are the benefits of doing an indie film in Beijing as compared to other places? What are some of the major obstacles or headaches?
GR: Obviously, there are very important issues concerning external control over film production which are not really present in the UK. Apart from that, Beijing is a great place to be dong indie film. I felt, from my very first visit here, a real sense of creative and productive synergy here, and that inspired me to go ahead and try to make a feature film with no money here. People help you out in Beijing, and if you are determined and have an interesting project, people will commit to you. I think there could be a stronger community grouping of indie filmmakers and enthusiasts. I first came here during the last year of Cherry Lane Movies, and those were great film enthusiasts' get-togethers. I can't seem to find that community and space now, perhaps though that is due to my coming and going.
SmBJ: You've been pairing screenings of Written in Dust with a live score by Daniel Taylor of The Harridans/Luv Plastik. How did you decide to work with Dan? Did you have him in mind when you shot the film, or did the idea for him to do the live score come afterwards?
GR: A trusted and creative musical friend from Brazil recommended I speak to Dan. I went to a Harridans' gig, and I knew that Dan had the skills for Written in Dust: his incredibly high standard of musicianship, his musical diversity, his live energy and showmanship, his improvisation skills and his drunken persuadability.
I should say here that WID was not made with any musicians or music in mind. It was edited silently. At the heart of the project is an exploration of how different musicians in different genres respond to the same film. So far I have had traditional Chinese, London hipster electro, experimental Chinese folk, a Western-Eastern fusion with electronica, Western classical (violin and piano), and the Dan Taylor Harridan Sound Collective. I'm looking forward to the German Techno and something weird from Japan.
I do not direct the musicians; that is the job of the film, the visual document. I love the triangle that develops between the film, the musicians and the audience, and I do encourage musicians to be brave and improvise or avoid over rehearsing.
Dan and Heike Kaglar have been the foundation for this run at La Bas, with their first show being the first time they had played together for the film, and with Heike having only seen a few clips. For successive shows, we have guest musicians joining them, leading to very different score each night. Randy Abel on harmonica brought such texture and pathos to the show. I look forward to flute, electronic wind instrument (EWI) and guzheng joining for the final two La Bas shows.
SmBJ: Has the score changed from screening to screening? How does the music on any given night influence the audience's experience of the film?
GR: Even with the same musicians, the score is always different, as they do improvise and respond in the moment, even if they have rehearsed heavily. Obviously, having completely different musicians leads to very distinct scores, although they are all responding to the same film so there are very strong tonal and mood similarities.
To talk about how it affects audiences on different nights would take too long here. Sometimes there is more wit and charm, other times the sense of tragedy permeates from the start. In the end though, I think those differences are subtle, because the film and its narrative and visual storytelling are the bedrock of the evening; it all comes from there in terms of inspiration and musical response, and the audience are always seeing the same visuals. What I can say is that I watch it every time, and the experience is always different. The last show had such a delicate and nuanced first act, like I hadn't felt before, and that was with the same musicians from the show before.
SmBJ: So far you've shown the film only at La-bas, a small hutong bar. How has the reception been? Do you plan to branch out to bigger venues in other parts of the city?
GR: The reception has been splendid and most fine. We have had really mixed audiences, in terms of nationalities, and clearly warm and positive appreciation. For many people, it is the first time they have seen a silent film, never mind with live music accompaniment, and I think the strength of their engagement with the show, and how their attention is held throughout, has taken them by surprise.
Last Summer, I did show at the so-sadly-lost Zajia Lab, in its Gulou incarnation. Before that, I did some rural and provincial touring in the UK, and the Edinburgh Film Festival organizers gave it three shows as part of their monthly New Cinema screenings in Edinburgh.
I would love to show in bigger venues in Beijing, but that is when other issues come into play and there is much caution, or a need for a lot of money to hire the place. I guess I need a producer really, to push to the next level in Beijing (and elsewhere). The hardest thing is getting media attention and the word out about the film; that is the same anywhere I think. It is hard to get exposure for a left-field creative project, whatever the medium, wherever you are. So, a hugely appreciative thank you to the media who do engage with those kinds of projects, and to audiences and networks who engage through social media. All that support is invaluable, welcome and truly appreciated.
SmBJ: What's next for you? Will you submit Written in Dust to international festivals or anything like that? Do you have ideas for another film you want to make?
GR: Festivals are too expensive for me at the moment, both in terms of submission fees and musician costs, so really it is a case of touring Written In Dust like a theatre show. Importantly, I have five shows in cinemas in London in November. They will be crucial for the future of Written In Dust.
Next films? Three scripts ready to go which are set in China; a ghost story called Empty, a romantic drama called Spicy Soup, and an epic romance defection drama set in 1980s Beijing and London called Acrobat. But, next project I hope to start is a silent film project that will bring as much of the creative spirit of Beijing to bear as possible. Called Beijing Symphony, it will be a portmanteau silent feature film composed of eight stories. I will hold an open script competition in Beijing, and open submissions for Beijing-based directors to take on one of the scripts each, find funding in Beijing from the crowd and institutions, and have as massive a world premiere in Beijing as possible, with as many Beijing musicians playing live as feasible. Then, get that one into festivals as the silent film that Beijing made. I'm keen to bring together a wide range of creative talents in this city, from Chinese and international backgrounds, and to encourage people to explore silent filmmaking.
SmBJ: Anything else you want to add about Written in Dust or your upcoming events?
GR: If you haven't seen it yet, do come along. It is very much a Beijing project, which many people have loved seeing. You don't often get the chance to see a contemporary silent film with live music performance. As the show's producer, I am bound to say this, but, it is well worth getting out of the house for!
(Search "Written In Dust" on YouTube for my channel with promo videos, and find the film on Facebook and Twitter #WIDmovie)
Find full info on the remaining June screenings of Written In Dust here.