The Shaolin Temple Kung Fu Academy is the largest school of its kind in China. Get a glimpse of the hard work required to master the Chinese martial art in this impressive collaboration between DJ Ben Surkin (represented by Savoir Faire) and filmmaker Inigo Westmeier. Footage was adapted from Westmeier’s 2012 documentary Dragon Girls with music from Gener8ion featuring M.I.A. I spoke with Westmeier about the process of creating the original documentary and adapting it into a music video.
How did you first learn about the Shaolin Tagou Kung Fu School?
I actually first learned about the Shaolin Tagou Kung Fu School by practicing kung fu with my son at a Shaolin temple in Berlin. It was there that I saw a child seem to effortlessly defy gravity and literally run up and down a wall with extreme grace. As a cinematographer and director, I was instantly attracted to the power of the individual and the image, achieving this [feat] without the use of any props or digital special effects. I spoke with some of the children and the monk and heard about an exclusively female kung-fu school in China that sounded extraordinary. I went in search of this monastery and a story, visiting this school of training for young female warriors only to find it defunct and in ruins. As soon as I thought the concept had reached a dead end, the Shaolin Tagou Kung Fu School lay waiting on the horizon.
What was it about the place that inspired you to make a film?
At first I thought that it was really not that interesting to focus on the Shaolin Tagou Kung Fu School because of its being already so well known and its massive size. I wasn’t sure there was a story there that wouldn’t be eclipsed by the renown and sheer scale being dealt with. Then I visited with and met some of the individual girls who would become the central protagonists of Dragon Girls and discovered one the strongest cinematic and narrative tensions: between the individual and the whole, the issue of personal identity and its evolution being subsumed through an institution into part of a greater undifferentiated mass. The extreme levels of formal organization and state structure contrasted inexplicably with the personal portraits of these young girls whose faces almost looked like grown-ups’, and yet the child inside was still able to shine through.
Were there any challenges with the filming process?
Yes, there were several challenges: maintaining authenticity, creative control, navigating the red tape, the bureaucracy, surveillance, the sheer number of students, personnel, et cetera. Every day during the shooting process, when I woke up someone would tell me, “This is impossible,” or “That is impossible.” Actually, no matter what I wanted to shoot, somebody always said, “This is not possible.” But every night I went to sleep with a little thought: “OK, today at least I made the impossible possible,” just to wake up the next morning only to hear yet again, “This is impossible!”
Was the film released in China? If so, how was it received?
Yes, the film was released in China and received quite well; I was even awarded an honorary professorship for the film to the sounds of a complete military fanfare. For me, it meant the most after its submission to the Shanghai International Film Festival, where the three main female protagonists were in attendance and told me that they believed the film painted an authentic portrait of how the individual feels about life at the Shaolin Tagou Kung Fu School. The Chinese government was quite pleased with the film, and the school itself was also not opposed in any way to the portrayal. Ultimately, it is up to the viewers to make their own judgements. I believe the depiction was accurate and neutral, an unbiased portrait, and any critical perspective was achieved subtly, with a cinematic language, rather than demonstrably.
When did the collaboration with Bromance Records begin?
It really all came together quite simply and organically, like I believe the best things in life and the creative process do. My production company was approached by Ben Surkin, and we were fascinated to imagine a new approach to Dragon Girls. Music videos are a new genre for me, but I did some work in that direction years ago as a director of photography. I always like having the chance to approach something new with the curiosity of a child. Ben saw Dragon Girls and then blew us away with his fascination and vision for a collaboration. I was thrilled to see how this would potentially develop, especially with a socially conscious artist like M.I.A. So then after a little time passed, I flew to Paris, where we did the editing with Walter Mauriot.
Can you describe the creative process in making a music video versus a documentary?
It was a little bit of a challenge for me changing gears from making a feature documentary to making a music-video adaptation, because it’s a completely different thinking process. The main point of the film was to tell a story. With the music video, I came into another domain, one that is more about explaining through just music and montage while leaving out the dialogues of the girls who I knew so well and are so close to my heart. In the context of a music video, the content is abstracted further than in the documentary, and we are left with just the music and the image, which is a wonderful and potent language of expression in its own right.
What are you working on next?
I am currently working on one documentary involving highly skilled classical musicians and another concerning social business and an orphanage in Thailand for AIDS-afflicted youth, as well as two fiction films in earlier stages of development. My documentary films are all very narrative driven and cinematic. It’s a new way of telling stories, beyond tropes and stereotypes, combining documentary and fiction while focusing on the true magic behind the images of the film and the relationships between the people—the magic in between.
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