Interview: Hu Wei (Butter Lamp)

Hu Wei (Butter Lamp)
UPDATE (January 15, 2015): Butter Lamp has been nominated for an Academy Award in the category of Best Live-Action Short. Best of luck to Hu Wei and the rest of his team!

One of the most impressive short films I saw during my visit to the Clermont-Ferrand International Short Film Festival last January was Hu Wei’s La lampe au beurre de yak (Butter Lamp). In fact, I wasn’t the only one impressed; the film won the Grand Prix. I was tremendously pleased, therefore, to be able to bring it to Shorts That Are Not Pants this past October. The film has scooped up a slew of other awards as well, and it seems destined to become a short film classic. Director Hu Wei graciously answered a few questions about the film recently.

Where did the idea for the film come from?

The idea has existed for a long time, but it was not until 2008 at the FIAC Paris when I saw Michael Nash’s photograph “Warsaw 1946,” that I finally decided to write the script. In this photograph, a photographer uses a backdrop with some rural scenery to mask the war ruins while shooting a portrait for a woman, in Warsaw in November of 1946. This differentiation of space presented in one photograph has really impressed me and I think that is sort of a common agreement between Western culture and Eastern. After that I finished the screenplay of Butter Lamp.

Where was the film shot?

In the Tibetan region, in Sichuan, China.

Is the film a documentary, or was some of it scripted?

This film is entirely scripted.

The use of perspective is very clever in the film – we see only what the camera lens sees. What were the reasons for this?

We are unable to perceive the complete world; not even in reality. I wish to create a relatively enclosed space in the film; every one of the backdrops represents a Utopia of some sort. I was trying to construct a “happy” atmosphere at the beginning of the film; as time goes by and each of the backdrop unfolds, and till we are brought back to the real world, the difference between the dream worlds and the reality is finally revealed.

Still from Butter Lamp

Were your Tibetan actors all nomadic, like the characters they play? Where did you find them?

The actors who appeared in the film are all local Tibetan nomads. We went into the mountains, visiting one village after another in search of the actors.

How do you feel the Tibetan nomads relate to the woman in Michael Nash’s photograph?

I think that for the Tibetans, the woman is the photograph, they are all just people who have dreams.

Did you encounter any difficulties while filming? How were they overcome?

First of all, it is a short film and in China there is no specific filming permit [available] for shorts. As a result, we had many troubles during filming because we did not have a filming permit; especially for a production team consisting of foreign members [Editor’s Note: the film was a co-production with France]. Secondly, the entire filming process was conducted on the plateau of over 4,000 meters altitude, and that created both physical and mental challenges for most of the crew members from the flatlands. And lastly we had problems communicating with the Tibetans, they were nomads and non-professional actors and that was another barrier we experienced. It was time that overcame all the difficulties.

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