Chase exclusive docu: ‘AS THE CITY GROWS, I GROW’ follows 3 artists in Shanghai
Belgian filmmaker Romain Vennekens and Chase teamed up for the online release of his latest documentary ‘As the city grows, I grow,' which is now exclusively available on Chase. The short documentary was shot in the summer of 2016, following around three young artists in Shanghai, the biggest and most vibrant city of China. A Brazilian photographer, a Belgian graffiti artist and a Belgian architect consecutively interact with the city and its urban culture, each through their own discipline.
'As the city grows, I grow' is self-produced, but presented by the visual art collective called “Nemeton” which Romain founded back in 2015 with a befriended cinematographer. Their goal is to produce content that makes you question the reality around you. Romain believes that in films, just as in all art, you cannot just simply capture life as it is. As a filmmaker he wants to let the viewer experience higher dimensions by working with the inspirational, feelings and emotions. And that is exactly what we explore in this documentary.
Last week we met up with the Brussels-based filmmaker Romain Vennekens and featured Belgian graffiti artist Benjamin van der Maas (known as ‘The Koi Fish’) in our capital at a cosy coffeehouse, to have a talk about this project.
Interview by Chess Teugels, photography by Chess Teugels and Romain Vennekens
Where did the idea to follow around three different creative people interacting with the city of Shangai come from?
Romain: The idea built itself up while I was filming. I didn’t have a plan. Everything was shot in an intuitive way. There are different ways of working with a screen as a filmmaker. One way is to be fully prepared with an exact plan according to which to build your film, but I wanted it to be very intuitive. It had been a while since I made a movie in such a way, as a way of reacting to what was happening around me. As a foreign filmmaker, I had a lot to process in Shanghai and my natural reaction was to film the many things happening around me.
I started to search for creative foreign people in Shanghai with a similar experience to mine, randomly via Instagram and WeChat - the Chinese ‘WhatsApp’. The number of people I follow in the documentary and the fact that they are men, is totally random. They are just a few of the people I met that have something interesting to say and were ready to get into my project. I also knew that I wanted to feature different kinds of creative people who explore the open space. The photographer went to photograph outside in the streets, as a graffiti artist Benjamin was exploring new places to put his art, and the architect was working on a project about how the districts of Shanghai were changing.
The first idea that grew on me was to make a documentary about being creative in a different culture. But it evolved and became more about change and personal growth. While I was filming Theo, the Brazilian photographer, as the first character, I followed him around the old neighborhoods of Shanghai and decided to do something with the change that is happening over there. I then realized that the film would be about how the city was changing and how those people were also changing.
Romain: I didn’t really choose Shanghai. Well, I kind of chose it. In the Frenchspeaking Belgian community, there is a foundation where you can apply for an international internship in of the BRIC countries (acronym that refers to Brazil, Russia, India and China, countries that are all deemed to be at a similar stage of newly advanced economic development). I chose China and was hoping I would be able to go to Shanghai as it seemed like the most vibrant city to me. I already knew that I would use it as an excuse to film something there. So when I got a proposition to fulfill my internship in a theater in Shanghai, I said yes immediately.
What was your previous experience with China and Shanghai, Benjamin?
Benjamin: I enrolled in Sinology or ‘China studies’ at the Catholic University of Leuven, because I didn’t want to do what everybody else was doing. Every year I said to myself that if I’d fail, I’d quit, because honestly it’s ridiculously hard studying Chinese. But I got lucky a few times. After attaining my Bachelor's degree and before starting my Master studies, I went to China to study. Or at least that was the plan, but I ended up not studying a lot. (laughs)
I chose Shanghai because I knew there was a skate scene there, so I knew I could meet up with some of the skaters and ask them to show me around. It turned out to be a really good choice because the graffiti scene is only getting started there. It’s like when the graffiti scene kicked off in Europe back in the 80s. That’s China right now. I had been doing a lot of graffiti before, but it really kicked off in Shanghai!
Where does your graffiti name “the Koi Fish” come from?
Benjamin: The first time I painted a koi fish was for a Belgian company on their building site in Halle, where they allowed me to paint one hundred square meters of koi fish. I never studied art and I'm not someone who can just whip out anything, but I could draw a koi fish really well. At that time I was still using another pseudonym, but in Shanghai I really started to explore the idea of spreading the koi fish all over the city. At one point there were about 20 koi fish spread around Shanghai, one in every district.
Even now the concept of the koi fish is still evolving. I think I’m going in the direction of using it as a representation of myself. I have a whole story of why exactly a koi fish, but it’s a bit too long to explain now. Basically, it just grew on me.
In the documentary you explained how trying to connect where you were and where you are now is what puts every one of us in motion. Do you feel that you are challenged to do so even more in a city like Shanghai?
Benjamin: Everybody that's visiting Shanghai for a longer period of time asks themselves “Why am I here?”. I love the city, but it’s not a nice place to be. There are too many people, there's too much noise and it's too polluted. I asked myself what I was doing there a lot, while I could have been at home comfortably. Living in Europe is semi-comfortable, you don't really have to ask yourself what makes you stay there. In Belgium people notice you, in Shanghai they don’t. They only care about their own day and getting from point A to B. It’s liberating somehow. But if you want to find out what you’re doing in such a place, you can’t depend on other people for feedback. You have to do it on your own.
Romain: You don’t have to travel far to challenge yourself. What is the most challenging is the completely different culture over there. I believe you can grow faster when you have to face those kind of challenges every day. But you can even do it here. I think it’s important to always find new ways to challenge yourself. This especially happens in Shanghai and everyone has a different reaction to it, but one thing is for sure: you cannot stay the same. You need to process it, because you want to understand it.
Benjamin: This is going to sound awfully poetic, and it’s linked with the title, but you need to change. There is no way of staying the way you are in a city like Shanghai. you're heavily confronted with yourself and by the things you're doing, that you start thinking and growing. The moments when you make the connection between where you were and where you are, are like micro big bangs and suddenly everything is so different. That’s what I think is super valuable about Shanghai and the crazy different world that city is.
'As the city grows, I grow' follows three artists, but explores Shanghai in the first place through the means of filmmaking. Do you feel like you successfully translated your personal experience and insights to the screen, Romain?
Romain: I tried at the very least. Not only during post-production, but also when I was filming, I focused on the things I also experienced. I think that is where everything connects. I knew that I couldn't be in the film as a person, but I would use those people as characters to tell a story I could relate to. It is an attempt to tell the story of the city, the way I experienced it.
A lot of shots show certain details that flirt with a kind of presence. Shanghai is so big and there are so many things happening there, so I tried to include as many striking details as possible: from the old to the new neighborhoods, the Chinese people dancing in the park, the city lights, … All the things that kind of hit you in the face when you’re right there.
During editing afterwards I also inserted some sounds that I feel are specific of the city. I don’t think you realize it if you’ve never been there. But if you have, you can hear sounds in the film that specifically remind you of Shanghai. It can be the sounds of a shop, the cars, …
What does the future entail for you two?
Benjamin: Right now I am finishing up my studies. I just came back from touring with my art in Norway, so hopelfully we'll hear more about that later. Some new art projects are in the making and I’m going to take a graphic design course to keep myself busy. I will be staying in Belgium for the next year. I am challenging myself to stay in one place to finish some things and then we’ll see. Maybe in a month my life will be completely different! (laughs) Things change all the time.
Romain: There are a lot of creative projects in my future and it’s always a struggle as there are so many interesting things happening all the time. Right now I am working on a project for the stage as a set designer, plus I have some more video and music projects coming up. There are always new projects to get involved with, which is equally exciting as it is difficult to decide, when you’re young and you’re trying to do what you want to do. But I also think it’s a very rewarding process. Right now I just do what I feel is right.
Always staying in motion?
Romain: Always in motion. That is very important, I think.