The Beekeeper and his Son

Interview with Diedie Weng

Interview Director

What was your motivation to make this film?

My parents came from rural China, but I grew up in the city. Since my early twenties, I had felt an increased longing for rural landscapes and my home, and kept undertaking short projects in different parts of rural China. This was the first time, however, that I had lived and worked so closely with villagers on a daily basis. I came to realise that the reality of the villager’s personal lives were far more complex than I had understood. These ideas led me to give up my own agenda, and instead begin filming the family and the bees on a daily basis. It was like a new search for the questions that really matter to both me and the characters.

Once I opened up my camera to the daily rhythms, I began to see the richness and originality of everyday life and how it revealed the conflicts both between the characters and within themselves. I also saw myself asking these questions about family relationships in the film: How do these two generations with different values live and work under the same roof? How will they manage to communicate about their own confusion and fear in their different life stages?

Why did you choose a beekeeper family?

I was living in the same village as the beekeeper Lao Yu and his family while working for a community project. His honey was well-known in the area, so I went there to buy some. He and his wife Chang Nuo Niang were always very warm towards me. Before they settled down with their hives in this region, Lao Yu spent more than twenty years travelling with the bees around China, to follow the seasons. Perhaps their itinerant past made Lao Yu and Niang feel kindly towards me, a young woman far away from home, and they kind of “adopted” me, often inviting me to their home for meals. I grew to love the surroundings of the homestead with the bamboo forests, animals and the mountains in the distance. Lao Yu has kept bees for almost 50 years, and I thought it would be interesting to make a film about his beekeeping craft and how his bees struggle with the challenging environmental factors. I was also interested in the potential to develop a poetic layer with certain bee activities or the bee life cycle, which would resonate with the essence of the story.

Have there been any unexpected events during the shoot? Have these events been an advantage or disadvantage?

It took me a while to get access to proper film equipment. As I had been observing Lao Yu’s routines with the bees and his daily life without any shooting for a few months, he mentioned that his son would be coming home to learn beekeeping from him. I thought about filming his son in the city, but unexpectedly, the first footage I would ever shoot for the film ended up being Lao Yu’s visit with his mother, joined by the son.

The beekeeper’s hometown was in another province. He had to spend the whole night sitting on a train and then switch buses several times. After more than 24 hours of travel, it was a bit of anti-climax for me to find out that his mother could no longer recognize him. She had become senile. For those few days with his mother, the beekeeper tried to do everything he could to care for her, and the personal moments between the beekeeper and his mother revealed a very tender side of him underneath his strong personality.

After the son Maofu came home, Lao Yu expected him to be a diligent apprentice on the bee farm. However, Maofu was more interested in being a honey salesman, spending his time reading marketing books. There was very little interaction between them at the farm, but the tension was palpable. I was initially planning to film their work and interaction whilst working with the bees. Instead I had to modify my approach and observe the delicate moments between the father and the son. I waited for them to open up to me instead of pushing them with my questions. Taking the time to observe the tension in their relationship has made me more sensitive to the emotional needs of the characters, and made the whole film richer and more personal.

Were the protagonists willing to do the film with you from the beginning? What is their opinion of the film? Have they already seen it?

The beekeeper was very supportive from the beginning, and I also got along quite well with his son. His wife was a bit ambivalent about my filming; sometimes she would half-jokingly mock me, saying “Diedie, aren’t you lucky playing with your camera all day long?” But gradually we became close friends, and if I didn’t show up in their yard one day, they would wonder where I had gone.

When the beekeeper and his son were having difficulty communicating with each other, they would often speak to me on camera about their thoughts. The beekeeper would even ask me about Maofu’s thoughts on camera. It didn't feel right to intervene in their relationship, but in some ways the beekeeper expected me to be a mediator between him and his son.

The beekeeper and his wife watched the first rough cut. I was very nervous about showing it to them because the film has so many strong personal moments of family drama, but they ended up liking it a lot, seeing it almost like a home movie. It was bittersweet for the beekeeper to remember the time he spent with his mother—she passed away one year after the filming. When he saw the conflict scenes with his son, he said: “Yeah, we did fight a lot that year.” He added: “Maofu did a good job digging the new bee farm site.” The beekeeper’s wife added: “Family life is like this, it has its ups and downs.”

How do you think the family conflicts reflect the conflicts between the city and countryside, the modernity and tradition, which are going on in China?

I debated with myself for a long time about whether I would need to film Maofu’s life in the city in order to highlight Maofu’s dilemma - the divide between rural and urban life. But I came to realize that Maofu’s modern values are already shown through his interest in branding and marketing, his lack of engagement with the bees and farm work, and even in the way he dressed. I became more interested in how he dealt with the value differences with his father at home, and how the two generations managed to work together in the rural homestead.

After Maofu returned home, I continually wondered how long he would stay. Later on, it became clear to me how he felt a lack of belonging to both the city and the village, perpetually drifting between the two. This personal experience can be seen as reflecting a general struggle among the new generation of young farmers and migrant workers.

At the same time, Lao Yu represents a caring but controlling father. He saw that times had changed in ways he might not comprehend, but still wanted to establish a future for his son using what he knew. In the end, he opened up and let Maofu leave again to find his own way, giving the film its open ending. At the end of the movie, it is not yet clear whether Maofu will return, but Lao Yu has become warmer to his son and their relationship is slowly improving.

Which role do the geese take? Especially the one which seems to have a special relationship with Lao Yu and Maofu?

At the beginning of my shooting, the goose was often poking into the view, and sometimes would come to bite my leg, stopping me from getting close to Lao Yu or Maofu. I often asked Lao Yu to drive the goose away or tried to distract him with some corn seeds. But I grew to understand that the goose is a special companion for both the father and the son, resonating with their emotions. I once saw the goose walk into Maofu’s cave and listen to music with him quietly for quite a while. He also tended to follow Lao Yu like a body guard and bouncer, echoing Lao Yu’s loud voice. After this, I decided to let him remain and become a character in the film. The role of the goose is his gift for the film.

How did the collaboration with Mira Film, a Swiss production company, come about?

I met the co-founder of Mira Film, Vadim Jendreyko, when he was teaching a documentary workshop in Beijing in 2010. I was very moved and inspired by his films and thought he would be a good mentor for me. I met him again in 2012 for a similar workshop, and had the opportunity to show him some footage from the film. He liked it, and offered to support the film with his company. Later that year he introduced me to his colleague Susanne Guggenberger at RMDI Montreal, with whom I also felt a good understanding during discussions about the film. Since then, we have worked very hard together across China, Switzerland and Canada to complete the film.

How would you describe the work with Mira Film, what has been different from your other collaborations?

This is my first feature length documentary, and my first time working with a film company. I feel very lucky to be able to work with Mira Film; the people there have given me so much inspiration and genuine support. It is a company with a small group of people that share great sensitivity and a strong passion for artistic documentaries.

Before I began working with Mira Film, I spent 15 months alone in the mountain valley shooting footage. It has been valuable to be able to slowly deepen the connections with first Vadim and then Susanne through the project over time. We formed the core of the team with a good understanding of each other and the film, and they have been very supportive of me in developing my own vision for the film. They are both quite humorous which has definitely helped loosen me up during this long journey.

While I was in the process of editing the film, I became pregnant, and we had to finish the editing while I was still breast feeding my baby son. Susanne and Vadim have both been extremely patient and supportive of my needs.

How was it working with Vadim Jendreyko, who was co-writer in this project?

When I watched his films and attended his workshops in Beijing, I appreciated the sensuality, poetic sense and humanistic values in his films – the trust and connection were there from the beginning.

He was generous to offer his guidance to me when I began filming, long before Mira Film officially joined the project. During our editing process we didn’t have time to go through all the 150 hours’ worth of material together and I am the only one who has seen all the footage. We had to base our collaborative work, therefore, on the latest rough cut and some core material selected with a previous editor. I would then add some other material based on the new requirements that we had defined together for the editing. I was a bit nervous about this way of editing, but trust is the key for this process to work.