Zhang Wei: 'As a filmmaker, I am a pessimist'

The maverick director on tackling the thorniest issues in Chinese society

Earlier this year, the Chinese government issued new laws regarding the education of disabled children. Previously, it was common for schools to exclude children with physical or mental disabilities, who often had no alternatives, but the new regulations will see children either supported within mainstream schools, or in specialist schools provided for disabled people. These laws will come into effect this month, just in time for the start of the new academic year in China.

The choice between these two systems of education, and the question of who makes that choice, is at the heart of Zhang Wei’s latest film, Destiny, which has been touring international film festivals for the past year. Destiny follows the story of Xi He, a boy with mild autism, and his mother’s fight to have him educated in a mainstream school against the wishes of the parents of other students. The film uses real events from recent news in China to 'foretell' the life of the young, autistic boy, including parental protests, the physical caging of autistic people, and families driven to suicide.

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'As a filmmaker, I am a pessimist,' Zhang Wei tells me at his villa in Beijing. Having made a fortune in the video intercom doorbell business, Zhang now uses his vast wealth to make independent films 'depicting marginalised groups’ lives'. His 2014 film Factory Boss, perhaps inspired by his past life, won awards in 2014 for its nuanced portrayal of a boss of a Chinese factory caught between a rock and a hard place with the increasingly brutal and low-cost demands from a US toy company threatening the welfare of his workers.

'I’d been interested in making a film about the autistic community for quite a long time,' he says, but it wasn’t until September 2012 when he read the news of three different incidents involving the maltreatment of autistic people that he 'found artistic inspiration'. The incidents are portrayed in the film through the lives of three autistic people: Xi He; Zi Xiang, an older student whose grandmother’s struggle to handle his journey through puberty leads to tragedy; and Xi He’s uncle who lives in the countryside and is forced by other villagers to live in a cage.

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Although the film’s main focus is Xi He, Zhang also wanted to draw attention to the way autistic adults are treated in China. 'After all my research, I didn’t see toomuch [adult social care],' he says, adding, 'some families are able to afford special carers, because who will take care of [the autistic person] when the parents are gone?' Zhang believes that China needs a more ‘holistic approach’, whereby policymakers, social workers and sociologists work together 'to take care of the adult autistic community. That’s my wish.' It was during post-production of Destiny that the new laws were announced, a development Zhang welcomed, leading him to subsequently edit the film to reflect the news.

For Zhang, the 'core debate in the film' is about 'striking a balance between the interests of the group versus the interests of an individual. It is a matter of social ethics.' As well as the question of who should care for autistic people, Destiny grapples with what that care says about society, a key line in the film being: 'The civilisation level of a society is determined by its respect for the minority groups.' But for a film that raises such serious questions, Zhang doesn’t claim to solve them, saying only that he sees ‘democracy as against freedom'. When the other parents vote to have Xi He excluded, his basic right to an education is lost. 'As a visual artist, I have no answers. I just want to start a conversation. I want people to reflect.'

Watch the trailer for Destiny [VPNs on].

By Amy Hawkins

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