Zhang and Knight tell LBB’s Alex Reeves about a shoot in China that landed them in hot water with the local police
The aliases Zhang and Knight are both politically motivated. “Zhang is the name that my grandmother’s family took to be more in line with the times politically,” says one half of the Agile Films directorial duo – his family has roots in China. “There’s a thing called the ‘lao bei xing’, which means the ‘old hundred names’. That’s where Zhang comes from. It’s one of the good working class names. It was more patriotic.”
Knight has a similar story. “It comes from the name my mum’s side of the family used as aliases to get jobs,” she says, “because their second name is Muslim. They changed their name from Ahmet to Knight because it was easier to get work in the ‘70s and ‘80s.”
The pair have been making ‘depressing’ films since they were at the University of York together. A cursory glance at their reel will reveal their love for brutalist architecture. In Knight’s words: “I think we’re just very miserable people who love concrete.” Kiev is a favourite location of theirs, with its ‘60s Soviet architecture lending itself to their dystopian aesthetic.
Their second video for British musician Ghostpoet aspired to be their grandest dystopia yet. After the first one went down so well with the artist and label, Zhang and Knight saw their chance to really push this idea, which they’d been sitting on for a while.
“We saw this really cool image of a concrete square and in the centre was this tiny square of green grass,” remembers Zhang. “We really like the idea of something we all think is very abundant being very precious and rare. The original concept for the video was a society where a real strawberry costs millions of pounds or to sit beside a tree is a real privilege. This woman becomes very dissatisfied with this chemical food substitute that tastes like strawberries and she’s sick of the view outside her window of a concrete wall.”
China was the ideal location to shoot it in, they thought. “In China, every sunset is beautiful, he says. “All the sunlight is golden and filtered because of the pollution. The sun is super red because of all these chemicals. It gives it this intensity. We’re quite attracted to that.”
This might sound daring to many British filmmakers, but Zhang & Knight had experience there, working for the government as their graduate job. They used to make ‘propaganda films’ for local governments in China, promoting tourism.
Ghostpoet and his label gave them the go-ahead and they started planning. They chose a coal-mining city in the north of China for its imposing, austere architecture and spent four weeks locking everything down in preparation. They had permissions, they knew all the crew, all the payments were lined up correctly, they had animals organised. They even had government support to help them shoot some heritage sites in the area.
“On paper, it was a very well-produced shoot,” Knight says with the ironic smile of hindsight. “We had permission for everywhere except for a public street.That was our one dodgy location. But people do it in London and the police just tell you to stop filming and you move on. Unfortunately that was the first thing we chose to shoot. If we’d done it the other way round and shot indoors first we might have come out with almost the whole video.”
The shoot started well. It all looked beautiful and they were getting exactly the shots they needed. Then a local woman turned up, suspicious of these foreigners making a film featuring breathing apparatus. She started asking them what they were doing, refusing to take “making a low-budget music video” for an answer.
She called the police, who promptly turned up. “They had these big old VHS camera things filming in our faces. It was pretty intimidating,” says Zhang. “We weren’t doing anything wrong so we thought we’ll just talk to them, sure it’s a misunderstanding. They kept asking what we were doing. We kept saying and they just didn’t believe that was all we were doing.”
Meanwhile, Knight and Christophe [Colette, the DoP] had scarpered with what equipment they could carry round the corner. When they returned the police were gone. So were Zhang and Katie [Lambert, Executive Producer]. They’d been arrested. “We didn’t know what was going on, but they were in the police station,” she says.
“We managed to escape,” says Knight. But they had no line of communication for some time so didn’t know what was going on. “In my head I was thinking they were being sent to the Chinese equivalent of Guantanamo Bay. I thought we were all going to get deported or sent to prison. I just assumed the worst. I was thinking ‘I’ve got to get to the embassy. I’ve got to get the burner passports out. I’ll change my name. It’ll be fine.’”
“Katie and I started off thinking it was so funny,” says Zhang. “And then more and more people got involved and more and more phone calls were happening. More and more police and underground cells and questions and interrogations. And quite late it the day we realised it wasn’t so funny anymore. It was quite terrifying.”
“The whole thing kept escalating. It started with a small group of local police to then the big regional guys got called in and then Katie and I were transferred to another police station. It just kept getting more into the heads of local government [that they were not telling the truth].”
It was never made clear what the charge was. “I think maybe with the masks they thought it was going to be defamatory, saying something negative about China,” suggests Zhang. “What we were filming was never meant to be China specifically. It was just meant to be a place with a lot of concrete and haze.”
“We genuinely weren’t trying to make a comment about air pollution,” says Knight.
They were in and out of police stations for around three days, occasionally travelling to and from their apartment, under police guard. “There were a few moments of being held in dark, underground places,” says Zhang, nonchalant about it all. But at least they had noodles - a dish the area is particularly famous for.
No clear charge ever came. “After a few days it just sort of blew over,” explains Zhang. “There’s only so many times you can ask a question. We’re not the most scary-looking people in the world. We weren’t there to cause any damage.”
They were cautioned not to carry on filming in China. The consensus was that they should probably obey the authorities rather than risk getting into even more trouble. “It was too big a risk to carry on. If anything had happened we’d have been toast,” says Knight.
The directors and crew flew back home with what they’d managed to shoot in that first hour. It was back to the drawing board and they only had a few days to deliver something. They decided to keep the themes intact, but broaden it out. “It stopped being so narrative and started becoming about everything,” says Knight. “So we got to explore some different stuff that we weren’t expecting to be able to look at when we started shooting in England.”
Zhang expands on this: “Originally it was about this one person and her desire to get in touch with something real. Throughout the piece she has all these dreams and surreal moments. She’s in the kitchen and suddenly there are all these birds flying around and then it cuts back to her in her kitchen. We’d shot that scene and we included that in the final piece and decided to make the video more general, so it’s about everyone in this world. We couldn’t help the fact that it was shot in China and London, so we had to make it about every city encompassing all these people.”
They brought in a new DoP for the shoot in London, so a new challenge was to bring the different locations together to make the video coherent. “We had Daniel De Vue at Glassworks helping us with that in the grade, too,” says Zhang. “We worked with him on the first Ghostpoet video so it was also bringing it in line with that one and creating coherence out of very stressful madness. We didn’t sleep for days. We didn’t know what was going on.”
With only two days left for the edit, Knight had to cut the video together herself. “I was making very snap decisions, military style,” she says.
Thankfully, the artist and label were happy with the end product. “I think they liked the final video,” says Zhang. “For the original budget, before we had to scrap everything and salvage it, you would never have pitched something to shoot in China and London, so I guess in a way it was more for the money.
“The sad thing is we planned for a four-day shoot and we had loads of post time. It was going to be luxury. We had a lot of time. But it ended up being the most stressful shoot. We produced the whole video and then only shot for an hour. That was quite soul destroying. The final video isn’t what we set out to make so for us it’s always going to be sad, I suppose.”
“It’s a different thing,” says Knight. “There’s stuff in this that we wouldn’t have got to say originally. And we got to fill a tube carriage full of plants. That’s pretty fun.”
It was definitely a learning experience. “You learn a lot about yourself when you think you’re going to Chinese prison,” says Zhang. Knight adds: “I act quick is what I’ve figured out. I run.”
They haven’t been put off China, though. Knight says they hope to return, but maybe for a slightly different kind of film: “Not that kind of thing. Something a little more friendly towards the taste out there, so we’re not running into trouble. No dystopias, basically. I think our love affairs with dystopias is slowly coming to an end.”