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Categories: Interviews

Cinema Jam talks with Hu Wei, director of the award-winning short film “Butter Lamp”.

Hu Wei is the director of Butter Lamp, a short film which observes the lives of Tibetan nomads through the eyes of a photographer. Critically acclaimed, Butter Lamp won a multitude of awards in 2014, including the Grand Jury Award at the AFI Film Festival. It was also shown at Cannes, Sundance and the New York Film Festival, as well as over 200 other festivals.

The film is on the shortlist for the Academy Award for Best Live Action short film, along with 9 other films. See the end of this article for a full list of the short films on the shortlist.

Born in Beijing, China, Hu Wei graduated from La Femis, the National School of Fine Arts in Paris and Le Fresnoy, and now lives and works between Beijing and Paris. Cinema Jam interviewed him about his film career and Butter Lamp.

What draws you to filmmaking? 

As a big cinephile, I think I was driven by many bad and great movies; watching both types gave me a huge motivation for making my own films. 

Which projects had you worked on before Butter Lamp?

My first film, a documentary, was filmed in 2009; the second film in 2012 was fiction. 

“Warsaw 1946” by Michael Nash

What was your inspiration for Butter Lamp? 

My idea of “Butter Lamp” 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, the photographer uses a backdrop with some rural scenery to mask the war ruins while shooting a portrait for a woman. It was in Warsaw in November of 1946. This differentiation of space presented in one photograph really impressed me and I think that it is a sort of a common agreement between the Western culture and Eastern culture. After that I finished the screenplay [for] Butter Lamp. 

What is the significance of having a photographer as the main character?

The main character who is a traveling photographer; the nature of his job allows us to discover the Tibetan culture and traditions.

Butter Lamp stars real-life Tibetan nomads. How did you get the chance to work with them, and how was the experience of working with them? 

I went to the village and visited each of them at their homes; there I told them the idea of the film and asked them if they were interested in performing in the film. It is a great pleasure working with them; it [was] the first time for everyone to act in a film so it was quite fun, but at the same time, we did waste a lot of time on communication and rehearsal.

What did you learn from the nomads?

Just like the theme I wanted to express in the film, their unsophisticated customs and their preoccupation with their belief touched me profoundly, and does even to this day.

What was the most difficult part of the production of Butter Lamp? 

There were two attempts in making this film; the first time was in 2010 and the second time in 2012. The film was initially funded by CNC France and Arte Franco-German TV network, but in 2010 when we went to Sichuan to film, some accidents occurred and we were forced to temporarily pause the project. In 2012, when we resumed the project, we then faced another challenge, a deficit in production fund. Luckily a local production company in Sichuan became interested in joining the project as an associate production company for the film and they assisted us in completing filming.

What part of the production was the most fun?

I got to live and work with the Tibetan nomads, and experience life in Tibet as they see it. 


“Butter Lamp”

How have you reacted to the positive reception and awards given to Butter Lamp?

I feel happy of course; the awards are rewards for the work that the crew and I put into the film.

You have lived and worked in both Beijing and Paris. How do the film industries of the two cities compare and contrast? 

Comparing the film industry in Paris to the film industry in Beijing, the latter is still in its early stage of development. Besides, the industry is being affected by limitations in terms of ideology; and the filmmakers have less freedom of creation.  But one thing is the same: the two cities are both filled with a great number of cinephiles; you will not feel lonely here as a writer-director.

You’re currently working on your first feature film. What can you tell us about the film? How is the transition from short to feature-length filmmaking?

Yes, I am working on my first feature; it is a film of minimalism, exploring the difficulties of communication and comprehension of people. The transition is rather natural. The length of the film changes, therefore the rules of script-writing change with it and I like this kind of new challenge.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced that 10 live action short films will advance in the voting process for the 87th Academy Awards®. One hundred forty-one pictures had originally qualified in the category.

The 10 films are listed below in alphabetical order by title, with their production companies:

“Aya,” Oded Binnun and Mihal Brezis, directors (Chasis Films)

“Baghdad Messi,” Sahim Omar Kalifa, director, and Kobe Van Steenberghe, producer (a team productions)

“Boogaloo and Graham,” Michael Lennox, director, and Ronan Blaney, writer (Out of Orbit)

“Butter Lamp (La Lampe Au Beurre De Yak),” Hu Wei, director, and Julien Féret, producer (AMA Productions)

“Carry On,” Yatao Li, director (Rochester Institute of Technology)

“My Father’s Truck,” Maurício Osaki, director (Lupi Filmes)

“Parvaneh,” Talkhon Hamzavi, director, and Stefan Eichenberger, producer (Zurich University of Arts)

“The Phone Call,” Mat Kirkby, director, and James Lucas, writer (RSA Films)

“SLR,” Stephen Fingleton, director, and Matthew James Wilkinson, producer (Stigma Films)

“Summer Vacation (Chofesh Gadol),” Tal Granit and Sharon Maymon, directors (GREENproductions)

The Academy’s Short Films and Feature Animation Branch Reviewing Committee viewed all the eligible entries for the preliminary round of voting at screenings held in Los Angeles. Short Films and Feature Animation Branch members will now select three to five nominees from among the 10 titles on the shortlist. Branch screenings will be held in Los Angeles, London, New York and San Francisco in December.

The 87th Academy Awards nominations will be announced live on Thursday, January 15, 2015, at 5:30 a.m. PT in the Academy’s Samuel Goldwyn Theater.

Posted on Jan 3, 2015

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