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Making its European debut at International Film Festival Rotterdam in the Bright Lights section this week is “The Day Is Over,” the directorial debut of cinematographer Qi Rui (“The Sunflowers”), a graduate of the Beijing Film Academy.

The feature charts the futile attempts of a 12 year-old girl and her friends to escape from their beautiful but impoverished village and reunite with migrant-worker parents in the city.

Left in the care of inappropriate adults and bullied and humiliated by classmates, the film documents how the girls try to keep their heads above water, and then, when all else fails, why they choose to submerge themselves.

While the film is based on a real-life tragedy that happened in Anhui 14 years ago, the Hunan-born director has said that his approach was to not dramatize the story or the characters but to let the story unfold in a “naturalistic, realist documentary style.”

The film is part of the Hong Kong International Film Festival Collection (a series of films that are curated and managed by the festival’s industry arm) and repped by Hong Kong sales agent Good Move Media.

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The feature won the Work-in-Progress Jury Award at the third Pingyao International Film Festival and shared top prize at this year’s HKIFF.

Here, the writer and director talks to Variety about his approach, the making of the film and pivoting from cinematography to directing.

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Courtesy of IFFR

Can you tell us more about the real life events that inspired the film?
Over the years, it’s become a vague memory. Several girls were bullied by boys and jumped into the village’s river pond together. Two were rescued by villagers. When peopled asked them what happened the girls were vague and unclear. We were all left wondering “Why?”

The idea turned around in my head for many years. It is still unclear to me the exact relationship of the girls. How they were bound so tightly together. What message did they want to convey? But as my own life changed, I began to understand more clearly what their needs were, and I wanted to make this the theme of the story.

What approach did you take to the casting – and working with the non-professional child actors?
I wanted to understand them while keeping a distance. The entire time we were in the mountains, there was a small team taking care of everything, to give everything a natural feel. We made the crew as invisible as possible, so that they would quickly act like we weren’t there.

Before the shoot, I spoke with each of them for a long time: about school, about their family, about their future, and then I told them, little by little, about the narrative of the film while watching for their reactions.

I wanted them to feel like they weren’t performing, but to focus on themselves and to observe their own emotions. They were very smart, and spiritual. On the journey, they worked so hard. At this moment, they’ve grown up and I miss them.

Where was “The Day Is Over” shot?
The film was shot in my hometown of Hunan, Xiangxi, at the crossroads between Guizhou and Hunan Provinces. From the closest county town, Furong, we would take a ferry for a few hours to bypass the mountains and land on the docks into the mountains, or take a direct bus from Panshan Road for four hours. Then, in the mountain village closest to the highway, we would stay for the night, and then hike into the mountains the following morning. By the time we got to the village we shot in, it was already the afternoon. The place was called Xiao Xi. My first impression was an overwhelming of my senses by the plants, and the feminine softness of the air.

Was the decision to shoot and edit the film as well an economic or an artistic decision?
Both. In the summer of 2018, I’d been thinking about filming “The Day Is Over” after completing a commercial project. I put all my earnings from that work into making “Day” because I was unable to secure finance.

With limited funds, I tried to shoot in a simple way, using the natural light, a hand-held camera, amateur actors, a small crew, living in a peasant house and it worked. It was hard for the crew: It meant refusing my sound recordist’s request to bring in an assistant. They were so confused and wondered how I would film. But the imperfections and non-professional film style gave me freedom. I’m free, my actors are free. Under this situation, everything spins around the story and the characters.

How did you find making the transition to director?
I started out as a cinematographer on documentaries, which have no rehearsals, no drama. They require the cinematographer to have the director’s thinking, when shooting, to make accurate judgment, so slowly I began working towards directing. In 2004, I began working on fiction features and that helped me immensely in terms of finding my own direction, in writing scripts and in securing investment to make films.

Your work has been compared to the Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami. What other filmmakers do you admire?
It’s a pleasure to be compared to Kiarostami, his films have such a power naturally. Andrei Tarkovsky was an early idol, followed by Wong-Kar Wai in later days, Michael Haneke, Asghar Farhadi, Cristian Mungiu, Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Semih Kaplanoglu and his works “Honey,” “Egg” and “Milk.”

The common ground with all these filmmakers is that you won’t come up with anything on a first viewing, but somehow you wish to watch again – those filmmakers are good at making story by controlling human emotions.