Hot Docs Interview: Uli Gaulke on As Time Goes By in Shanghai


Uli Gaulke, the director of As Time Goes By in Shanghai, tells stories through images and mood, making jazz music a nice fit for the former film projectionist who grew up in East Germany. “I wanted to bring this kind of storytelling with images in a documentary format… You can tell a story only with words, but this is not a film.”

Confirmed by Guinness World Records as the oldest jazz band in the world, the Peace Old Jazz Band—so named for their regular gig at the Peace Hotel in Shanghai—are in their seventies and eighties, and during the shoot were embarking on a tour of the Netherlands. Confident in their late period success, while also reminiscing about groupies—the filmmakers say this tendency is their only thing in common with another octogenarian band, The Rolling Stones—Peace Old live comfortably but anonymously in the sprawling apartment blocks of Shanghai. They grew up in the dance hall culture of 1930s and 1940s Shanghai, a hub of Eastern culture since the late 1800s.

Uli and his producer Helge Albers are not jazz aficionados, and have a busy and varied slate. Helge says he doesn’t need to have an in-depth connection with the subject to be able to identify with it, and even argues that if he loved jazz he would have “romanticized” it and not delivered a more multi-layered product, to see the subject on a “deeper level”. What layers beyond jazz? Well, the clash and coexistence of Eastern and Western methods, and the gaping chasm of the Cultural Revolution from the 1960s to 1970s, which robbed the musicians of their artistic prime. Jazz instruments were banned, as were all Western mediums as part of a push to discover a new socialist culture.

“I think everyone lives in the music of their childhood years,” says Helge, “It forms what you perceive as music, and it stays with you.” And yet the Old Jazz Band’s 1930s jazz style is not just nostalgia or a resistance to change from a bunch of old-timers, despite their self-deprecating jokes on their antiquated tastes. In 1953, Mao closed the dance halls. In the 1960s, the Cultural Revolution actually froze their style to such an extent that they were not exposed to American jazz as it incorporated rock, soul, and Latin influences in mid-century. One of the saxophonists had to stuff a towel in his instrument so he could practice without alerting his neighbours.

“It’s difficult to speak with them about the past,” says Uli, “The energy is there, in the background.” Helge adds: “There’s a collective idea of ‘we’d rather not talk about it’.” The band did get a vindication of sorts during the ppening of Shanghai to tourists in the ‘80s. The members, in their fifties in this point, became heroes and symbols of a new, more experimental China. It’s not really about their technical skill, which is not exceptional, nor is it about their music, which is quite conservative. They just happen to have fallen out of favour at one point, and then came back in favour as the situation evolved. “I find nostalgia a bit Western,” says Helge, “I generally think that people in China and other Asian countries, I noticed that people are extremely well-adapted to the situation they are living in now.”

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Alex is a recent University of Toronto graduate. He is studying Mandarin, going to film festivals, and prepping on his film lore like QT in the 80s. If you're in Beijing over the next few years and do film journalism, get in touch!