Drifting with My Camera:
The Emotional Vagabonds
of China's New Documentary
by Bérénice Reynaud
The voices of silence
I saw my first Chinese documentary, Wu Wenguang's Bumming in Beijing The Last Dreamers (Liulang Beijing Zuihou De Mengxiangzhe, 1990), at the Vancouver International Film Festival in 1991. A young man was taking a hand-held video camera though the streets, back alleys and run-down apartments of Beijing, probing into the daily lives of marginalised artists. Part Jeanne Dielman (for its long takes, mundane actions and empty domestic spaces), part awkward cinéma vérité-cum-talking heads, with a touch of interventionism à la Marcel Ophuls (as Wu sometimes appears in the image and can be heard conversing or arguing with his subjects), Bumming in Beijing, unfolding over 150 minutes, offered access to a China never seen before, and was a genuine breakthrough in formal terms. I have recounted elsewhere, in a text recently quoted in Senses of Cinema, the exhilaration I experienced at discovering this first documentary (1). I was particularly fascinated by the moments in which apparently nothing happened and nothing was said. As I was analysing it at the time as a throwback to the tropes of Chinese classical painting (in which the void plays an essential part) (2), I was happily challenged by Ernest Larsen's sensitive description of the piece:
Born in 1956 in Yunnan, Wu worked as a farmer in the last years of the Cultural Revolution. He studied literature and had a brief stint as an educator and television journalist before turning independent in 1989. His breakthrough work, Bumming in Beijing, shot between 1989 and 1990, revealed the ambition of accurately portraying his generation a goal shared by two other important works of the early 1990s. Between 1988 and 1991 (with a six-month gap after June 1989), Shi Jian and Chen Jue, two members of the short-lived Structure, Wave, Youth, Cinema Experimental Group (SWYC) (Zhonghuo 'Jiegou, Lanchao, Qingnian, Dianying' Shiyan Xiaozu) conducted more than 100 interviews with people from various strata of society living around the city's famed square: survivors of the imperial era, street performers, grandmothers, small entrepreneurs, young women in modelling schools, foreigners. These interviews, reorganised into eight episodes of 50 minutes each and intercut with historical footage, tend to favour people who become possible vectors of change: young entrepreneurs whether they open an advertising production company, an alternative bookstore or a cultural institute or women trying to break the Confucian mould by embracing the most visible forms of Western modernity (such as opening a fashion school). The series resorted to what I once described as a smorgasbord of strategies (7), including talking head interviews, cinéma vérité, historical and MTV footage and still photographs (8).
The third important piece of the immediate post-June 4th period was, also by the SWYC, I Graduated! (Wo biye le, 1992), in which eight recent graduates who were attending China's most prestigious universities in June 1989 are interviewed about love, sex, employment prospects, their philosophy of life, their ambivalent desire to travel abroad and their memories of the student movement. More compact, more intimate, and more poignant, I Graduated! starts with a subjective shot from the point of view of the filmmakers as they clandestinely enter one of the universities. Quoting poetry, hiding behind a cynical mask of existential posturing, listening to or performing pop music, the interviewees are students of literature, political science or philosophy, engineers or architects, political cadres or drop-outs. As the memory of Tiananmen Square continues to haunt them, they express ambivalent feelings toward the West should they travel abroad (and wash dishes in a foreign restaurant)? Should they stay (and see their horizon limited forever)?
At the time, neither Wu Wenguang, nor the members of the SWYC had been abroad (Wu only started to travel after his work was shown in international film festivals) yet their work is delineated by the off-screen existence of a faraway, maybe fantasised, international scene. What prompted Wu to shoot Bumming in Beijing was the writer Zhang Ci's decision to marry an elderly American man who'd take her to the US. By the end of the piece, three other subjects had also married foreigners and moved abroad Wu was to follow them a few years later with At Home in the World (Shihai Weijia, 1995), a documentary which combines tales of further displacement: Zhang Ci's second marriage in a California suburb; Gao Bo's difficult life, between freelance photography and portraits of tourists under the Eiffel Tower; Zhang Dali spray-painting the streets of Bologna at night as a way to vent a solitude that neither marriage, fatherhood nor success can assuage; and, more poignantly, Zhang Xia Ping's marriage into a well-meaning but religious Austrian family, where her free spirit is slowly crushed. Torn between motherhood and her desire to continue painting, Zhang seeks refuge, once again, in mental illness.
Wu offsets their trajectories with that of Mou Sen, the experimental director who stayed at home, and who fights censorship and bureaucratic harassment. Like the young men and women of I Graduated!, Mou Sen and his collaborators are in internal exile a fact further explored by another video, The Other Bank (Bi an, 1995), directed the same year by Jiang Yue. Mou Sen had organised a directing workshop to stage the play The Other Bank (a nostalgic criticism of the communist utopia) with 12 theatre students, who, once the workshop was over, were sent back to a life of unskilled job seekers. Disillusion, cynicism or despair settled in with a few exceptions (a young man bringing theatre to the peasants of his own town) (9). It's highly likely that the feelings expressed by Mou Sen's former students would not be so different from unemployed or poorly employed art graduates from Australia or the US. Yet, in post-1989 China, these feelings are relatively new, the products of an unholy mixture between a decaying socialism and an unchecked market economy.
Socialism no longer guarantees a job fit to your capacities. The invisible hand of capitalism does not match job-seekers and employment. Yet the very visible hand of bureaucracy is still at work. It is a bastardised system, generating various phenomena of geographical and social uprooting and displacement: unaffiliated artists without work units and residency permits (10); uprooted peasants seeking work in the cities, laid off factory workers no longer seeking work, migrant farm workers; young men and women who do not recognise themselves in the picture offered by the government: The motherland I love is the China of my imagination... I like to call it China, not PRC, says one of the interviewees of I Graduated!
A hybrid genre, the documentary as it developed from the late 1980s on was particularly apt to representing these feelings of estrangement, of internal exile. The June 1989 crackdown made independent documentarians acutely aware that normal channels of communication were closed to them, in particular state television. So most of the documentaries finished after 1989 are subtitled sometimes awkwardly in English, as, gradually, the international network of film festivals and art venues became their only outlet.
Documentary and television had entertained a complex history in China. The Documentary Studio was only producing mediocre propaganda films (11).
However, TV networks like CCTV continue to employ talented, ambitious young people who enjoy relative creative freedom and sometimes moonlight as independent filmmakers. Due to a loophole in China's legal system, the making of documentaries is actually less regulated than the making of fiction. The marginalisation undergone by Sixth Generation filmmakers is predicated on some provisions of the Regulations on Administration of the Film Industry that not only subject feature films to a two-tier censorship system, but also identify government studios as the only work units authorised to produce films. So, no matter what its content is, an independent production is de facto illegal (14). Documentaries are not subjected to the same rules, so it has become possible for young filmmakers, especially in the last few years, to have a day job in a TV station and produce their own independent work without getting into trouble with their employers. Moreover, even if a film produced by and for a TV network is rejected by censorship, it is simply not aired, and its maker usually incurs no further trouble.
This constant exchange with television has allowed young documentarians to keep honing their crafts and have access to equipment after hours while, faced with the ever-evolving nature of spectatorship in China, the networks have benefited from their creativity and experimentations. This dialectic keeps changing, as more and more directors have access to their own mini-cameras and at-home computer editing equipment, and foreign financing sometimes makes it possible to break away from the local networks. Yet, even though independently produced documentaries will never be aired in China, television remains a distant gauge and horizon, shaping the new media landscape.
The (Re)Construction of Reality
At a formal level, experimentation started in a bubble of isolation, but decidedly against the tropes of the zhuanti pian. No matter how cliché it may appear in the West (18), the use of talking heads was a revolutionary statement, giving the floor to people whose voice had never been heard before. At a technical level, this was made possible by the availability throughout Asia (19) of light consumer cameras with incorporated microphones, while the cameras previously used in documentaries were heavy, cumbersome and necessitated separate sound equipment and crew. Camcorders made the synchronous recording of sound available to anyone literate enough (in the Benjaminian sense) to compose and read an image and 35 mm film equipment itself was becoming more efficient and portable. In the 1990s, the Chinese film industry started to give up its long-time habit for post-synchronisation. To go back to independent production, in his ground-breaking Mama (1990) a savvy mixture of documentary and fiction, completed the same year as Bumming in Beijing Zhang Yuan interviews the mothers of mentally challenged children. The surprise but also the quiet exhilaration of these women, whose opinion no one had ever bothered to ask, is perceived even through the rough translation of the subtitles. Tiananmen Square makes an almost encyclopaedic use of the talking head, giving equal time to the left-over of history (a lonely eunuch reminiscing his time in the Forbidden City), the people trying to reshape history or those who simply witness it. In I Graduated! the interviews become more intimate, allowing space for silence, hesitation, anger and tears. The length of the piece (64 mins) makes it clear that it was not intended for television broadcasting, and that Shi Jian and Chen Jue were positing themselves within the realm of independent, underground documentary. It would have been interesting to see where such a positioning would have led them had the SWYC not self-dissolved shortly thereafter.
On the other hand, Wu Wenguang's multifaceted approach opened new vistas. Bumming in Beijing is an impure form or, maybe, to return to André Bazin's famous expression, a mixed cinema (un cinéma impur in French) (20). To track an elusive, complex and often painful reality, Wu mixes various forms of talking heads (with and without the voice of the interviewer) with sequences shot in a style that spontaneously reproduces direct cinema. It's only after travelling abroad that Wu discovered in the films of Frederick Wiseman and Ogawa Shinsuke with their vérité approach and use of long takes echoes of his own work. In the following years, Wu became an advocate of vérité in China organising documentary screenings and conferences and publishing a desk-top magazine, Documentary Scene (Jilu Shouce, 1996-7), the short-lived independent monthly art magazine New Wave (Xin Chao, 2001) and editing two collections of critical texts, Document (Xianchang, 2000 and 2001).
Meanwhile, Wu was struggling and experimenting to (re)define his own style. In 1966, My Time in the Red Guards (1966, Wo de hongweibing shidai, 1993), he still resorts to talking heads to interview former Red Guards who reminisce and reflect about their involvement in the movement as teenagers. Although only a few years younger, Wu was aware of the gap that separated his experience from theirs. Moreover, these people two businessmen, a philosopher, an engineer, as well as Fifth Generation director Tian Zhuangzhuang are settled in life, with comfortable incomes and positions (except for Tian Zhuangzhuang who was banned from filmmaking at the time, but still endowed with the aura of a world-famous director), while Wu was an independent video artist, surviving day-to-day on the fringe of illegality. Wu did not have access to his interviewees' daily lives as he had in Bumming in Beijing, so, neatly divided into topical chapters, the piece first appears to have a traditional structure. Wu quickly disturbs it by alluding to his own involvement in the Beijing underground and intercutting footage of the all-girl rock band Cobra rehearsing a song titled 1966, Red Train (21). The piece then opposes two forms of struggle for modernity the one embodied by the Red Guards who wanted to put the old world to death and become a part of revolutionary history, and the one represented by the members of Cobra, striving to find artistic recognition against sexism and marginalisation in the gray post-Tiananmen era.
At Home in the World also contains a great number of interviews, in which the five subjects talk about themselves or their situations, but they are totally integrated to the vérité footage. Wu shares their lives and living spaces, follows them in their various activities, often inserts himself, or his live-in girlfriend and collaborator, Wen Hui, in the image, and continues ongoing conversations with them that becomes part of the texture of the moment. This sort of intimacy might become dangerous, or at least too close for comfort, and At Home in the World marks the apex, but also the end of the ambitious project that Wu had once nurtured of following the lives of his five friends and recording them throughout the years. Apparently, some of them felt offended by what was revealed of them in the second episode of the series (22).
Tibet and the Construction of the Other
Assigned to Tibet TV station after graduating in 1984 from the Beijing Broadcasting Institute, Duan Jinchuan was among a handful of young Chinese who, willingly or not took the trip to Tibet in the mid- to late 1980s. Another was Wen Pulin, who came from a background of fine art and experimental theatre and worked with Duan at the TV station. In 1991, Jiang Yue joined their team, and co-directed the nine-part documentary series Tibet (1991) with Wen Duan being the editor. On the side, the three men were making personal documentaries on various aspects of life in Tibet such as Highland Barley (Qing ke, 1986), in which Duan Jinchuan experimented with the documentary form for the first time; The Living Buddha of Kangba (Kangba Huofu, 1991) by Wen Pulin, who developed a keen interest in Tibetan Buddhism; or Jiang Yue's Tibetan Theater Troupe of Lhama Priests (La ma zang xi tuan, 1991) and Catholics in Tibet (Tian zhu zai xi zang, 1992). Between 1989 and 1992, Wen Puli and Duan Jinchuan co-directed The Sacred Site of Asceticism (Qing pu-ku xiu zhe de sheng di, 1993), a sympathetic look at the lives of people involved in the practice of asceticism, while clearly commenting on the status of the filmmakers as outsiders to the culture. Even after his return to Beijing in 1992, Duan continued to express a fascination for Tibet, as evidenced not only by No 16 Barkhor Street, but also by what may be his most visually beautiful work to-date, The Ends of the Earth (Tian bian, 1997). Lasting 140 mins, the piece majestically yet intimately follows transhumant shepherds through the spectacular landscapes of the Northern Plateaus.
Other people sent down to Tibet did not particularly like it and returned to China as soon as possible, marginalising themselves by leaving their work unit in the process. Mou Sen, the experimental director whose work is documented by both Wu Wenguang and Jiang Yue, assigned to the Tibetan Drama Troup in 1986, returned to Beijing after one year. Yet, among some young Chinese people, the trip to Tibet became a rite of passage for a self-styled mangliu, comparable to the trips to India or Nepal within Western counterculture during the 1960s and '70s. One of the young men interviewed in I Graduated! took a leave of absence from school to travel to Tibet, then was expelled and returned to Beijing in 1992, jobless and homeless, before finding work in an advertising company. Gao Bo spends a sizeable amount of time in both Bumming in Beijing and At Home in the World, travelling to Tibet to take pictures. More than any minority culture, Tibet represented a sense of absolute Otherness, the possibility of escape from a teleological and Han-centred history of China as rewritten by Maoism. Moreover, while in Tibet, far from the Film Bureau or the Ministry of Culture, a film-/videomaker, a photographer or an artist would have a certain freedom to experiment, travel, and have access to a number of different institutions. Finally, the plight of Tibetans, forcibly occupied by the PLA and persecuted for their religious beliefs, could function as a metaphor for the alienation experienced by marginalised people facing an oppressive government.
Documentary film constructs an Other the subject of the film as opposed to the Self of the filmmaker who detains the power of framing, recording and editing. However, in the case of filmmakers documenting their own culture, especially when this culture is marginalised, the boundaries between the Self and the Other, the subject and the object, are sometimes blurred. A recent example in the US is Dogtown and Z-Boys (2000), in which Stacy Peralta, a former skateboarder, pays homage to his old Santa Monica neighbourhood, Dogtown, and the culture of skateboarding that sprang from it. Wu Wenguang is a much more accomplished filmmaker than Peralta, but, mutatis mutandis, Bumming in Beijing comes from a similar space of shared interests and lifestyles between director and interviewees, with a keen sense that we the subjects of the documentary, both in front and behind the camera are the marginalised Others in a society that oppresses or misunderstands us. On the other hand, there has been a bevy of documentaries that stage the distance between filmmakers and subjects a position explored with a mixture of acerbic wit and tragic guilt by Godard in pieces like Here and Elsewhere (1974), later brought to annoying extremes by Nick Broomfield and handled with exquisite flair and delicacy by Li Hong in Out of Phoenix-Bridge. The purest forms of vérité, as practiced by Duan Jinchuan, and, in the later part of his career, by Jiang Yue, strive to eradicate, or at least limit, the index of presence of the filmmaker. He/she, of course, is manifested through framing, editing etc but the implicit ethics that underlies vérité is that the opacity, the unknowability of the Other is almost sacred, and that the distance that exists between subject and object has to be respected, yet taken in stride instead of becoming the topic of the film. The filmmaker's desire to understand is at best naive, at worst manipulative or imperialist. The only thing that can be done is to develop techniques and tools that allow the Other to exist, unhindered, in front of the camera, and, if he/she feels like it, to speak his/her own words, no questions asked, no explanations needed, no judgment born. There is a growing body of scholarly literature on the representation of non-Han minorities in Chinese cinema, and it is not the topic of this paper to examine the often complex argument made in these texts (23). Yet, apart from the forthcoming essay by Chris Berry referenced above, very little has been written on the impact that the Tibetan experience had on the New Documentary Movement. It seems, though, that what the videomakers discovered in Tibet was a certain problematic of the Other. As their subjects did not speak Chinese, they learnt how to listen to the grain of the voice as much as to the meaning of the words to be attentive to body language, unfamiliar cooking or cleaning habits or religious rituals as much as to speech itself to include silence in the evanescent texture of things.
The DV Revolution and the Bridge to Narrative
Wu Wenguang is fond of saying that there is a sharp cut-off in his work: before and after DV. Upon acquiring a mini-camera, Wu became so excited at its possibilities that he became a keen advocate of this new tool in the articles he wrote and the magazines and books he published, and even executive produced China's first underground DV narrative feature, Zhu Wen's Seafood (Haixian, 2001) (24). In the second instalment of his collection of texts, Document: The Scene (Document: Xianchang) (25), Wu devotes a chapter to Jia Zhangke's work. Since Xiao Wu (shot in 16 mm, 1998) and Platform (Zhang tai, shot in 35 mm, 2000), Jia has also become an ardent advocate of DV. In 2000, he shot a 30 min digital documentary, In Public (Gonggong Changsuo) (26), and his latest feature film, Unknown Pleasures (Renxiao Yao, 2002), shot on digital video (and later transferred to 35 mm), started as a documentary project (27).
The dialectical to-and-fro between the New Documentary and underground narrative filmmaking predates the advent of digital modes of recording. Wang Xiaoshuai's The Days (Dong Chun de rizi, 1993) the fictionalised account of the marriage breakdown between two young painters, faced with poverty, marginalisation, the repressed memory of the 1989 crackdown and the faint hope of selling paintings to foreigners or of emigrating to the West and Wu's Bumming in Beijing can be read as the two sides (one documentary, one narrative) of the same coin. In 1994, Zhang Yuan and Duan Jinchuan collaborated on The Square (Guangchang), the first bringing his technical knowledge of 35 mm b/w cinematography (he shot the film himself) and his familiarity with Beijing's urban spaces, and the second his talented command of the vérité style and his capacity to function with a reduced crew (he recorded the sound). The film, that captures the little stories that happened during May and June (28) 1994 on the Square unfolds, on the one hand, like the everyday urban reality that the protagonists of Beijing Bastards refused to see or be a part of, and, on the other, as a meditation on the relationship between little people and the ever-present structure of power that Duan was to record in No 16 Barkhor Street.
While Platform is impregnated through and through with the uneasy remnants of Maoist ideology, Jiang Hu alludes to another mythology, that of the wuxi pian (martial arts film). Defining the narrative space of martial arts, the jiang hu is an alternative world of knights-errant, killers for hire and vagrants in other words, a world of mangliu. So, even though Wu depicts a counter-society further away from him than the marginalised artists of Bumming in Beijing, a certain identification continues to take place. Moreover, like Wu himself, these people are performers. In 1994, Wu had co-founded The Living Dance Studio (wu dao sheng huo) with his partner, Wen Hui, one of the best-known modern dancer/choreographers in China. The couple (still unmarried after years of cohabitation, which is a subversive stance in China) often create performances together, Wu as a playwright, actor and video artist. The performative aspect of Wu's video work is nurtured by his ongoing collaboration with Wen Hui. In Jiang Hu he no longer appears in the image, but the camera dances.
The spectacles of Old Liu's Far and Wide Song and Dance Tent Show are more markedly erotic and raunchy than those of Platform: they involve bikini-clad girls dancing at the sound of pop music, sexual jokes and explicit love songs. The performers are impoverished young farmers whose hope of making a better living is slowly but surely crushed by the troupe's growing insolvency: salaries are not paid for months, and whatever money is made is used to bribe officials and the police and get protection against local thugs. The small camera allowed for a fly on the wall intimate approach, in which people reveal themselves without interviews. A lot of the piece takes place under the tattered tent, a hybrid space at the boundary between the public and the private, littered with suitcases, clothes and remnants of meals, and which serves as both living quarters for the troupe and performance space at night. The travellers seem free like birds, while in fact, without salary, they are trapped in a strange no-exit where personal tensions erupt, couples frolic and quarrel, and a telling moment happens in front of a portrait of Maggie Cheung reproduced on a paper bag. This was the icon of their dream, of the show-business they once naively hoped to partake in, while they remain, on the edge of the world of the modern, happy, wealthy life they were yearning for (30).
Wu's next piece (still in progress, even though the first part was shown in the festival circuit in 2002), Dance with Farm Workers (He Mingong Tiaowu) deals with another kind of mangliu: displaced peasants that have come to work on construction sites in Beijing. The piece was conceived by Wu, directed by Wen Hui (with herself, Wu, some foreign students and 30 seasonal construction workers as performers), set in a disused textile factory, and reworked by Wu as a 57 min video. As it stands now, Dance with Farm Workers is a sort of counter-point to Jiang Hu like the performers under the big travelling tent, the protagonists have left farm work in the hope of bettering their conditions of existence, and find themselves pushed, once again, to the margins of society. The performance, for the first time in their lives, gives them centre stage, and Wu films their interaction with the professional artists, such as the dancers or himself, and their gradual understanding, not only that they're going to get paid for appearing in the piece, but also that they can use their bodies, toned and trained for hard work, to produce art. In the second (yet unfinished) part, Wu is following their lives.
It is another form of wandering that Fifth Generation director Ning Ying (see bottom of endnote 6) tackles in her first foray into documentary also made possible by digital recording. (Significantly, Ning's newest project, temporarily titled Spring Festival and currently in post-production, was shot on digital video). Like Jiang Hu, the piece was shot on the move with a reduced crew (two people, including the director), but in the extremely confined space of a crowded train, covering 3000 miles in three days and two nights between Sichuan province and the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, in the North of Tibet. The piece starts on the platform, with nightmarish images (albeit normal to anyone familiar with Chinese train stations see This Happy Life, discussed below) of people entering the cars through the windows, burdened with bundles of all size, children, toddlers, foodstuff, baskets, even animals; young girls crying for not being able to board the train; hordes of people running from one end to the next of the platform, following contradictory information blasted through loudspeakers. Then, as if by miracle, everyone settles for the long, boring journey. And Ning Ying and her collaborator asks questions: What are you doing here? What do you expect from life?
Most of the travellers are peasants whose farm yields so little that to make ends meet they have to hire themselves to harvest cotton in the Xinjiang plantations an internal migration that, every autumn, involves several thousands of them (mostly women, as the menfolk stay at home to till the fields and take care of the children). Yet, on the way, the filmmakers pick up other stories, that have little to do with cotton. A young girl wants to go to school where her family lives. A wife is meeting her husband, who has a comfortable job there, but wonder, after months of silence on his part, if he is waiting for her, or already living with another woman. What strikes the most in these close-ups that compose the best part of the film is the quality of the smile that the travellers display on their rugged, yet strangely beautiful faces. It is not a smile of happiness, nor is it the compulsory, identical, mechanical smile of the peasants in official pictures of the Mao era, but a smile that expresses an inner strength while facing life-long adversity. Answering the unseen interviewer, three peasant women reply, matter of factly, yet smiling:
In 1998, Duan Jinchuan and Jiang Yue founded a small company together, China Memo Films (bei jing chuan lin yue ying shi zi xun you xian gong si), through which they produced some of their most remarkable work to-date. With This Happy Life (Xing fu sheng huo, 2002), Jiang makes a giant step forward, as he becomes the attentive and sympathetic witness of the lives of two train station workers in Zhengzhou (Hunan province), who are also close friends. Fu Jiansheng, the Party Secretary, became a young widower after a botched abortion imposed by the one-child-family policy, and raised his son alone, weaving a rare emotional bond that is threatened when the young man leaves for the army. In spite (or maybe because of) a remarriage of convenience, he is a lonely man, open to soulful monologues in front of the camera and prone to crying when remembering his first wife. Liu Yongli, an unskilled worker pompously called Director of Passenger Transport, happily married with a lovely, spirited wife younger than him and father of a little son, gets into debt to buy a luxury apartment. When he loses his job to downsizing, he quietly utters these terrible words: history made me obsolete. Jiang's masterful editing alternates domestic scenes, quiet moments (when the two men go fishing together) and intimate talks with the bustle of their professional lives at the station. Their duties involve crowd management at rush hour (which often means pushing people to enter the train through the windows), dealing with petty bureaucratic matters and the state of mind of their co-workers, reporting a murder, even taking care of an abandoned baby. Jiang offers a fascinating look at Chinese masculinity, and often surprises us (when Fu Jiansheng recalls offering his nipples to his orphaned son after his young wife's death).
Less prolific, Li Hong completed her second piece, Dancing with myself (He Ziji Tiao Wu) in 2002. Instead of linking the recording of everyday life to larger political and social issues, Li uses vérité in an idiosyncratic way, to extract a hidden poetry from these minute snippets of life that she captures almost on the sly, but always with the warm collaboration of her subjects. A particularly beautiful moment occurs when Yu, an employee in a hospital boiler room, speaks of his sexual longings (clearly for the benefit of the young and attractive filmmaker, whose presence is neither underlined nor denied) while, through a small miracle of chance, a pigeon lands by him. The piece revolves around the dance classes that the beautiful Madame Wu herself a laid-off waitress teaches in a public park to an odd collection of ordinary people, in whose life the filmmaker then gently enters...
Jiang's, Duan's and Li's latest work were co-produced with French and British money, but due to aesthetic disagreements with the producers, Li's piece was replaced by Wu Gong's Shao's Long March (2002) about a young slacker's enrolment in the PLA. The three films accompanied by The War of Love (2002), the portrait of a matchmaker with marital problems of her own, on which Duan and Jiang collaborated have circulated in various film festivals and been aired on the BBC in shortened cuts introduced by a British voice-over, which distracts from their vérité style (fortunately some festivals are showing the longer, original versions). Being, literally about nothing, but the texture of life itself, Li's piece could not be reduced to such treatment. The lightness of her approach elegant like a brushstroke remains unique, precious and fragile.
Other women's voices, sometimes no more than a whisper, are being heard. A fact I deplore in the New Chinese Cinema is that the advent of market economy seems to have limited the number of women filmmakers, and this seems true for documentary as well at least for those who make it into the West, for, as Li Yu's case proves it, there are many female documentarians with a substantial output that we hear nothing about until something big (such as making a lesbian feature) happens. I am grateful to Wu Wenguang, again, for having put me in touch with Yang Li-Na (once a featured performer in Jia Zhangke's Platform) who dared to venture into the rather un-Chinese field of first-person documentary. Her Home Video is a sometimes awkward, at times acerbic, most often moving, attempt to unravel the mystery that is, for every subject, her parents' break-up.
The field of independent documentary keeps growing, and the makers come from all corners of China hence documenting, in a non-exotic manner, landscapes, customs, lifestyle, economic issues, social problems that, more often than not, the Chinese government is trying to put the lid on. One of my former students, Li Lin, a visual artist who had emigrated to Australia, returned to China with a video camera and brought back a harrowing documentary, Three Five People (2001), about three HIV+ and heroine-addicted kids living in the streets of the industrial city of Chengdu (Sichuan province). Documenting a growing social phenomenon, made possible by the constant influx of peasants seeking industrial jobs, their turning to drugs to ease their discomfort at city life and a strange loophole in Chinese law pertaining to juvenile delinquents, the piece made the round of international film festivals, from Vienna to Yamagata this mecca of independent Asian documentaries.
As the recent SARS epidemic reminded us, the Chinese government is not very forthcoming in acknowledging and dealing with health problems, and collaborating with world medical organisations, and has long denied the existence of an AIDS problem. To Live... is a courageous piece which fills a gap, puts names and faces behind the statistics. Another unacknowledged phenomenon is homelessness. Du Haibin decided to shoot Along the Railway (Tie lu yan xian, 2001) in the railroad hub of Baoji (Shaanxi Province), in which he had spent some of his childhood, after meeting a group of homeless boys there. The video explores a counter-society of vagrants, old and young, that drift along the tracks, their strategies for survival, their campfires and tattered clothes, their occasional descent into madness...
However, the Chinese documentary event of the year is the nine-hour West of the Tracks, partially financed by the Hub Bals Fund in Rotterdam a powerful demonstration that the experiments of the New Documentary Movement (vérité, long durations) have reached another level of artistic maturity. Equipped with a small DV camera, Wang Bing and his sound engineer, Lin Xudong, stayed in the Ti Xie industrial district in the city of Shenyang (Liaoning Province, in the Northeast) from December 1999 to the spring of 2001, to document the slow death of the complex. Mismanaged and technically obsolete, the factories are closing down one after the other; most of the workers, while anxiously waiting to be laid off, have not been paid for months. Some, chronically affected with lead poisoning, routinely spend several weeks a year in the hospital to get treatment. Meanwhile, the poetically named Rainbow Row, a working-class neighbourhood mostly inhabited by factory workers, is being slated for demolition, and its residents forcibly displaced. At the end of the piece, only the freight train continues to function, rushing in a gutted landscape.
Wang has organised the material in three parts. The first, Rust (240 mins) is a monument to the crumbling of state-run heavy industry (smelting, steelwork. foundries), lingering on the strange beauty of these disused industrial spaces, but also on the human scale of the workers' recreation rooms. The second, Remnants (175 mins), is also the most poignant, for these remnants are no other than the workers themselves, once the pride of a socialist economy based on industrialisation, now redundant, unnecessary, cumbersome, to be removed like trash. The segment starts on a group of 17-year old boys, with their love stories, beepers and cool clothes, who, deeply disturbed by what is being done to their now-unemployed parents, have no purpose in life and no future. Then it shifts to the protracted horrors of mass displacement. One after the other, families move to faraway smaller apartments they can't afford; the neighbourhood starts to crumble; those who persist in staying have their water, heat and electricity cut off, and are threatened by thugs. The remnants are also these pitiful left-overs of human life scrap metal collected by the poorest to be sold a few cents. The third part, Rails (130 mins) structured by magnificent long shots from the front of a moving train, at different hours and different times of the year focuses on the railroad workers, focusing, in its middle part, on Old Du, whose younger wife has run away, leaving him alone with two teenage boys. One day, Du is caught stealing coal and sent to prison...
West of the Tracks, as well as Along the Railway, Railroad of Hope, To Live is Better than to Die, Dance with Farm Workers and Three-Five People address, directly or indirectly, the issues of mass displacement, internal migration and the high price currently paid by Chinese society for globalisation. As Arif Dirlik and Xudong Zhang note
Meanwhile... on the Western front. West of the Tracks has garnered international acclaim and been shown in major film festivals, such as Vienna, Rotterdam and Berlin. Last June, the IFP Los Angeles Film Festival programmed the film in its entirety, and invited Wang Bing. The US Embassy in Beijing denied him a visa....
© Bérénice Reynaud, September 2003
To Wen Hui, and all the Dancers
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