The New Chinese Documentary

In the introduction to her earlier, 2003 book, Documentary China: The New Documentary Movement in Contemporary China, Lu Xinyu described the movement, dated to the late 1980s, as “a new way of looking at the world from the grass-roots up; a way of clearly understanding what drives different classes to survive and what feelings they have. They see history as ‘wide open’ and ‘clear,’ promising that everyone has the possibility to be recorded in history. They create history.”

Films in the activist movement have ruffled officialdom’s feathers by examining, interpreting, and intervening in social, political, and historical issues in the nation. Contributors to a new book, The New Chinese Documentary Film Movement: For the Public Record, edited by Chris Berry, Lu Xinyu, & Lisa Rofel (Hong Kong University Press; distributed in the US by University of Washington Press), relate the history and character of the new works. They explain that documentary films are becoming the signature mode of contemporary Chinese visual culture as filmmakers open up new spaces of social commentary and critique in an era of rapid social changes amid globalization and marketization.

Topics in the volume include the representation of Beijing; gay, lesbian and queer documentary; sound in documentary; the exhibition context in China; authorial intervention and subjectivity; and the distinctive “on the spot” aesthetics of contemporary Chinese documentary.

The book, which is available in hardback, paperback, and e-book versions, features a ‘who’s who’ of scholars and filmmakers who address key issues of identity, realism, spectatorship and counter-publics.

Chris Berry and Lisa Rofel describe the challenges and rewards of searching out Chinese independent documentaries

Chris had been studying the making of films in China for a number of years and Lisa had been conducting anthropological research on the transition away from socialism in China. The two of them began to notice that documentary films in China were becoming a new site for social critique. Meanwhile, Lu Xinyu had put out a seminal text in Chinese on this movement, Documenting China: The New Documentary Movement in China (Beijing: SDX Joint Publishing Company). We all decided to team up to produce this book.

The New Chinese Documentary Film Movement: For the Public Record originated in a grant that we (Lisa Rofel and Chris Berry) received from the University of California’s Pacific Rim Research Program from 2003 to 2004. It enabled us to travel to China, and meet and interview documentarians and the owners and managers of the venues in which independent documentaries are shown in Beijing.

The book focuses on independent documentaries. The first Chinese independent documentary appeared around 1990. By definition, in the Chinese context, an “independent” film or video is one that has not been submitted to the authorities for censorship. Without being passed by the authorities, independent documentaries cannot be commercially distributed and exhibited. Furthermore, in terms of government-run archives, it means they do not exist and are not collected. The independent quality of the documentaries is a major part of what makes them interesting. However, it also creates particular circumstances and particular difficulties.

The informal quality of independent film and video culture in China means that systematic information about the films is absent. There are no statistics on the numbers of independent documentaries produced in China, for example. Along with the independent films themselves, a number of independent screening events and venues have developed over the years. New documentaries get known by word of mouth – and blog – as a result of being shown at these sites. But going from hearing about the films to seeing them is not straightforward, because it is not possible to buy most of the documentaries as commercially distributed DVDs. On the other hand, the prevalence of informal distribution circuits in China helps to compensate for this, and in practice people who are interested in independent documentaries copy and swap DVDs actively to build up their collections. Our research would have been impossible without the generosity of numerous documentarians, who were kind enough to give us copies of their own works.

Scholars wishing to carry out research on independent documentaries in China must contend with the absence of any central state archive collection. However, awareness has been growing of the danger that some documentaries will disappear without trace unless someone collects them. Therefore, Wu Wenguang’s Caochangdi Station has been informally building a collection and making it available to scholars to view, and Lu Xinyu has also been informally building up a collection at Fudan University in Shanghai. In the United States, the library of the University of California at San Diego has a large collection of independent Chinese films and videos of all kinds. And dGenerate Films has been making key documentaries available commercially in the United States.

Hu Jie’s Though I Am Gone can be found in 10 parts on Youtube, starting here:

Five extracts from Wu Wenguang’s Bumming in Beijing, widely acknowledged as the first independent documentary in China, can also be found on Youtube: 1 2 3 4 5

Chris Berry is a professor of film and television studies at Goldsmiths, University of London. Lu Xinyu is professor and director of the broadcasting and television department of the Journalism School at Fudan University in Shanghai. Lisa Rofel is a professor of anthropology at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

Her many writings include Documenting China: The New Documentary Movement (Beijing: SDX Joint Publishing Company, 2003).  Her research focuses on the relationship between visual culture, mass media, and social development in China. Her English essays include, “Ruins of the Future: Class and History in Wang Bing’s Tiexi District” (New Left Review, Jan/Feb 2005), “Deconstruction, Justice of the ‘Other,’ and Enlightenment Spirit: Notes from Reading Derrida” (TELOS, Summer 2010), “Chinese Modernity, Media and Democracy: An Interview with Lu Xinyu by Yuezhi Zhao” (Global Media and Communication, Vol. 6, No. 1, 2010).

– Peter Monaghan

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