Chinese Ghosts: Contemporary Independent Documentary Cinema from China

Message To Man Film Festival-2017 presents Contemporary Independent Documentary Cinema from China program. 

The term “independent cinema” is used around the world to describe films made without state support and outside the big studio system. In China, independent films are not only low-budget auteur affairs, they are an underground art form. Films that are not approved by the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television are forbidden from being screened within the country. And while independent Chinese cinema is a regular fixture in the programmes of the world’s largest film festivals, in China itself laws regulating public screenings are being tightened. After 2011 all festivals that showed unapproved films were closed, under pressure from the authorities. Filmmakers, curators and critics exchange links online and arrange closed screenings at universities, bookshops and cafes, but independent films remain invisible to a wider audience.

The development of the documentary movement in China during the last 30 years shows how collective perceptions about the authentic reflection of reality have changed. After 1949, documentary cinema in China was an ideological instrument and was used for the projection of an image of the brilliant progress of socialist society. For decades, the only films that appeared on the nation’s screens were those with carefully verified scripts, ideological narration and pompous music. But after the cruel suppression of the student protest movement in 1989 and the modernisation of the economy, the mood in society changed. China set a new course based on commercialisation and a policy of “open doors.” Although this new direction was still accompanied by Maoist ideology and the dictatorship of the Communist Party, films about bountiful harvests and the achievements of industry were incapable of filling the information vacuum that had formed as a result of this change in values and lifestyle. 

The year 1990 saw the appearance of Wu Wenguang’s dissident film Bumming in Beijing, which closely followed young artists who had chosen to live outside the confines of the socialist system. Shot on a hand-held camera and devoid of music or narration, the film featured rambling, unrehearsed conversations and spontaneous scenes from real life. It was the beginning of a new movement in Chinese documentary cinema. Tired of the instructive tone and polished images of propaganda films, documentary filmmakers turned to the method of direct cinema, carrying out extended observations of their characters with minimal interference. These films spoke to the viewer in one language. They did not teach how to live or what to believe in, but allowed for a personal interpretation of what was taking place in front of the camera. Often, the aesthetic of these independent films was down to a striving for transparency and authenticity: beauty was a secondary concern and manifested itself more in the respect paid to the individual, the attention devoted to his problems, thoughts and place in society. With the appearance in the late 90s of cheap DV cameras, film was no longer the prerogative of television studios and professionals – now anybody could make a film. This led to the appearance of individual documentary film, where the author performs the functions of the whole film crew and, by shortening the distance from the protagonists, achieves a special trust and immersion in the environment.

Independent directors were obliged to work in a “grey zone,” usually with minimal or zero financing, with the knowledge that in the next few years nobody except friends would see their films. This forbidden cinema was not openly political – it did not issue calls for rebellion or a change in power, but spoke about social problems that it was not customary to actively discuss in Chinese media. Poverty, injustice, mass resettlement, the destruction of the natural environment – it is their focus on inconvenient subject matter that makes these independent films oppositional and subversive. But the bans of the censor could not stop a determined and growing group of documentary filmmakers, who felt the need to tell the truth about a rapidly changing world. The clash of the old and new, the obvious and the unseen, continues to attract the attention of documentary filmmakers today. 

ChinaConcerto2.jpg In his debut film essay China Concerto, the artist Wang Bo blends contemporary footage of mass dances to patriotic songs on public squares with clips from the propaganda films of the era of the Cultural Revolution and concerts on Chinese television. By studying the ritual of presentation, the director deconstructs the images of political mythology and observes how the movements of the individual synchronise with the movements of a group, how a collective dream about a “great nation” is formed. In a world where capitalism hides behind the mask of socialism, where the phrase “democratic dictatorship” is pronounced without a hint of sarcasm, and spectacle is simultaneously both an object of social regulation and a consumer product. 

LateSummer.jpg In the short film Late Summer by the director Yi Cui, performance and eating merge into a single uninterrupted, looped action. A concert and refreshments served in the auditorium of an old Beijing theatre are filmed in one 13-minute static wide shot. In the throng of people, separate faces are indistinguishable: the servers, artists and spectators are only units of a common action. Yi Cui minimizes her participation in the transfer of reality, but the point of view of the camera itself allows us to see, as if accidentally, a social allegory in this performance within a performance.

Children Are Not Afraid of Death.jpg In the film Children Are Not Afraid of Death, Children Are Afraid of Ghosts, the director does not erase his traces from the film, but channels a general problem through his personal experience and becomes one of the protagonists. After learning of a group suicide involving four children left unsupervised in a village, Rong Guang Rong journeys to the scene of the tragedy. While filming children playing in the street, he suddenly encounters a two-headed “dragon and a “jackal,” who destroy his video footage. We learn about the confrontation with the police and the local authorities through a game played by the filmmaker’s daughter. Despite threats, Rong Guang Rong returns to the village, where around 20 more children have been abandoned. Here they grow up unattended, hanging around the streets, sleeping among the potatoes. Their parents, like thousands of others in China, have left to find work in the big city. And those who remain live below the poverty line. Hunger, neglect, violence, desperation – the director also recalls his own childhood in a deprived family. The shadows of sugar cane steal across the walls, evil spirits peer through the windows into the house. The author looks through the eyes of himself as a child and sees monsters and cruel spectres with bloody jaws in these indifferent, degenerate adults.

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The student film Every Meeting Seems a Parting is a study of the family relationships of the director. Wang Ping sets off for the coast with her parents, who for many years have not left their small village and have never seen the sea. For a while, the moments of happiness they experience during a walk along the beach return her greying parents their youth. They try to stop time by taking Polaroid snaps, but feel the inevitability of farewell. These fragments of life frozen by the camera are lent meaning by an offscreen conversation between the director and the cameraman, and the film acquires the intonation of a personal confession. 

TA_ANG_still8.jpg One of China’s most recognised documentary filmmakers, Wang Bing is renowned for his style of extended, pure observation. In Ta'ang, one of his latest films, he turns to the hot-button topic of migrants, noting that this is a problem facing countries all over the world. He follows women and children of the Ta'ang people, who were forced to flee into China from the civil war that had engulfed Myanmar. Leaving the political circumstances, the shooting and the explosions offscreen, he looks into the open faces of ordinary people and the details of their everyday existence. Wang Bing films his subjects from a gauged distance: with respect, without invading their personal space, remaining invisible, but close enough to immerse himself in the flow of their time. Compassion and a particular sensitivity to details allow Wang Bing to convey more than the lens of the camera sees. Around an hour of screen time is devoted to night scenes. Women spend the night by the fire when there is not enough room for everyone in the tent. Inside the shelter is illuminated by a candle flame, protected from the wind by somebody’s hands. Evening gatherings around the fire are a Ta'ang tradition that they preserve even when far from home. The flickering orange light outlines figures and faces, people laugh and complain, talk about simple, everyday things, but it seems that spirits from a different world or time have gathered around the fire.

BEHEMOTH.jpg Zhao Liang’s film Behemoth follows the industrial chain, from coal and iron ore mining in the valleys of Inner Mongolia to a newly built ghost city. Green pastures transform into gaping quarries; in the darkness and smog underground people service machines that dig the earth, in the inferno of workshops steel flows. These people are silent, their faces eaten up by coal dust: the coughs and the labored breathing speak for themselves. These workers slowly give up their lives to an unseen evil force that commands their bodies. And all in order to raise a shining dream city, a mirage of empty skyscrapers. Structured in the same way as The Divine Comedy, the film Behemoth bears witness to the irrevocable transformation of the world, guided by the short-sighted impulses of human greed, and reaches the conclusion that we all, who destroy and consume are the minions of an enormous, invisible monster that devours the earth. Zhao Liang aestheticises and stylises his documentary observations, supplementing them with symbols and using video art techniques, in order to create a unified image of the dark side of industrial progress.

Life-Imitaiton1.jpg The video artist Chen Zhou has created a futuristic collage from observations of his friends, hypnotic video footage of a computer game and texting. Life Imitation is a fragmented portrait of the youth of Shanghai, living in an augmented world, half-asleep between screens, where everybody is trying to appear to be something other than what they are. Every frame is filled with an inexplicable anxiety, the borders between material and digital reality are blurred, and instead of people, we see their projections, retouched selfies and social masks. The director uses virtual elements alongside purely documentary scenes, achieving an authentic reflection of the reality of this new age. 

Every film, in its own way, gives the viewer access to a truth that the director has sensed. The role filmmakers choose to play and the distance they choose to adopt determines their method of working with the material and the visual metaphors that life itself delivers. The aspiration to convey the unseen essence of the events they capture leads to an expansion of the limits of documentary film, stylisation, augmentation and experiments with the language of cinema. The interests of independent Chinese filmmakers are not limited to the nation’s problems, but linked to the attention paid to the individual and their life in the context of the place and time they inhabit. The tightening of censorship and repression towards directors is a statement that in documentary cinema the authoritarian regime perceives a real threat to its existence. 

curator Alena Koroleva

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Date of publication: 4 September 2017
Author: Alena Koroleva, curator