Documentary film and the digital revolution: Enabling alternative stories and memories

This week the Centre is hosting China’s pioneering independent filmmaker, Wu Wenguang. He and three young Chinese film directors will screen four films as part of our documentary film festival Memory and Documentary Film: Exploring Painful and Forgotten Memories in China, India, and Indonesia. After Lund Wu Wenguang will travel to New York where MoMA is doing a retrospective of China’s twenty-five year old history of independent documentary filmmaking entitled Chinese Realities/Documentary Visions

When Wu started his film career in the early 1990s, Chinese citizens could not get hold of film cameras unless they worked in or had connections to state television or film companies. Wu himself, like many of the first generation of independent filmmakers, had worked in television. Hs first film Bumming in Beijing, 1990 (an extract available on YouTube), is often described as China’s first independent documentary film. Since then the move from film to video, analogue to digital technology, the emergence of cheap DVD cameras, the availability of easy to use soft-ware for editing on computers, and the possibilities for uploading on the Internet (Chinese video sharing sites such as Yukou and Tudou, and international ones such as YouTube and Vimeo), have enabled a growing number of people to film, edit and distribute their films. The explosion of smartphones with good camera functions has also made it possible to easily make short films. The digital revolution in filmmaking, editing and distribution has thus created new possibilities to record personal stories and memories, document social changes, uncover forgotten or suppressed collective memories, as well as use film for community building and in struggles for justice.

The development and growth of Chinese independent documentary film is thus in no small part a result of the digital revolution in filmmaking. Today a broader group of people are engaged in filmmaking in China, ranging from film students, artists, and activists, to community groups. Wu Wenguang has played an important role in this development and not only used his camera to document his own and his friends lives and that of other social groups, but also helped others to use this new technology to make their voices heard. In 2005 he thus became involved in what came to be known as the villagers’ digital film project where ten villagers were invited to Beijing to learn how to make films about their own villages. Three of the original ten villagers have continued to make annual films about life in their home villages and each year meet up in Caochangdi, Beijing, for editing and screenings their new films. For a clip of one of Jia Zhitan’s films describing pollution in his village see here

In 2010 Wu started a new project, The Folk Memory Project The project aims to document the Great Famine of 1959-1961, a topic that the Chinese Communist Party still has to come to terms with. The full scope of the disaster is yet unknown, few works have been published, and there are no official commemoration of the disaster and its victims. So far 10 people, some with prior experience in documentary production, others with backgrounds in theatre and the arts, including both young university students and older villagers, have produced 16 films documenting people’s memories of the disaster in their home villages. The China Independent Documentary Film Archive (CIDFA) has collected all of these and some other documentary films that also are available for institutional purchase.

The topics covered in Chinese independent documentary are broad and diverse. They include personal life stories, life among marginalised groups such as migrants, life in the aftermath of the Sichuan earthquake, cultural and religious life, and repressed historical memories of the Cultural Revolution among other things. In recent years many community organisations and NGOs have also started to use film and digital storytelling as a way to empower marginalised groups. The LGBT community in particular has been active in using film to increase awareness and dispel some of the discrimination against this group. Queer Comrades, based in Beijing, has thus produced a range of films that take up issues such as how parents with homosexual children deal with their children’s sexual orientation, a topic explored in the film Mama Rainbow.

Well-known artist Ai Weiwei has also discovered the power of the camera and in a series of films, made by a collective of film makers, documented topical social and legal issues. In Disturbing the Peace he for example addressed and documented the struggles to account for the school children who died in the Sichuan earthquake in 2008. Another activist and filmmaker is the feminist Ai Xiaoming who has used film to advocate for gender, social and legal justice (some of her films can be watched on Vimeo). Most recently a documentary film by Du Bin dealing with the fate of people sentenced to re-education through labour has been circulated on-line. Until May 1, 2013, it is possible to watch online for a small fee.

The spaces for viewing documentary film in China are quite few and mainly confined to universities, art spaces, cafés, and small and informal film saloons. I have visited many of them over the past years. A number of independent film festivals have also appeared over the last ten years but during the last two years faced many difficulties and in several cases not received official permission to operate. The latest casualty is Yunfest which was supposed to have taken place in March but was closed down. The interest for Chinese documentary film abroad is however growing. Important film festivals such as Rotterdam have been screening Chinese films for many years. Last year the Gothenburg film festival for the first time arranged a special section on Chinese documentary film (for the catalogue where I have one article see here).

For those who want to follow the Chinese independent documentary scene and learn about new films I can recommend dGenerate which provides news but also distribute films. Despite many problems the Chinese independent film scene is growing and very dynamic and we will have reason to come back to this topic in future blogs.

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