Insights from the Beijing conferences I: The role of video and film

Several of the presenters at the two conferences addressed the role of video and film for awareness rising, advocacy and empowerment. The digital revolution has made it easier for both independent documentary filmmakers, NGOs, ordinary citizens and scholars to make films (a topic I discussed with respect to independent documentary film in a previous blog), whereas video sharing sites such as Youtube and Vimeo (blocked in China) and domestic sites such as Youku and Tudou have faciliated distribution and enabled larger groups of people to watch these films. The purpose, topics of the films, technical skills, distribution, screening practices and impact however differ between these different actors.

NGOs and activists are attracted to film because the medium reach and touch people in a different and more direct and emotional way than does the written word, providing opportunities for identification that can stimulate support, action and change among the general public. Many NGOs thus engage in film production as a tool for awareness rising and advocacy. In the context of China, the LGBT community and other groups working on gender issues have been particularly succsessful in using film as an advocacy tool. One of the organization that has made film a central piece of their work is Queer Comrades. They  host on-line shows on current events and topics as well as make longer films on different topics that aim to create awareness on LGBT issues. All of their films can be viewed on-line. Two members of the organization attended our conference and discussed and screened their films. Wei Tingting screened a first version of a film currently in production on lesbian advocacy since the UN Women conference in 1995. Fan Popo screened his most recent film The VaChina Monologues that documents the history of the play Vagina Monologues in China since the first performance in 2003, showing the initial difficulties, changes and recepition the play has generated, and the new performative ways and spaces that feminist activists use to raise awareness on gender issues.

Film can also be used as tool of empowerment as it may enable people to make their voices heard and address issues that are of relevance to them. This was shown in the screening and discussion of short videos made by migrant worker’s organization at the conference. Ding Li from the migrant workers’ project Firefly screened several of their recent productions that aim to give female workers’ a voice. In connection with womens’ day on 8 March, 2013, they for example launched a project where they selected outstanding female migrant workers in different fields and let them tell their stories. The video (in Chinese) can be viewed at Youku. New digital technologies have in other words lowered the treshold for filmmaking as video cameras have become cheap and easy to use, whereas editing also has been simplified, and uploading videos on the Internet is quite straightforward. This being said, however, it needs to be acknowledged that due to differences in financial resources, education, socio-cultural capital and other factors, there are many inequalities and obstacles when it comes to the possibilities to make use of film. It also need to be mentioned that the link between film and empowerment is not straightforward or self-evident. Whereas individuals’ can feel empowered by making films and speaking out, socio-economic and political inequalities often still prevent their voices from being heard and having an impact that would secure real social and institutional changes and improvements.

Nonetheless, during the past 5-7 years several NGOs have engaged in projects that train local citizens to use video cameras to tell stories about their local communities and the problems they face. In 2011, I attended Yunfest in Kunming that for some years have brought together NGOs that work on different community video projects (the film festival was shut down in 2013 although the community video screenings took place separately). One of the organizations is Shanshui conservation center based in Beijing that, apart from many other projects, has also worked with local communities to document and rise awareness on environmental issues within the project Villages Eye. One of the films is Lanzhe’s Yak Dung, his first film, that beautifully documents the versitile use of Yak dung for construction, including homes, and as fertilizer, medicinal ingredient, and detergent. Another film about Tibetan life can be viewed on Youku.

Many international and domestic NGOs and activists working on environmental issues have turned to film as I also briefly discussed in my presentation at the conference. An interesting film that reveal the work of traditional media, NGOs, activists and local communities to save the environment is Waking the Green Tiger that describe the work to stop the building of dams on the upper Yangtze river. Another film that also describe how local residents become involved in environmental work is The Warriors of Qiugang that follow the residents as they fight pollution. Other recent films have for example addressed factory farms, What’s For Dinner, and ecological and organic agriculture, Ecological Growing. One of the most impressive films on environmental issues I have seen in recent years is Wang Jiuliang’s film Beijing Besieged by Waste that shows the scope and impact of garbage on Beijing’s environemnt. Wang, who is a photographer and filmmaker, descibes his motivation and work here and here, and his latest film Plastic China, which I haven’t seen yet, premiered this year.

The topic of whether and how ICTs provide new platforms for alternative voices and actors in visual communication is one of my sub-projects within the Digital China project, so I will come back to these issues in future blogs.

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