Marina Svensson, “Digitally enabled engagement and witnessing: the Sichuan earthquake on independent documentary film,” Studies in Documentary Film
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This article builds on recent works on witnessing, socially engaged documentary filmmaking and studies on the role of new digital technologies for witnessing trauma, recording memories and enabling activism. In a devastating earthquake in Sichuan province on 12 May 2008, almost 90,000 people, at least 5000 of them being children, died. Parents and bystanders provided the first footage of the earthquake, recorded in shaky images on their mobile phones and camcorders, and many later continued to document the destruction and their search for justice, which hailed the beginning of citizen camera witnessing in China. A range of Chinese filmmakers documented the disaster and its aftermath in full-length films, and in doing so helped the victims bear witness to their trauma and fight for justice that was unacknowledged in the traditional media. At least 16 independent documentary films have to date been made dealing with the earthquake in different ways. The films fall into different types, ranging from poetic, observational, expository, participatory and performative, and they also reveal different forms of witnessing practices. The article addresses the witnessing practices of ordinary citizens, enabled by new digital technologies, and analyses a selection of the documentary films with respect to their genre and modes of witnessing.