by Tyra Diez
As we Beijing’s residents all know, the chai (拆) phenomena, that is, the physical demolition of the space, has dramatically reshaped our everyday landscape: cranes and rubbles, streets half built or half destroyed, new slums, entire neighbourhoods that have disappeared overnight, faster than ever before. In one sense or another, this modernization process, physically expressed in the urbanization process, is at the core of both the emergence and development of the Chinese independent documentary. The reflection about space is at the core of the Chinese independent documentary: historically, aesthetically and ideologically speaking. It inaugurates an alternative reflection about it, which determines both its new form and content. Therefore I am going to take the chai phenomena, that is, the transformation of the space as well as the different conceptions that it entails as my connecting thread in this talk.
First I am going to talk about the demolition of the public space. Here I refer to the change from a socialist space to a post-socialist one, and how this dramatic transformation gave birth to a new documentary form.
Then, in the second part, I focus on the demolition of the private space, and how the increased speed of the urbanization process that took place over the 90’s generated a redefinition of the new documentary form.
At the end, I am going to introduce briefly the proposals that this new form of documentary offers in response to the various demolitions that it faces and shows.
1.The emergence of the Chinese independent documentary: The demolition of the public space.
The first Chinese independent documentary is Bumming in Beijing, one hour and a half 35 mm film where Wu Wenguang records the semi-vagabond life of five of his friends. They come from several provinces, and the film is about the artistic aspirations and vital frustrations that they find in the city. It shows us in a crude, “direct” style, the bumming of two painters, one writer, one playwright and one photographer. Although unseen, Wu Wenguang is the sixth character of the film. As the rest of his friends he wanders around looking for a meaning and a role different from the one he was supposed to assume some years earlier. Here, “bumming” (流浪) is not just a title but a new way of thinking and living, at the same time chosen and forced. It serves as a metaphor of a generation; explains some of the traumas and impulses that crystallized in the new documentary form. The fact that one has to be wandering, bumming or drifting around implies a new spatial configuration and a new way to be related to it. To be a vagabond is to lack the physical space where one can be located in all senses. And then the other part of the title, The last dreamers, comes to reinforce the existential side of the situation: What were their dreams? And why are they the last dreamers and not the first ones?
Wu Wenguang started filming Bumming in 1988 and finished it in 1990, so among other things it is a visual testimony of the memories and anxieties that the Tiananmen incidents brought to the young generation. Tiananmen 1989 is behind their cryings and desperation; it is behind their bumming and is among the reasons for them to refuse the party state jobs assigned, together with their desire to go abroad. They wanted to be independent (from the state) in all senses, even spatial.
As Chris Berry and Yomi Braester point out1, Tiananmen Square has for the early documentarians a specific cinematic iconology, it is a political symbol, being the June Fourth incidents a “structuring absence” that pierces all of them. That could be better understood if we take into account what Tiananmen Square has signified until now. From May Fourth on, it has been China’s centre of political expression, and then the political heart of the proletariat dictatorship. Since Mao announced the establishment of the People’s Republic, people has marched to the Square any time they were required to express, or they wanted to achieve, something political. The young documentarians were among that people. They marched to the square either as red guards in 1966, as Zhou Enlai’s mourners in 1976 or as students in 1989.
We can find some visual background in another documentary of Wu Wenguang, 1966: My time at the red guards, where five former red guards recall their experience. It is, of course, the experience of disenchantment. But what is not so often stressed is that the precondition of disillusion is illusion itself, and that’s exactly what this documentary reveals: the joy, the excitement, the faith, the, as one of the character says in the film, “time for making revolutionary things has at last come for us” that all of them felt at the beginning. In other words, all the early documentarians belong to a generation, as the red guards in the film, born at the heyday of maoist, collectivist rhetoric. This means that is a generation that was raised to believe not just in the glorious construction of the socialist nation, but also in the political role that they had in contributing to its success. We already know how this story ends: the former illusion and the “make history” promises ended up as a kind of betrayal that took the form of the father devours his children nightmare.
Nonetheless, over the 80’s, new promises, and therefore, new roles, were created. The modernization discourse was once more reinforced by the state, although the discourse itself was substantially subverted: the people’s public responsibility was not anymore through political, collective action, but through the individual (economic) efforts. And therefore, individuality and self expression were allowed. Culture fever and commercialization of culture began, and a new public space seemed possible; a public oppositional movement formed by individuals, and no masses, was formed through these years. And we now as well how this story once again ended up. In I’ve graduated, a series of interviews to graduates produced in 1992, we hear the song “I have been betrayed” while we see people marching over the avenue that ends at Tiananmen. Suddenly, they start to run and the screen turns black, in a clear reference to the incidents. The new hopes and new promises created over the 80’s were once again broken. Most of the graduates that appear in this documentary, as happened with the ones in Bumming, rejected the officially given jobs. And as in Bumming, the other song that appears in the documentary is “Going abroad”. They young generation, two times betrayed, wanted then to be independent (from the state) in all senses, even spatial.
The Square’s closure entails a new order, a post-socialist one, where the political primacy is subverted into an economic one, and where the public space in this socialist sense is closed for the people. After 1989, the market oriented system is implemented. State factories are shut down one after another; among them are of course the cultural state-run enterprises. And so “independent” productions, that is to say “non-state” productions, emerge. New documentaries are independent not just in an ideological, chosen, sense, but also, and by force, in terms of production and distribution: they do not rely anymore, as filmmakers have done until now, in the state funds to carry out their personal projects (there were not such a thing as “personal projects” under Maoism).
The documentary series Tiananmen Square, produced in 1991 by Chen Jue and Shi Jian, reflects the kind of interchanges and negotiations between the official and the to-be-born underground media that took place over the 80s. It was at first planned as a CCTV program, but once the series were rejected to public exhibition due to the recent incidents, they took (kind of stole) the previous material and edited the footage in a way that questions the official narratives of the square as a political arena. Along its 8 chapters, it mixed past images and direct interviews of the anonymous passer-byes, together with episodes from the TV archive with long-shoots of the common people in the square. By doing so, they confront the official history with the popular stories, opening a space in the documentary to challenge the two narratives or different versions about the significance of the square, historically and politically speaking.
So the good news, although a paradoxical one, is that after the very symbol of the political centre was closed for good, that’s to say, after the Tian’anmen Square was shut down for the people to demonstrate, the centre fell back into multiples and disconnected centres that, as so, became peripheries. The early independent documentary of the 90s is itself one of those fringes. It comes from the margins and devotes itself to speak out on their behalf in an attempt to make them recover the voice and therefore to make it public, make it politically and socially significant.
We find this “peripheral conscience” or conscience of periphery in all the early trends of the new documentarians. Some of them went to remote regions in search of other spaces, as Duan Jinchuan did in Margins of the world, where we see enormous Tibetan plateaus and lakes and nomads whose way of life seem untouched by the recent turmoil, a place out of the Chinese recent historical space. Others remained in the cities, where the new born peripheries were more present and yet more invisible: newcomers from the countryside, as in Out of Phoenix Bridge, unemployed as in Beijing Cotton Fluffing Artisan, elders as in Old Men, and in short all of those millions of extras that have been left without any role in the spectacular blockbuster that China leads.
And all this crystallizes in a new documentary format. The aesthetic principle that best summarizes the founding ethos of the Chinese independent documentary is xianchang (现场). Usually translated as “on-the spot” it represents itself a spatial concept. It is meant to be a “right here and right now” record of reality, one that avoids, or that seeks to avoid, all the traditional directorial devices of image and subject control. Its premises are thought to be consciously different from the dominant official genre, the socialist realism. Socialist realism is now widely identified as mere propaganda, or at best, as the representation of reality as the authorities want it to be. In this new approach, usually there is no script, voiceover, nor comment from the director to provide us with an explanation or solution to what is shown. The “common people” own space, and the structures that conform their actions (or lack of actions) in it, regardless if they are vagabonds artists, disenchanted students, Tibetan nomads or anonymous passer-byes, are now taken as the primal material, one that does not have to be conformed with any official or party discourse. Xianchang is not a closed or fixed set of film techniques. It is more of a proposal, an attempt to find the most flexible and least intrusive filming practices to show the heterogeneity of reality itself. It is, in short, an attempt to open for the public record multiple “on-the-spots” that are significant precisely because they are able to confront and question the want-to-be one and only record from above.
2.Chinese Independent documentary from the mid 90’s onwards: the demolition of the private space.
The Chinese independent documentary emerges from a gradual closure of the public space as it has been understood during the maoist period. Therefore, it became by force the starting point of the exploration of the endless infinite, that is, the individual and what is called its geren fengge (个人风格), its individual style, self-expression, “independent” view. Although this has not changed, from mid 90’s onwards the stress has arguably gone more intimate, more self-reflexive and performative. What the xianchang form emphasized at the beginning was a reflection of how the political events constricted the fates of the individuals, the public context seen from a private point of view. From the mid 90’s onwards, new styles and new aspirations came to modify and enrich this trend. Individuality wants to reinforce itself in more extreme ways, sometimes at the expense of the public. In There’s a strong wind in Beijing, the documentary that arguably inaugurates the second phase of the independent documentary, the filmmaker intrude on a man in a public toilet, literally caught with his pants down, and asks “Is the wind in Beijing very strong?” In The box (2001), the filmmaker records the very private life of one lesbian couple. Public bathrooms and intimate bedrooms are crudely offered to public sight. Interaction, intrusion, and a reinforced understanding of “individuality” force some documentarians to present themselves not just behind the camera, but also in front of it. Individuality is more a subjective matter than an objective one.
West of the tracks, Wang Bing’s 2003 masterpiece about the decline of a factory in northwest China is a good visual record of the transition from the collective to the individual, the individual understood now as a new existential, significant measure. It is a three episodes documentary, nine hours long. In the first and second part, Rust and Remnants, the protagonist, as Wang Bing has explained, is the factory itself, the common space that determines the fates of the people within it. In these two episodes, people is not regarded as “individuals”, instead, they conform a net of relations that are conditioned by the position they occupy in the factory. The factory is not just a place of work, but a space that entails a collective way of living, a common understanding and a set of shared values. The individuals as such appear in the third part, Rails, once we have witnessed in the previous chapters the shut down of the factories and the correlated demolition of the workers’ neighbourhood surrounding them. The third part is the story of the Dus, a father and a son trying to make a living out of the rails, selling stolen coal from the wagons, doing little jobs here and there, exhausted and all by their own, alone. The third part is also the shorter one, two hours long instead of the four hours of the first chapter, and the three of the second, implying metaphorically the actual duration of each historical period: 30 years living under the hammering promotion of socialism (1949- 1979), 20 years under its officially run disarticulation (1979-1999), and a bunch of years since its apparently total replacement for a capitalist system.
In this “economical” sense, turning back to the worldly context that is the primal matter of documentaries, the demolition process that had began with the (politically determined) public space continues its way down to the private space, that is, at first, my house, your neighbourhood, their village, and then, the very sense of identity that the demolished spaces entailed. Recently born individuality is also threatened. The speed of the economic transformation that began with the modernization process of the 80’s is exponentially increasing. It seems that it literally leaves no time to reflect on the transformation itself. It seems that only allows to record, document, and eventually, try to save the same thing that disappears while is being saved. In short, a desperate capture of the millions of “on-the-spots” that have no future. A shared conscience of urgency emerges and the independent documentary production soars since the mid 90s. The new DV cameras, cheap and easy to use, allow more and more people to record their environment, their interior, looking for identity itself. Thus the ethic and aesthetic xianchang principle is from now on complemented with a growing and perplexed awareness of the demolition that is taking place around. A chai not only in terms of space, this building or that siheyuan, villages becoming cities and cities devouring themselves in the endless loop of consumerism, but also in terms of the subject -filmmaker, neighbour or migrant- that has to be re-located against the destruction that threatens their very identity.
And so, many new documentaries take the chai phenomena as their films topic. One early example is Zhang Yuan 1993’s Demolition and relocation, which records the few “nail houses” left in a traditional Beijing neighbourhood that is being demolished. Since then, countless documentaries with the same demolition subject have been produced, be it in urban or rural areas (Meishi Street, Dingzi hu, Bing Ai). Moreover, whether explicit or implicit, the chai glides in virtually all of them. It is not just about physical space, but also about the interactions between the individuals living in it. The record of personal tragedies related with the demolition of the space serves to show how people’s behaviour can be affected by a change of space. It also entails another recount of modernity: the modernity that was supposed to allow the raise of individuality can also reject it. Li Ning’s Tape comes here as a good example. Tape is a documentary made by fragments. Half urban experiment, half performance, half personal story, it mixes images of Li Ning’s theatre group performing in the street, remnants of his personal life and some lyrical constructions of Li Ning hurting himself on the rubbles of a demolished building. The result is a self-portrait documentary that illuminates the interactions between the three demolitions: collective, familiar, individual. Or, one may say, spatial, cultural, existential.
Nevertheless, every demolition, be it spatial, emotional, cultural or the kind, should find its ways of relocation. Now I am going to speak briefly about what kind the independent documentary offers.
3. From demolition to relocation: the search for a people’s space
Chinese independent documentary offers, as other contemporary artistic and cultural expressions do, common images and reflections about past and present demolitions, and in doing so intends ways of relocation, spatial, cultural or the kind.
And it intends it in at least two ways: 1) creating new spaces for those in the margins to talk and to be seen through film festivals, cafes, new nets of screening, public meetings and so on; 2) creating, in those spaces and through those social nets, a collective reflection, and for that reason, political in nature, about past and future, about recent memories and new alternatives.
It is being argued by some scholars2 that the incipient self-indulgence that could be found in some early independent documentaries (the tedious recount of the self) tend to be among the new generation of documentarians, with their performative and self-reflexive preferences, even more self-indulgent and private, more and more amateur and obsessed with showing the filmmakers’ personal miseries. I agree in a sense; documentary is not a separated entity. It influences its environment as much as it is influenced by it. There is no wonder then that a general depolitization and massive consumerism find their ways in the new self-images that independent documentary reflects. Nevertheless, I do not think that the original aim that inspired the emergence of Chinese independent documentary has changed with the arrival of the so- called “age of the amateur”, the safe refuge of individuality. Rather, it comes to add new dimensions to the problematic of private and public, political awareness and so on, and a great number of recent documentaries continue to be political in nature. By that I mean explicitly political, nor in the sense “everything is political” or “the personal is political” formulas of the more intimate, artistic or experimental-oriented documentaries, as for example could be the marvellous Liu Jian’s series of Ox hide.
Recent examples of the first category are Zhao Liang’s Petitioners or Du Haibin’s 1428, the social oriented works of Ai Xiaoming and Hu Jie and many others. In this trend are included also all the documentaries that have devoted themselves to reconstruct what they call a folk memory (民间记忆), a reflection and recount of history from the ones that till now have had any voice in its retelling. Wu Wenguang’s 1966…, was one early example of historical reflection. Recent ones are Zhang Ming’s 60, Wang Bing’s Feng Ming: a Chinese memoir or Hu Jie’s Searching for Lin Zhao’s soul.
Chinese independent documentaries, as documentary genre in general, are responsible for making visible, that is, for bringing to the common realm of public space, all which resists to be forgotten. They also reveal that in spite of the conditions, social bonds continue to be created, sometimes precisely as a consequence of such conditions. The “social fabric” rebels against disappearance and oblivion by inventing new ways of solidarity and survival. The huge amount and the overwhelming variety of independent documentaries produced in the last decade leaves us with the same kind of perplexity that I find in the rationale of the movement itself: as it happens with the same reality they are trying to capture, it may need time to understand what it records and proposes about the changes of the Chinese space, aesthetically, historically and politically speaking. We may need time to rethink the processes frozen by the documentaries of this vertiginous transformation; images, stories and proposals that are waiting for us to slow down and rethink what we -or them- are doing and could do within our common space, public and private.