The Dual Lens of Independent Media: Report From Reel China #4

Mouthpiece (dir. Guo Xizhi)

This week we are spotlighting the Reel China Documentary Biennial, which held its Fifth edition last October with a showcase of nine recent documentaries produced by independent filmmakers in China. To commemorate the event, we are posting a handful of reports by attendees of the festival.

By Christopher Campbell

Guo Xizhi’s Mouthpiece is part of the recent “vérité” tradition in Chinese documentary that continues to be partly inspired by the work of American filmmaker Frederick Wiseman, known for his faux-objective “fly-on-the-wall” approach to his subject matter. However, the film’s major departure from the conventions of that detached, voyeuristic style with its seemingly invisible camera –and this appears to be true for many other observational documentaries in China right now – is in the way it includes so much acknowledgement of the camera and cameraman, breaking the “fourth wall” of what would otherwise be a strictly empirical perspective.

This actually benefits Mouthpiece thematically with regards to the documentary’s presentation of the confused and complicated concepts of the media. Constantly Guo’s camera is mistaken for or presumed to be part of or representing the news crew(s) he is documenting (they appear to employ the same kind of small DV cameras presumably used by Guo). But perhaps this is not so strange? What, after all, separates the artist’s lens from that of the television journalist’s? Very little, aesthetically. Yet, for a medium and movement that extends from and is able to work outside of the state-run propaganda machine, and which therefore tends to be thought of as a greater outlet for the independent voice, the documentary comes across as the true mouthpiece of the title.

The film lays witness primarily to the workings of the Shenzhen TV news program “First Spot,” inside and out. Guo turns his camera on the makers of the local media, showing us production meetings and fairly candid views of the long and short processes of putting together the show, but it also follows journalists on location for a peek at how they gather the stories that will later be reported on. This second aspect provides the more interesting parts of Mouthpiece, because it opens up a layered visual discourse pertaining to the question of what exactly is being documented. Is the film about the newsmakers or the news itself? Is it about how they distort the news or is it self-reflexively about how documentary can reveal such distortions while concurrently itself being potentially distorting, or at least limiting?

The duality of Guo’s lens as both window to the actions (some of which appear highly unethical) of the “First Spot” crews and window to that which these journalists are covering is quite thought provoking. The slum dwellers and arrested teens and shop owners are foremost directly communicating to the journalists, yet they are also simultaneously being captured by the documentary. How they will be represented to an audience, and to what audience they will be represented, is clearly different with each of the two (types of) camera lenses and ultimate (edited) visual media products. There is an intriguing amount of blurring of medium going on, though at the same time there are constant reminders of the separation of news and documentary. Civilians and police are regularly asking Guo if he is a member of the press, while employees of the “First Look” team also occasionally ask the same, only jokingly.

1428 (dir. Du Haibin)

1428, Du Haibin’s primarily observational film of the aftermath of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, has similar moments involving queries from onscreen subjects. One woman asks the filmmaker if he is shooting for the media or for himself. He answers that it’s the latter, but of course whether intended or not it has ended up being for international viewing (the film has played many of the world’s prominent film festivals, including Venice, where it won a major prize). The concept of personal purpose, though, is likely different to the general Chinese civilian than it is to the global audience. That woman in 1428 may never have the opportunity to see the film, or any other documentary of the sort, and so for her there are only those two distinctions. Here, on the other hand, we think of shooting for “ourselves” as being exclusively connected to home movies, which tend not to be edited into something for public show. Still, as an artist, Du is indeed shooting for himself, in that he is at the time shooting material for an expected expression, from his own perspective, of that which he and his camera have witnessed.

Another woman approaches Du’s camera assuming it and him to be “the media.” She is not corrected or at least she ignores any clarification of intent and proceeds to use the opportunity to complain about the government’s handling of its relief effort and her own personal experience with the unsatisfactory issuing of electric blankets, cooking utensils and other needed goods. For her the film becomes a mouthpiece for her criticisms, yet ironically her vocal protests might likely have been excluded in a news media report. While she thinks she is talking to the media, she perhaps is better represented by in fact unknowingly talking to the greater witness of the (festival-going) world. Then again, for much of that audience, 1428 may function more as a kind of from-a-distance disaster tourism with its consistently matter-of-fact view of the tragedy and its victims (the audience at the Reel China screening of the film, it is worth noting, seemed more emotionally responsive to the suffering of animals depicted on screen).

It is interesting that domestic forms of disaster tourism are portrayed in 1428 near the end of the film, when Du returns to the region for follow-up observance and documents the people hawking photos and other items related to the earthquake (much like what went on, and continues, in NYC after 9/11). The film does have additional purpose for international viewers, though, in that it displays angles on the tragedy that the Chinese government and media have limited in their exported acknowledgment and coverage. In this address 1428 is akin to Mouthpiece in the way it extends from what is officially recognized and communicated domestically.

Even in its apparently exhaustive documentation of the earthquake aftermath, however, there is, as is also the case with Mouthpiece, a sense we are witnessing only a peripheral and general address of subjects, situations and issues. 1428 includes the basics of post-disaster occurrences for an encapsulating yet altogether briefly concentrated and chaptered look the homelessness, physical and spiritual loss, media attention and exploitations experienced in the province at the times of filming. And 1428 is neatly formulated and tied together with recurring motifs (the constantly present tramp, or “idiot,” being the most notable) for a dramatic and poetic package that has been produced by and from one specific artistic vantage point.

At nearly two-thirds the running time of Mouthpiece, Du’s 1428 is comparatively concise, edited for greater consumption, cinematically. The three hours allotted to Mouthpiece do not really give it any more of a comprehensive truthfulness, partly because the subjects documented are still very episodic. We are taken from story to story in much the same way the news would guide us through reports on them. More time is spent on this or that story, though presumably each might in fact be focused more fully – albeit differently – on “First Spot” than in the film, but it ultimately comes off as a chronologically strung-together collection of sequences, an experiential film that likely could have just kept on going, along with the continued life and operations it observes. Maybe Mouthpiece ends when it does because it has gone through and represented the gist of all Shenzhen’s important ongoing issues? And maybe the film’s length, along with its year-later follow-up, means to remind us that neither a city’s problems nor the media’s coverage of these problems (and the problems with that coverage) ever cease? One of the main distinctions between documentary and news coverage, which is remembered thanks to Mouthpiece, is the fact that at some point the documentary does need to end.

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