Defending Culture and Democracy in Chinese Independent Documentaries

By Isabella Tianzi Cai

The latest issue of Hong Kong-based Open Magazine features three articles on citizens’ documentary in Chinese civil rights movements. One of them, written by Teng Biao, who is a human rights lawyer in Beijing, has been translated and published at Interlocals.net. See original.

In the article, Teng gives a comprehensive overview of the civic documentary movement in China for the past few decades. While the facts are impressive in both volume and numbers, the ideas aren’t all new to us. He writes,

Information monopoly is designed to benefit those in power, while Citizens Documentary can eliminate the cover-ups in certain extent. Only a few documentaries can already make the dictatorship pay a huge price. One can imagine that with the expansion of the Civic Documentary campaign, covering up truth will be a futile and obsolete attempt. Till then, there should be a significant change in the mode of power operation. (Interlocals)

Such a reversal of these power dynamics can be seen in Ou Ning’s and Cao Fei’s collaborative film, San Yuan Li. Ou and Cao led a group of twelve amateur videographers to videotape their enigmatic little village of the same name, embedded in the outskirts of the megalopolis of Guangzhou. In the past decade, because of the state’s plan to modernize the region and the ever expansion of the city, everything old about the village has been either rapidly changing or rapidly disappearing. In order to save the village’s transitory appearances, the filmmakers enlisted ordinary villagers to document the losses. Politically speaking, this form of resistance is subtle, but it is kindled with a spirit of free discourse, both journalistic and democratic in nature.

Another point of relevance in Teng’s propositions lies beyond the implicit political significance of cultural or historical preservation using film; when certain documentaries are produced for investigative purposes, the stakes can be even higher. In Ou Ning’s Meishi Street, we experience a zero-distance encounter with a group of Beijingers facing demolition of their homes. These people open themselves up in front of the camera and for the camera, venting grievances that they couldn’t elsewhere. One man decries the state media for exactly the same reason that Teng mentions: “covering up truth will be a futile and obsolete attempt.”

In the face of China’s unassailable march towards modernity, nobody is an isolated victim. The questions and debates on which aspects of Chinese culture are worth preserving and which information needs to go out in the light will mount with increasing urgency. Already manifested in Xie Wenjun’s documentary, Disappearing Guangzhou, cultural preservation and human rights movements can be intricately linked. See Arthur Waldron’s comments on Xie’s film:

The narration makes the point that the post-80 generation involved in documenting cultural loss in Guangzhou is focused on cultural preservation, but for the residents of the endangered neighborhoods, it is the even more serious matter of the defense of rights. (Waldron)

Note that the people in Guangzhou feel threatened today not just because some have been forced to relocate for the upcoming 2010 Asian Games but also because there was a proposal in the local government to replace Cantonese with Mandarin in some television broadcasting. Protests abounded after the news leaked, despite the fact that it had all just been a proposal. To read more about China’s language policy, see Waldron’s blog.

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