“Getting the Past Out Loud”: Wu Wenguang’s Memory Project and New Voices In Documentary Film at NYU

By Maya E. Rudolph

From L to R: Dan Streible, Angela Zito, Wu Wenguang, Zhang Zhen

“Independent film has gone from underground to come above ground.” Wu Wenguang‘s most recent project in mentorship and documentary filmmaking, which made its US premiere at NYU under the title Getting The Past Out Loud: Memory Projects with Wu Wengugang, is an exploration of individual and collective memory, of personal storytelling, and of the evolving talents of China’s newest generation of filmmakers. The event was organized by Professors Angela Zito and Zhang Zhen at the Center for Religion and Media Studies at NYU, which Zito co-directs and was co-sponsored by the Department of Cinema Studies, where Zhang is Associate Professor. The event was also made possible thanks to generous support from China House.

Wu, often extolled to as the godfather of the New Documentary Movement in Chinese independent cinema, presented two of his own projects at the weekend screening series, but emphasized the significant work of those young people involved in the Memory Project. “My generation of filmmakers often started out working within the state system, but we were dissatisfied and bored,” Wu expressed in conversation with Professors Zhang, Zito and Cinema Studies Professor Dan Streible. “Filmmaking twenty years ago was about throwing tantrums. The new generation is more introspective, they don’t need to throw tantrums. They’ve adapted a more authentic independent posture.”

The Memory Project, launched in 2010, was designed with as much credence to oral history and family succession as to extending documentary practices to the boundaries of Chinese village life. The aim of the Memory Project is to dispatch young filmmakers – mostly recent college graduates – away from urban landscapes and Wu’s Caochangdi Workstation in Beijing to their hometowns, the villages of their predecessors. Here, armed with digital cameras and a posture that is as earnest and curious as it is “independent,” these filmmakers being to unravel stories of village histories and politics, stories of their families and themselves. Five films, including Wu Wenguang’s most recent film Treatment and Memory Project participant Zou Xueping‘s Satiated Village, screened at NYU. I was fortunate to see three screenings: Wu Wenguang’s 2005 Fuck Cinema and two selections from the Memory Project, Luo Village: Me and Ren Dingqi by Luo Bing and Zhang Menqi’s Self-Portrait With Three Women.

"Luo Village: Me and Ren Dingqi" (dir. Luo Bing)

Luo Village: Me and Ren Dingqi is a film by Luo Bing, a Beijing-based artist who returned to his ancestral village in Hunan Province to interview his grandparents’ generation about the darkest, most brutal years of the Cultural Revolution. While Luo’s exploration of the so-called “famine years,” the period of widespread starvation from 1958 to ’61 that accompanied Mao’s “Great Leap Forward”, is often wrenchingly sad, his camera does not neglect the humor and irony of village life. The community in Luo Village is presented as one largely without bitterness, where a certain acknowledgement of their shared, albeit harrowing past allows the village elders to connect with one-another, and also with the young man holding the camera. Throughout his process, Luo searches for an elusive memoir written by his neighbor, Ren Dinqi, which is rumored to spare no detail in spelling out the days of Grandpa Ren’s life from unbearable suffering to redemption.

Luo’s pursuit of the memoir takes him away from the paths and courtyards of Luo Village and into quiet rooms laden with detritus – abandoned farm equipment, old tools, the remnants of a not-quite-forgotten time – where he questions what it means to remember, to record memory. “Did he write the memoir here?” Luo voice-overs, his camera probing the dusty surfaces of a dark room, “Did he write it because he suffered too much?” The forward motion of Luo’s camera is steady: opening doors, walking down paths. While the question of Grandpa Ren’s memoir carries a poignant narrative through-line, it is Luo’s encounters with neighbors such as Yu Maoli, that are most heart-stopping. A man clearly nearing the end of a terribly difficult life, Yu Maoli speaks with Luo Bing until his daughter, her voice needling from off screen, shrilly forbids her father from discussing the shadows of the past. Luo tries to reason with the daughter, asking what harm an interview can do in this day and age, while the camera remains on Yu Maoli. His lips move, silent and desperate-seeming, but no words come out – some memories are perhaps simply inexpressible.

"Self-Portrait With Three Women" (dir. Zhang Mengqi)

Zhang Mengqi is a filmmaker and dancer whose film Self-Portrait With Three Women represents a wholehearted attempt to reconcile personal history, from the corporeal to the abstract. With regard to her mother and maternal grandmother as both generational and emotional touchpoints, Zhang constructs a intimate narrative that blends the boundaries of physical spaces – bodies and dwelling places – with the intangible sense of memory, of passed time. Zhang’s approach to her indisciplinary autobiography is remarkably frank, incorporating voice-over biographical details and archival photographs and letters to set the record spinning into motion.

It is when Zhang delves into an exploration of blood-lines, sometimes literally interpreted through discussion of menstrual patterns and other moments of female adolescence, that she breaks with narrative convention and constructs a more experimental work of art fusing memory, speech, and body. After recording her mother’s discussion of various moments of both shame and triumph in Zhang’s upbringing, Zhang projects a close-up image of her mother telling these stories on her body. Here, her mother’s face illuminates and and colors Zhang’s contorted form like a stain. A vocabulary for modern dance is probably useful in describing these scenes, but the essence of Zhang’s performance – that which is written on the body, that which is shaped by gender and loss and family to form and deform the self – is undeniable. While a few moments of pleading self-discovery betray Zhang’s youth as a filmmaker and a woman, this Self-Portrait is unashamed, wholly concerned what it means to both embrace and even revile the conditions of the body, the limitations of legacy, the infinity of self-reflection.

While Zhang’s exploration is entirely her own, it’s difficult not to draw parallels between Self-Portrait and the project of another frequent Wu Wenguang collaborator and student: Li Ning‘s 2010 documentary Tape. Tape, a sprawling, inventive, and absorbing movement of brutal self-examination, follows Li Ning’s life as a father, husband, dancer, and teacher through years of Li’s most experimental and elemental moments.

Unfortunately, I was unable to attend the screening of Zou Xueping’s Satiated Village, Zou’s second film in a series that portrays life and history in the filmmaker’s hometown. Zou’s earlier film in this series, completed in 2010, is entitled Starving Village.

The screening of Wu Wengguang’s 2005 documentary Fuck Cinema was highlighted by his discussion of the work as an unexpectedly personal effort that brought Wu and his legendary role in the Chinese independent filmmaking community into an unprecedented and relatively uncomfortable spotlight. Fuck Cinema tells the story of Wang, a migrant huckster so dead-set on seeing his autobiographical screenplay produced, he lives and breathes cinematic ambition, sacrificing every comfort and sleeping on the roof of a dormitory to see his dream realized. For all of Wang’s earnest perseverance and goofy naiveté, the revelation of Fuck Cinema unfolds an uneasy reality. Wang’s struggle is tripwired by arrogant directors, dismissive producers, and an industry that appears impenetrable and self-important, ugly even.

After appealing repeatedly and unsuccessfully to Wu for financial and structural support, Wang expresses his deep disappointment with world of cinema as it exists both inside and out of Wu’s camera. Wang now exists only as a subject of Wu’s dispassionate gaze; he’s a just a character in the lens of a celebrated filmmaker. What is this industry, this artistry in which Wu is so deeply engaged? What does it mean to shape someone else’s story? Wu’s physical absence from the frame and his passivity as a documenter speaks volumes, ultimately blurring the line between subject and object in an incomprehensible slew of cinema, story, industry, responsibility.

Intercut into Wang’s story are a series of audition tapes, pretty young actresses asked to speak their opinion about prostitutes. Without context, without direction, the women stumble through answers – what’s there to say? Wordlessness, a gesture towards the unutterable is the stagnant current of Fuck Cinema. “Cinema is a complex idea,” Wu announced after the screening, “You say ‘fuck it’ when you don’t know what else to say. When the feeling overwhelms you.”

What has been accomplished by Wu Wenguang and the Memory Project seems broader than just a new approach to documentary storytelling, but suggests an important step in the evolution of Chinese cinema – cinema as self, cinema as history, even cinema as an overwhelming force. In my experience, the 80-hou (born after 1980) generation is sometimes maligned as an indifferent collection of privileged and arrogant youths, “little emperors” with their focus always forward, self-absorbed without being self-aware. To the contrary, Luo Bing and Zhang Mengqi’s films are some of the strongest evidence I’ve ever seen to suggest the talent, mindfulness, and gratitude of the 80-hou generation. Certainly, these works lack the rageful zeal of this documentary legacy’s self-described tantrum-throwing days and films like Wu’s Bumming in Beijing (1990), but inspire a sense of uncommon introspection and acute understanding of narrative exchange, that a story can be a conversation. These film notably also show the 80-hou generation in a markedly different light than films like Jian Yi‘s sometimes absurdist, reality-TV-centered documentary Super, Girls! (Jian Yi, one of the first filmmakers to focus on the 80-hou generation, also boasts a significant history of shared projects and creative exchange with Wu Wengguang.). Framing is impossible to ignore – Wu makes this much clear in Fuck Cinema – and the eye that focuses the camera can never be relegated to that of a mere spectator.

Whether addressing the political scars of the faint past or assembling facets of personal history, each filmmaker is completely present in their questions and answers, their consideration of a shared past and individual future. Wu Wenguang’s magnanimous efforts as a mentor and a supporter of young artists are giving rise to a generation of films not easily ignored. Sure, this is where the personal and political meet, but also where community and independence intersect to show how cinema can, and does, look.

3 Responses to ““Getting the Past Out Loud”: Wu Wenguang’s Memory Project and New Voices In Documentary Film at NYU”

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