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Chinese Indie Docs Hit Harvard and Santa Barbara

Monday, April 13th, 2009

Last weekend I had the pleasure of attending “Emergent Visions: Independent Documentaries from China” a special series held at Harvard University. In addition to screening eight films over three days, the University brought from China Zhu Rikun, head of Fanhall Studio and programmer of the Beijing Independent Film Festival and the China Documentary Film Festival, as well as three directors of films in the series, to present the works and engage in discussion with audiences. The series will travel this coming weekend to Santa Barbara, with Zhu and the three directors in tow.

The Harvard screenings were anchored by a panel session, chaired by Harvard professor Eileen Chow, that offered three distinct takes on the burgeoning indie documentary scene in China. Lu Xinyu of Fudan University examined what she dubs the “First Generation” of Chinese documentarians, describing their chief characteristics and principles: an emphasis on social observation executed via direct cinema practices, and a rejection of the mainstream practice of idealization in representation. Lu noted an emerging “Second Generation” of documentarians whose works reflect an increasingly subjective and self-reflexive approach.

Zhu Rikun offered his own historical account of the explosive production of Chinese docs over this decade, commenting specifically on how affluent members of Beijing’s art scene (such as Li Xianting, who funds both festivals programmed by Zhu) became invested in supporting documentaries. Zhu observed that Beijing artists and art patrons were concerned that an increasingly commercialized contemporary art scene was growing disconnected from China’s reality. They felt the need to bolster the connection between art and society, and found documentary as their ideal medium for this endeavor. Zhu also remarked on how the availability of digital video and editing equipment accelerated the documentary movement at every step, from production to distribution; and how the internet helped organize of a critically engaged audience across the country, giving rise to an independent film festival circuit that has become increasingly visible and vital over a remarkably short period.

Markus Nornes, professor of Asian Film and Video at Michigan and currently visiting scholar at Harvard, offered a provocative presentation titled “Demolition, Christianity, and the Slaughter of Animals Great and Small.” The title reflected his paper’s overall concern with thematic and formalistic conventions emerging among Chinese documentaries. At the same time Nornes acknowledged the vitality of the documentary circuit, specifically in venues like YunFest where local film projects and exhibitions have engaged their communities, reflecting the potential of these festivals to reflect the heterogeneity of China’s culture. His talk concluded with concerns over the future of the independent spirit of Chinese documentary filmmaking as the genre matures under the auspices of industrialization and professionalism.

As for the films in the program, the ones I managed to catch were uniformly outstanding, and having three of the directors present greatly enhanced the experience. Xu Xin‘s two films reflect a fascination with cultural practices in danger of extinction, whose practictioners are seemingly out of step with their times and surroundings. Torch Troupes follows a traditional Sichuan opera singer as his troupe struggles to get by, while Fangshan Church depicts a Jiangsu congregation of mostly elderly Christians. Wang Wo’s experimental documentaries Outside and Noise take the direct cinema approach to the realm of avant gardism, immersing the viewer in a non-narrative, highly sensory experience of urban China in its visual and aural splendor. Zhao Xun‘s Two Seasons, which recently premiered at YunFest, was a true crowd-pleaser, depicting the rigid, at times absurdly comic social dynamics that govern a middle school in Hubei.

The series also included Feng Yan‘s Bing Ai (sort of a feminist version of Jia Zhangke’s Still Life), Zhao Liang‘s Crime and Punishment, a remarkable documentary on police interrogation tactics, and Zhao Dayong‘s Ghost Town, a devastating three-part chronicle of an existence in utter poverty in a remote southwestern mountain town.

Kudos to J.P. Sniadecki, Ying Qian and Jie Li at Harvard for assembling an impressive program.

Emergent Visions: Independent Documentaries from China was co-sponsored by the Harvard University Asia Center, the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies, the Harvard East Asia Society, the department of Visual and Entertainment Studies, and the Carpenter Center for Visual Arts.