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Chinese Reality #5: China Villagers Documentary Project

To commemorate the film series Chinese Realities / Documentary Visions at The Museum of Modern Art(May 8-June 1), each day this month this blog will publish a brief primer on one of the 28 films selected in the series.

Today’s film:

China Villagers Documentary Project (various directors)

China Villagers Documentary Project (various directors)

Zhongguo cunmin yinxiang jihua (China Villagers Documentary Project aka China Village Self-Governance Film Project)

2005. China. Various directors.

Wu Wenguang and filmmaker Jian Yi trained 10 villagers from across China to make films documenting electoral processes in their home villages. Pursuing the ideal that anyone can become a documentary filmmaker, this project sparked a new model of Chinese participatory documentary, with community members depicting their own lives. The resulting works—surprisingly humorous, and filled with their own local flavor—vividly reveal the realities of village life and democracy in action.

Excerpts from select reviews and writings:

The villagers’ films are fascinating glimpses into the meeting place between newly learned technological intimacy and political curiosity born of a deep understanding of local issues. Nong Ke, 59, for example, takes the verite approach of simply recording in long shots a village meeting that will elect which farming families receive money from a poverty-relief aid package. Meanwhile, by his title “A Futile Election,” Zhang Huancai lets you know exactly what he thinks of the confusion and chaos that resulted from misunderstood voting rules and long-simmering contentions between neighborhoods.

Robert Abele, Los Angeles Times. January 18 2007

Given the crucial role played by Wu and his Caochangdi Workstation in equipping and training villagers, we may argue that this project not only discovers already existing agents, but, more importantly, produces them, or brings them into a self-conscious identification as an agent and a documentary maker. This is illustrated in the experiences of Shao Yuzhen and Jia Zhitan, two fifty-five year-old villager participants whose ten-minute documentaries were awarded the first and the third prize respectively in the China Village Democracy Videos Competition. For them, obtaining and then learning to use a DV camera is empowering. They not only gained the ability to record detailed everyday happenings in their villages, but also learned to be more perceptive, to defamiliarize routine, to capture mundane details now viewed afresh. Furthermore, their presence with DV allowed them extra power that made them simultaneously insiders and somewhat outsiders in the village.

Yiman Wang, “I Am One of them.” In The New Chinese Documentary Film Movement: For the Public Record. Edited by Berry, Lv, Rofel. Hong Kong University Press, 2010.

The highly likable and well-intentioned Jian Yi, the young man who coordinated much of the project for Wu Wenguang and who made his own documentary film about the unfolding of the project, visited the University of Oxford in fall 2006 to screen the “peasant” films. He was asked directly whether he and the “peasant filmmakers” engaged in self-censorship or were subjected to state censorship. To his eternal credit he answered “yes” to both questions and gave details. Given all the publicity associated with the project, and the certainty that the films were going to be shown throughout Europe and the United States, he explained, it was inconceivable that the state was not going to run all the films by state censors. Jian Yi said explicitly that the state ordered material to be cut and that the cuts were made.

Paul Pickowicz, “independent Chinese Film.” In Radicalism, Revolution and Reform in Modern China. Lexington Books. 2011.

Truthfully, some of the most interesting parts of the story emerged from outside the stated aim of documenting local village self-government. In roughly half of the village documentaries, voting never occurs, or otherwise other topics dominate. Seeing old women get off of their bikes to talk with one another at a dirt road intersection in a Northern Chinese village offers a surprisingly intimate and prosaic view of the side of China that often gets left out in most economic growth rhetoric. Hearing ethnic Tibetans matter of factly discuss environmental changes in the snowcapped mountains surrounding their village, and what those changes mean in their belief system, provides a surprising alternative discourse to much contemporary discourse on global warming. Hearing a young urban professional talk about how removed his life is from life in his village is more revealing to the audience on a human level than hearing the specific reasons why he failed to go home and fill in his last ballot. More generally, the ten villager documentarians exposed bits and pieces of perspective into the lives of Chinese people by capturing domestic moments through happenstance while attempting to find democracy in China.

Aynne Kokas, Asia Pacific Arts, February 16, 2007


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