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Chris Berry on the New Chinese Documentary Movement

Chris Berry

Chris Berry

On May 17, 2013, Chinese film scholar Chris Berry, professor at Kings College, London and co-editor of The New Chinese Documentary Movement: For the Public Record, gave a presentation on Chinese independent documentary as part of the Museum of Modern Art’s series Chinese Realities: Documentary Visions. Titled “Confronting Reality: The New Chinese Documentary Movement,” the presentation discussed the Chinese documentary movement’s impact and the aesthetic and moral questions it has raised for Chinese cinema. With Professor Berry’s permission, the text of his presentation is reproduced below. 


My theme tonight is the theme of this film series – namely, the idea that since the early 1990s,  one of the most powerful driving forces in cinema from the People’s Republic of China has been how to “confront reality.” I believe that the most interesting sector of the industry in this regard has been independent cinema, and in particular independent documentary. Those are the films that being featured in this series at MOMA, and I’m going to talk about some of the ways they confront reality and what makes them so interesting.

Just to be clear from the outset, what is independent cinema in China? It’s not the same as here. At the risk of slight simplification, in China, independent films are films the filmmakers do not send to the Chinese censors because they know they will not be passed. As a result, they cannot be screened commercially in China. This means that the style of format of most of the films you are seeing in the season here at MOMA is not related to a need to sell tickets. Sometimes people feel the films could have been edited more tightly. But that would only make sense if you were trying to sell them to TV stations, which is impossible in China. So, I think a whole new aesthetic based on sharing DVDs and viewing on computers has developed, in which viewing is an altogether more flexible practice.

Before I go on to talking about “confronting reality” in independent cinema, I will say a couple of things about mainstream genre cinema. Chinese popular cinema is becoming extremely successful at the box office in China again, and has been knocking Hollywood blockbusters off their perch in the last year or so. In part, I think that is because they are also confronting Chinese reality in a way that Hollywood films cannot.

In mainstream cinema, that confrontation with reality appears as themes about truth and trust. The comedies are usually about not being able to trust anyone and everyone cheating each other. The most successful film in China ever is a low budget comedy called Lost in Thailand, where the two main characters chase and con each other all around the world as they try get their hands on a commercial secret. The romances are about materialism versus true love – and true love does not always win! Love Is Not Blind is all about learning you don’t need Mr. Right if you’ve got credit cards and a gay best friend to tell you what you look good in. And the crime films are about what people are prepared to do in the pursuit of money. These developments would make an interesting topic for a whole other talk.

The New Chinese Documentary Movement: For the Public Record (authors: Chris Berry, Lisa Rofel, Lv Xinyu)

The New Chinese Documentary Movement: For the Public Record (authors: Chris Berry, Lisa Rofel, Lv Xinyu)

But, now let me turn to independent cinema and the films you are seeing in this series. Here the confrontation with reality occurs at a deeper level – it is a more fundamental crisis about what reality is, how we should perceive it and how it should be depicted. Radical shifts in our understanding of what reality is require whole new aesthetic regimes. The most obvious example of this kind of cosmological shift I can give you is the move from a theistic to a secular understanding of the world. If you walk through the great art museums of Europe you floor after floor mostly filled with flying babies and other divine creatures until the sometime around the early 19th century, which they give way to realism. This is the product of just such a cosmological shift. Once people believed that the reality of the world was full of spirits that are invisible to the human eye. Then we became secular humanism and believed that the world was as our eye saw it and we were at the centre of it.

In China also, realist aesthetics are also dominant, as you might expect in a country that has adopted secular modernity a long time ago. But I want to argue that the aesthetic you see in the films in this series are the result of a crisis of representational aesthetics within secular humanism that comes to a head in the late 1980s. A number of factors created a crisis of faith for the younger generation. The end of state-led socialism and the development of the market economy handed the economic initiative over to ordinary citizens, but the nightmare of the suppression of the Tiananmen democracy movement meant the one-party system remained. The result is a loss of faith in the old realism associated with the Maoist model and the emergence of a new realism.

What I’m going to do for the rest of this talk is outline three overlapping periods and sets of issues that develop around the new realism that appears with Chinese independent cinema, and documentary in particular.

  1. First, I will explain that the new realism that appears in 1990 is observational documentary, which implies access to truth on the basis of empirical observation rather than Marxist analysis of visible reality. The “on the spot” and spontaneous quality of this kind of documentary aesthetic has not been superceded yet – it is the new normal.

  2. Second, after the arrival of the mini-DV camera in the late 1990s, the field of independent cinema booms, and with it we have the age of the “individual filmmaker.” As any naïve faith in pure observational film drops away, a great number of different ways of working with on-the-spot material emerges. So, the second point is diversification.

  3. Third, as the number of independent filmmakers grows, new issues emerge. People are less concerned about how to represent reality. Instead, the related questions of ethics and access become more crucial — the ethics of the relationship between the filmmaker and his or her subjects, and the question of who gets to make films, and who gets to speak on camera and about what.

First, let me introduce the emergence of an “on the spot” style. The Chinese word for this is “xianchang.” Originally, it meant “live,” as in “live TV.” So, it carried the idea of being present, spontaneity, absence of script or rehearsal, and so on.

This on the spot quality is the style you see in early independent fiction feature films, like Zhang Yuan’s Beijing Bastards (Beijing Zázhong, 1993)or Jia Zhangke’s Xiao Wu (1997), which use a lot of location shooting, natural light, amateur actors, improvised scripts, and handheld camerawork. “On the spot” realism derived its power from its contrast to the older styles of filmmaking from the Mao era and its aftermath. In feature filmmaking, this older style was a lot like Hollywood studio filmmaking. On-the-spot realism also stood out against the historical fables favoured by the Fifth Generation in films like Zhang Yimou’s Red Sorghum.

Bumming in Beijing (1990, dir. Wu Wenguang)

Bumming in Beijing (1990, dir. Wu Wenguang)

This contrast between the highly controlled filmmaking of the Maoist era and the new spontaneity of “on the spot” realism was even clearer in the world of documentary. In the Maoist era, documentaries always carried authoritative voiceover, interviews were rare, and the events filmed were often orchestrated. Contrast that with the first independent documentary, Wu Wenguang’s Bumming in Beijing, were everything is hand-held camera, muddy sound, stumbling interviews that are clearly not rehearsed, and so on. The most notorious “on the spot” moment in the film is when Wu accidentally comes across his friend, a painter, having a psychotic episode. Imagine that for 30 years, you have seen only glossy films about bumper harvests and the achievements of socialism. Then you see this:

[Clip of Bumming in Beijing]

So, as you can imagine this was quite shocking for viewers in the 1990s.I don’t want to burden you with Chinese-language terminology today. But I do want to point out that there are at least three different words for “realism” in Chinese: xieshizhuyi; xianshizhuyi; and jishizhuyi. This is important, because each of them marks the kind of cosmological shift I have been speaking about. Only two of these are important for today’s talk. Xianshizhuyi refers to a Marxist realism, in which truth is understood as a dialectical analysis of reality. In other words, the world should be depicted in a way that shows its underlying but invisible truth of class struggle and historical materialism. This is the “realism” in “socialist realism,” for example, and it explains why it is a much more schematic and glossed up vision than the world as we see it. Jishizhuyi, on the other hand, is the observational style that appears in the 1990s, and which I argue marks a profound shift in thinking. This is a neologism that first appears around this period.

One of the signs of the depth of this shift in thinking is the fact that it is not confined to independent cinema. In fact, mainstream television was also moving towards this style at the same time. Today, if you watch Chinese television, you will often see reporters going to interview people on the street in a seemingly spontaneous fashion. So, the “on the spot” style marks a new way of understanding the world that runs across the whole of society. The command economy has given way to one of spontaneous initiatives not only from would-be entrepreneurs but also from citizens, who do not believe what they are told by those in power but only believe what they can see with their own eyes.

However, the adoption of this “on the spot” style by the mainstream media also gets rid of any naïve idea that it is a guarantee of truth or even absence of manipulation, because people don’t trust the mainstream media and realize that an observational style can be faked. Let me give you my favorite example. Wu Wenguang, the director of Bumming in Beijing, also worked with ordinary farmers to train them so they could make documentaries about their lives. One of them is a woman in her fifties called Shao Yuzhen, and in a remarkable scene from one of her My Village annual films, she films a local TV crew as they interview her husband. The style the TV crew uses appears to be a spontaneous interview. But, in fact, we see that the TV crews films the interview again and again until her husband says the politically correct thing they hope that he will say! It’s a remarkable expose.

Now let me move on to my second point – diversification. Up to the late 1990s, the independent documentary movement in China is small. It consists mostly of people working in TV stations who can borrow equipment. Amongst themselves, there is considerable emphasis on pure observational filmmaking and debate about what representational aesthetic can deliver a truth about reality. They police each other.

But in 1997, mini-DV cameras become available in regular stores, and the potential population of filmmakers expands to the entire middle-class population. With the mini-DV camera, it is possible to work alone. This is what Wu Wenguang has called “individual filmmaking”. From this point on, all kinds of people can start making films and they do not have to follow any particular style. In practice, most of the people who start making independent documentaries after 1997 are not ordinary people like woman farmer Shao Yuzhen, who I just told you about. For the most part, they have some kind of media and arts background. But the numbers boom and the styles proliferate. The only thing that stays the same is that they are still working with “on the spot” aesthetics. It is taken for granted that this is the way to observe the world, but it is also accepted that this material is always being shaped by the filmmaker, or the TV station, and so the emphasis moves to different ways to work with the material. This shift is the subject of Luke Robinson’s new book, Independent Chinese Documentary – From the Studio to the Street, which I recommend if you are interested in a more detailed and closely researched account.

What are some examples of the new different modes that appear after 1997?

  1. First, there are diary films and first person or private films. These are not huge in number, but they are markedly different from the sort of social issue films we have seen up to this point. Kiki Yu Tianqi has produced a PhD recently on this  topic. Examples include Yang Lina’s Home Video, in which she tries to probe her parent’s divorce. The corresponding example in independent feature films would be Liu Jiayin’s Oxhide (2005), although there is no divorce. In recent years, Wu Wenguang himself has moved in this direction with his 2010 film, Treatment, which is all about his mother’s final days and his relationship with her.

  2. A second type of film would be a more artistic, stylized use of on-the-spot materials to make a sort of visual essay documentary. The most well-known example is Wang Bing’s 2003 film West of the Tracks(Tiexi Qu), a 9-hour Tarkovsky-style trek through the rust belt of North-East China as it fades away.

  3. Third, we could point to a kind of relaxation of the strict observational aesthetics of the 1990s. In those days, inspired by Fred Wiseman and other earlier observational filmmakers, the Chinese documentarians tried to avoid adding voiceover narration or music. But these elements have gradually made their way back in all over the place.

  4. Fourth, I would give the example of the intersection of experimental video and documentary. Here, filmmakers working in the gallery also move into documentary. Cao Fei’s i.Mirror, which some of you may have seen this afternoon, is an example of this. In it, she records her experiences in Second Life at a world she built for herself. In a certain sense, the Second Life materials in the film are the observational materials, but they observe a constructed online world, not the world offline. The film is part art and also part first-person documentary. However, the “first person” is her Second Life avatar, China Tracy. So the result is also an experimental documentary.

  5. Another example that pushes the boundaries of “on the spot” documentary and crosses into the world of experimental video is Huang Weikai’s Disorder (2009). In this film, he uses all kinds of found footage to create a kind of dystopian and crazy city symphony film in the tradition associated with Walter Ruttman’s Berlin, Symphony of a City and Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera. Let’s see a clip.


Disorder (2009, dir. Huang Weikai)

[Clip of Disorder plays]

This crazy film is one of my all-time favourites.

There is a fifth type of film I want to mention that emerges with the proliferation of styles in the new century. And this will also give me a bridge into my third topic, which is the change in the issues that are debated and the growing concern about ethics and access, rather than what sort of realism should be adopted. That fifth type of film is the oral history film, dominated by interviews. In these films, the filmmakers are concerned to record an alternative archive of materials they know will never make it into mainstream media. A good example would be Xu Xin’s 2010 film, Karamay. In this 9-hour epic, he goes to the oil industry city of Karamay in Chinese Central Asia. A number of years ago, a terrible tragedy happened there. During a performance for children, the new city theatre caught fire. The children were told to stay seated while the Communist Party leaders and city officials in attendance were allowed out first. Many of the children perished in the inferno that followed. No one has ever been held responsible, and the event has been suppressed. Xu Xin simply allows the parents of the children who died to speak, and he and we act as witnesses and listeners for them.

As I mentioned, this takes me to my third point today. In the early days of the “on the spot” the debates amongst filmmakers and critics was very much about what style of “on the spot” realism was authentic. Was music allowed? What about intertitles to let the audience know the location? And so on. But in the new century, I think it has been taken for granted now that “on the spot” style is the appropriate style for contemporary China. Also, it is understood that how that “on the spot” material is used will vary a lot and that there is no pure access to objective truth. In these circumstances, new issues have emerged. In particular, I would like to highlight ethics and access. In other words, how should documentary filmmakers deal with their subjects, especially when there are clear social power differences between them? But also, how should critics and filmmakers work together, which has been the subject of a lot of debate recently. And second, who can make films? Who should be seen and heard on camera? Who has something important to say?

The scene we saw earlier of Wu Wenguang’s friend having the nervous breakdown on camera is a good example of the ethical debates. Should he have stopped filming? She was in no position to give consent at this time.

A more extreme example would be Xu Tong’s 2010 film, Wheat Harvest, a film he made hanging out with a very young sex worker and trying to understand her life. Let me say right now that although I’m sure a lot of things were handled badly, I don’t think this is an exploitative film. But when it screened in Hong Kong, there were accusations that, because he didn’t disguise her identity or where she worked, he was making her vulnerable to vigilante violence. Then, at a later date, the sex workers in the film claimed they had not adequately understood what was going on, and demanded financial compensation.

It is partly in response to ethical entanglements like these that filmmakers like Wu Wenguang have been eager to work with their subjects and train them to become filmmakers. As well as the Shao Yuzhen, his most recent project on memory and the famine of the early 1960s is a good example. In the latter case, he has trained young people with roots in the countryside to become filmmakers. And some of these films are also screening in this series.

So, you can see that the ethical debates overlap with the second issue of access. Who gets to make films? Who gets to speak? Whose story gets told? Sometimes, it can be important to tell the story of those marginal people who are left out of mainstream media despite all kinds of difficult ethical issues. The oral history films are an even more evident example of this. In addition to films like Karamay, there is a concern to catch interviewees before they become too old and infirm or pass away. Here, the Party’s official version of history often gets questioned.

Though I Am Gone (2007, dir. Hu Jie)

Though I Am Gone (2007, dir. Hu Jie)

So, let me show a final clip from one of the finest of many fine examples of testimony films, Hu Jie’s Though I Am Gone, made in 2006. Let’s take a look at the clip and then I will say something about it:

[clip of Though I Am Gone]

Here, the widower of one of the first school teachers to be killed by her pupils during the Cultural Revolution, testifies about what happened and how no one has ever been brought to justice, despite his best efforts. Furthermore, he shows how he has carefully kept all the evidence he can. So, the film not only gives him the voice and deals with a crucial issue off-limits to mainstream media. It also turns into a contemplation of the ongoing drive to confront reality and why it continues to be so important in China today. To me, this clip sums up the three aspects of “confronting reality” that I have been trying to draw to your attention today: first, a profound questioning of what reality is, how we can perceive it and how we should represent it; second, a proliferation of styles and ways of employing the “on-the-spot” materials that are now dominant and taken for granted; and, finally, a deep concern about who gets to make these films and whose voice gets to be recorded.

However, I want to make one final point. I believe that a new issue may be emerging. For many years, it has been hard but not impossible to see these films inside China. Not only are discs shared amongst friends, but also a number of small independent film festivals has sprung up. However, as the producer and festival organizer, Zhang Xianmin, made clear at a talk he gave in New York a few weeks ago, now these are being actively and aggressively suppressed by the government. This makes distribution and exhibition a live issue in ways that it has not been before, and it will be very interesting to see where that takes us.

Thank you very much.


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