CinemaTalk: A Conversation with Lu Xinyu
dGenerate Films presents CinemaTalk, an ongoing series of conversations with esteemed scholars of Chinese cinema studies. These conversations are presented on this site in audio podcast and/or text format. They are intended to help the Chinese cinema studies community keep abreast of the latest work being done in the field, as well as to learn what recent Chinese films are catching the attention of others. This series reflects our mission to bring valuable resources and foster community around the field of Chinese film studies.
Lu Xinyu (photo courtesy of UCLA International Institute)
Lu Xinyu is Professor and Director of the Radio and TV Department, School of Journalism, Fudan University, Shanghai, China. Professor Lu is widely regarded as the leading scholar on independent Chinese documentaries. Her influential book Documenting China: The New Documentary Movement (Beijing, SDX Joint Publishing Company, 2003) was the first book to systematically theorize the New Documentary Movement in China from the beginning of 1990s. She spent the past academic year as a visiting scholar in the department of cinema studies at New York University.
Selected Publications by Lu Xinyu:
Writing and What It Obscures (Guangxi Normal University Press, 2008)
Documenting China: The Contemporary Documentary Movement in China (SDX Joint Publishing Company, Beijing, 2003)
Mythology. Tragedy. Aristotle’s Art of Poetry: New Concept to Ancient Greek’s Poetics Tradition (Fudan University Press, Shanghai, 1995)
Papers and Articles:
“The Power and Pain of Chinese New Documentary Movement”, Dushu No. 5, 2006.
“Ruins of the Future Class and History in Wang Bing’s Tiexi District”, New Left Review, 31 Jan/Fab 2005. London.
“Tiexi District: History and Class Consciousness”, Dushu No. 1, 2004.
“The History of Documentary and the Document of the History”, Journalism Quarterly, Winter, 2003.
“A Memorandum about Contemporary Chinese Documentary Development”, South China Television Journal No. 6, 2002 and No. 1, 2003.
“Began from the Other Side: New Documentary Movement in China”, Frontiers No. 3, 2002.
In this interview conducted by dGenerate’s Yuqian Yan, Lu Xinyu told us about her current work during her visit in New York and how she was attracted to independent Chinese documentary from an aesthetic and humanist background. Starting from Aristotle’s poetic concept of “tragedy”, she led us to understand the New Documentary Movement as a unique art form that depicts the tragic life of ordinary people in the rapidly changing Chinese society. The interview was conducted in Chinese. Full English transcript after the break.
Play the Podcast (in Mandarin Chinese) (Time: 16:43)
Download it here (right-click to download). (File Size:7.7 MB)
dGF: What projects are you currently working on?
LX: My current research project still focuses on the New Chinese Documentary Movement. I hope to contextualize this movement in the development of Chinese cinema, as well as world cinema today in order to better understand and reflect on the unique contribution of Chinese documentary. I think it is important to examine why Chinese documentary has become a movement and its significance to world cinema in general. This is why I have been attracted to this subject. My experience in New York this year as a visiting scholar enables me to approach this issue from a broader perspective. Both Chinese social development and the trajectory of Chinese cinema are interconnected with the process of globalization. All of these aspects should be discussed in relation to each other.
dGF: We know that your PhD degree was in aesthetics. What led you to study independent Chinese film and documentary?
LX: My PhD dissertation was about dramatic theory. I was concerned about the reason for the decline of the modern Chinese drama. In order to understand this, I turned to classical Western dramas and poetics tradition. I felt that using the Western concept of “comedy” and “tragedy” to analyze and categorize Chinese theater was very problematic. During my study of Aristotle’s Art of Poetry and its relation to ancient Greek drama, I found a vital change in the concept of “tragedy”. In ancient times, tragedy, according to Aristotle, was closely linked to the hero and his eminent family. Heroes were all from royal or noble families. Why? The explanation given by Aristotle was “happen to.” But my research found out that heroes became heroes because they were responsible to the whole city-state and society. But in modern individualistic society, ordinary people become the ones who bear the weight of society. People from the lowest social class are most likely to be the victims of social transformation. Therefore the meaning of tragedy has fundamentally changed from the dramatic action of the noble family to the depiction of the tragic life and psychological world of ordinary people. In this sense, it is the life of ordinary people that embodies the meaning of social tragedy.
I started to teach at Fudan University after my graduation in 1993. I had some communication with TV stations for my Special Feature Documentary class. At that time there was a heated discussion about the definition of documentary. 1993 was the year when New Documentary Movement started to be legitimized and accepted within the system. From then on, I found that TV documentary rather than literature was paying attention to ordinary people. Literature, on the contrary, entered a self-reclusive, narcissistic stage. It was documentary that facilitated the dialogue between art and society. That was very appealing to me since documentary functioned as a continuation of my interest in the transformation of tragedy. I started to use aesthetic theories to understand Chinese documentary.
dGF: When you say TV documentary, do you mean “special feature documentary?” (zhuan ti ji lu pian)
LX: In fact, the TV documentary at that time was a rebellion against special feature documentary. When we came to the “TV time,” we abandoned the word “documentary” because it belonged to the “Film time”, and conveyed a sense of propaganda. People who worked for TV stations replaced “documentary” with “special features” (zhuan ti pian). Therefore at the end of 1980s, when we started to turn against the fake, grandiose and empty formula of the special feature, we redefined and rediscovered the concept of documentary.
Why TV stations? TV workers were very sensitive to social changes. The New Documentary Movement started from television because, compared to the film system, these people had closer contact with society and more opportunities to use film equipment. Accessibility to equipment is also an important reason. Many first generation independent filmmakers built up their relationship with TV stations through a variety of ways, either private or public. That was the only way for them to get a hold of equipment. The 1990s were also the time for the reformation of Chinese television system, which created a flexible space for independent filmmakers. Many filmmakers took advantage of that space to work on their own projects, including some of the most famous directors like Wu Wenguang.
dGF: If you look back at that time, how does it compare with the documentary scene in China today?
LX: The first generation independent Chinese documentary makers had very strong political intention. They held a clear attitude to criticize and rebel against the mainstream coercive ideology. Political intention and social responsibility were prominent features among the first generation. These directors preferred to understand society through observation, to approach Chinese society from the bottom up. Therefore they were more willing to use the observational mode of direct cinema, combining Frederick Wiseman and Ogawa Shinsuke.
Wiseman’s observation was objective and dispassionate. He maintained certain distance from his subjects; his observation was cold in some sense. Ogawa used observational mode in a more interventional way. He treated his subjects as his own self. The first generation borrowed from both Wiseman and Ogawa to depict Chinese underclass as an objective “other.” But this “other” was positioned equally to the directors themselves. This is the major difference from the second generation who emerged at the end of 1990s. With the emergence of digital video, filmmakers are no longer dependent on TV stations. Many young directors use the camera to express themselves.
The new generation emphasizes individualism and self-expression, while the previous generation focused on realism. The first generation placed emphasis on the “other”; and the second generation expresses the existence of the self. In a broader sense, it is the existence of both “other” and “self” that constitute Chinese society today. So there’s some interesting dynamic between the two generations. The first generation directors claimed that “We are not artists. We are just artisans.” This claim emphasizes the position of the director in relation to reality. They do not want to impose their subjectivity on reality, but to allow the conflicts of reality to be revealed from the text without authorial manipulation. The second generation directors see themselves as artists. So their aesthetic style incorporates more performativity and self-reflexivity. Interestingly, they may have never heard about these theories, but they instinctively created these styles to break the boundary between what’s in front of the camera and what’s behind it, and the boundary between subjectivity and the other. They boldly show themselves in the film, therefore the boundaries between the director and film subjects, public and private disappear as well. In this sense, they are very avant-garde. They break established rules and create new aesthetic styles.
This is the current situation of independent Chinese film and documentary. Meanwhile, those documentaries of social concerns still exist in an influential and powerful way. So independent Chinese documentary or independent Chinese cinema today is very diversified.
dGF: You’ve already mentioned many, but I still want to ask what are the major issues that you are most interested in, or you think are important to us as independent cinema lovers.
LX: I’m most interested in how Independent Chinese cinema and New Documentary Movement build up their connection with society. How do they redefine the concept of documentary and art? What is art? We used to imagine art as a self-contained pure aesthetic form. This concept was quite influential after 1980s. But now we are facing the dramatic transformation of Chinese society, both temporally and spatially. Everyone’s life is inevitably involved in and affected by this process. How should art react to these changes? As a film director who bears this social pressure, how to express and represent his understanding of this society, his expectations for the society and for life itself? All of these construct a new artistic platform for us to understand Chinese society today.
If we only learn Chinese from economic and social perspectives, we’ll never understand the psychological changes Chinese people are going through during this transformation. By watching independent documentaries, we not only experienced the psychological world of the directors, but also got to experience the existence of people at different social levels through the lens of camera, especially the existence of the underclass and how they struggled through these changes, their pains and their needs. This is extremely important to me.
dGF: What would you say have been the most impressive or most significant works of Chinese documentary in the last few years?
LX: There are a lot. I’ve written extensively in my essays. For example, West of the Tracks. It focuses on how the traditional mainstream community becomes a marginalized group in Chinese society. Working class used to be the dominant class in China, but they become marginalized under today’s market economy and social transformation. How does the changing life of this huge group of people affect Chinese society and the industrialization process of the world? What is its significance to globalization? West of the Tracks pushes us to think about these questions. The director has a very interesting view of art. He says, “If you think my film is about laid-off workers, it means you haven’t fully understood my film. My real focus is on human life.” As long as it concerns human life, it has something to do with art. Art is always about human life. Politics and economics are the power that is behind human life. We see the complexity of power relationship through the fate of individual and therefore to reflect on the problems we come across.
Another example would be Before the Flood, which is about the Three Gorges Project. It is a powerful combination of broad social background and individual lives, a vivid depiction at both macro and micro level. Bing Ai also takes Three Gorges Project as its subject matter, but explores it from a feminist perspective. Woman’s affinity for land, for river makes the film extremely powerful and penetrating. It allows us to experience the development of Chinese society and the tragedy of Chinese people from within.