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CinemaTalk: Chris Berry on Cultural Revolution Cinema

Interviewed by Michael Chenkin

Chris Berry

Chris Berry is Professor of film and television studies at Goldsmiths University of London, and co-editor of the recent volume The New Chinese Documentary Film Movement: For the Public Record. Most recently he co-curated a special film series “A Single Spark Can Start a Prairie Fire: The Cultural Revolution in the Cinemawith Katja Wiederspahn for the Film Archiv Austria, with the cooperation with the Museum für Völkerkunde (Ethnological Museum and the Film Archive Austria)in its special exhibition “The Culture of the Cultural Revolution.” We caught up with Professor Berry to learn more about the films and his experience in curating the series.

dGF: Has this exhibition changed your understanding of the Cultural Revolution and film? What were the major obstacles you faced in curating the exhibition at *Film Archiv Austria*?

Chris Berry: I guess my thinking about the Cultural Revolution was already changing along with a lot of other peoples’, and the process of putting together the series became part of that. I was very struck when I read the Tsinghua University professor and leading mainland public intellectual Professor Wang Hui’s comments in “Contemporary Chinese Thought and the Question of Modernity,” where he argued that the legitimacy of the entire contemporary Chinese political, social and cultural formation is built on the repudiation of the Cultural Revolution. Along with everyone else, I had taken that repudiation for granted for a long time and not gone much further. If today’s combination of neo-liberal economics and authoritarian politics needs a stereotype of the Cultural Revolution as a disastrous combination of the opposite — a command economy and anarchic politics — maybe that’s too simple. It’s not that I want to embrace the Cultural Revolution! But I think it made me realize that we need to decouple the Cultural Revolution from legitimization of the present to get a more complex understanding of it.

In the area of culture specifically, Paul Clark’s book, The Chinese Cultural Revolution: A History, has helped to explode all kinds of myths about the Cultural Revolution. Those include the idea that there were only 8 Model Works (yangbanxi) — there were more. And the idea that the films of those 8 Model Works were only movies that the 800 million Chinese had access to was wrong, too. There were older films that continued to circulate, numerous documentaries, new feature films after 1972, and a range of foreign films from countries like Romania, Albania, and North Korea. So, I already wanted to take another look by the time the idea for the series came up.

The “Cinema of the Cultural Revolution” series at the Austrian Film Archive (Film Archiv Austria) was initiated by Katja Wiederspahn, and I curated it together with her. Katja is an old friend of mine. She works as an independent curator and also for the Viennale, Vienna’s international film festival. We had previously cooperated on a special focus on the 1930s actress Ruan Lingyu for the Viennale. That was a lot of fun, so I wanted to work with her again!

The event itself took place in June of this year, but Katja first spoke to me about the possibility of working together on the series early in the autumn of 2010. She had heard that I would be spending 4 months in Vienna as a Senior Fellow at the IFK — the International Research Center for Cultural Studies, or Internationales Forschungszentrum Kulturwissenschaften — in early 2011. By coincidence, Helmut Opletal’s great exhibition, “The Culture of the Cultural Revolution” was due to open more or less when I arrived at the beginning of March, and so the idea was for the Ethnological Museum and the Film Archive Austria to co-sponsor the film series. I’ve written about the exhibition on a post to the Modern Chinese Literature and Culture list, but here I will just say it is also an effort to return to the Cultural Revolution and develop a more complex understanding without in any way losing sight of the terror that was very powerful feature of the Cultural Revolution.

By another coincidence, Opletal’s exhibition opened in the wake of the Arab Spring uprisings. So, as we went round it, both Katja and I were thinking about the visceral thrill of political action, including violence, and how powerfully exciting this can be for young people, at the same time as it can make them vulnerable to being used and making mistakes. That’s why we chose Mao’s saying “A Single Spark Can Start a Prairie Fire” for the film series. We felt it captured the sense of excitement and danger perfectly. Now that we’re doing this interview in the wake of the riots in England, I’m all too well aware again of how youthful excitement can translate into anger, violence, and destruction!

You ask what obstacles we faced while working with the “Film Archiv Austria.” Well, of course, working with them was anything but an obstacle! In fact, without their resources and support, the whole thing would have been impossible from the process of sourcing the films all the way through to projection. I’m really grateful to everyone there for all their help, and it was a huge delight to present the programme in the old Metro Kino movie theatre in central Vienna. However, the consideration that this was a public event for a general audience rather than an audience of China specialists certainly did shape the process of selection. We could not assume that people had seen any of the major films from or about the Cultural Revolution or knew much about it, and we could not make this event about discovering completely unknown works or anything like that.

"The East is Red" (1965, dir. Wang Hui)

However, one of the great pleasures of starting from a kind of tabula rasa position was the ability to see films like The East is Red, Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy, and the revolutionary ballet version of The Red Detachment of Women again on 35 mm prints. We also showed Tian Zhuangzhuang’s Blue Kite, which is one of the most moving of the films made since the repudiation of the Cultural Revolution, and a number of contemporary documentaries, including Hu Jie’s devastating Though I Am Gone, which has been released in a German version now, and is one of dGenerate’s films. Other documentaries included Carma Hinton’s classic investigation of the Cultural Revolution generation, Morning Sun, and the Dutch Chinese filmmaker Yan Ting Yuen’s Yang Ban Xi: The 8 Model Works, which not only interviews the stars of the film versions of the model works but also covers contemporary performances and revivals. One of my favorites was Zhang Bingjian’s Readymade, which looks at Mao impersonators, including a woman who was first alerted to the fact that she resembled the Great Helmsman by her own mother. We also wanted to include at least one of the huge cycle of 80-100 films made in the years immediately after the Cultural Revolution that took part in the repudiation of it. I’m very pleased that we were able to get hold of Yang Yanjin’s Troubled Laughter, which is a rare Chinese satire, and both funny and moving.

"Troubled Laughter" (1979, Deng Yimin and Yang Yanjin)

The real and shocking obstacle in all this was the difficulty of finding prints. You might expect it to be hard to find prints of the Cultural Revolution era films. But actually, a lot of those have made their way into archives around Europe, because they were made relatively freely available at the time. However, by the time they got to the archives, the prints were often already deteriorating by going pink, and that is a real problem. I expected that. But I did not expect to find that so many Chinese films from the 1980s and 1990s that were released in Europe and elsewhere are simply not around anymore, or are in shocking condition. In the case of Troubled Laughter, we were very lucky to get help from Marie-Claire Quiquemelle in France. Otherwise, we couldn’t have shown anything from the late 70s and early 80s at all.

Our other real obstacle was trying to build bridges to an audience that knows little about the era. Although European leftists of the 1960s were often inspired by the Cultural Revolution, that was a long time ago now! So, we also wanted to bring the whole series to life by bringing over Shanghai’s famous “Red Collector”, Mr. Liu Debao. Mr. Liu has over 3,600 film prints in his private collection, which emphasizes the Cultural Revolution. I first met Mr. Liu in Shanghai a year or more ago. He’s a very expansive character — so generous and enthusiastic. But he’s also a true believer in Mao’s China. He was a Red Guard and went up to Beijing twice to see Chairman Mao, and today he has a huge patriotic pride about China’s determination back then to go down its own independent path rather than submit to the West or the Soviet Union.

Mr. Liu brought an 8.75mm projector with him and a mix of 8.75mm and 16mm documentaries and newsreels. One of the newsreels was about the 8.75 format. It was a bit like super-8, but had a larger image. The point was for China to have its own unique format, not only to enable films to reach the countryside with mobile projection teams but also to reduce dependency on imports. Another newsreel was about the launch of China’s first satellite — a success which the film attributed to the power of Mao Zedong Thought! And there were documentaries about the building of the Red Flag Canal, a triumph of labor mobilization to enable irrigation of dry areas, and about Mao meeting the Red Guards in Beijing. (This is another moment to thank the Metro Kino projectionists! Imagine trying to show these films in a regular movie theatre!) Mr. Liu clearly loves all this material, and his presence and presentation really made everyone feel the enthusiasm of the Cultural Revolution and how full of energy and sincerity many of the young participants were. If we were impressed by him, he was very impressed by the Film Archiv Austria’s cinema technology collection as well as by their commitment to looking after their prints, and so he decided to donate his 8.75 mm projector to the archive!

dGF: One of the major criticisms of Cultural Revolution cultural production is the political nature of the works. It is often seen by western audiences as a very monolithic movement. What are the unique aesthetics of Cultural Revolution film and art in general? How influential was the socialist realism movement, in the USSR, on Chinese artists during this period? What other forces shaped such artistic production?

Berry: Yes, the style of the model works, including the style of the films made out of them, is very overwhelming. But it is also very distinctive. For people outside China at the time, the films and posters were the first contact they had with the Cultural Revolution, and they seem to have left an indelible image of China in the rest of the world, as well as a very powerful image of the Cultural Revolution itself in China. But at the same time we must acknowledge that the Cultural Revolution style has to be seen as part of a long history of efforts to invent a specifically Chinese modern style since the May Fourth Movement early in the twentieth century, if not earlier. What made the Cultural Revolution style different was how successful it was and how powerfully it took hold. Even if people got bored with the limited range of works available or their politics, the style continues to get people’s attention!

"The Red Detachment of Women" (1971, dir. Jie Fu)

You can get some sense of its power when you watch something like the ballet version of The Red Detachment of Women. Forget delicate swans fluttering tragically to the floor. This is girls with guns and grenades, but still en pointe. The militant requirements of the revolutionary aesthetic led to a complete reworking of traditional ballet. The romantic couple is irrelevant and the pas de deux more or less disappears. In its place comes a range of breathtaking leaps and aggressive thrusts, all coordinated by the corps de ballet. Seeing the main character poised above the cowering landlord, her bayonet held over him, is such a contrast to anything you’ll find in traditional ballet! It makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up — for all kinds of reasons. And the whole work is amazingly kinetic and energetic.

As well as ballet, the people who designed and developed the model works also borrowed Western symphonic music, and mixed it with elements of Chinese opera music. Adding Chinese instruments and other elements “sinicized” symphonic music, but it also enabled an integration of the individual works, so that they were no longer as fragmented and episodic as traditional operas. And, as with the ballets, the contents changed, too: the old scholars and generals and fair maidens were replaced with worker, peasant, soldier heroes and class struggle themes.

As regards the links with Russia, of course ballet came from there. It might seem very strange to people in the West that China took ballet, because we think of it as a court art, and very much the opposite of revolutionary art. But the Russians hung on to it as a national form, I believe. And for China in the 1950s, it was OK because it came from the Soviet Union. I think it spoke to the desire to be modern, as was also the case with symphonic music. This is something else we forget about the Cultural Revolution. The drive for rapid material change, scientific modernity, and so forth that we see in China today is in fact a continuity from both before and during the Cultural Revolution. That has been a consistent, indeed desperate, goal from the 1920s on, and it has been associated with Europe and North America throughout. Just how to get there has changed!

But although these art forms were taken in via the Soviet Union, the Sino-Soviet split had well and truly taken hold well before the Cultural Revolution. China stayed loyal to Stalin’s memory despite Khrushchev’s criticisms of him. So, they had adopted socialist realism in the 1950s, but after the split and the need to develop their own path in everything, the Chinese communist line on the arts was “a combination of socialist realism and revolutionary romanticism”. Of course, it’s precisely that idea of romanticism that licensed the highly unrealist style of the Cultural Revolution model works.

dGF: Power is often a motif pervasive throughout the films of the Cultural Revolution. How is power and lack thereof imagined and visualized in the portrayal of class struggle, social strife, representations of the CCP, and Mao Zedong?

"Yang Ban Xi: The 8 Model Works" (2005, dir.Yang Ting Yuen)

Berry: For me, something that gave me a jolt when watching the model works again was the strong and positive emphasis on class hatred. All that energy was very exciting, but I was brought up short every time the films hammered home the need to mobilize class hatred. I couldn’t help wondering about what it was like to be on the receiving end of that hatred. I wonder whether anyone had similar worries at the time, or is my thinking that way more the result of all the post-Cultural Revolution films that present it from the perspective of the victims of class struggle? I had an interesting conversation with Professor Suzanne Weigelin-Schwiedrzik of the University of Vienna about this. She helped with Helmut Opletal’s exhibition, and also helped us to bring Mr. Liu over from Shanghai, so I am especially grateful. She was also in China during the early 1970s as a student, and her take on it was that by then everyone was nervous. The targets of struggle had shifted so often and yesterday’s accusers had become today’s accused so many times that everyone knew it could be them next.

As you might expect with a movement that placed such emphasis on identifying and eliminating the enemy as a way of unifying “the masses” with their leaders, the Cultural Revolution is very starkly polarized. Characters are either good or bad. The aesthetic theory of the “Three Prominences” (san tuchu) articulated this: among the characters, the positives ones should be prominent; among the positive ones, the heroes; and among the heroes, the main hero should be most prominent. Bad guys were lit poorly, decentered in the frame, skulking, and looked down on, whereas heroes were bright, shining, in the centre, and shot from below, often gazing into the middle distance. In the documentaries from the time, Chairman Mao gets the close-ups!

However, one thing that has to be said about that is I don’t think it always worked. In theory, the most positive character is supposed to be the most interesting, but I don’t think that someone who is so uniformly knowledgeable and good draws our attention. In The Red Detachment of Women, for example, it’s the male detachment leader who is the main hero. But I can’t even remember his name right now. The one who everyone loves is Qionghua, the former slave girl who has to learn to submit to revolutionary discipline rather than pursue personal revenge. I’m sure if you asked most people who the main character was, they’d say her.

dGF: In present day China, both censored film and art are often disseminated through the conduit of social media and the Internet, but what about censored output during the Cultural Revolution? I understand films that were sanctioned by the CCP were shown in cities at theaters and in the countryside by teams of roving projectionists. In a sense, this was a very egalitarian medium for communication. Nevertheless, did an audience and an apparatus for distribution of illicit material exist during the Cultural Revolution?

Berry: No. Or at least I have never heard of anything like that. Film was easy to control, compared say with poetry or even art. We know that people wrote underground novels and poems, copied them, and circulated them by hand. We know that some artists made watercolors on thin tissue paper, rolled them up, and hid them in a secret compartment of furniture. We even know that the Party had trouble establishing standardized and unchanging versions of the model works, and that was one of the reasons they wanted to film them — once their were filmed and the authorized version was clear to everyone, local troupes couldn’t make local changes! But there was no video, and not even any home movie cameras in China then, let alone the internet.

For Madame Mao's eyes only.

I suppose the closest thing to what you’re asking about was so called “internal” (neibu) screenings of banned works and foreign works that were not released to the general public. In theory, these were to inform trusted central figures of what to be on guard against. But tickets to internal screenings were highly sought after, and not always for those reasons! I believe that Madame Mao (Jiang Qing) was a huge fan of The Sound of Music. I’ve always found Julie Andrews a bit scary.

dGF: Recent films such as Hu Jie’s Though I am Gone, Searching for Lin Zhao’s Soul, and The East Wind State Farm look back at the Cultural Revolution through a present-day lens. Acknowledging the genre-based thematic and aesthetic differences, comparing Hu Jie’s and other contemporary documentaries about the Cultural Revolution with film produced during the “Scar Literature” era, how do these films incorporate themes of memory/remembering as well as re-creating history through art?

Berry: Both sets of film are all about remembering the Cultural Revolution and, in some cases, other difficult parts of the Mao era. But there are some important differences between them, of course. The recent films are independent documentaries, whereas the films from the post-Cultural Revolution era were melodramas, for the most part, and made within the sate-owned studio system of the time. The contemporary films are oral histories that are often a last chance for older people to give their testimonies. The government’s line is that the Cultural Revolution has been declared a mistake and dealt with, so there’s no need to make any more films about it. So, I don’t suppose these current documentaries are very welcome, to put it mildly. In fact, I think they are incendiary and I’m not surprised that many of the filmmakers are keeping relatively quiet about them.

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

On the other hand, I think that most of the post-Cultural Revolution melodramas were part of a process of trying to rebuild trust between the government and the people on the grounds of a shared suffering — Deng Xiaoping suffered during the Cultural Revolution, just as so many ordinary Chinese did. It’s always struck me how the Chinese government and people were ready to go back and make films and write novels about the Cultural Revolution so quickly after it was over. It took the Soviets decades to begin to go into the Stalin era, and the Germans were not really ready to start confronting the legacy of fascism so quickly, either. But that’s where Wang Hui’s point comes in. Repudiating the Cultural Revolution and constructing a very straightforward image of the Cultural Revolution re-legitimized the Party.

Having said all that, I think that the best of the films from that cycle from the late 70s are not so simple. For example, Troubled Laughter shares a self-reflexive quality with Though I Am Gone. In Hu Jie’s film, it’s very striking that the old widower took a camera with him to take pictures of his wife dying in the ER at the hospital after her students had beaten her. It opens a second dimension to the film, so that it becomes a meditation on the need to document and to bear witness as well as a documentary about a specific topic. In the case of Troubled Laughter, the film is all about a journalist who is caught between his desire to tell the truth and all kinds of social and political pressures, including from his own family members, to submit and tell the “truth” that the Cultural Revolution leaders in his town want him to tell. So that film also opens up a lot of questions about what truth is, what the duty and role of an artist or a journalist or a filmmaker is, and so on. In fact, I think it’s weathered the years extremely well, and I hope that people will start to rediscover some of these “forgotten films” soon.


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