top of page
  • dgeneratefilms

Cinematalk: Interview with Ying Qian of Harvard

By Michael Chenkin

Ying Qian

Ying Qian is a PhD candidate in East Asian Languages and Civilizations at Harvard University. Qian’s area of focus involves examining the evolving documentary visions in 20th century China. She is interested in the social processes and “film thinking” that have enabled and shaped the making of documentary images, and the ways in which these images have provided framings, interventions and agencies to historical change.

Recently, Qian co-organized a conference titled “Just Images: Ethics and Chinese Documentary” at the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies at Harvard. We spoke with Qian about the highlights of the conference as well as her ongoing research in Chinese documentary.

dGF: Could you give a brief overview of your research? What are your specific interests within the field of documentary film study?

Ying Qian: I’m writing a dissertation on the history of Chinese documentary since the Mao era. I also write about documentary practices in the Republican period in my introduction chapter. My interest in documentary cinema was initiated by encounters with contemporary independent documentary, and I used to make my own documentary films as well.

In my dissertation, I try to move the timeline further back. When talking about contemporary documentary, critics would point out that these films are very different from the official practices and especially from the documentary practices of an earlier era. New documentaries do not usually have a “Voice-of-God” commentary; they also have different approaches to conceptualize reality and deal with contingency in filmmaking. These observations are clearly true; though I think the division between the past and the present is not so binary. When one examines the documentary productions in the Mao-era seriously, one finds some important continuities despite many ruptures. I see documentary of the present as multiple responses to the end of the Mao-era.

dGF: Did your interest evolve from a dearth in research in Mao era documentary film?

Mao Zedong

YQ: Yes. So far, Mao-era documentary films are almost entirely overlooked by both English-language and Chinese-language scholarship, so certainly I would like to fill this gap. After all, documentary cinema was an integral part of people’s everyday experience during the Mao-era, and the total length of documentary produced during the period doubled that of fiction films.

But my interest in the Mao-era also comes from a personal interest in understanding my own love of cinema. The Mao era had infused in the population a love of cinema at a quite different register than that in the U.S. When I grew up in China’s 1980s, cinema wasn’t really seen as entertainment. Instead it was seen as a serious venue of artistic expression, and a way to think through large social problems. It was as if suddenly the country emerged from the Mao-era traumatized and speechless, and had to resort to images to process half-thoughts and complex experiences. I am interested in understanding this particular type of cinephilia.

In recent years, the film industry in China has become more and more entertainment-oriented, but independent documentary continues the legacy of social cinema, staying connected to the society through a closer bond with historical reality. At the moment, independent documentary in China has lots of energy, and filmmakers are courageous to try many topics, doing things trial and error. However, theoretical and critical interventions are far from adequate. My project hopes to offer such an intervention.

dGF: Would you characterize your research a fusion between literary and historical criticism?

YQ: Yes, it’s both a cultural history and a film studies dissertation. History is a big part of the dissertation, and I use more theoretical writing by Chinese filmmakers and critics than critical theory from elsewhere. I want to understand the intellectual and artistic resources available to filmmakers in particular historical moments, and these are very contextual.

dGF: In April you organized a symposium titled “Just Images: Ethics and Chinese Documentary.” How was the conference conceived?

YQ: The original idea came from our curatorial work. Since 2009, I have been curating with two other colleagues– Jie Li and J.P. Sniadecki – a Chinese independent documentary film series entitled “Emergent Visions” at the Fairbank Center at Harvard. During the Q&A sessions after screenings, the idea of ethics would often arise. For example, we screened Xu Tong’s Wheat Harvest. This is a film about prostitution in China. The discussion after the screening centered on the fact that the filmmaker didn’t obtain proper consent from the sex workers he had filmed. Since sex work is illegal in China, the film might have brought risk of arrest and prosecution to the subjects in the film.

Disturbing the Peace (dir. Ai Weiwei, 2009)

Recently, we screened Ai Weiwei’s film Disturbing the Peace. Ai Weiwei’s filmmaking was irreverent and aggressive, especially when dealing with the police. The question of “respect” came up during the discussion after the screening. Some audience asked whether he was disrespectful to the police and forcing the camera into people’s faces; others commented on the various ways the film camera might have intervened into the interactions captured on the screen, whether filmmaking spurred violence and confrontation at times, while repressing them at other times.

The ethical practices of documentary filmmaking directly influence the kinds of films made, and the types of cinematic experience the audience is engaged in. The symposium aimed to discuss these issues. In China, most independent documentary filmmakers are serious about their craft and purpose. They believe in film as openers of public space of discourse, capable of negotiating interpersonal relationships in new, innovative ways. They are using their cinema to examine the society and foster social transformations. Because of their serious intent, we hope that bringing ethics into documentary discourse would also be important input to engage the filmmakers.

dGF: Who were the colleagues you organized this with?

YQ: I organized this with Jie Li and Professor Eugene Wang. Jie Li is a college fellow at Harvard teaching East Asian cinema. Professor Eugene Wang works on both contemporary and traditional Chinese art.

dGF: Who else participated?

YQ: The community of scholars who work on Chinese documentaries is quite small. We sent out invitations to the senior faculty first. In the second round we invited more junior scholars. We also invited scholars who work on documentary photography, as it shares similar ethical issues with documentary cinema. Among our panelists are Professors Yingjin Zhang (UC San Diego), Carlos Rojas (Duke), Eileen Cheng-yin Chow (Duke), Claire Roberts (Australian National University), Qi Wang (Georgia Tech), Luke Robinson (Nottingham, UK), William Schaefer (U. Rochester) and others from Harvard (Winnie Wong, Eugene Wang, Jie Li and myself).

dGF: There were three panels. What interesting issues surfaced from the discussions on these panels?

YQ: We realized that ethics is a diffuse concept and there are many kinds of ethics to think about. There is an ethics of filmmaking, how we attend to relations between the filmmakers and the subjects and the power dynamics between them. There is also an ethics of representation, which registers symbolic violence imposed on the subjects. There is also an ethics of watching: how should we watch and discuss these films as audience?

Realizing the ethical questions involved in production and finding ways to solve these problems could help the filmmaker to innovate on film styles and forms. In exhibitions of documentary cinema in China, one still sees many purely observational films that seem to take camera as a transparent medium of representation. I think the reason behind this (at times banal) style is the fact that ethical questions are not thought through. Filmmakers are not allowing their films to register these ethical dilemmas of cinematic representation, even though actually allowing that would open up stylistic and formal innovation.

We also talked about issues of documentary film distribution. Ethical issues are very contextual. How you ethically represent an issue, social event, or a group of people sometimes is only apparent to an insider. Only an insider can see the power dynamics between the subjects and the filmmakers. When such a film travels to other parts of the world, where such power dynamics are not so easily detected by overseas audiences, the ethical question become more complicated. We need to think about these cross-cultural exhibition issues.

dGF: This is also related to the methods of documentary exhibition, especially in China. These films are not getting commercial distribution. They are being screened in museums and cinema clubs.

Ai Xiaoming

YQ: Yes. This is very problematic. When documentary films are being showed in galleries that are only accessible by car, in a suburb of Beijing, it raises questions about the audience. At the same time, now there are a lot of films that are distributed on line. Some of the political documentaries made by Ai Xiaoming or Ai Weiwei are distributed online. This is a more wide-reaching and democratic method of distribution. We can see there is also an ethics of distribution and accessibility.

dGF: How do those films evade the government censors?

YQ: They don’t. There is a continuing process of uploading and then deleting films.

dGF: Is there a sense, from filmmakers, of anticipation how a film will be perceived by audiences in China versus western audiences? Is there a difference in topics or portrayal of subjects based on whether a film will receive international distribution?

YQ: Most documentary filmmakers grew up in China. They go overseas for film festivals, but it’s not very clear to me that they would be so culturally fluent as to correctly anticipate what a foreign audience would be interested in. However, I do believe they are deeply influenced by film festivals. Filmmakers who want to get into film festivals will find films are selected by film festivals as exemplary works.

Bumming in Beijing (dir. Wu Wenguang)

When independent Chinese documentary cinema developed in the early ‘90’s, there wasn’t a recognizable standard for what was considered a “good” documentary. Film festivals became a crucial standard-setter. The Hong Kong film festival screened Wu Wenguang’s first film Bumming in Beijing, and the Yamagata Documentary Film Festival in Japan bestowed awards upon it. This gave lots of impetus to documentary making in the 1990s. Suddenly this genre was considered equally promising as feature films, which were also getting prizes in international film festivals at the time. Wu Wengguang also brought back from Yamagata works by Ogawa Shinsuke and Frederic Wiseman. They subsequently became prototypes for documentary film in China.

dGF: There seems to be the idea that independent documentary in China is very counter-hegemonic. While this may be true, to an extent, it roots are in the mainstream media in China, namely CCTV.

YQ: I think that new documentary did start within the system in the 1980’s. The models at that time, in the 1980’s, came from a number of sources. A lot of them were from outside of China. In 1980, there was collaboration between Japanese television crews and Chinese television crews. They went on to make landscape documentaries about the Silk Road, the Yangtze River, and the Yellow River. Through these collaborations, Chinese documentary TV producers were able to see how the Japanese producers worked. Development of documentary film also grew from re-watching past films. For example, Michelangelo Antonioni’s Chung Kuo was made in 1972, and was banned and criticized. There was a mass campaign against this film in China. Nevertheless, re-watching this film provided a lot of inspiration for documentary filmmakers in the 1980’s.

dGF: Do you feel that Jia Zhangke has become that prototype for new narrative and documentary filmmakers? It seems as if his influence is inescapable on the newer generations of documentary filmmakers and independent-narrative filmmakers. We can almost see a formation of the Jia Zhangke category of film.

YQ: That’s very interesting. I would also say it’s a prototype for independent fiction cinema. You see a lot of new filmmakers making fiction in a very similar way to Jia Zhangke. But you know Jia Zhangke’s recent documentaries, for example I Wish I Knew and 24 City, are mostly interview-based, but we don’t see a rush to imitate that in the documentary community.

The Square (dir. Zhang Yuan and Duan Jinchuan)

In fact, I would say Jia Zhangke in his early years learned a lot from documentary filmmakers. In Jia Zhangke’s Xiao Wu / Pickpocket, TV crews from the county’s television station were shown to make interviews with people on the streets. A similar setup was in a documentary film entitled The Square, made in 1993 by Zhang Yuan and Duan Jingchuan. In The Square, the documentary lens showed a television crew from the CCTV orchestrating interviews at the Tian’anmen Square. The documentary camera of Zhang and Duan was filming the “documentary camera” of the CCTV, exposing the apparatus of official media in a comic way. Jia Zhangke most likely had seen this film as the film community in the 1990s was quite tightly knit, and Zhang Yuan is a fellow Sixth Generationer. In that case, Jia Zhangke was actually influenced by early to mid 1990’s documentary.

dGF: Chinese filmmakers are usually quite deeply embedded in the communities they are documenting. Do you think there are any ethical implications that arise from this relationship in terms of how subjects are portrayed and images are presented?

YQ: Embedment in a community and friendship with one’s film subjects are obviously very good things for documentary filmmaking. The filmmaker Feng Yan, for example, has filmed a peasant woman from the Three Gorges region for many years, and from her film Bing’ai one can find, in the film frame, this deep inter-personal relationship. In the end, documentary film doesn’t document some pure reality; it documents how realities are understood and manifest in an inter-subjective space created by the filmmaker and the subjects. Being embedded in the community in most cases allows a higher level of inter-subjectivity in the works.

However, it doesn’t mean that filmmakers would not abuse trusting subjects. Subjects might be too embarrassed to say no to a friend’s camera in circumstances when they actually don’t like to be filmed. Filmmakers might know the subjects so well that they can “stage” emotional scenes for them. One of the papers presented by Qi Wang, an assistant professor at Georgia Tech, concerns films where visible violence erupts in the frame. In some films, the filmmaker artificially creates an environment where people will get upset and violence will break out.

dGF: What types of influence does the unique Chinese political and social environment have on the development of these films?

YQ: Documentary cameras are deeply attracted to change. In an environment that changes so swiftly and in such a massive scale daily, filmmakers are constantly stimulated to observe, grasp, and film. Rapid social transformation explains the vitality of documentary cinema in the past two decades. In terms of policing and censorship, it’s not easy to know to what extent the state has hindered filmmakers’ work. Some filmmakers who made very controversial films are allowed to continue working, which means there is some room in the society for independent expression. This room, of course, didn’t come as a gift from the state. It has come through continuous efforts by filmmakers to push the boundaries.

Searching for Lin Zhao's Soul (dir. Hu Jie)

It’s very easy in China to turn conservative and say that films about certain subjects simply could not be made because they could potentially be banned. Self-censorship is the easier way, yet these filmmakers have been consistently choosing the hard way. They really helped to push the envelope. For example, Hu Jie made Searching for Lin Zhao’s Soul in 2004. It was about a political prisoner who was executed in 1968. At the time when Hu Jie made it, everyone was surprised that a film like this could be made. Hu Jie had to leave his job while making it, because of the political sensitivity of the topic. Yet in the end, it turned out ok. The film was shown on some university campuses; it couldn’t be distributed in China but was downloadable online for a long time. Lin Zhao became a household name after the film went viral online. Filmmakers like Hu Jie are passionate about their subjects. They take the risk to push the envelope just because they have to tell the story. They then created room that later generations of filmmakers now enjoy.

The biggest hurdle, I think, is funding. Many of these filmmakers are badly funded. Some have to leave official jobs when their subjects become more politically sensitive, or when filming takes too much of their time. Wider distribution of Chinese documentary is necessary for the continued growth of the independent documentary film industry. But wider distribution domestically is not yet possible due to the political circumstances.


bottom of page