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Populists or Shamans? Ethical Issues in Chinese Documentaries

Xu Tong filming "Fortune Teller"

In China Heritage Quarterly, scholar Ying Qian writes in depth about the debate that erupted over the ethical practices of Chinese documentary filmmaking at last year’s China Independent Film Festival in Nanjing. The debate centered on the relationship between documentary filmmakers and the subjects of their films who are characterized as “subaltern,” or of the marginalized classes in China. Such subjects have formed the majority of independent documentary practice in China over the past decade.

Among the first major controversies involved the documentary Wheat Harvest by Xu Tong, concerning under what terms the film’s subject, a prostitute, consented to be filmed. In contrast, Xu Tong’s subsequent films Fortune Teller and Shattered feature a sex worker, Tang Xiaoyan, who fully consents to being filmed. In fact, she received the Nanjing festival’s inaugural Reel Character Award, intended as a way to prioritize the subject’s role presenting documentary reality to audiences and promote mutually productive collaborations between documentary filmmakers and their subjects.

Ying focuses her account of the Nanjing debates on a presentation by film scholar Lü Xinyu, who had cautionary words for filmmakers seeking to tell the stories of marginalized subjects. According to Ying, Lü presented three categories in which the subaltern is represented in independent documentary film:

1. The ‘populist mode’: ‘populist’ filmmakers express their admiration for the dignity and nobility of people at the bottom of the society, and expose the injustices and grievances of these people. By doing so, the filmmakers offer a critique of the existing social order and through their practice agitate for social change; , 2. The second could be dubbed the ‘realist model’: filmmakers do not entertain a romantic view of the bottom layer, but instead attempt to understand it and operate according to the internal logic and codes of behavior of a sub-society (that is ‘untamed realm’ jianghu ??) beyond the bounds of legal and social control; and , 3. The third is what I would call the ‘carnival model’: through depictions of the lower class filmmakers such as Xu Tong attempt to connect audiences with sexuality and bodily experiences, which they perceive to be less repressed among society’s ‘others’ than in the mainstream.These models of representation are, essentially, three distinct authorial positions that reflect different aesthetics and epistemologies, as well as different ways of interacting with filmed subjects. In her talk Lü only elaborated on the ‘populist model’, which she praises as being the quintessential position taken by ‘Chinese intellectuals’. She traced its genealogy back to populist Russian thinkers and writers such as Ivan Turgenev and Maxim Gorki.

Ying reports on the collective response by the filmmakers present at the festival in the form of a manifesto titled “Shamans/Animals.” Of particular note is the role played by Ji Dan, director of When the Bough Breaks and many other documentaries, in drafting the response:

The title ‘Shamanism-Animal’ is attributed to the filmmaker Ji Dan ??, as she has reportedly compared the filmmaker to a shaman, both being conduits through which others find voice.[9] Ji Dan has been active since the early 1990s, and she is one of China’s best-known new ethnographic filmmakers. Her earlier films were made in Tibet where she lived, learned the local Tibetan dialect, and spent long periods of time with local families. She was among the filmmakers whom Lu Xinyu classified as ‘populist’. Present at the forum, Ji Dan was caught by surprise by Lu’s classification. While declining to comment at the forum, Ji Dan wrote in the Manifesto: ‘We are not making revolution, but just giving you a wake-up call (????). Arrogance would be the reason for revolution, that’d be the end of it all’ (????????????? ???????????? ). The term Ji uses for ‘wake-up call’, dang tou bang he is a term associated with the tradition of Buddhist meditation: the meditating monk would suddenly be struck by his master, something supposedly meant to bring about instant realization or awakening. Moving away from the language of scholarship, and the populist tradition associated with revolution, Ji Dan prefers to use the language of religion and mysticism to explain her idea of what a filmmaker is, and what filmmaking as a practice can bring into existence.

Read Ying Qian’s full article here. You can also read an interview with Ying on the history and evolution of Chinese documentaries.

Learn more about the films of Xu Tong and Ji Dan.

Read additional coverage of last year’s China Independent Film Festival, the controversial discussion on ethics and subsequent filmmakers’ manifesto.


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