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Shelly on Film: From Buenos Aires to Beijing

Buenos Aires Festival of Independent Cinema

I was able to attend two events last month that showcased the strength, diversity, and vitality of new independent documentaries from China. The first, at BAFICI, the Buenos Aires Festival of Independent Cinema, was a section on recent Chinese independent docs that I curated for the festival. Intended as an abbreviated look back at the past 2 years or so of Chinese indies, I selected eight films (but could easily have chosen twenty) that represented different directions in what I called “radical” documentary filmmaking (using “radical” as broadly defined, in form or in content) in China today:

Ximaojia Universe, d. Mao Chenyu, 2009

Disorder, d. Huang Weikai, 2009

Ghost Town, d. Zhao Dayong, 2008

Survival Song, d Yu Guangyi, 2008

Wheat Harvest, 2008, d. Xu Tong

Disturbing the Peace, d. Ai Weiwei, 2009

Using, d. Zhou Hao, 2008

Bing Ai, d. Feng Yan, 2007

The Argentinian press and BAFICI audences keyed onto the more political aspects of the films: an exemplary piece is by the Argentine super-critic Quintin in Perfil magazine here in Spanish. I tried at the same time to highlight innovations in form and style as well as an incipient trend away from the political and towards the personal. See below for a few new signs of this quick flourishing (at China-speed, where things happen in an unimaginably compressed timeframe) of a contemporary Chinese cinema of the personal.

From Buenos Aires to Songzhuang village, just outside of Beijing

Poster for China Independent Documentary Film Festival

Songzhuang’s latest film festival, the 2010 edition of their annual Chinese Independent Documentary Film Festival, made my BAFICI film list look like old, stale news. Officially called, in English, the 7th Documentary Film Festival China (or Diqi jie Zhongguo jilupian jiaoliuzhou), Songzhuang this year presented a selection of completely new documentaries, mostly premieres, filmed in many cases by first-time directors whose work I was encountering for the first time. Programmers Zhu Rikun, Wang Hongwei, and Ying Liang put together a consistently interesting selection: ten feature-length documentaries in competition, plus another ten out of competition. Additional sidebars focussed on Wu Wenguang’s recent work, on Swiss documentaries, on a retrospective of Korean director Kim Dong-won, and on a selection of independent Singapore documentaries.

Every year the Songzhuang indie film scene shows encouraging signs of incremental progress, as an institution and as a community. This year there were exciting infrastructure developments: a second meeting room, a lushly appointed cafe and meeting place (spartan in its previous incarnation) with a useful variety of drinks (most essential for pre- and post-film discussions and gatherings, where filmmakers, curators, journalists, and audiences could spend hours talking over the films we’ve just seen); and a range of DVDs of indie Chinese docs for sale. On the festival side, projection quality in Fanhall Films‘ well-appointed basement theatre continued to be exemplary; though Songzhuang town’s municipal Art Centre’s projection facilities continue to be sub-par. It’s encouraging to hear, though, that Zhu Rikun’s Fanhall Films complex will be expanding even further, and that a second film theatre is in the works. They also plan to build, as part of the complex, a hotel for guests and for students and teachers of the school for young filmmakers that Fanhall has established over the past year. That should be the subject of another posting.

Every year at Songzhuang, the international contingent of visitors increases in size and significance. In addition to the above-mentioned sidebars, each of which had several overseas guests, there were, by my count, an unprecedented three representatives from international distribution companies at the Songzhuang screenings this year. Rather amazing, thought it shows something about the “buzz” that Chinese independent films seem to acquired outside of the country.

The Village Elementary (dir. Huang Mei)

Speaking of the films themselves, amidst a generally high level of accomplishment across the board for these young directors’ first or second films, a number stood out for me, all, it turns out, by woman directors. The eventual first prize winner, The Spiral Staircase of Harbin (Haerbin xuanzhuan louti), is by veteran director Ji Dan. She uses interviews to paint an intense, soul-bearing investigation of two friends from her youth, one poor and ill, the other middle class but stressed, set against Harbin’s symbol-laden cityscape. New director Huang Mei has shot a deceptively simple film about rural education and poverty called The Village Elementary (Changchuan cun xiao). Her honesty, her respect for her subjects, including a charismatically intellectual, politically aware, but sadly frustrated Sichuanese elementary teacher, gives the film a dirt-poor lyricism that tightly binds the minute details of individual lives to larger issues of political powerlessness and economic dependence. Liu Heng’s Back to Daxian (Huidao Daxian) is also set in a school in Sichuan. This rambunctious, rough-hewn but sometimes shockingly vivid glimpse of urbanized seventh graders battling with their teachers, parents, and each other is compulsively watchable. Most ambitious, and most strange in its epic scope and eerie tone, is Yang Yishu’s second film On The Road (Lushang). She planned to shoot a road documentary, riding with a couple of truckers through southern China, when what turned out to be China’s worst winter storm in a century struck, transforming their road-bound world into a nightmare of snow, ice, and immobility.

If there had been an audience award, it would surely have gone to A Song of Love, Maybe (Lianqu) by the (male) director Zhang Zanbo. Snazzy and snappy, surprisingly slick, like reality TV with Chinese indie characteristics, Zhang shot the ultra-personal moments of a young KTV hostess and her louse of a boyfriend, whose soap-operatic duplicity is apparent to everyone but her. Emotional breakdowns, shocking revelations, captured by Zhang’s high-def fly-on-the-wall camera.

A couple of issues cropped up again and again during our (now beer- and wine-enabled) post film sessions, one technical, the other ethical. Many of the documentaries this time ran three hours or longer. Wang Bing has a lot to answer for. There are of course subjects that demand amplitude and epic treatment, but it seems not unlikely that a significant number of the over-extended films now being produced would benefit from some rigorous, third-party editing. Freedom can mean freedom from intrusive editing ; independence can mean independent from the filtering, controlling hand of a director; the imperative to catalogue and preserve a fast-disappearing reality can mean that one’s all footage has archival significance: but not necessarily, and not all the time.

I’ll just leave a marker here for the other hotly debated issue, to be discussed another time. How much explicit consent should an independent documentary filmmaker give her or his subject before, during, and after the filming? How much power can the subjects of the film claim? What are the implications of an unbalanced relationship of power between a camera-wielding filmmaker, and the subjects captured and exposed by that camera? How implicated is the audience in a kind of exploitation, an active consensual voyeurism, when films with vague or aggressive concepts of these boundaries are projected? Some of the more intimately personal films at Songzhuang raised these questions, and they need urgently to be debated and re-argued.

Tape (dir. Li Ning)

I have to mention two of the weirdest films at Songzhuang this year, both approaching something like experimental / fictional / performance / documentaries, both by male directors, each of which left me alternately stupefied and somehow curious for yet more. Dancer Li Ning’s Tape (Jiaodai), an epic three hour film on himself, his performance art, and his doomed troupe of guerilla urban dancers, was wildly disorganized but intermittently compelling. And new director Xue Jianqiang’s bravura night poem Martian Syndrome (Huoxing yao zonghezheng) is as hallucinatory in its image aesthetic as it is infuriating in its documentary ethics.

All of which confirms that the future of Chinese indie documentaries still looks bright, diverse, healthily contested, and always full of surprises.


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