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Sixty Years of Unsanctioned Memories in the People’s Republic

At the 60th anniversary of the founding of the P.R.C., published a list of fifteen key independent documentaries as their tribute to the celebration. Entitled “Sixty Years of Unsanctioned Memories in the People’s Republic,” these digital video films present vivid pictures of Chinese life, society and landscape rarely seen in government-approved news or the overwhelming reports about China in mainstream western media. They present and reflect on modern Chinese history from the perspective of common citizens and marginalized social groups. German-Jewish political philosopher Hannah Arendt distinguishes private and public realms as “the distinction between things that should be hidden and things that should be shown.” These independent works try to break the line and present the hidden, “private” scenes and stories to the public. The list also links to the synopses of the films, some with English translations.

National East Wind Farm, (c) Fanhall Films

National East Wind Farm, Photo courtesy of Fanhall Films

Two themes are central to the fifteen documentaries: forgotten or suppressed history and marginal, dispossessed social groups. In the first category, Hu Jie is a pioneering documentarian, who in recent years has engaged in making video works about the Anti-Rightist Movement (1957) and the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), two forbidden topics in modern Chinese history. His National East Wind Farm (Guo ying dong feng nong chang, 2008) examines the experience of hundreds of “Rightists”–former teachers, cadres, university students, and military officials who were persecuted for answering the Party’s call to voice their criticisms – incarcerated on a “thought reform through labor” farm in Mile County, Yunnan Province of southwest China. The neutral term “national farm” is official history’s euphemism for gulag. Based on interviews with former inmates and staffs of the farm, the film re-examines the absurd history from the Great Leap Forward period through the Cultural Revolution, as well as the sufferings of the bodies and souls subjugated to “remolding.”

Hu’s other work In Search for the Soul of Lin Zhao (Xun zhao Lin Zhao de ling hun, 2005) investigates an unresolved and suppressed case in modern Chinese history of thought. Lin Zhao, a student of Beijing University unique in her keen observation of social problems and courageous expression of her opinion, was persecuted during the Anti-Rightist Movement and executed in 1968. Treating her as a pioneer pursuer of civil rights and freedom of expression, the “Director’s Statement” calls for a re-examination of her legacy against the contemporary need to improve democracy and reassert human rights.

Though I Am Gone (Wo sui si qu, 2006, Hu Jie), tries to reexamine the Cultural Revolution from the sufferings of Ms. Bian Zhongyun, an ordinary high school deputy principal in Beijing who was beaten to death by her students. The film investigates into the fact that educators were the first and most heavily persecuted group during the period, but their sufferings were largely ignored by official media. Hu reveals the reason of this negligence in the “Director’s Statement”: “The huge amount of casualties among ordinary citizens would change the overall picture of the Cultural Revolution, together with the analysis of the movement’s nature, therefore leading to a deepened research on the responsibility of the Cultural Revolution.” The film is a challenge to the thin line in law and media concerning historical accounts.

Looking for the Lost Veterans of 1979 (Xun zhao 79 yue zhan xiao shi de lao bing, 2008, Zhang Dali) focuses on another ignored social group from a forgotten historical event – the veterans from the 1979 Sino-Vietnamese war. As the war became out of context, the veterans found themselves deserted by the economical reform and social reconstruction in the past thirty years. From the veterans’ recounts about the glory and brutality of war and their changed experience thereafter, the film asks the question about the affect of war and social changes on common soldiers and citizens.

Many documentaries about more recent history focus on a unique phenomenon among contemporary China’s rapid and sometimes aimless changes – demolition. Artists of Yuan Ming Yuan (Yuan ming yuan de yi shu jia men, 1995, Hu Jie) and Farewell, Yuan Ming Yuan (Gao bie yuan ming yuan, 2006, Zhao Liang) are two direct records of the same event: the forced demolition of the avant-garde artist community around Yuan Ming Yuan (Old Summer Palace) in western suburb of Beijing, and the “last spring” of the artists.

Before The Flood, (c) Fanhall Films

Before The Flood, Photo courtesy of Fanhall Films

Before the Flood (Yan mo, 2005, Li Yifan and Yan Yu), winner of the Wolfgang Staudte Award at the 2005 Berlin International Film Festival, can be seen as a documentary version of Jia Zhangke’s Still Life. For almost the whole year of 2002, the two filmmakers recorded how the two thousand-year-old town of Fengjie was devastated, its residents displaced, to prepare for its eventual flooding for the Three Gorges hydroelectric project on the Yangtze River. The film combines panoramic overviews and detailed observation of individual sufferings and endurance. The “Director’s Statement” calls it an allegorical work: “It focuses on individuals and objects under specific circumstances, and, through their changes and struggles, tries to open a window about this age.”

Two films focus on the 5.12 Earthquake in Sichuan in 2008, and investigate into, from different perspectives, the hidden or unseen reality behind the catastrophe. Who Killed Our Children (Hai zi hai zi, 2008, Pan Jianlin) investigates the death of hundreds of students at Muyu Village Middle School in Qingchuan county, and from this small angle examines the most shocking and heartbreaking fact about the earthquake: the high casualties of students due to the shoddy constructions of elementary, secondary, and nursery schools. As the responsibility concerning the students’ death and the accurate statistics of the causality has become a major source of unresolved conflict between the government and victims’ parents, Pan’s film is a case study of this conflict as well as a response to the problem’s call for independent report.

Red White (Zhong sheng, 2009, Chen Xinzhong), was named after a heavily devastated county, and presents local people’s material and emotional response to the catastrophe through the many mundane details of everyday life: food and shelter, conversations and quarrels, new year celebration, funerals, and religious ceremonies. At the center of the film is the activity of a Taoist master, who serves as fortuneteller, feng shui master, and source of help for many other material and emotional problems. From this unique angle, the film humanizes the survivors and ponders on human need for faith and divinity after trauma. In a review of the 2009 Beijing International Film Festival, Ying Liang, another director from Sichuan, highly praises the film for its withdrawal of moral judgment and its vivid capture of the uncanniness surrounding the landscape.

The relationship between the individual and the state machine is the explicit theme of many films about contemporary issues. Old Mom’s Pork Feet Stew (Lao ma ti hua, 2009) by controversial artist Ai Weiwei is the most recent work in the list and the filmmaker’s direct tribute to the 60th anniversary celebration. This 75-minute documentary, shot with a hidden DV camera, records the bitter and absurd experience of Ai and other human rights activists of being harassed and illegally detained by the police of Chengdu (capital of the Sichuan province) and their later frustrating struggle with the authorities.

Petition, (c) Fanhall Films

Petition, Photo courtesy of Fanhall Films

Petition (Shang fang, 2009, Zhao Liang) presents a broader and “stranger than fiction” view of ordinary citizens’ struggle for judicial justice. Its protagonists – the people appealing to the high authorities in Beijing for their wrongs unresolved through local channels – are victims of and fighters against the defects of China’s legal and governmental system (according to the sociologist Yu Jianrong). Zhao’s film followed and recorded the struggles and sufferings of the “petitioners” on the margin of Beijing for an amazing 12 years, from 1996 to 2008. Divided into three chapters – “Petition Village”, “Mother and Daughter”, “Beijing Southern Railway Station” – the film combines group portraits and individual depictions. In an interview, Zhao Liang describes his working attitude as “gracious presentation.” The graciousness is especially represented in his attention to and compassion for individual lives and sufferings.

Hu Jie’s Rural Mountain (Yuan shan, 1995) is another compassionate and dignifying portrait of the dispossessed. It records the work and life of one of the most exploded group in contemporary China: the coal miners in some private and often illegal mines on the high plateau of the underdeveloped Qinghai Province. More than a protest against grave social problems – the primitive and dangerous working condition, the merciless mine owners and irresponsible local government, and the appalling poverty behind the workers’ choice, the film is an honest document about labor and life. The “Director’s Statement” expressly stated the film’s aspiration in locating the characters in human history: “[The hard labor] reflects the perseverance and dignity of the working class, and forms a segment of the history toward human civilization that we should never forget.”

Rural Mountain, (c) Fanhall Films

Rural Mountain, Photo courtesy of Fanhall Films

Other films present overviews of the sixty years. 60 (2009, Zhang Ming) is part of the oral history project “They Say,” a compilation of interviews with ordinary citizens about their experience in historical and political turmoil in some forgotten historical periods. The protagonist, Wang Kang, is a contemporary to the P.R.C. His sixty years of life witnesses the growth of the republic, the various political movements, and the endless darkness and poverty. The series explores the questions about our responsibility to the often bitter, absurd, and already forgotten past, and the functions of film in the reservation and reconstruction of memory.

Ms. Hong (Hong jie, 2009, Zhang Gong) portrays the experience of the Red Guards generation. Ms. Hong was the filmmaker’s neighbor, whose turbulent life is common to ordinary citizens in a stormy society. Notably, the film is an animation. As one of the three animation shorts, together with Mist (Mi wu, Zhang Xiaotao) and Idol (Ou xiang, Chen Xuegang), to open the 2009 Beijing Independent Film Festival, it indicates a new direction for Chinese independent films.

West of the Tracks, (c) Fanhall Films

West of the Tracks, Photo courtesy of Fanhall Films

The last film on the list, West of the Tracks (Tie xi qu, 2003, Wang Bing), is a climactic work of Chinese independent documentary filmmaking, and a master combination of panoramic view and closely-observed details. The nine-hour film is a comprehensive record of the heavy industry district in northeast China through the difficult years brought by the huge and cruel transformation of the nation from a planned to market economy. Its three chapters – “Rust”, “Remnants”, and “Rails” – focus on industrial work, youth and family life, and individual emotions respectively, and also respectively treat the social problems of bankruptcy and unemployment, demolition of old neighborhoods, and the lives on the margins of the city and of modern industry. Just like Before the Flood and Red White, the daily details recorded in the film also shockingly reveal piles of ruins. In “West of the Tracks and the New Documentary Movement in Contemporary China,” Lu Xinyu uses the image of ruins as an allegory for the loss of utopia among the huge historical and social changes in today’s China. The new documentary movement, for her, arises from and responds to the ruins. She claims, “The destiny of ‘art’ in contemporary China is to reestablish the connection between art and the people that humbly but stubbornly live on the land, to search for justification for the existence and emotion of these people.” West of the Tracks is an artist’s response to this destiny, which is also the destiny of the more and more records of unsanctioned memories.


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