In 2001, to national jubilation, Beijing was awarded the 2008 Olympics. In the seven years that followed, the city underwent a makeover on a scale unparalleled since the aftermath of the 1949 revolution. While some of the more memorable products of this urban transfiguration were raised on the Olympic Park itself – the delicate silhouette, now instantly internationally recognisable, of the “Bird’s Nest” stadium designed by the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei and Swiss architects Herzog and de Meuron, for example – its effects were felt across the entire city. As the capital prepared to be in the global spotlight, some of its most central residential districts were raised to the ground, and their inhabitants relocated from the alleyways (hutong) and courtyard houses (siheyuanr) that constituted Beijing’s traditional urban fabric to new housing developments towards the edge of town. Many ordinary residents were thus obliged to sacrifice homes and businesses on the altar of a national project from which they arguably stood to benefit very little. Meishi Jie – “Coal Market Street” – was the victim of precisely this dynamic. Located in Dazhalan (or Dashalanr, in local dialect), a working class community to the south west of Tiananmen Square, some 800 of its old, dilapidated siheyuanr were torn down as part of a road-widening project in 2005. Today, Meishi Street is an access thoroughfare for the more famous Qianmen Street, which has itself been transformed from a hub for local market traders into a pedestrianised, slightly antiseptic tourist attraction.

This is the backdrop for Ou Ning’s Meishi Jie (Meishi Street, 2006). An independent commission funded by the German Federal Cultural Foundation, Meishi Street is a collaborative work overseen by Ou, but produced by a team of still photographers, sound designers and cinematographers. The documentary – itself only one part of the overall project, which also incorporates a website and a number of print publications (1) – tracks the bulldozing of the neighbourhood through the eyes of Zhang Jinli, a local resident and restaurant owner. Zhang is what is known as a “stuck-nail tenant” (dingzihu): an epithet for those inhabitants of condemned neighbourhoods who, either for sentimental reasons or in an attempt to maximise the financial compensation paid for relocation, refuse to leave their homes until the last possible moment. When the film starts, Zhang’s property is still standing. By the end, as it is finally pulled down – and having followed him through his various attempts at publicising his plight: the letters he writes to the relevant government bureaux contesting the conduct of the relocation process; his increasingly forlorn forays around the rapidly dwindling neighbourhood – we have come to sense how the restructuring of city space might feel “from the bottom up”. Meishi Street thus presents a possible counter-perspective to the “Bird’s Nest” view of Beijing’s contemporary Haussmannisation, which positions urban regeneration as a necessary and wholly positive procedure easing the capital’s ascension to global city status. Instead, the film captures the experience of people at best marginalised by, at worst excluded from, this process: those left behind by modernity, or at least stranded in its wake, desperately struggling to stay afloat.

In subject and execution, Meishi Street shares much in common with the work that Ou produced in the early 2000s as part of the U-thèque collective. An artist and graphic designer from Guangdong Province, Ou was drawn into the Chinese film scene when he was asked to edit a magazine for the state-run Emei Film Studio in 1999. Exploiting the relative commercial and creative freedom of South China, he used the publication as a base from which to develop U-thèque, a film group that he founded in Shenzhen, on the border with Hong Kong, but which rapidly expanded into Guangzhou, the provincial capital. Initially an organisation that sought simply to screen independent cinema from round the world, U-thèque members – artists, students, amateur cinephiles – quickly branched out into filmmaking. In 2003, the group was commissioned by the Chinese curator Hou Hanru to produce a film about Guangzhou for the Venice Biennale. The result, co-directed by Ou and his then-partner, artist Cao Fei, was the documentary Sanyuanli (2003).

Sanyuanli takes its title from a village of the same name that is supposed to have led resistance to British military incursions during the First Opium War of 1839-42. Once the site of conflict over 19th century global trading rights, the village has since been absorbed into Guangzhou’s urban sprawl. Furthermore, as the location of the city’s train station, it is also a magnet for migrants from the Chinese hinterland. As such, Sanyuanli is now host to another conflict, that of town and country, the roots of which lie in the re-opening of the Pearl River Delta to global trade. Eleven U-thèque members – nine cinematographers and two recording artists – dispersed across the neighbourhood to capture, visually and aurally, the experience of living in this “village in the city” (cheng zhongcun) (2). Reconvening at regular intervals, they would screen and discuss their footage, coming to a collective agreement over which avenues to pursue and which to abandon. Ou and Cao oversaw the final cut. The finished film, however, differed markedly from what was then the established forms of independent Chinese documentary. Since its emergence at the end of the 1980s, documentary produced outside the official media systems has tended towards one of two forms: either a type of direct cinema heavily indebted to the work of Frederick Wiseman; or, increasingly, a performative and interventionist cinéma vérité mode that is more redolent of the films of Jean Rouch. Despite the stylised distance of its camerawork, Sanyuanli takes its cues from neither of these documentary practices. Instead, its black-and-white aesthetic, speeded-up footage, electronic music score and rapid montage editing suggest, as Ou has acknowledged, the influence of an older tradition: the European modernist “city symphony” (3). Indeed, the film’s first major sequence – an “entry shot” into Guangzhou, filmed from a boat travelling up the Pearl River – clearly echoes the opening of Walter Ruttmann’s Berlin: Die Sinfonie der Grosstadt (Berlin: Symphony of a Great City, 1927), in which the camera enters the German capital by train.

In formal terms, Meishi Street therefore appears to take a step back from the avant-garde commitments of Sanyuanli, a retreat towards a more traditional documentary aesthetic. The film combines direct cinema practices – for example, there is no non-diegetic sound – with the live, hand-held style that the earliest independent documentary filmmakers in China quickly adopted as their own. But in other ways, Meishi Street represents a development of the working principles behind Sanyuanli; a reflection perhaps of the fact that, although the Guangzhou authorities forcibly disbanded U-thèque after the latter’s completion, several members of the group went on to help Ou shoot the former. Neither project can be fully understood without reference to the impact of digital technology on independent Chinese documentary production. It was the increasing availability and affordability of digital video cameras from the late 1990s that enabled U-thèque members, none of whom had trained in non-fiction production, to start dabbling in documentary filmmaking. It was this lack of formal training that encouraged them to bring a variety of other influences, more experimental and artistic, to bear on Sanyuanli. And it was the ease with which these cameras could be operated that allowed for the group’s particular working practices – a balance between the individual and the collective – to develop. In Meishi Street, Ou takes this principle to its logical conclusion. Ten minutes into the film we suddenly discover that the so-called “director” has in fact presented the restaurateur Zhang Jinli with a DV camera: the images, shot in a local park, are clearly taken from his perspective; we can hear his voice off-screen, discussing how to use the equipment, and what to record. As the film continues to unfold in this manner, interweaving Zhang’s own footage with that shot by members of Ou’s team, it becomes clear that what we are seeing is not simply a collaboration between a group of filmmakers, but a participatory project: a documentary in which the distinction between those in front of and behind the camera has been blurred, the subject of the film actually becoming involved in its production.

This structure is critical to Meishi Street’s “bottom up” perspective. It allows the filmmakers and the audience to view both demolition and relocation through the eyes of the local community, rather than those of outsiders. At the same time, it shapes what we see and hear in other, more subtle ways. As Zhang wanders his neighbourhood, tracking the inexorable progress of the wrecking crews, pausing before the ruins of houses that just weeks previously stood intact, it becomes clear that this act of documentation is also one of preservation. Zhang is creating a record of Meishi Street before it disappears beneath the bulldozers; an archive that will stand the test of time; a repository of personal memories that he can watch, “When I’m sitting around at home”. But, just like the banners he drapes outside his restaurant, which protest in no uncertain terms the process of demolition and relocation, he also uses filmmaking as an intervention into public space and discourse. In supplying the restaurant owner with a camera, Ou invokes the working practices of citizen journalism. Zhang in turn adopts the goals of the citizen journalist, using the documentary as a vehicle through which to publicise resistance to, and stall the execution of, the area’s redevelopment. His filming thus evolves into a form of counter-surveillance – an attempt by the weak to hold to account those in power – a point nicely conveyed when, in the film’s final scene, officers from the Urban Management Bureau (the chengguan) arrive with a camera to document the razing of Zhang’s home, only to find themselves, in turn, captured on video.

And yet, as a participatory documentary, Ou’s film is problematic. In most projects of this nature, if the final footage is not the exclusive product of the documentary subject, the contributions of all those involved are usually differentiated, along with their own interpretations of the material. Think, for example, of Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man (2005), in which Herzog’s own footage is frequently distinguished from that shot by his deceased subject, Timothy Treadwell, through visual or aural markers of authorship. In particular, Herzog’s use of voiceover allows his personal perspective on Treadwell’s life to emerge over the course of the documentary. This is not the case with Meishi Street. Although members of Ou’s team shot one-third of the finished product, he edited the final cut himself (4). The lack of on-screen interaction between the various cinematographers and Zhang Jinli means it is not always obvious who is shooting what at any given moment. The final sequence is a case in point: as the authorities enter Zhang’s house, camera in hand, we see them bearing down on the filmmaker – but who is filming? Zhang is not in the frame, but does that mean he is behind the camera? This query is only resolved at the very end of the shot, when he comes bounding through the front door.

Questions of attribution aside, the more significant consequence of this perspectival ambiguity is a certain lack of clarity concerning both the motivations of all involved, and the affective dimensions of the finished documentary. The team’s decision not to engage directly with Zhang could be read as an attempt not to intrude on his story. Alternatively, it could suggest a refusal to directly endorse Zhang’s actions in defence of his property: perhaps he is not hard done by, but simply greedy? While plausible deniability partly explains the appeal of direct cinema to independent Chinese documentary filmmakers constantly second-guessing the unpredictability of domestic censorship, in this instance it raises pointed questions: if one chooses not to commit, engage or intervene directly on behalf of your subject, how is your work to be distinguished from that of state representatives such as the chengguan? When shooting “off the record”, how does one ensure the finished product cannot be confused with the kind of dispassionate surveillance produced by the authorities, with their coldly objective camera, and their concern with process and procedure?

One answer may lie in Meishi Street’s concluding shot. Outside, Zhang watches his home finally being torn down. Suddenly, quietly, he starts to cry. Whoever is behind the camera moves in slowly for a close-up, and pauses; and then, unexpectedly, the screen goes black. The noise of the demolition continues on the soundtrack, but we can no longer see either Zhang or his tears. In cutting away, the documentary seems to concede its own failure as a public intervention, but in refusing to visualise Zhang’s final collapse of composure – in leaving us with only the aural traces of his livelihood’s destruction – Meishi Street not only acknowledges his individual investment in everything we have just seen, but also accords him a degree of respect that has consistently been denied him by officialdom. At this moment, the objective and the subjective, the private and the public, the personal and the political, are finally united. There may be very real limits to independent documentary’s capacity to effect social change in China, but perhaps it is at these points of affective conjuncture, almost at the boundaries of documentation itself, that Ou’s “alternative archive” finds its ultimate rationale.

Endnotes

  1. For further details, see the Daz Ha Lan Project: www.dazhalan-project.org.
  2. When villages in China are absorbed into urban sprawl farmland is usually requisitioned by the government for construction. Villagers are commonly allowed to retain their own residential land and housing, and their rural residency permits, or hukou. This places these neighbourhoods outside direct city government control, hence the term “village in the city”. See Chris Berry, “Imaging the Globalized City: Rem Koolhaus, U-thèque, and the Pearl River Delta”, Cinema at the City’s Edge: Film and Urban Networks in East Asia, ed. Yomi Braester and James Tweedie, Hong Kong University Press, Hong Kong, 2010, pp. 157-8.
  3. Ou Ning, “Lishi zhi zhai” [“The Debt of History”], Sanyuanli: Di Wushi Jie Shaungnianzhan Canzhan Xiangmu [Sanyuanli: A Project for the Fiftieth Venice Biennale], ed. Cao Fei and Ou Ning, U-thèque Organization, Shenzhen, 2003, p. 35.
  4. Dan Edwards, “CinemaTalk: A Conversation with Ou Ning”, dGenerate Films 1 March 2011: http://dgeneratefilms.com/dgenerate-titles/cinematalk-a-conversation-with-ou-ning/.

Ou Ning will be a guest of this year’s Melbourne International Film Festival, which will feature his film Meishi Street as part of the “Street Level Visions: Indie Docs from China” strand.

About The Author

Luke Robinson is a lecturer in Film and Television Studies in the Department of Culture, Film and Media, University of Nottingham, UK.