Feature image: Michelangelo Antonioni during the filming of Chung Kuo: Cina (China)
“It was a harsh and courteous battle that had neither winners or losers. A compromise came out of it, and the film that I filmed in China is the fruit of this compromise.” The film Michelangelo Antonioni is referring to is his 1972 documentary Chung Kuo: Cina (China), ostensibly a commissioned work that arose from discussions between RAI (the Italian television network) and the Chinese Embassy in Rome, and it is not altogether clear who initially put forward Antonioni’s name for the project. Antonioni had a background in documentary, no doubt, but that was long ago, stretching back to the tale-end of the neorealist years. Subsequently, his international reputation rested on the auteurist films, such as L’avventura (1960) and Blow-Up (1966), which had redefined narrative modernism in cinema. Nor, by the early seventies was he identified as a leftist filmmaker; in the world of Italian filmmaking there were at the time more obvious candidates of communist or generally left-leaning orientation, take you pick of any number of names – Francesco Rosi, Elio Petri, Gillo Pontecorvo, or if you wish, from a younger generation, Marco Bellocchio, who had name-checked China in his 1967 feature La Cina è vicina (China is Near), or Bernardo Bertolucci, who would get his chance a decade later at representing China in his historical epic The Last Emperor (1987).
The result of Antonioni’s 1972 encounter with China is one of the great documentary portraits of a nation in a particular historical moment that remains all the more precious as time passes. At the time, the Mao Tse-tung lead Communist Party begged to differ. The resulting fall-out lead to recriminations from both sides: Antonioni having to defend his film and his “vision” of the country; as he said in many a statement, the “reality” China was so immense and his shooting schedule so tight and so monitored by Communist party functionaries, that he could only afford a “glance” at China. On the other hand, the Chinese government who had obviously envisaged a documentary celebrating Mao’s Cultural Revolution accused the filmmaker of distorting the “reality” of their great socialist experiment in nation building. The film was almost immediately caught up in a diplomatic storm, with the Chinese government banning its exhibition in China and mounting a widespread campaign to have the film suppressed internationally. The whole experience left a bitter aftertaste, so much so that the first public screening of the film in China happened in 2004 at the Beijing Film Academy, 32 years after the making of Chung Kuo: Cina.
We have on record numerable accounts of the controversy surrounding the film from a western perspective, however, inside views from the Chinese perspective are much rarer. It’s therefore all the more fascinating to read author Alice Xiang’s article in this issue on the means used by Mao’s government of the time to frame its discourse around the film, and equally as insightful is Xiang’s documenting of contemporary Chinese viewers’ responses to the film subsequent to its ban. Along the way, Xiang also offers insights about the nature and status of the documentary “image”, something also pursued by Matthew Abbott’s piece on the United Nation’s sponsored documentary by Abbas Kiarostami, ABC Africa (2001), and, in a different light, Maryann De Julio’s look at Agnès Varda’s “self-portrait” documentary Les plages d’Agnès (2008).
Hope you enjoy the new issue.
– Rolando Caputo