Feature image: Female Directors (Yang Mingming, 2012)

“Black cat, white cat – who cares? As long as it can catch mice, it is a good cat.”
Sichuan proverb, reportedly quoted by
Deng Xiaoping

With the increasing accessibility of small-size, highly portable digital recording and editing technologies in the People’s Republic of China (PRC), documentary filmmaking is no longer centred in Beijing as in the 1990s, nor restricted to people with a training in media arts. What was once “the New Documentary Movement” has overflown its banks into a multiplicity of streams, from peasants in faraway provinces to visual artists intent on expanding their vocabulary and “breaking the rules,” to activists using the camera as a weapon. Similarly, a number of strategies are at work, going beyond a straightforward vérité approach. Imperfect and incomplete as it is, this essay is an attempt to update some of the earliest English language commentary on independent Chinese documentary published in Senses of Cinema more than a decade ago, and to survey the different strategies used to capture an ever-elusive “real,” as the unassimilable left-over from the symbolic (the laws) and the imaginary (the utopias of socialism or free market). 1

Cat and fish

Until the late 1980s, what passed for “documentary” in mainland China were the zhuantipian (special topic films) produced by state television stations, “which strictly followed established guidelines and matched images to pre-written voiceover.” 2 The first documentary experiments involving “talking heads” combined with a (re)discovery of vérité shooting strategies took place shortly before and after the events of June 1989 through the works of Wu Wenguang, Duan Jinchuan, Li Hong and Jiang Yue. After 1989, Deng Xiaoping imposed a severe clampdown – but, as early as 1992, started to promote a more liberal economy. He argued that the means used to push forward China’s economic growth – whether capitalist or socialist – mattered little, hence the “good cats” parable.

Filmmakers like Wu Wenguang and Wang Bing – whose respective Liulang Beijing – zuihou de mengxiangzhe (Bumming in Beijing – The Last Dreamers, 1990) and Tiexi Qu (West of the Tracks, 2002) chartered the future development of the genre – severed their ties with television quite early on. The broadcasting system, however, has continued to be a training ground for young people who later made independent work, such as Ma Li, Gao Zipeng, Xu Tong. Li Yu directed a number of documentaries for CCTV, including Jiejie (Sisters, 1999), that ran into censorship issues. She broke free to direct her first narrative, shot vérité-style on 16mm film, Jin nian xia tian (Fish and Elephant, 2001), the sympathetic portrayal of a lesbian relationship in contemporary Beijing.

Cat in a field of ruins

Li crossed over from documentary to fiction in order to protect her subjects. For the media artists who stuck to documentary, the evolution started with a piece of equipment. Wu Wenguang purchased a digital camera in Hong Kong, with which he shot Jianghu (Jiang Hu: Life on the Road, 1999) about a “song and dance” traveling troupe. Dozens of filmmakers followed suit. As the conceptual artist, filmmaker and publisher Ou Ning noted, “this small, user-friendly, low-cost camera soon became the favourite medium of artists… [Then] the popularisation of the editing software for personal computers gave rise to thriving independent cinema and video art.” 3 The internet boom and the proliferation of DVDs, pirated or not, “disrupted China’s decade-long cultural isolation and information void, broke academia’s cultural monopoly and intellectual bureaucracy, and created an unprecedented ‘image democracy.’” 4

Ou Ning tested the extent – and the limits – of this “democracy” through his best-known work, The Dazhalan Project (2006), co-authored with fellow artist Cao Fei with the participation of the residents of the Dazhalan neighbourhood in Beijing. This was a multi-disciplinary study of an area in the process of being demolished before the 2008 Olympics. A combination of print media, photographs, websites and exhibitions, it constitutes what has been called an “alternative urban archive.” 5 As part of this project, Ou and Cao gave a camera to Zhang Jinli, a restaurant owner and neighbourhood activist. The resulting video, Meishi Jie (Meishi Street, 2006), edited by the two artists, documents the ravages caused by the chaiqian (demolish and relocate) policy of urban renewal. It also poses complex questions of ethical responsibility and agency. 6 The majority of the footage was indeed shot by Zhang Jinli, but, at the moment his own house is destroyed, he is unable to use his camera, and can only gaze in tears. He becomes, in turn, a figure in the ruined landscape, as filmed by the team of “professional” image makers (Ou Ning, Cao Fei and fellow documentarist Huang Weikai are listed as directors of photography for the film) – a structure en abyme that points to the role of “the author” as a problematic mixture of voyeurism, compassion and powerlessness.

In Qianmen Qian (A Disappearance Foretold, 2008), Olivier Meys and Zhang Yaxuan focus on the destruction of another Beijing neighbourhood. They visit the “nail households” of people who refuse to move and live on among the rubble while bulldozers are attacking their rooves; they witness the grief, anger and helplessness of those returning to the place where their house once stood. Filmed over the course of several years, Wang Qingren’s Bo Yi (Game Theory, 2010) is a minute account of the “game” played by two small villages determined to resist the demolition planned to make way for a freeway and factory. Insufficient compensation is offered, villagers made homeless by evictions build illegal structures that are themselves subject to demolition, litigation occurs, court cases are heard, and corruption is suspected.

Mixing fictional and documentary elements, the most original piece about urban destruction is Cong Feng’s fourth feature 7, Diceng yi: laike (Stratum 1: The Visitors, 2013), with its compelling structure of two parts that mirror each other. In part A, two men meet in an abandoned building and share memories of their past lives. In Part B, they return to the site, which is now being destroyed by bulldozers. As explained by Cong, “stratum” refers to “the stable basis of society that no longer exists” as well as to the different layers of urban landscape piled on top of each other.

Chinese documentary

Stratum 1

Ruins, rubble and destruction are such a pervasive reality that they appear in the work of unexpected auteurs. In Women shi Gongchan zhuyi shengluehao (We are the… of Communism, 2007), Cui Zi’en turns his camera toward a group of migrant workers’ children living in shantytowns on the outskirts of Beijing, and follows the struggle of the students and teachers of Yuanhai School to keep holding classes after being locked out by the landlord. Kids learn, eat and play in a demolition site. A well-known queer filmmaker and activist, Cui Zi’en directed his first film, Choujue dengchang (Enter the Clowns), a whimsical series of vignettes about transgender and gay desire, in 2001. He courted the documentary genre with Yejing (Night Life, 2003), in which sequences showing the life of young country boys working as male prostitutes in Beijing alternate with fictional moments involving some of the same boys. Zhi tongzhi (Queer China, Comrade China, 2009) espouses a more traditional form (talking heads, text, division into chapters) but covers a large amount of ground, from the roots of Chinese homophobia to the position of the socialist regime vis-à-vis homosexuality and the grass-root struggles of the gay community.

Gay cats

In the past, the Chinese government used the term “hooliganism” to prosecute homosexuality, and the majority of parents still have a hard time accepting their gay offspring’s sexuality and lifestyle. However, the “medical” ruling labelling homosexuality a mental disease was abolished in 2001 – opening the way for independent films about gay lifestyles, transgender subjects or cross-dressing performers. 2001 was indeed a felicitous year for queer culture: Fish and Elephant won an award in Venice, and one of its stars, Shitou, publicly came out on a local satellite television talk show, along with Cui Zi’en. This started Shitou’s career as a queer activist, artist and filmmaker, and she went on to make a number of documentaries, such as Nuren wushi fenzhong (Women Fifty Minutes, 2006). The first documentary on a lesbian couple, Ying Weiwei’s Hezi (The Box), was also completed in 2001.

As early as 2000, Sixth Generation filmmaker Zhang Yuan had directed Miss Jin Xing (Jin Xing xiaojie), a portrait of the famous dancer/choreographer who decided to become a woman in 1996, that includes footage of her sex change surgery. Zhang Hanzi’s Tang Tang (2004) (re)stages the fabulous nights (sequins, wigs, feathers, high heels, make-up, glittery camp outfits), grey mornings and cross-gender love affairs (here a man, there a lesbian) of a drag performer in Beijing. In Ren Mian Tao Hua (Beautiful Men, 2005), Du Haibin uses a split-screen to evoke the “divided lives” of three drag queens performing in Chengdu. Gu nainai (Madame, 2010), visual artist Qiu Jiongjiong’s fourth foray into documentary 8, is a loving and elegant portrait of the cross-gender performer Madame Bi Langda.

Drag queen culture also inspired Wu niang (Be A Woman, 2011) by Fan Popo. Born in 1985, Fan is internationally known as a queer activist, author of a book on queer cinema, curator, programmer of the Beijing Queer Film Festival (founded in 2001) 9 since 2009, as well as being a prolific filmmaker. His best-known film, Guizu (Chinese Closet, 2010) stitches together interviews with men and women faced with the difficult task of “coming out” (or not) to their families, friends and co-workers. The high percentage of gay men who get married under pressure has become a social issue, and the film listens to the stories and dilemmas of those trapped in this contradiction. Its companion piece, Cai hong ban wo xin (Mama Rainbow, 2012), sympathetically gives the floor to parents who, against societal norms, have accepted their children’s homosexuality.

Laizi yindao (The VaChina Monologues, 2014) is a change of pace: in 30 minutes, it zigzags through China to humorously document the efforts of young women, gay or straight, to mount Eve Ensler’s play in universities, coffee shops and even on a subway.

Chinese documentary

The VaChina Monologues

The film is a symptom of the convergence between the concerns of queer activists of Fan’s generation and an updated feminist agenda that includes sexual liberation as well as gender equality. The co-founder of the Beijing Queer Film Festival with Cui Zi’en, Yang Yang, while acknowledging her identity as a straight woman, has significantly contributed to the development of queer culture. First a curator, scholar and organiser, she became a documentary filmmaker, mining her years of experience at the festival with the featurette Women de gushi – Beijing Ku’er yingzhan shinian youjizhan (Our Story: 10 years “guerrilla warfare” of the Beijing Queer Film Festival, 2011). 10

Protesting cats

In 2001, Zhu Rikun founded Fanhall Films, an umbrella organisation for film production, distribution and film festival organising. Then he ran the Beijing Independent Film Festival and the Songzhuang Documentary Film Festival, a position he assumed for almost a decade. At the same time, he was also producing and distributing independent films – mostly documentaries – such as Yu Guangyi’s Timber Gang (Mu bang, 2006), in which the filmmaker exposes the lives of his former lumberjack co-workers; the aforementioned Queer China, Comrade China (2008); and Xu Xin’s six-hour Kelamayi (Karamay, 2010), a painstaking investigation of the local officials’ culpability for the death of several hundred children in a devastating fire in Xinjiang Province.

In 2013, Zhu completed his first short, Cha Fang (The Questioning), shot with a camera hidden in his hotel room while being harassed by police during a trip to visit a civil rights activist. In 2014, he released Dang’an (The Dossier), in which the Tibetan writer Tsering Woeser reads and comments on the secret dossier compiled by Chinese authorities about her.

The meticulous character of Karamay and The Dossier is shared by a number of other “protest documentaries,” that use the long form as an accumulation of details to make a point. Shot over ten years, Zhao Liang’s 315-minute Shangfang (Petition, 2009) chronicles the lives of people applying an ancient provision in Chinese law – the right of those who feel abused by local officials to demand a revision of their case by the central government. The petitioners travel to Beijing to express their grievances to the State Bureau for Letters and Visits. Some leave their home for years, living in a “petitioner’s village” or around a nearby railway station. They are ignored, intimidated, mistreated and beaten by the authorities or hired thugs, or forcibly institutionalised in psychiatric wards. The single mindedness of some is explored in the recurring story of a mother who drags her daughter into what seems a fruitless petitioning about the death of her husband, causing a rift between the two women. 11

Petitioning is also tackled (in luminous black and white) in Ma Li’s 240-minute Jingsheng (Born in Beijing, 2012) that, like Petition, focuses on a mother-daughter relationship. The same year, in You yi zhong jing jiao zhuang yan (The Interceptor from My Hometown, produced by Zhu Rikun), Zhang Zanbo dissected the activities of a former classmate hired by the government to “intercept” petitioners – that is, stop them going to Beijing by any means necessary. In his latest opus, the six-hour long Qingnian (Shanghai Youth, 2014), Gao Zipeng gives the floor to another kind of petitioner: the ageing former “rusticated youths” who enthusiastically went to the countryside in distant provinces (such as Xinjiang) to build Mao’s brand of socialism, whose years of service are not recognised now that they are growing older. In their fight to get basic benefits such as health insurance, they face beatings, harassment and imprisonment.

Yet “protest cinema” may also take a more poetic, modernist form, as in Qiu Jiongjiong’s Chi (Mr. Zhang Believes, 2015). Shot in desaturated black and white with occasional touches of colour, this Brechtian fable recounts the story of Zhang Xianchi, a dedicated young communist in spite of being the son of a Kuomintang official (he was part of the squadron that shot his own father). During the Anti-Rightist Campaign of the 1950s, at the age of 23, he was sentenced to 23 years of internment. Closely inspired by Zhang’s memoirs, the film features brief interventions from Zhang himself, such as a moment of dark humour in which he reflects that his son, raised in the countryside while his parents were in camps, is illiterate and “will never be able to read my book and learn what his parents went through.” The film as a whole is about as far from cinema vérité as it is possible to get, comprising anachronic tableaus that mix heterogeneous and performative elements: a little girl who never grows up, a mass shooting in silhouette, Mao Zedong conversing with Chiang Kai-shek. Both Qiu’s and Gao’s films use strategies that attempt to address a void in Chinese history: unreported events that are supposed to have never happened.

Chinese documentary

Mr Zhang Believes

Protest documentaries are harrowing yet complex, unravelling the entanglement of belief, allegiance, dependency, suspicion and resistance connecting officials to common people. Complexity is also at the core of a different type of work, focusing on a minute examination of the mechanisms of power or the inner workings of an institution, in an echo of the work of Frederick Wiseman or Raymond Depardon. In Gao san (Senior Year, 2005) Zhou Hao takes an intimate look at a classroom in a poor rural area of Fujian province, where seniors are preparing for university entrance exams. Peasants who have worked like beasts of labour all their lives desire a better lot for their children, and the county wants to be proud of its youth. These pressures exert a heavy toll. The 38-year-old schoolteacher pushes his students hard and forbids parents to get a divorce before the exams, while acknowledging these kids “don’t think like us, I don’t understand them.”

Zhou’s Shu ji (The Transition Period, 2009) offers a fascinating insight into the inner workings of a County Committee during the end of the tenure of its Communist Party Secretary, Guo. One gets a good sense of the role of guanxi (personal relationships) in Chinese politics. Most of Guo’s time is spent meeting people – petitioners and citizens applying for licenses or asking for favours, people bringing gifts, potential foreign investors. Significant amounts of liquor are ingested and men slap each other’s backs. The ending leaves open the question of whether or not Secretary Guo was yet another corrupt official. Zhou’s latest film, another fine exploration of the mechanisms of local power, Datong (The Chinese Mayor, 2015), received a Special Jury Award at Sundance. 12

Home is where the cat is

In spite of the cultural obstacles facing the expression of intimate feelings in China, the “personal documentary” has been making headway – providing a context to question the filmmaker’s role in the documentary process. His/her body and voice – whether introduced in the image and the soundtrack, or signified in absentia by silence or a controlled use of the off-screen space – become essential parameters. First noticed with Lao tou (Old Men, 1999), Yang Lina gracefully inserts herself into the aural texture of her films through a seductive mix of vérité and diaristic style – whether she is witnessing the disintegration of her parents’ marriage (Jiating luxiang dai/Home Video, 2001), unfolding the extra-marital love affair of a grandfather addicted to dancing in the park (Lao An/The Love of Mr. An, 2007), speaking with her elderly neighbours about their memories of the war with Japan (Wo de Linju Shuo Guizi/ My Neighbours and their Japanese Ghosts, 2008), or following young boys abandoned in an orphanage over a 12-year period (Wild Grass, 2009). She is a confidante, friend, and sometimes an object of flirtation; her advice is sought or rejected, her presence acknowledged.

In 2005, Wu Wenguang (the director of Bumming in Beijing) launched The China Village Self-Governance Film Project in which he trained peasants to use digital cameras to document the first local elections organised in their villages. The same year he and his collaborator, modern dance choreographer Wen Hui, opened a dance-and-film-production-studio-cum-video-archive on the northeast outskirts of Beijing called Caochangdi Workstation. The villagers and film students interning in the space were encouraged to produce a personal piece about their local communities, and some used the camera as an extension of their bodies.

Coining the concept of “private language documentary,” Wu edited the footage of an unfinished film into Cao ta ma dianying (Fuck Cinema, 2005), a pungent exploration of the imbalance between those who yield power in the film industry and the perennial outsiders: a homeless peasant, Wang Zhutian, who tries to peddle his autobiographical script; young provincial girls auditioning for the part of a hooker; and Xiao Wu, a seller of illegal DVDs chased by the police. Wu intertwines these three threads. Xiao Wu eventually escapes the gaze of the camera and disappears into the crowd. The aspiring actresses’ bodies are voyeuristically surveyed – a mise en abyme of the unconscious cruelty of the television crew. At the core of the film is the fraught relationship between Wang Zhutian, a middle-aged nobody with heartfelt delusions, and the famous filmmaker Wu Wenguang, whose name can open doors.

Chinese documentary

Fuck Cinema

Remaining off-screen and mostly silent in Fuck Cinema, Wu reinserts himself in Treatment (Zhi liao, 2010), that sublimates his grief at the death of his mother into a reflection on the nature of memory, the passing of time, the trauma of loss, and the tools we have invented to help us remember, such as writing and the recorded image. He screens twelve-year-old footage of his mother, and consults the diaries he was keeping as an adolescent and young man living alone with her in Yunnan when the family was scattered by the Cultural Revolution.

While co-authoring a multi-media performance, “The Memory Project,” with Wen Hui, Wu was encouraging his students to constitute a private archive by interviewing their grandparents and their village elders about another repressed part of Chinese history: the Great Famine of 1958–62 that caused between 18 and 45 million deaths. The most successful of these films are directed by Zou Xueping: The Starving Village (2010), Satiated Village (Chibao de cunzi, 2011), Children’s Village (2012) and Trash Village (2013). Meanwhile, Wen Hui, while diving into the secrets of her family history for the performance, discovered a great aunt whose existence she ignored. She found her and crafted a moving portrait of the elderly lady with whom she reconnected via an original combination of language and shared gestures in Ting sannainai jiang guoqu de shiqing (Listening to Third Grandmother’s Stories, 2012). 13

The tortoiseshell cat

Since Zhang Yuan’s Mama (1990) and Wang Xiaoshuai’s Dong chun de rizi (The Days, 1993), and continuing with Jia Zhangke’s Xiao Wu (1998), contemporary Chinese cinema has been marked by an alluring to-and-fro between fiction and document. In 2001, Jia completed a half-hour observational documentary, Gong gong chang suo (In Public) that in turn inspired the narrative feature Ren xiao yao (Unknown Pleasures, 2002). Liu Xiaodong, the protagonist of The Days and a long term friend and collaborator of Sixth Generation filmmakers, invited Jia to film him as he was painting his (now famous) large-scale panels of demolition workers in the Three Gorges area. While on location to film the resulting documentary, Dong (2006), Jia crafted the plot of a feature, Sanxia haoren (Still Life, 2006), in which a coal miner, Han Sanming, and a nurse, Shen Hong (Zhao Tao), arrive in the soon-to-be-flooded city of Fengjie in search of their errant spouses. Han Sanming, Jia’s real-life cousin from Fenyang, who had already appeared in earlier films, plays a fictionalised version of himself. 14

He is also featured in Jia’s 2007 documentary Wuyong (Useless, 2007), “contaminating” this work with a twinge of fiction. Ershisi chengji (24 City, 2008) goes one step further in its elegant hybridity between fiction and documentary, mixing interviews with actors playing workers and interviews with real workers, to evoke the destruction of the “420” factory (once an aeroplane engine plant, with military implications) to build a luxury apartment complex, “24 City,” on its site, in Sichuan’s capital city of Chengdu. In another seminal experiment, Haishang chuanqi (I Wish I knew, 2010), Jia weaves a dense texture between amorously shot footage of contemporary Shanghai, and the fictions the city has inspired. 15

Among other narrative filmmakers who actively mix documentary and fictional elements in their films are Emily Tang with Wanmei Shenhuo (Perfect Life, 2008) and Ying Liang, especially with Ling yiban (The Other Half, 2006), the short Weiwen (Condolences, 2009), and Wo hai you hua yao shou (When Night Falls, 2012). In the case of the latter – a minimalist dramatization of the case of Yang Jia, a young man accused of having killed six policemen and consequently executed, told from the point of view of his mother, Wang Jingmei, and netizens defending his cause – the real struck back with a vengeance. After unsuccessfully trying to buy back the film from the Jeonju Film Festival that had commissioned it, Chinese authorities made it clear that if Ying, who was in Hong Kong at the time, were to come back to China he would be arrested.

Conversely, some documentarians, such as Yang Rui, veer off toward fiction. Her first film, Bimo ji (The Bimo Records, 2006), displayed a subtle mastery of bringing “small moments” to the screen – intimate interactions between protagonists, elements of daily life, minute aspects of ritual, the quiet seduction of a landscape, the undulating motion of grass under wind. Yang and her crew spent four years with the Yi tribe in the Daliang Mountain region of Sichuan, focusing on a dying institution – the Bimo religious leaders who have the power to call the souls, cast curses… or become local officials. She completed a multi-faceted depiction of the problematic overlapping of ancestral customs (an old Bimo recalls a not-so-distant time when the villagers owned slaves) with the encroachment of the market economy. For her second feature, an experimental narrative, Fan shan (Crossing the Mountains, 2009), she spent three years with the Wa people near the Burmese border, and designed a rather loose story involving the locals who played themselves.

Also a master of the pas-de-deux between fiction and documentary, Li Ying traverses boundaries in real life, having lived between Tokyo and Beijing since 1989. 2H (2000) and Mengna lisha (Mona Lisa, 2005) both use re-enactment to plunge into the private dilemmas of the characters – a retired KMT general, a childless artist living in exile, a family embroiled in emotional and legal turmoil related to the purloining of a child years ago.

Completed in 2007 after years of shooting, Li’s major piece, Yasukuni, is punctuated by quiet scenes showing 90-year-old Kariya Naoji, the last surviving Yasukuni swordsmith, fabricating one of his fine blades while exchanging rare words with the filmmaker. The intimacy of these moments is offset by the bitter history that separates the two men. Yasukuni is the controversial shrine in which Japanese authorities keep the ashes of those killed in the Emperor’s Army, including war criminals responsible for the Nanjing Massacre. Beautiful rituals alternate with ugly confrontations between pilgrims and anti-military activists. The most poignant sequences involve the relatives of those enshrined – the sisters of officers branded war criminals, or a delegation of Taiwanese demanding that the ashes of their parents, forcibly conscripted into the Japanese army, be handed back to them. 16

The patient cat

In documentary filmmaking, patience is key. For Bing Ai (2007), Feng Yan spent ten years observing a peasant woman, Zhang Bingai, as part of an earlier project about the forced displacement of people in the Three Gorges area 17. Feng says:

Zhang Bingai took the longest to warm up to me and to reveal herself. We’d known each other for eight years before she confided the story of her life… When there is water about to rise and submerge your house… all the memories of your rough life come raging out like floodwaters breaking through a dam. I was caught in this tide and I drifted. 18

Starting with Bingai’s stubborn refusal to take compensation money and move out, this unusual portrait becomes an evocation of her life, her romantic disappointments, her relationship with her husband – and, yes, a love story of sorts.

For He Fengming (Fengming, a Chinese Memoir, 2007) Wang Bing retained a long form approach (186 minutes), but switched to a frontal mode of filming closer to Chantal Akerman’s aesthetics (see the care with which the woman’s voice and stories are recorded) than to Andy Warhol’s (the filming continues when He Fengming exits the room, but an unexpected change of framing indicates that the filmmaker did not walk away). He Fengming is another story of loss: a victim of the Anti-Rightist campaign of 1957, she was a young journalist separated from her husband, who died in a “re-education camp.”

Echoing avant-garde concerns (“process films” or Michael Snow’s work) Yuan you (Crude Oil, 2008), commissioned as an installation piece by the Rotterdam Film Festival, allowed Wang to remove himself one step further, as the footage (edited down to 14 hours) was taken with surveillance cameras. He was thus able to record the toiling of oil workers in the Gobi desert, but also moments of rest, social interaction and friendship.

For San zimei (Three Sisters, 2012), Wang spent months in a small Yunnan village, at an altitude of 3,200 meters, at great risk to his health. There, three little girls – Yingying (ten), Zhenzhen (six) and Fenfen (four) – are left to fend for themselves, vaguely taken care of by an auntie who does not have enough food for her own family. Their mother has left the family and their father works in a small city accessible only via a long walk and a rickety bus ride. Day in and day out the girls collect peat to make fires, tend the sheep, wash their own clothes at a water pump and perform chores. Zhenzhen’s and Fenfen’s hair is cropped short because they are infected with lice, their feet bleed when they wear plastic boots without socks, and Yingying always wears the same hoodie with “Lovely Diary” embroidered in the back.

Chinese documentary

Three Sisters

For his following film, the four-hour long Feng ai (’Til Madness Do Us Part, 2013), Wang lived with the residents of an insane asylum in Yunnan Province, where some have been interned for decades. The reasons for their detention recede further and further into oblivion, but one can guess that some were committed by their families, some were alcoholic, some manic-depressive, some were deemed “too religious,” and some may have been protesters or dissidents. As in West of the Tracks, Wang explores the relationship between a trapped human body and derelict architecture. A long, narrow corridor goes round the huge building, overlooking an inner courtyard through a wire fence on one side and opening onto the miserable dormitories on the other. At one point a young inmate starts running within the corridor as if in a trance. Wang follows, running steadfastly, stubbornly, to keep him within the frame. Later he accompanies a patient who has been given a few days furlough to visit his hometown. In the deserted street, at night, the man starts running, and Wang runs after him, pointing his camera at his back, and finally loses him in the darkness. Reproducing his stance as a “filming body” that had made West of the Tracks such a success, Wang signs here two great moments of cinema.

Chinese documentary

‘Til Madness Do Us Part

Cat on a hot tin roof

The issues faced by Chinese documentary filmmaking do not pertain only to “capturing” the real, but, more cogently, to suggesting the real’s fundamental ambiguity – and resistance to representation. In Piao (Floating, 2005), Huang Weikai combines re-enactments and scenes taken on the fly, to delve into the life-style of Yang Jinwei, a young street musician constantly harassed, fined and arrested by the cops for “vagrancy.” Homeless, he occasionally rooms with a drugged-up ex-girlfriend while endlessly quarrelling with her. The piece ends on a title mentioning the famous case of a young man beaten to death by the police for not having his resident’s card on him.

For Xian zai shi guo qu de wei lai (Disorder, 2009), Huang collected about 1,000 hours of amateur video footage shot haphazardly in the streets of Guangzhou. He then selected twenty-odd incidents, reworked the images into a quasi-surreal grainy black-and-white, and montaged them to create a kaleidoscopic view of the great southern metropolis in all its vibrant, loud and mean chaos. There are traffic accidents, scuffles with police and violent arrests, a bitter argument about counterfeit money and restaurant health regulations. A water main breaks and floods a neighbourhood, forcing the residents to tread in dirty water; a madman runs down the middle of a busy arterial road, pigs escape a truck and roam the streets. Huang keeps interweaving short fragments from each story; we don’t identify with the protagonists, but with the urban texture itself, as in the “City Symphonies” of yore.

The evolution of Du Haibin’s oeuvre, from Tielu yanxian (Along the Railway, 2001) – about vagrant boys and young men living by the tracks in Shaanxi province – to his masterful depiction of post-earthquake Sichuan in Yisi erba (1428, 2009) 19, to his latest project, Shao nian, Xiao Zhao (A Young Patriot, 2015), is also indicative of the renewal of documentary strategies. Du spent several years exploring Chinese nationalism among young people, but, discarding dozens of interviews and several montages, he refocused his investigation on the singular trajectory of one young man, Zhao Chantong. Du came across Zhao in 2010 when the latter was just 19, dressed in a military uniform and shouting patriotic slogans in the streets of Pinyao, Shanxi Province. Du followed the lad as he matured, went to college, and spent ten days with his classmates teaching Mandarin and arithmetic to the children of an ethnic minority in a poor village near the Tibetan border. When he became a victim of the official policy of “demolition and relocation” and his family house was knocked down without proper compensation, uprooting his ailing grandfather, his illusions about Communism were definitely destroyed. Appearing with Du to introduce the film at its world premiere in Hong Kong, Zhao was sporting a US flag as a bandana.

As notes Zhang Xianmin, independent documentary at the beginning of the 21st century has been a way to “challenge [the] history of world disasters [caused by] the efforts of building a perfect society” by foregrounding “the uncertainty and imperfection of human nature through real characters and even more so through indefinite relationships among humans.” 20

Against the socialist doxa, Xu Tong’s work keeps following disenfranchised, unassimilated populations – focusing in particular on the northeast of Hebei Province (one of the poorest areas in the country) and adjacent Inner Mongolia. Mai shou (Wheat Harvest, 2008) generated controversy, criticism and even public outcry for its showing of the double life of a nice country girl, Niu Hongmiao, who returns home to help her parents do the harvest – in between turning tricks in Beijing. Like homosexuality, prostitution belongs to the domain of the “unrepresentable,” so by showing the daily lives of sex workers Xu was going against the grain of their invisibility. On the other hand, by recording their actions and their conversations with a small digital camera they may not have been aware of, didn’t he put them at risk, and at an ontological level didn’t he exploit them? In his following film, the meandering Suan ming (Fortune Teller, 2010), Xu serendipitously found a way to address the issue head-on. As he was following the travails of a poor itinerant fortune teller, Li Baicheng, he met one of his customers, Tang Caifeng, the madam of a small brothel, and initiated a collaboration with her. He films her in his third documentary, Lao tang tou (Shattered, 2011), a sort of mise en abyme of Wheat Harvest: in both films, a daughter involved in prostitution comes home to visit her father. The narrative that unfolds, though, is quite different, due to the agency granted the two key subjects. Caifeng dabbles in illegal coal mining, quarrels loudly with her brothers, who are no angels themselves, and has a complicated relationship with her father, best captured in a beautiful scene where she removes wax from his ear. Then there is the patriarch, 80-year-old Tang Xixin, a retired railroad worker, disabused with Communism, who recounts the hardships he has seen and experienced in long garrulous monologues that are sometimes prompted by old photographs. An alternative history of China is outlined, not always with the greatest clarity, but with a defined sense of outrage: we were trumped, we were f***ed. 21

Moreover, Tang Caifeng is not a nice girl; she is a sexually appealing older woman, who can be alternatively vulgar, mean, loudmouthed and devastatingly charming. She imposes her presence within the frame, steals the show, and becomes more and more cunning in her appropriation of the filming process. She reappears in Si ge (The Fourth Brother, 2013), which exposes, in crisp black-and-white, the picturesque criminal career of one of her brothers – a non-judgmental look at the underbelly of society, its rituals, speech mannerism, body language, challenges, dangers – and merciless repression.

In Wa yanjing (Cut Out the Eyes, 2014), Er Housheng, a blind folk singer, makes a living touring Inner Mongolia performing er ren tai, a form of bawdy song quite popular in that part of the country 22. Through songs and private conversations, he keeps recounting an indelible trauma – how his eyes were gouged by the brothers of a married woman he had a hot affair with. As er en tai was banned during the Cultural Revolution, its survival and its singers’ lifestyle are a form of socio-cultural resistance. Caifeng, a total stranger to the story, nevertheless accompanies Xu Tong as he follows Er’s wanderings, and becomes close to his mother.

As discussed in a seminar organised in 2011 by the Nanjing Independent Film Festival, Xu Tong’s work marks the apex of a recent trend in documentaries to “depict the lives of people at the ‘bottom rung’ of the society (shehui diceng).” This is a marked difference with the New Documentary Movement of the 1990s, when, said Lv Xinyu, “filmmakers were not so different from the people they filmed, and documentary films were… telling the stories of common people (laobaixing).” 23

In previous texts, I have used the concept of “oblique glance” to depict the position of the Chinese independent filmmaker: the subject behind the camera as well as the subject in front of the camera belong to the same field, as they are all under the gaze, surveillance and repression of a third subject, the repressive state 24. Some have argued that the heightening of social contradictions in the last decade have turned filmmakers into a middle class that is not immune to “poverty porn,” while others contend that being an independent filmmaker itself means occupying a marginalised position in society.

As contra-cultural heroes age, other contradictions surface. Du Haibin found commonality with the young working-class victim of the Sichuan earthquake due to their similar childhoods, but had to spend years deciphering the mechanisms of nationalism among younger citizens. Zhou Hao’s schoolteacher admits that he does not understand how his students think. The possibility of an “oblique glance” remains with filmmakers who belong to oppressed minorities, queer cinema being a case in point. I will leave to further writing the question of whether the possibility of a true feminine gaze exists in the current independent Chinese cinema. But I would like to end this article with a remarkable work that opens new vistas regarding the hybridity between documentary and fiction, and the possibility of turning the camera on oneself.

Yang Mingming’s 42-minute featurette Nv daoyan (Female Directors, 2012) has been called a “mockumentary,” a term that reflects the difficulty of pinning down its form and content. When job prospects elude them, two sassy, foul-mouthed twenty-something art school graduates (Yang Mingming and her co-conspirator Guo Yue) decide to film each other’s lives instead, passing the camera back and forth. This involves talking candidly about sex, trading “pussy” for material and emotional gain, and testing their friendship by discussing the intimate details of their respective affairs with the same man – whom they nickname “Short Stuff.” “The camera is like a weapon,” says Yang. “Whoever is holding it holds the power in the relationship. Certainly, there are moments in the film when it mimics the male gaze. But I think that the film unsettles this, because we are always aware of who is holding the camera.” 25

Special thanks to the passeurs Chris Berry, Chow Keung, Cui Zi’en, Fan Popo, Isabelle Glachant, Jonathan Hung, Vicky Hung, JZK, Kong Lihong, Li Cheuk-to, Li Shanshan, Wang Weyang, Wen Hui, Wong Ain-Ling, Jacob Wong, Jenny Man Wu, Wu Wenguang, Yang Yang, Zhang Xianmin, Zhang Yaxuan, Zhang Zhen, Zhu Rikun, Simon Zhou and Angela Zito; Cheng-Sim Lim for years of co-curating and co-discovery; Michelle Carey and Dan Edwards for providing me with a forum and for their infinite patience for my idiosyncrasies as a writer.
This essay is an expansion and updating of a 2010 essay written for the San Sebastian International Film Festival. It also contains a revised version of a number of texts written on individual Chinese documentaries in festival reports for Senses of Cinema, as well as program notes produced for film series I have curated or co-curated. Traces of essays written for the following (seminal) books can also be found: Chris Berry, Lv Xinyu and Lisa Rofel eds., The New Chinese Documentary Film Movement – For the Public Record, (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2010), and Zhang Zhen and Angela Zito eds., DV-Made China: Digital Subjects and Social Transformations after Independent Film (Hawai’i: Hawai’i University Press, 2015).


  1.  This essay is an updating of a series of texts published in Senses of Cinema since the early 2000s focused on independent Chinese documentary:
    Bérénice Reynaud, “Dancing with Myself, Drifting with My Camera: The Emotional Vagabonds of China’s New Documentary,” Senses of Cinema 28 (October 2003): http://sensesofcinema.com/2003/feature-articles/chinas_new_documentary/
    Charles Leary, “Performing the Documentary, or Making it to the Other Bank,” Senses of Cinema 27 (July 2003), http://sensesofcinema.com/2003/feature-articles/performing_documentary/
    Dan Edwards: “Street Level Visions: China’s Digital Documentary Movement”, Senses of Cinema 63 (July 2012), http://sensesofcinema.com/2012/miff2012/street-level-visions-chinas-digital-documentary-movement/.
  2.  Lv Xinyu, Documenting China: The Contemporary Documentary Movement in China (Beijing: SDX Joint Publishing Company, 2003), quoted in Feng Yang’s review in DocBox 23 (10 May 2004), www.yidff.jp/docbox/23/box23-4-e.html
  3. Ou Ning, “Digital Images and Civic Consciousness,” (Brussels: Argos Festival 2004), reproduced on Ou Ning’s website (16 July 2010), www.alternativearchive.com/ouning/article.asp
  4.  Ibid.
  5.  See http://www.dazhalan-project.org/
  6.  See Luke Robinson, “Alternative Archives and Individual Subjectivities: Ou Ning’s Meishi Street,” Senses of Cinema 63 (July 2012), http://sensesofcinema.com/2012/miff2012/alternative-archives-and-individual-subjectivities-ou-nings-meishi-street/.
  7.  Cong Feng previously directed the “Italy of Gansu Trilogy,” which includes Xin Yang (Religion, 2006), Ma daifu de zhensuo (Doctor Ma’s Country Clinic, 2008), and Wei wancheng de shenghuo shi (The Unfinished History of Life, 2010).
  8.  Qiu Jiongjiong’s previous films included Da jiulou (The Moon Palace, 2007), Caipai ji (Ode to Joy, 2008) and Huang Laolao pai an (Portrait of Mr Huang, 2009).
  9.  Space unfortunately precludes a serious discussion of the complex role and chequered history of independent film festivals in China.
  10.  Yang Yang is currently curator for the independent screening space “Broadway Cinematheque” in Beijing, where she shows both documentary and fiction independent films. On her role in queer culture, see: Dinah Gardner, “Beijing Queer Film Festival – Yang Yang is organising the festival’s fifth incarnation,” Time Out Beijing (20 June 2011), www.timeoutbeijing.com/features/Blogs/12002/Beijing-Queer-Film-Festival.html
  11.  For more on Petition, see Dan Edwards, “‘Every Official Knows What the Problems Are’: Interview with Chinese Documentarian Zhao Liang,” Senses of Cinema 63 (July 2012), http://sensesofcinema.com/2012/miff2012/every-official-knows-what-the-problems-are-interview-with-chinese-documentarian-zhao-liang/; and Edwards, “Street Level Visions.”
  12.  I wrote in some detail about Datong in “Sundance/PAFF 2015: Vintage Years,” Senses of Cinema 74 (March 2015), http://sensesofcinema.com/2015/festival-reports/sundancepaff-2015-vintage-years/
  13.  For more on Zou Xueping and Wen Hui’s films, see Ma Ran’s incisive festival report, “Truth, Myths and Clichés: The 9th Beijing Independent Film Festival,” Senses of Cinema 65 (November 2012), http://sensesofcinema.com/2012/festival-reports/truth-myths-and-cliches-the-9th-beijing-independent-film-festival/
  14.  I discuss the relationship between Still Life and Dong in detail in my report on the 2006 Vancouver Film Festival, “Elusive Reality: The 25th Vancouver International Film Festival,” Senses of Cinema 42 (February 2007), http://sensesofcinema.com/2007/festival-reports/vancouver-iff-2006/
  15.  I described I Wish I Knew in detail in my report on the 2010 Vancouver International Film Festival, “The (Past and) Future of an Illusion: The 29th Vancouver International Film Festival,” Senses of Cinema 57 (December 2010), http://sensesofcinema.com/2010/festival-reports/the-past-and-future-of-an-illusion-the-29th-vancouver-international-film-festival/
  16.  Taiwan was occupied by Japan between 1898 and 1945.
  17.  Before the construction of the Three Gorges Dam, 1.24 million residents were forcibly evacuated. Li Yifan and Yan Yu’s Yanmo (Before the Flood, 2004) is a major documentary on this issue.
  18.  Quoted in The 32nd Hong Kong International Film Festival (Hong Kong: Hong Kong International Film Festival Society, 2008), p. 43.
  19.  I wrote in detail about 1428 in my report on the 2009 Vancouver International Film Festival, “Men Won’t Cry – Traces of a Repressive Past: The 28th Vancouver International Film Festival,” Senses of Cinema 54 (April 2010), http://sensesofcinema.com/2010/festival-reports/men-wont-cry-traces-of-a-repressive-past-the-28th-vancouver-international-film-festival/
  20.  Zhang Xianmin, “Questioning and Understanding: The Chinese Free Documentary Movement Since 2000” in Asian Documentary Today, Jane H. C. Hu and Asian Network of Documentary, eds. (Seoul: Buon/Busan International Film Festival, 2012), p. 51. A professor at Beijing Film Academy, Zhang is also a curator and producer of independent work.
  21.  I comment on Shattered in “Conflicting Landscapes: The 30th Vancouver International Film Festival,” Senses of cinema 61 (December 2011), http://sensesofcinema.com/2011/festival-reports/conflicting-landscapes-the-30th-vancouver-international-film-festival/
  22.  Er en tai was also celebrated, in narrative form, in Hao Jie’s Mei Jie (The Love Songs of Tiedan, 2012).
  23.  For a report on the seminar, see Ying Qian, “Just Images: Ethics and Documentary Film in China,” China Heritage Quarterly 29 (March 2012), www.chinaheritagequarterly.org/scholarship.php?searchterm=029_qian.inc&issue=029
  24.  For a restating of this position, see Zhao Liang’s comment in Edwards, “Every Official Knows.” Zhao states, “In the majority of my films I was one of the characters.” Yet Zhao also cautions against getting too involved: “To deal with the relationship between the director and the subject in the film, to balance it, is a kind of art. You shouldn’t get too close.”
  25.  Quoted in Simon Zhou, “New directions: Yang Ming Ming interview,” Time Out Beijing (14 May 2013), www.timeoutbeijing.com/features/Books__Film-Interviews__Features/20815/New-directions-Yang-Ming-Ming-interview.html