‘A society discovering itself’: The amazing, subversive rise of Chinese documentary film

Documentary filmmaking isn't always easy in China; like many forms of journalism, it is political by its very coexistence with state controls that the filmmakers may or may not accept. But, like so many forms of cultural expression in China, it's been growing rapidly over the last few years, reflecting a society undergoing tremendous change.

A new exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, "Chinese Realities/Documentary Visions," traces the development of Chinese documentary filmmaking in the 25 years since 1988. The documentaries, often filmed guerrilla-style by self-made journalists, artists and activists, are not just a record of China's changes but part of the country's fascinating internal dialogue about what it means to be a part of today's China.

MOMA was kind enough to share a six-minute trailer, embedded above, although unfortunately it appears to cut out mid-way. The trailer, in frames showing clips from the earliest Chinese documentaries alongside stock images of the security services' omnipresent cameras, hints at the ways in which this medium allows citizens to take back some power from the state. That's especially significant in a country where official ideology and national narratives have been dictated from the top down, particularly during the Cultural Revolution of 1967 to 1977.

One film that looks to particularly convey the unique significance of Chinese documentaries is 1990's "Bummer in Beijing: The Last Dreamers," which is showing at the museum on Saturday night. (You can watch it in full here.) Here's MOMA's synopsis, followed by a short clip:

1990. China. Directed by Wu Wenguang. Shot before and after the Tiananmen Square incident, Wu Wenguang's portrait of five artists eking out a life in the nation's capital is considered the birth of the Chinese independent documentary movement. The film's open, observational structure and handheld camera work are hallmarks of the movement today, as is its self-reflexive awareness of the documentarian's role, with a sense of intimacy and solidarity between filmmaker and subject. Courtesy of Wu Wenguang/China Independent Documentary Film Archive. In Mandarin; English subtitles. 70 min.

Of the 29 films showing at the New York museum, perhaps the most ambitious is Tie Xi Qu's 2003 film, "West of the Tracks." The nearly 10-hour, three-part series documents the decline and eventual collapse of China's Michigan-style northeast rust belt. Once the pride of China's communist economy and a source of good jobs, both the factories and the region were left behind by the economic liberalization that did such great things for other parts of the country. Here's a preview, which makes clear the leaps and bounds by which the Chinese documentary aesthetic had developed since 1990:

Jump ahead just six years to 2009, when Zhao Liang released a remarkable and important documentary called "Petition." Filmed over more than a decade, it tells the story of Chinese "petitioners," regular citizens who risk prison or worse by trekking to Beijing to ask national officials to address their local grievances. Twitch, a site that covers international film, calls it a "major highlight" of the series and an "absolute must-see." Here's its review:

[Director] Zhao [Liang]'s sympathetic and penetrating camera examines this situation in sometimes painful detail. Using a hidden camera to film inside the petition office, where filming is forbidden, Zhao documents the cruelly indifferent treatment of the petitioners by unseen workers behind barred windows, with security officers at the ready to forcibly remove those who become too unruly. Besides poverty and homelessness, the petitioners also face physical threats and sometimes beatings at the hands of the "retrievers," essentially hired thugs from the provinces sent to dissuade petitioners from their efforts, seen as embarrassments to local governments. Many petitioners have been trying to resolve their grievances for years on end, some stretching into decades.

The most heartrending episode of the film occurs when Zhao gets personally involved in the story concerning Qi, a middle-aged woman trying to get to the bottom of her husband's death after a work-mandated medical exam, and her daughter Juan, who dutifully accompanies her while she is petitioning. When Juan finally tires of dealing with her emotionally fragile mother - who was sent to a mental institution for a time - and wishes to escape to live her own life, she gives Zhao a note for him to give to her mother before she leaves. This leads to Qi angrily confronting the filmmaker after he breaks the news to her. This story, as uncomfortable as it is to watch, perfectly illustrates how committed Zhao is to illuminating the experiences of his subjects, people whom the government wishes to literally erase.

Petition Village was eventually torn down when the old South Beijing Railway Station was demolished to make way for a renovated, ultramodern station. However, Petition ensures that a permanent record exists of these people's stories, and that they cannot be so easily put aside. Petition will screen in two versions: a two hour international cut (which is the one I preview here), and its original five-hour version, which tells the petitioners' stories in much fuller detail.

Of course, no exhibition on Chinese documentary filmmaking would be complete without artist Ai Weiwei, whose 2010 film "Disturbing the Peace" follows a citizen-led effort to investigate the deaths of children during the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, when poorly constructed schools collapsed. It's about the Sichuan quake and the shoddy construction as well as the challenges and opportunities of grassroots activism in today's China. Watch it here:

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