New Chinese Documentary Film Movement:
For the Public Record

Edited by Chris Berry, Lü Xinyu, and Lisa Rofel


Reviewed by Matthew D. Johnson

MCLC Resource Center Publication (November 2011)


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Chris Berry, Lü Xinyu, and Lisa Rofel, eds. New Chinese Documentary Film Movement: For the Public Record. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2010. 320 pp. ISBN: 9789888028511 (cloth); ISBN: 9789888028528 (paper)

Editors Chris Berry, Lü Xinyu, and Lisa Rofel have assembled a comprehensive collection of essays addressing China's New Documentary Movement (NDM), its history, aesthetics, and influence on documentary media practice today. Two of the essays--one by highly regarded director Wu Wenguang and the other by Lü Xinyu--have previously appeared in translation but are nonetheless welcome additions. The volume is also supplemented by a list of film and video titles, a note on sources, and an appendix that includes biographical information and selected filmographies of key documentarians. For those wanting to know more about the NDM phenomenon, this is a reliable guide, but it is also an important contribution to Chinese cinema studies.

The NDM is best known to film studies scholars and, perhaps to a lesser extent, festival-conscious filmmakers and audiences; its significance, in other words, may appear debatable from the perspective of the larger scholarly and media practitioner community. Not so, argue Berry and Rofel. In the volume's introductory essay, they argue that the NDM's emergence during the early 1990s triggered a "wholesale transformation of public culture" (p. 3) within China, particularly with respect to television news reporting and amateur, internet-based media production. In their view co-editor Lü Xinyu, a professor at Fudan University, deserves credit for having been the first scholar writing in either Chinese or English to document and analyze this transformation. One of the implicit goals of the volume is thus to introduce readers to Lü's writing on the NDM and its participants.

Berry and Rofel's claim that "any attempt to understand China's visual culture today must start from an understanding of the New Documentary Movement" (p. 4) may strike some as hyperbolic. It may also be true. In seeking to establish the plausibility of their argument, Berry and Rofel rely heavily on Lü's largely untranslated oeuvre of articles, interviews, and first-hand observations, which they use to map out a deep history of connections between the NDM and China's media. The story runs roughly like this: First, China's intellectually uninhibited 1980s gave rise to independent documentary filmmaking as a critical observational practice. Later, this "on-the-spot" realist style was adopted by television professionals, some of who had roots in the nascent NDM. These early independents, and their impact on the media profession, were the subjects of several of Lü Xinyu's path-breaking studies. Following Lü, Berry and Rofel also posit that photographic and filmmaking circles, including the Sixth Generation of Chinese directors, were also inspired by, or belonged to, the NDM.

This is a bold and significant claim, tantamount to equating some of the most important innovations in realist cultural production taking place in China during the early 1990s (what Berry and Rofel call the "1989/1992 conjecture" [p. 6]) with the NDM itself. Readers learn that it was during this moment that the NDM coalesced around a group of media professionals who, frustrated with the government's anti-democratic authoritarianism and inegalitarian market reforms, devoted themselves to documenting marginal subjects within Chinese society as a critique of state policies. Their aesthetic rebellion targeted not only the hollow propaganda of official realism, but also the sycophantic, clubby cultural circles dominated by China's Fifth Generation cinematic elite. The result was an alternative aesthetic that became increasingly popular within the news media and among the rising generation of Chinese directors--two groups in search of a commercial audience and, in the case of the Sixth Generation, a distinctive collective brand. Subsequent developments further consolidated and institutionalized the NDM's seminal status as a cultural revolution of a decidedly post-Mao sort. First, its distinctive look was later appropriated by Fifth Generation filmmakers like Zhang Yimou, whose The Story of Qiu Ju (1992) made the new realist mode a commercial success. Just as important, however, was the constant shuttling of NDM practitioners between state-owned television corporations and the festival-based independent film circuit. Resulting synergies between political and professional frustration, audience demand, and media commercialization thus vaulted NDM innovators and emulators to a position at the vanguard of Chinese cultural production.

Two additional essays by Lü Xinyu cement the key details of Berry and Rofel's argument. In "Rethinking China's New Documentary Movement: Engagement with the Social," she describes the NDM as a challenge to the Chinese state's policies and official aesthetics, an independent approach to media production, and a commitment to the representation of marginalized subjects such as ethnic minorities, or the unemployed. Here Lü reworks earlier arguments presented in Documenting China, a masterpiece of interpretation and oral history first published in 2003. First, she emphasizes the NDM's emphasis on "individualization" (gerenhua)--a move that anticipated the late 1990s digital video (DV) documentary fixation on personal narrative. Another important theme concerns the NDM's relationship to changes taking place in China's television industry during the early 1980s. According to her account, similarities in the work of NDM founders Wu Wenguang, Duan Jinchuan, Jiang Yue, and Zhang Yuan can be explained by the television's increased openness to the production values of countries which, like Japan, were already producing documentaries in large numbers. Of course, no movement is complete without its founding myth, and this Lü delivers by describing a 1992 meeting of Beijing-based media professionals and independents from which the NDM emerged as a conscious commitment to "new representations of reality" (p. 17), and to changing China's existing social and cultural status quo.

For many audiences, the NDM's appeal lies in its portrayals of subaltern Chinese life, while technical and formalist elements of the movement are less frequently discussed. Lü Xinyu's second essay, "West of the Tracks: History and Class Consciousness," focuses primarily on the ethnographic aspects of Wang Bin's three-part treatment of unemployment and its effects on a working-class Shenyang neighborhood. In her close reading of Wang's nine-hour magnum opus, Lü describes the economic ruin and inequality behind post-revolutionary China's propaganda façade. As she implies, the essence of NDM on-the-spot (jishi) realism lies in its oppositional relationship to the government's progressive version of history--"in a society undergoing huge transformation, the documentary movement attempts to expose oppression and exploitation" (p. 74). The subject matter is the message. The message is that not all people are well-served by current policies of socialist market reform.

Taking issue with Lü's claims, one might argue that these political gestures are primarily motivated by professional ambition. That is, NDM filmmakers and visual artists have intentionally subverted official aesthetic and representational codes in order to carve out their own niches within existing cultural industries. Several founding NDM members have gone on to successful careers as influential producers in television and film. Others, like superstar director Jia Zhangke, have transcended China's media cartels via the international festival circuit. Lü's essays can also be read as placing the issue of the NDM's "newness" up for debate, a point she raises when discussing the influence of mid-1980s media and cultural trends on key NDM founders. Her research reveals that from a formal perspective, many of the techniques adopted by these directors were derived from domestic photographic circles and foreign cultural inflows. Even the movement's self-consciously rebellious image appears to derive from the public personae of earlier Fifth Generation directors. The more original aspects of the NDM are its subject matter and operational procedures--bringing images of a dystopian, subaltern, "individualized" China to international audiences via documentary festivals in Europe and Japan. From this perspective, claims the the NDM marks a new aesthetic watershed are difficult to sustain, even if the movement's images of marginal subjects and personalized approach to the filmmaking process do seem to represent a new direction in Chinese filmmaking.

The distinction is not inconsequential. To reiterate: editors Berry and Rofel posit the NDM as the pioneer of a "wholesale transformation of public culture" (p. 3). But if the NDM was only one among many dynamic cultural forces shaping Chinese visual culture's realist transformation, or if it was (merely) the avant-garde wing of a deeper movement taking place within China's state-owned television sector, then it may be that arguments for the NDM's status as a culturally progressive force are indeed overblown. The case thus rises and falls on the degree to which the NDM can be portrayed as a coherent, purposive, and Promethean historical actor. Just as the Fifth Generation myth has fallen prey to revelations of state complicity, post-fame excess, and Fourth Generation influence, so too does the NDM appear perilously vulnerable to revisionist attack. How, then, to support the claim that this fascinating, if epiphenomenal, visual outgrowth of China's post-Mao media sector reforms is deserving of its current cultural cachet?

One possible answer appears buried in a seminal essay by NDM founding figure Wu Wenguang, reprinted here as a primary source appendix to Lü Xinyu's longer history of the movement and its numerous participants. In "DV: Individual Filmmaking," first published in 2001, Wu describes his experiences documenting the lives of performers in the Far & Wide Song and Dance Troupe--later the basis of his first major DV-based documentary, Jianghu: Life on the Road (1999). The essay also recounts several weeks spent in the company of documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman, a period during which Wu claims that "I discovered that there is no direct relationship between the word 'independent' and video or film; it is a lifestyle, something that is under your skin and in your blood" (p. 51). Thereafter, Wu moved from film-based to DV recording, adopting the new technology in order to learn to better "ramble around by myself," and "[distance] myself even more from professional filmmakers" (ibid.). Independent practice was, for Wu, characterized by two irreducible components: first, economic remove from the world of producers and film festivals through circumspect avoidance of "techniques that [require] money" (p. 50), and second, the ability to move "farther and farther from 'professionalism,' television, film festival competitions, and awards" (p. 54). In short, Wu claims that his experience working alongside Wiseman convinced him to quit the avant-garde entirely--to become a truly independent agent. From Wu's perspective, the NDM (a term which Wu himself avoids) represented a kind of transition toward personal and professional freedom, and a decisive move away from the vocation of cinema. Rather, as his numerous publications and Caochangdi media production facility attest, the legacy of the NDM lies in its individual participants' attempts to create new sites for cultural creation. Such a conclusion, in fact, fits Berry and Rofel's related argument that the NDM can be directly connected to "the protean output of internet and amateur visual culture in China today" (p. 13).

But was there a movement? Readers will have to decide for themselves. If by "movement" it is meant, as Lü Xinyu often seems to imply, that there has been a major outpouring of documentaries which pay attention to ordinary people and (more debatably) treat the people that they are recording as equals, then the disparate practices and practitioners collected here under the NDM banner would seem to fulfill this minimal criteria for movement status.[1] But if the term refers instead to an organized challenge to China's public culture, then its use is misleading. In interviews Lü Xinyu has described the NDM as her own name for a "theoretical outline of the development of documentary in China," and "trend that I have called the New Documentary Movement."[2] Even this account appears wide of the mark. Film scholar Wang Chi has noted in her 2009 MA thesis that the term "New Documentary" first appeared in the title of a 1991 conference convened by putative movement figurehead Shi Jian[3], a date after which several of the seminal documentary works (Wu Wenguang's Bumming in Beijing [1990], Duan Jinchuan's Tibet-themed Highland Barley [1986], and The Blue Mask Consecration [1988]) associated with the NDM had already been completed.

There is, in other words, only scant evidence to align the movement's creation myth with the longer history of aesthetically "new" documentary film and television production, or with the 1989/1992 conjecture postulated in Berry and Rofel's introduction. Instead, the NDM itself appears as one manifestation of a far deeper architectonic shift taking place within China's television industry as a combined result of pre-WTO globalization, competition within media markets, audience expansion, and decentralization of the television sector into a four-tier system during 1983. Diversity of programming, self-financed media outlets (e.g. cable television), and local de-regulation all offered their own challenges to CCTV and other public media nearly ten years prior to the post-1991 NDM heyday. From this perspective, the efforts of Shi Jian, Zhang Yuan, and others to brand their works with the NDM moniker may be understood as Beijing's response to other new forms of media independence taking shape at China's real cultural margins--the hinterland television stations and shadow economies from which Wu Wenguang and Duan Jinchuan first launched their pioneering careers.

The volume's remaining essays provide a comprehensive overview of alternative media and its contemporary audience. Notable themes include: representational politics (Chao Shi-Yan); the post-socialist urban sensibility (Paola Voci); alternative cinema venues (Seio Nakijima; Chris Berry and Lisa Rofel); aesthetic experimentation (Bérénice Reynaud; Luke Robinson; Yomi Braester); and amateur DV and internet image-making (Yiman Wang). Two expertly assembled appendices round out the collection, one an extensive "who's who" of NDM and NDM-associated filmmakers, and the other a list of providers of NDM films and NDM-related resources. The individual essays are superb, and one could not ask for a more engaging introduction to cinematic alternatives in contemporary China.

Matthew D. Johnson
Grinnell College

Notes:

[1] See http://www.china.org.cn/english/culture/104848.htm; and http://www.yidff.jp/docbox/23/box23-4-e.html.

[2] See http://www.china.org.cn/english/culture/104848.htm.

[3] See http://etd.ohiolink.edu/send-pdf.cgi/Wang%20Chi.pdf?ohiou1258125393. See pp. 56-57. The account is based on Shi, Yi (2008). Two Strokes: An Interview with Chen Hanyuan. Shanghai: Shanghai People's Press.