Documenting Dissent

Political documentary in the People’s Republic of China

Authored by: Luke Robinson

The Routledge Companion to Cinema and Politics

Print publication date:  June  2016
Online publication date:  July  2016

Print ISBN: 9780415717397
eBook ISBN: 9781315678863
Adobe ISBN: 9781317392460


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Contemporary independent Chinese documentary frequently traces its roots to a loosely affiliated group of filmmakers who, in the early 1990s, decided to leave their positions at China Central Television (CCTV), the national broadcaster, and strike out on their own. Once outside the state media system, these filmmakers largely adopted an observational aesthetic, making films that increasingly focused on the socially marginal or engaged in Frederick Wiseman-esque institutional analysis. In the past decade, however, what is sometimes termed the “New Documentary Movement” has diversified considerably. One symptom of this pluralization is the emergence of an explicitly socially and politically engaged strand of filmmaking that takes the early filmmakers’ emerging interest in the subaltern in new and often quite radical directions. From the late 1990s, the socially and economically marginal came under sustained scrutiny from independent documentary filmmakers. Feature-length films were made about subcultures of all descriptions – sex workers, drug users, the elderly, homosexuals, migrant workers, migrant children, the mentally ill, the physically disabled, the urban poor – but also, increasingly, about those suffering from various forms of social, economic and political injustice. 1 These documentaries were complemented by cruder footage that directly captured events associated with such oppression. 2 Sometimes these images were then interwoven with other footage to create full-length films, as the directors Hu Jie and Ai Xiaoming did in Our Children/Women de wawa (2009). This is a documentary about the investigations conducted by parents of schoolchildren crushed to death in the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake into why their children died; Hu and Ai incorporated material shot by their subjects, on video and on mobile phones, into the final cut. Lastly, the issue of historical trauma raised its head. Certain filmmakers began to record the stories of those who had suffered in the past, particularly during the Maoist era, capturing their testimony on camera. Hu Jie’s Xunzhao Lin Zhao de linghun/Searching for Lin Zhao’s Soul (2004) and Wo sui siqu/Though I Am Gone (2007) are textbook cases here, but so is Minjian jiyi jihua/The Memory Project (2010–) initiated by Beijing-based filmmaker Wu Wenguang’s Caochangdi Studio. In all such examples, despite the continued influence of the observational aesthetic, it is increasingly possible to find sequences that break with the independent Chinese documentary tradition of carefully cultivated ‘objectivity’.

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