For our latest Docuverse Snapshots we had Dan Edwards present a talk called Reaching Out & Looking In: Independent Chinese Documentary Today. Dan is a Melbourne based academic, writer and journalist interested in Chinese and Australian film and culture. For this Snapshots talk Dan shared with us his extensive knowledge of Chinese independent documentary.
Dan began by drawing attention to the explosion of Chinese independent documentary which emerged out of the arrival of digital technologies in the late 90s and spanned till 2011. He discussed how during this time these documentaries were played at unofficial screening events, often in informal venues, removed from State censorship and not played on television or cinemas. Dan then went on to describe the characteristics of this burst of documentaries as observational, showing interaction between filmmaker and subject and showing disenfranchised communities and/or individuals. It was these types of documentary techniques which allowed these films to be political without explicitly criticising the state or country. As Dan described these films often took on a less confrontational approach by making visible what the mainstream media didn’t cover or glossed over. These films were activist films simply because they did what the mainstream didn’t.
Of particular interest to Docuverse, in terms of expanded documentary practices, was Dan’s mention of participatory initiatives in the mid-2000s. He drew particular attention to The Memory Project (2010) in which documentary filmmaker Wu Wenguang trained people from rural areas how to use digital filmmaking equipment. These trained individuals then interviewed villagers about their memories of the Great Famine of the 1950s, reflecting a common characteristic of independent Chinese documentary during this time – to explore memories that are unacknowledged by the state-sanctioned media. Dan noted how some of the participants of this project have gone on to make feature length films. While the site to watch these interviews was shut down this year, Duke University Press has preserved over 1000 of them in an online collection.
As Dan discussed this rich period of independent Chinese documentary, one kept wondering what happened in 2011 to stop this proliferation of films. Dan came to answering this toward the end when he talked about the “dramatic tightening” of the party state on culture and education that has happened in China since 2011. This tightening came as a mixed result of concern about the so-called “Jasmine Revolutions,” increased ethnic unrest and an increased feeling that independent cinema was overstepping the mark. In 2012 power was cut to the 2012 Independent Film Festival in Beijing. Dan finished his talk by highlighting that whilst Chinese audiences don’t have access to independent Chinese documentary today, we have seen increasing internalisation of these films. However, they are much more polished and tight structurally to appeal to Western audiences.
The questions which followed Dan’s talk revolved around whether or not these Chinese documentary filmmakers are film school trained, whether essayistic modes were prominent, and the role of the internet for distribution.
In an area not covered by Docuverse yet, Dan provided comprehensive insight into the rather unknown aspects of Chinese independent doco.
Dan has written a book entitled Independent Chinese Documentary: Alternative visions, alternative publics (2015).
Photographs by Nicholas Hansen and Hannah Brasier