Dazed Digital


The New Chinese Documentary Movement

March 23, 2011

The bleak, brutal and the banal from the lo-fi underground film auteurs

  • Text by Satellite Voices

Guest feature by Nicola Davison

Over the last few decades, a knot of determined filmmakers have been documenting life in China, outside Government approval and on shoestring budgets. Collectively they’re known as the New Chinese Documentary Film Movement, the origins of which can be traced to the early 1990s at a pivotal moment in Chinese history. Then, films were State-produced and news presenters little more than mouthpieces for the Communist Party. These filmmakers formed a backlash against mainstream media. They were also reacting to the ideological deficit following the brutal crackdown in Tiananmen Square in 1989. 

Early documentaries sought China’s marginalised, going back to the ‘common folk’. Consequently, these films employ a hand-held ‘grassroot’ aesthetic – lots of shaky frames and dodgy sound recording – a contrast to the glossy propaganda churned out by the State-run studios. They’re also some of the only records of the reality of life for the poor in China at that time: often bleak, brutal and banal. “The New Chinese Documentary Film Movement” is a collection of essays by academics and the filmmakers themselves, is the first book in English to look at these. Satellite Voices talks to editor Chris Berry.

Satellite Voices: What makes these documentaries part of a movement?
Chris Berry: The idea comes from my co-editor Lu Xinyu; she doesn’t mean it as a political movement, but as a social and cultural movement that has a distinctive style that I translate as ‘on-the-spot realism’. It’s marked by no rehearsal and minimal voiceover – very contingent filmmaking.

Often there’s not particularly good light because they’re using natural light, they have muddy soundtracks with overlapping voices with people walking in and out of frame. But you get the sense of being on the spot as things happen.

SV: Who are the filmmakers, what motivates them?
Chris Berry: Wu Wenguang is seen as the founding figure, he made “Bumming in Beijing” in the early 90s. Wu’s filmmaking is interview based; he’s always talking to his subjects. The other person who has to be talked about is Jia Zhangke, because even though people mostly think of him as a feature filmmaker he also made documentaries. And his commitment to the on-the-spot aesthetic, seen in “Pickpocket” (from 1997) for instance, also had a huge impact through his essays as well as his films.

Hu Jie tries to fly below the radar. He’s interested in oral history, particularly the history of the People’s Republic. Probably his best-known film is “Though I am Gone”, where he finds the widower of the first school principal who was beaten to death by her students in the ’70s. He talks about how he got the call from the hospital and picked up a Seagull camera to take shots of his wife dying. So the film is very powerful because of what it’s about, but also because it’s about the impulse to document, the understanding that without this material history gets forgotten.

SV: Why is it important?
Chris Berry: The filmmakers create history, because they not only recorded things that happened, but give voice to people who are otherwise excluded. It’s a huge change, and it exemplifies the huge social/cultural revolution that’s happening in China with Youku (China’s YouTube) – the initiative has moved from the Government to ordinary people.

Stills taken from Jia Zhangke’s “I Wish I Knew”

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