Independent film festivals in China have become rather exciting lately. And I’m not just talking about the films. If they’re not being raided by the authorities (see my account of the 2011 Beijing Independent Film Festival at dGeneratefilms.com), then they’re platforms for furious and impassioned debate between filmmakers, curators, critics, and theoreticians. This year in Nanjing, at the 8th annual China Independent Film Festival, a seemingly innocuous roundtable/symposium on Ethics and Documentary Cinema provoked a controversy and a formal reaction in the form of a directors’ manifesto, or more precisely a declaration of principles. I’ve translated the declaration, titled Shamans ·Animals, into English below.
The symposium/roundtable that precipitated the controversy took place on October 31st. CIFF curator Wang Xiaolu was in charge of the event, entitled “The Road of Chinese Documentary: Politics, Ethics, and Methods”; he invited academics Lü Xinyu, Guo Xizhi, Kuo Li-hsin, and Angela Zito as featured speakers. Attendees also included many of the filmmakers whose films were being shown at CIFF, among them Cong Feng, Xu Tong (along with the subject of his two latest documentaries, Tang Xiaoyan), Ji Dan, etc. Much of the discussion centered around Lü Xinyu and her analysis of independent Chinese documentaries. Lü is an influential scholar whose fundamental pioneering research on Chinese independent documentary cinema set the early terms of debate: she popularized the now-controversial concept “new [Chinese] documentary film movement” (xin jilupian yundong) in her 2003 book Documentary China (a newly published English translation of her writings is included in The New Chinese Documentary Film Movement: for the public record [ed. Chris Berry, Lü Xinyu, & Lisa Rofel, Hong Kong University Press, 2010]).
The main topic of discussion was the relationship between documentary filmmakers and their subjects. Initial discussion was theoretical in scope and dominated by Professor Lü and the other academics: the filmmakers themselves had little opportunity to participate. Participants, including Beijing Film Academy professor and CIFF co-organizer Zhang Xianmin, attempted to solicit filmmakers’ comments after each invited speaker’s presentation. But the discourse that preceded these overtures most likely alienated the directors. The Chinese language commentators often hewed to a Marxist-derived or post-Marxist emphasis on class, power, economy, and social differentiation/antagonism (I have to admit I’m often guilty of same in my own analysis of these films). Angela Zito’s presentation focused more on issues of psychological identification and re-presentation. The CIFF organizers especially invited Xu Tong and Tang Xiaoyan to be there, as a classic recent instance of documentary ethics in practice (Tang is a sex worker, more precisely the boss of a single-employee brothel who, along with her co-worker, was arrested at the end of Xu’s documentary Fortune Teller, and who reappears in his follow up, Shattered). But neither was given space to speak, until Ms. Tang burst out with a ringing support for filmmakers like those present, who reveal the lives of people like her to audiences who otherwise couldn’t imagine them.
Lü Xinyu’s characterization of the typical subjects of new Chinese documentaries as diceng, or the lowest social classes/lower strata of society/lower depths (following Gorky’s formulation) was also met with resistance, by directors who read this as projecting them in a “superior” position, shooting the “low” from “on high.” One director objected that the relationship between the person filming and the person(s) being filmed was a mutually creative, mutually influential one, irreducible to a relationship of author filming subjects of “lower” status. Other directors also questioned whether a theoretical approach that was formed back in the mid 1990s and early 2000s still had relevance today, and suggested that new approaches were needed to account for changing documentary cinema practices and forms.
The symposium extended for an hour beyond its scheduled conclusion, and several directors and organizers of non-official Chinese screening platforms continued discussions into the early hours of the next morning over bottles of Chinese rice wine. The result was what some called the next day a dazibao, from the classic “big character posters” that were famously put up by radical Maoist Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution to denounce the official class enemies (capitalist roaders, etc.) of the moment. The CIFF dazibao was more demure: a two-page declaration titled Shamans · Animals. This was posted around the Nanjing University campus (the main host institution for CIFF), outside the hall where the closing ceremony was held, and was distributed by young CIFF volunteers and attendees who supported the directors. The manifesto was originally unsigned (though individual directors and participants signed some of their own specific points); space was left at the bottom for people to sign once it went up on the walls.
Incomplete postscript. And that wasn’t the end of it. During the after party that followed the CIFF closing ceremony, CIFF programmers Wang Xiaolu and Shen Xiaoping organized a follow up “free discussion.” This included seminal theorist and documentary filmmaker Wu Wenguang (who missed the initial roundtable as he was a competition jury member) and many of the authors and signers of the declaration. They continued to debate the issues, in a smoke-filled side room (all Chinese directors’ meetings are smoke-saturated): this discussion went on until 1 a.m. the next morning. And the debate continues online, on the Weibo micro-blogging forum (China’s answer to Twitter)…
Shamans · Animals
A response to the October 31 2011 China Independent Film Festival Documentary Film Symposium
By several documentary filmmakers who participated and also who did not participate in the festival
1/ Demand that film critics buy their own DVDs—Xue Jianqiang
2/ Reject how film critics have become the definers and arbiters of the morals and ethics of documentary film. Rather than simply passing judgement on documentary ethics, film critics should foster a film critique based on artistic intuition that, rooted in intrinsic film language itself, inquires into ethics.
Reject a film critical perspective that is remote from common people, one that abuses a concept like “the lower strata of society.” Do you like this concept because you feel that you are in a position of superiority?
Can an intellectual-style round table discussion have any possible constructive nature?
Reject the way intellectuals use conventional concepts and actions to turn fresh and lively documentary experience into something uninteresting.—Cong Feng
3／ If we see cinema as a private garden, is the critic the owner of the garden or only the gardener? —Zhang Chacha
4／ The rigid theorizing of intellectuals turns the flow of discussion into something oppressive and boring.—Gui Shuzhong
5／ For the past few years, it seems that we’ve abandoned discussing film language. It’s more fun discussing the ethics of social differentiation.—Jin Jie
6／Shoot films like an animal.
Criticize (films) like an animal.
Animals of a different species.—Qiu Jiongjiong
7／ Critics cannot dictate history.
Critics should learn from filmmakers, and not pretend to be their mentors.
Artists teach themselves in the course of shooting their films; they establish their own ethical principles.—Cong Feng
8／ Making documentary cinema reproduces the feeling of making love. The climaxes can’t be judged by the critics.—Song Chuan
9／ Respect the diversity of and multiple approaches to creative artistic research.
10／ We’re not trying to start a revolution. We’re trying to shake people awake (while we get drunk).—Ji Dan
11／ Revolutions are caused by arrogance, nothing more.—Ji Dan
12／ Fortunately documentary filmmakers pay no heed to unreliable theory.—Gui Shuzhong
13／ Theory is inflexible.
Are fresh and lively
14／ Filmmakers speak through their works
Viewers ponder what’s on the screen
Here come the critics, squawking and quacking a language of their own.—Jin Jie, Zhang Chacha
15／ If theorists are the ones who can speak, and critics are the ones who can write, then the real thinkers are precisely those who neither speak nor write.—Bai Budan
16／When ethics are at issue, law is the criterion.—Feng Yu
17／ Where is the moral introspection of certain critics and scholars? Enough with leaders’ speeches, already.—Cong Feng
18／ Theory is related to reality. Theory also must keep up with the times. If critics stray from the works of art themselves while discussing theory, then their discussion will become like fog in the wind, vapid and uninteresting.—Gui Shuzhong
19 / [missing]
20／ Talk too much about theory, and you sound pretentious. Overemphasize theory and you sound authoritarian. Life is not a two-sided coin: you have no right to force it to be either one way or the other. Of course, you can use theory to impress the kids. The motivation for documentary comes from a shame of one’s own ignorance. There’s no place for any talk of an avant garde or of theory.—Hu Xinyu
21/ At present, the critics tend to a kind of literary writing style. Documentary films are treated as literature, as works of art. The critics seem to think they alone have the right to define a rational discursive interpretation of society. But this is in fact an act of cultural despotism, an act that is neither rational with respect to social reality nor with respect to art. Because of this, the rational discourse of the critics is a kind of observation at one remove.—Mao Chenyu
22／ So-called theory is all for self-gratification. Independent film should not be restricted to the society’s lowest classes telling stories about each other. It should be diverse and multiple.
Uninteresting, boring, useless.
When you say you’re aligned with the lowest levels of society, you are in fact looking with disdain and contempt at the low from on high.
Please use the word “intellectual” correctly and carefully. And please don’t use that word at this kind of independent film festival. It is not a term of praise, but rather a pretext to occupy a position high above the ordinary people. Is it really so hard to be modest and put yourself in someone else’s position?—Wang Shu
23／ If possible, watch more movies. If you ever have the opportunity, then try to shoot a film. If you’ve never shot a gun yourself, how can you teach someone else to shoot? —Gui Shuzhong, Cong Feng
24／ Yesterday’s forum took place at the Nanjing University’s News and Media Institute. Is it the job of our professors and scholars to teach students how make false statements sound like true ones? If those who teach students to lie boast that they are intellectuals, can there still be any filmmakers willing to label themselves “intellectuals?”—Beifang Lao (web alias)
Signed by several documentary filmmakers and film festival attendees:
Translated by Shelly Kraicer
Co-translator: Isabella Ho
With thanks to Yang Yishu, J.P. Sniadecki, Zhang Xianmin, and Cong Feng.
China, Documentary, Film Criticism, Manifesto