The most independent documentary films coming out of China can hardly be described as political at all. And if any criticism is aimed at those in positions of authority, those targeted are always people on the lower rungs of the power ladder, or from far-flung provinces. The carryings-on of those at the top of the political tree are never discussed – the political decisions taken in Beijing are unassailable.
The situation was no different 20 years ago, when Wu Wengguang made Bumming in Beijing: The Last Dreamers (1990). This documentary portrays five artists, illegally staying in Beijing during the period immediately following the bloodbath around Tiananmen Square in 1989. With this film, Wu laid the foundation for the current generation of independent documentary filmmakers.
The next milestone appeared more than ten years later: Wang Bing’s nine-plus-hour masterpiece Tie Xi Qu: West of the Tracks – a report, in minute detail, of the consequences for the common man of the macroeconomic course being set in the New China. The filmmakers in this programme also feel a commitment to the lot of the common man, and the poorest of the poor – people who are usually overlooked, or who don’t want to be seen. To film them, it is often necessary to undertake long journeys to places far away from the capital; often, to the provinces where they themselves were born. It is for this reason that their presence can go unremarked: they know the way, and they speak the language. Several of these filmmakers could be described as ethnographers or anthropologists in their own country. Filmmaker Cong Feng, for example, spent more than four years in a small community in Gansu province, in the northwest of China. He became so settled there that no one remembered what he had originally come to do. This allowed him to record everyday life, unaffected by the camera. He finally made two films: Doctor Ma’s Country Clinic and The Unfinished History of Life.
Filmmaker Xu Tong, a guest in Rotterdam last year with Fortune Teller, gave rise to controversy by the way he portrays the shadowy dealings of the flamboyant female brothel keeper and ´entrepreneur´ Tang Caifeng in Shattered. Not only was he accused of being too close to Tang, but – more seriously – he remained completely aloof from her at times highly dubious moral practices. Another remarkable aspect of these filmmakers’ working methods is the length of time they take to record their subjects. Time that proves an effective judge, jury and executioner: the lies inherent in the propaganda of progress are remorselessly exposed by its passing.
The camera, however, is also trained on Beijing itself: Born in Beijing by Ma Li and When the Bough Breaks by Ji Dan painstakingly document various homeless communities on the periphery of the city. These films provide irrefutable proof that the economic growth of today’s China by no means benefits all.
Born in Beijing also tells another story. That of the ‘petitioners’ – people in Beijing who have wanted to lodge a complaint against their local authorities. The old women in the film living under bridges were originally petitioners, or in some cases even their children. The other side of the petitioners’ story is revealed in one of the most exceptional films in this programme: Zhang Zanbo’s The Interceptor from My Hometown. An ‘interceptor’ is an official hired by the authorities, authorised to do anything and everything to intercept petitioners from the provinces. He is even authorised to forcibly return them to their place of residence, if necessary. Zhang happened to meet a former classmate of his, who had become an interceptor, and who was prepared to tell his story in front of the camera, allowing Zhang to expose one of the perverse cogs in the power machine.
On Sunday evening, 3 April 2011, world-famous artist Ai Weiwei was arrested at the airport in Beijing. He was confined for 81 days without any clear charge, at a location that was initially kept secret. After being released, he was held under house arrest, suspected of tax evasion and bigamy.
Ai Weiwei is China’s best-known political activist after Liu Xiaobo – the writer and human rights activist who received a Nobel Peace Prize in prison in 2010. The Chinese authorities became alarmed when Ai Weiwei garnered a huge army of followers on Twitter-style website Weibo. Not only students and activists, but also artists and filmmakers followed Ai Weiwei’s activities on this social network. Ai Weiwei has now been removed from Weibo.
The arrest of Ai Weiwei made a big impression in China, in particular on independent documentary makers, whose work exposes them to similar risks. In recent years, many activists and their lawyers have been locked up, or have even disappeared; nevertheless, the fact that such a famous figure as Ai Weiwei could be arrested just like that was an extremely worrying development. During the months after his arrest, many less well-known artists and filmmakers came into conflict with the authorities. Film festivals were postponed or forbidden and their organisers advised to leave their jobs or return to their home towns or villages to reconsider.
Paradoxically, the year in which Ai Weiwei was arrested – a year in the shadow of repression – proved to be a good, productive year for the independent film scene.
Not all independent filmmakers in China have undergone professional film training. Many of the filmmakers included in the Hidden Histories programme are autodidacts. Cong Feng, for example, was a newspaper weatherman, Ji Dan a teacher, He Yuan an anthropologist and Yu Guangyi a wood carver.
Only a few people realise that versatile artist and architect Ai Weiwei did receive professional film training, at the film academy in Beijing no less, where he was in the same year as Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige. Nevertheless, his films display few academic trademarks; his art videos are far removed from traditional filmmaking and his ‘social documentaries’ often seem to be more about him than made by him.
It is remarkable for an artist-filmmaker of his status that his works have hardly been available to the public until now. Opportunities for exhibition in China were minimal, and are now completely non-existent. Previously, Ai Weiwei would give out his films on free DVDs at public appearances, but this option is now closed, too. Of the five documentary films included in this programme (Fairytale; Disturbing the Peace; One Recluse; Ordos 100; So Sorry), only two had subtitles, and Ordos 100 and So Sorry were not even finished. This has now been taken care of, specially for the IFFR.
Ai Weiwei is not a filmmaker in the usual sense of the word. All of his films are part of larger social, architectural or visual art projects. Some are reports on political activities, such as the entertaining, in fact comical Disturbing the Peace – in which Ai Weiwei is plucked from his hotel bed in the pitch darkness one night by the police – and some are art projects. But on a grand scale: in Ordos 100, one hundred international architects are invited to realise a huge project in Inner Mongolia; in Fairytale, a thousand Chinese attend the documenta event in Kassel, Germany. Ai Weiwei is the artist who had millions of hand-painted porcelain sunflower seeds made and shipped to London, as well as the tireless demonstrator who leaves hundreds of messages on the internet, night after night (twitter.com/#!/aiww).
He is never limited by scale, duration or length. The art video Beijing 2003, for example, is no less than 150 hours long. Maybe no one will ever see the film in its entirety, but it’s the idea that counts : recording all the streets in the centre of Beijing from a moving car.
Ai Weiwei Café
The films in this programme cannot be seen in the cinemas in China. This is not always the fault of the censors. Some of the films can be shown without problems in museums and at festivals. Sometimes, these festivals encounter difficulties, and may even have to go underground. But not always.
Whatever the case, these films are shown in China – often in small, at times almost living-room settings. To give visitors to the IFFR a feel of what this is like, during the festival a special café will be set up and we will call this the Ai Weiwei Café – not only because many of these films require an informal screening and the possibility to speak to the makers, or because Ai Weiwei’s installation-style art videos need a space, but above all because one very important festival guest cannot be present this year.