In 1927, Lu Xun created his famous imagery of “wild grass” in the preface of the same titled essay volume:
“Wild grass has no deep roots, no pretty flowers and leaves. But it absorbs dew and water, sucks up the flesh and blood of long dead corpses, wresting its existence from each and every thing… ”
Lu Xun has later been given a series of honorifics the pioneer of the modern Chinese literary revolution, standard-bearer of the May Fourth New Culture Movement, a great revolutionary and thinker etc… Along with his longstanding reputation, the imagery of wild grass also endured as a classic imagery in Chinese literature. It has been recited by generations of Chinese people and remains immortal after going through almost one century.
LU Xun created such imagery with the intention to illustrate an obstinate will to survive despite a social and historical environment of his time. Its immortality is rather than regarded as the power of a literature icon, more derives from a sustainable validity non-decayed due to the passing through of the social transformation. But eighty years is no short period of time, which is why today such a scene still implies a striking and powerful meaning: this imagery refreshed and regained its signified in the contemporary context – still vivid, still intense. This signified is Chinese independent film.
A relatively new form of media, film appeared in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It certainly contributed to the social and cultural construction of different regions in a variety of ways, and China was no exception. Examining film history and China’s recent history, we will see clearly that the origin and development of Chinese film is consistent with contemporary China’s progress toward modernity. This conclusion can be checked from different angles, such as the relationship between ideology and film production as well as filmic texts, the space for author’s self-expression in the filmic text, or the manifestation and concealment of commercial and entertaining nature of cinema. No matter from which perspective, one can always see the twists and turns undergone in the process of China’s pursuit of modernity, in which, of course, there has been no lack of poignant scenes either.
The Chinese film system as well as the landscape of contemporary Chinese film have been molded in such a process. There were few crucial historical moments in Chinese film history which were also key timing points in contemporary Chinese history. The first moment was the setting-up of the National Film Bureau soon after the founding of the Peoples Republic of China as well as the establishment of a state-owned studio system.These institutions were further reinforced in the mid-1950s through study tours for film bureau leaders to the Soviet Union. Together, these events established a comprehensive and nationalized film industry: film was to be utilised as a force for social organization and mobilization as well as a tool performing the ideological education to the public, of which the main purpose was to express “ correct politics”. China’s subsequent Economic Reform and Open Door Policy (gaige kaifang 改革开放）began in 1978 was the second moment, which brought about ideological emancipation and, more significantly, reopening of the social space. It was in this gradual opening of the social space that later were derived more and more niche areas. In regards to Chinese society, historians refer to this time as the “transitional period” (known in Chinese as 转型期), a term that remains applicable to this day. This transitional period got represented in each and every aspect of social lives, but most importantly marks the re-launching procedure of China’s modernity.
Independent film is one of many phenomena borne from the niche social spaces within this “transitional period”. Due to film’s industrial nature, it did not generate into a production practice until late 80s and early 90s. Compared with apparently more responsive Chinese contemporary art, which started to make ripples in the late 1970s right up until the 1989 with China Avant-Garde Exhibition astonished the people, independent film lagged behind by about a decade. At this moment Chinese film has experienced the aesthetic breakthrough of the Fifth Generation in the mainstream film studio system. These filmmakers contributed a collection of masterpieces of that era, which were naturally considered to be the explorations of film modernity. Against this backdrop, the reason independent film became so outstanding was because it had broken through , in an unprecedented way, the restrictions set by authority. In spite of the national Film Bureau, it constitutes an expression through actual actions beyond the scope of state film studios. This “outside space” previously did not exist, and was created once independent film came into being. Although the existence of independent film garnered significance from the extension of the local cultural space, although it also immediately got defined by the local institution at the moment of being born. It naturally fell into a resistance logic against the power. Following this logic, what was significant was not just the content expressed, but rather than the violational operation itself has already constituted the offence against the rule of local institutions, even though there was no explicit regulatory article at that time in term of this filmmaking conduct outside of the state-run system. The subjects who made films were later identified as the “Sixth Generation” of Chinese filmmakers, though the actual situation was far more complex than what this simplistic label can tell us.
In fact, it was the conflict that arose from the evolution of the re-launched procedure for modernity. The emergence of independent film reflects the intrinsic requirement of this procedure and is an inevitable result of it. In this regard, the existence of independent film possesses its intrinsic rationality rather than that of a behaviour provoking the dominant system. This rationality is also the reason why it has become an extensive cultural form on a global scope – even though the definitions of independent film have to be adjusted based on local culture institutions.
Returning to the local context, what happened in the film field was not a lone phenomenon either,such conflicts exist in each and every social sphere of China. In other words, after when stripping bear the dazzling trappings of consumption society, one will find that the modernity procedure itself is just the process of resolving these conflicts; the extent to which these conflicts are addressed also indicates the degree to which modernity has been achieved.
Whereas the tension between independent film and the official system has never been dissolved up today, therefore the nature of China’s film system has remained fundamentally unchanged. Describing this nature, there is a key word “censorship”. “Censorship” includes a set of expressly written regulations as well as a regulatory committee composed of experts and leaders appointed by the authority, ultimately it is a symbol of power. Over the last few decades the Chinese film industry, coinciding with the development of Chinese society, has also experienced an astonishing boom and is in the process of replacing the U.S. as the largest film market in the world.However the fundamental concept of film censorship has always maintained the line of political ideological thinking of the 1950s with the purpose to maintain this ideology. If in the 1990s, due to the technical aspects of filmmaking, independent filmmaking was still in a certain degree reliant on the resources that the institutions could provide, especially filmmaking facilities and equipments . With the arrival of digital era, however, the situation changed drastically. No longer constraint to the official system of production and distribution, independent filmmaking acquired more freedom of expression.The relationship of independent film with the institution has since become explicit and clear – just like wild grass sprouting from the wasteland, it naturally bore a grass-root feature. This is another significant moment of the film history: the advent of digital cameras and film-editing programs on personal computers have converted into an enduring driving force behind the development of Chinese independent film.
Certainly, the deconstruction of traditional methods of film production by digital technology is applicable globally, but due to China’s specific reality, digital technology has indeed created a truly revolutionary impact on filmmaking in China. This impact fits into the classic logic of Marxism: production tools liberate productive forces. Concurrently, the rapid and intense social changes taking place in Chinese society have created another solid basis upon which independent film can respond to, using an unprecedented level of dynamic and diverse formats. It has profoundly altered the face of Chinese film and reconstructed the relationship between film and the reality of this age as well as with people and their emotions, even though this point has not yet been fully and extensively recognized.
Looking back over years, such a consensus has been formed: digital technology did launch an era of democratization for Chinese film. The essential significance of the introduction of the digital video camera in China was empowerment: it endowed each and every individual the right and the possibility to use this tool to make their own films.This individual does not need to come from the right family, or possess any specific identity or an elite background. This is why the cumulative number of works and independent filmmakers over the last decade has far surpassed the lineup of the first decade. In terms of output, they continued to develop the two strands extending from the initial days: documentary and fiction, while also branching out to experimental film and independent animation. Out of all these, independent documentary is undoubtedly the greatest part.
In fact, the advent of independent film in the digital age truly began with several DV ( abbr. of digital video) documentaries fulfilled around 2000. As these works made their way into to the public eye, the younger 1970s generation of filmmakers also came to prominence. Chinese film history has a formula of generational divisions. The “Sixth Generation” refers to the group of directors, all born in the 1960s, who first attempted to create independent works during the 1990s. However, the further development of independent filmmaking makes this generational divide nonsensical when more and more filmmakers entered this scene, altering the age distribution among independent filmmakers. There no longer existed a direct and inevitable relationship between their backgrounds and the shape of their work. Thus, in terms of film scholarship, generational divide is no longer a meaningful label.
The texture of the independent documentary derives from its entry into the most dramatic sites of this era. The works offered points of view distinctively different from the official or mainstream angles. They witnessed more details and the truth in those places where have been neglected or obscured. That is the reality and ordinary lives at the grassroots level of Chinese society, which is often called “bottom stratum”. Contemporary independent documentary filmmakers honestly record the hard traverse that the people there suffer through while being coerced by the torrents of time, as well as their ignorance, awareness, pain, frustrations or resistance over this course. Each work is built on the basis of long-term observation and communication between the filmmakers and their subjects. The great works among them have acquired impressive insights, which often embody profound emotions in addition to the representations of struggles for survival and the toughness of their live will. This is the grassroots nature of Chinese contemporary independent documentary, and also the source of its unquestionable moral strength.
Within China’s film history, there has never been a moment like this: the relationship between the image of the film and the lives of ordinary people was so intimate and attached. With the collection accumulated over the last two decades independent documentary present this point of view and practised this function. The approach it constructed the relationship between the images and the subjects naturally shows up kind of diversity in the aspects of form, methods and aesthetic significance. The majority of the works responded to the approaches of cinéma vérité and direct cinema, which emphasize the sites, intrusive or non-intrusive observations, and the capturing of complete segments of time, represent the changes of the events following the natural flow of life and daily rhythms, and attempt to extract a certain essence from within. These kind of works make up the principal inclinations of the independent documentary of this era. While they touch upon some realistic issues quite strongly, they are inevitably converted into a more direct resistant behaviour. At this moment these works would have developed two dimensions: when the filmmaker more stressing on the aesthetic pursuit, it forms a realist narrative with somewhat film auteur traits; when he or she attempts to practice a civic duty by focusing on public incidents and expressing political demands, the camera is transformed into a tool supporting the subject in the pursuit of social participation.
At the same time, other filmmakers turn the camera on themselves, dealing with subjects about the individual and the family. Hence, independent documentary has also constructed the relationship with the private sphere. In these cases the filmmaker and his or her subject overlap into one, and life in front of and behind the camera cannot be separated. Actually it utilises the commensurability between the private and public spheres, when personal stories, emotions, experiences, scenes and memories are revealed and addressed, that the individual is transformed into the collective. Such transformations are not only a form of release but also a form of sharing. Other works purposely distance themselves from the regular form of documentary film by establishing a creative visual language within the text. On another level, they emphasize the auteur in documentary filmmaking, bringing to the genre of documentary film greater aesthetic intent. Roughly speaking, these several orientations cover the main genealogies of contemporary independent documentary filmmaking in China.
Independent documentary is building its own tradition, feeding on the nutrition and energy absorbed from the soil of the reality. Even though it echoes classic models such as direct cinema, cinéma vérité and self-reflexive documentaries, Chinese independent documentary has not been nourished much in terms of its cinematic language and approach by western classics and practices, with the exception of a very limited number of documentary masters and some anecdotal inspiration along the way. Due to limitations in terms of the resource channels available, the vast majority of independent filmmakers start their film work by simply picking up a camera and filming. Some of these have been formally educated in art or film schools.
The spirit and visage of independent documentary of this time period forms a break with the official mainstream documentary format in China, be it in terms of ideology, approach or aesthetics. Chinese mainstream documentaries tend to inherit the tradition of political propaganda film initiated by newsreels. Though it has undergone some adjustments in different time periods with some variations, it has never stopped serving the function as a mouthpiece for the state’s ideology. Prior to the digital age, the television networks in the 1990s attempted some innovative documentary practices before really developing into a standard format. The lives of ordinary people have on occasion become the subject of documentary series on one or two big television stations for a while, but they have rapidly disappeared from the spotlight.
On some level, it is independent documentary film that has taken on the responsibility that the TV stations would not, and filled the void with documentary images of this era. The collection of works from this period has not only formed its own traditions but has also helped create the history of contemporary Chinese documentary film, bringing it into a dialogue with the broader tradition of international documentary film and participating in this genre’s contemporary extension and self-renewal. The contribution of Chinese independent documentary to this renewal lies in the vitality and driving force it offers based on local and regional experiences. Those works, based on in-depth local experiences, along with their own sense of time and rhythm formed in the shooting sites, have adjusted the filmmaker’s perspective and position, and redefined the distance that was possible to be achieved between filmmakers and their subjects. The video camera therefore fixate an existence from the here and now which encompasses dialogues, faces, bodies, emotions and all the unspoken ques in the scene.
Wang Bing, one of the most distinguished cases among them, provides a convincing case study with his nearly twenty years of consistent independent work. He gained an international reputation for his debut: the nine-hour epic documentary work Tie Xi Qu: West of the Tracks (2003). In Remnants, the second part of Tie Xi Qu, one shot stands out: the snow-covered Yanfen Jie district lies in the bleak, empty frame; the camera tracks in along with advancing footsteps, accompanied by the cameraperson’s occasional breath in the chilly coldness. The ongoing demolition here is coming to a halt. Though streets remain, houses are torn apart, bricks buried under snow. As two men walk across in the distance, the cameraperson pays them slight attention through his lens and then pauses at the street corner, as if to meditate on where to head next.
This was a scene shot between 2000 and 2001. It provides a typically sensational image of Wang Bing himself: the image of an individual filmmaker. He takes the camera alone and enters a location to perform his filming practices. Aside from himself and his camera there is nothing else, nobody else.
Tie Xi Qu’s more than three hundred hours of raw footage was achieved with this approach. The film was mostly shot between 1999 and 2000. In the almost twenty years since, this has become Wang Bing’s major working methodology. He has been wandering around the vast sites of contemporary China embodying that image as an individual filmmaker. More than ten long features, plus some video works made for contemporary art spaces, have accumulated in his dossier, of which only rare cases—the full-length fiction The Ditch (2010), for example—were accomplished with a team. In all of his other documentary projects he has either worked alone or with only a few partners.
Even though the nature of documentary filmmaking often eschews the need for large teams, for the individual filmmaker, without the emergence of the digital camera in the mid- to late 1990s, this image would not be possible to construct. In this sense, Wang Bing is a film auteur cultivated by the digital era. Tie Xi Qu was shot with a rented Panasonic EZ1. The postproduction, fulfilled in 2003, benefited from a digital editing system set up through funding from the Rotterdam International Film Festival. Wang Bing has a profound understanding of the use of digital tools, which also gives him insights that shape his cinematic aesthetics and consciousness.
This working approach offers a stark contrast with the subject matter and weight of Wang Bing’s films. He is used to handling huge themes from various angles, be they realistic, historical, or political. These themes traverses not just through one singular work, but through several. These films often surpass what one might consider a “regular” length, easily stretching to more than two or three hours—certainly if you have seen them, you will agree that the length is what the work demands, whether for Tie Xi Qu: West of the Tracks; Fengming, a Chinese Memoir (2007), ’Til Madness Do Us Part (2013), Three Sisters (2012), Ta’ang (2016), or Bitter Money (2016).
Scrutinizing this characteristic geographically, it transpires that Wang Bing seems to possess sort of unique ability. Each time reaching a specific place, he regularly arrives with purpose, ambition and resolve to excavate that region’s energy, at least, this is the inclination shown through his inexorable years of work. His creations in different stages establish clear geographical connections, from the northeast of China (Tie Xi Qu), to the northwest (The Ditch, Fengming, a Chinese Memoir, and Traces , plus Man with No Name  and Crude Oil , which were also derived from this process), then from the southwest (Three Sisters, ’Til Madness Do Us Part, Father and Sons , Ta’ang) shifting to the southeast (Bitter Money, Madame Fang , as well as other works currently in production).
These locations are scattered across the various regions of the country. The path, strung together, almost sketches out a map of the vast enormity of China. Wang Bing keeps investigating and excavating the intrinsic energy buried deep inside each unique region. As a practice, it surmounts the pure concepts of geography and space while implicating the notion of time, as all these works were developed and accomplished over long and sustained periods; the objects he is dealing with are also inextricably related to the temporal, whether oriented toward the past or the present.
This engraves the realistic as well as historical sense of Wang Bing’s works. They are all statements of contemporary China, adamantine and harsh, pulsating with heavy and silent power. Sometimes he films individuals, sometimes groups composed of individuals sharing a common destiny and circumstances. They all survive in this society but have no way to be seen and to be listened.
Thus can he capture the manifestation of this era, and how it is reflected in China. While against the mainstream grand narrative, this description obtains solid evidence of the lives as it is. During shooting, Wang Bing occasionally talks with his subjects, but more often observes and listens. This position is consistent with his way of being in the films—reticent but tenacious. It is due to his personality as well as the trust he holds on the internal communication and tacit acceptance between filmmaker and subject. He is always attempting to capture this aura, shifting it into the responding aesthetic sense in the shooting sites. Such is also his way of connecting with people around while maintaining his own existence in the world.
This is the source of the profound emotional texture interwoven into the visible grand themes and realistic narratives of Wang Bing’s work. This emotion does not express itself through words, as seen when he mentions the origin of making Three Sisters. He talks about how he first encountered the three children in that remote village of Yunnan province located southeast of China. With no adults at home, the girls sat around the fire in the middle of the living room, roasting potatoes. Yingying (the eldest girl) treated him to one potato. He ended his talk here. If you have seen the film, you know that is all they had. When mentioning the filming of Father and Son, Wang Bing only uttered, “I didn’t expect it.” He was referring to the fact that the father and his two adolescent sons took turns to share one single bed for sleeping in their work dormitory.
As a filmmaker, he sees not only desolation but also the remnants of goodness. Even after years of wandering through the grassroots society of China, the degree of hardship and the living conditions are at times still beyond his imagination. Wang Bing never feels indifference to the social reality he witnesses and gets immersed in, which ignites his desire for filming. Rather than documenting, he is also revealing the strength that sustains people backed into corners, stuck in hard situations. In many cases, besides the survival instinct, the film also displays a great sense of strength of emotion and affection, as in Fengming: A Chinese Memoir, The Ditch, and ’Til Madness Do Us Part.
Despite being an internationally acclaimed film auteur, Wang Bing has walked a tough path in the last nearly twenty years. His image as an individual filmmaker could also be regarded as a metaphor for his relations with the national film system. This relation is actually no relation. He has stated more than once, “I have never used one penny from them,” referring to neither publicly nor privately. If his projects get financed, it is mainly coming from the European film system, particularly from France. When he catches up with urgent subjects that lack time to get financed, or the funding is not sufficient, the only way to go forward is depending on his individual funds or support from friends. That’s why for years Wang Bing has always lived a very simple life, which degree of being simple goes beyond people’s imagination. He has put almost all that he received from film back to the film.
At the same time, aside from pirated DVDs and a few screenings in alternative spaces, his films have never been released in mainland China through regular channels such as cinema or TV. That situation is too far fetched to even be imagined. At a time when the Chinese film industry is booming astonishingly, this situation is particularly ironic and depressing. Wang Bing says: “In a situation like this, through my own efforts to accomplish all this, it’s quite something.” He has reason to say so.
Wang Bing once claimed himself a conservative, but each and every work of him possesses a form of modernist aesthetic impulse. Not only does his creative practices provide rare samples for the studies of different fields of contemporary Chinese society, his work has also expanded the language and boundary of documentary film by the application of new media as well as the exploration to its possibilities. He is determined to break through the limitations of documentary as a genre, while trying to rebuild its relationship with cinema. In this process he has stretched the boundaries of film. His efforts have gained extensive international recognition. He has re-awakened an awareness of the spectators to documentary film and broken through stereotypes about this genre. As creative documentary undergoes a slow waning amid the institutionalization of documentaries in a global scale, the validity of Wang Bing’s work has been proved by the reputation he has achieved within international film system.
Wang Bing is not alone in confronting his era. He has many companions, who have been working with displaying the toughness of Chinese independent documentary. They have forged ahead, all exploring their own paths by delving deeply into the textures of Chinese society, using their films holding a copy of image memory on what has happened here. That is why the history of independent documentary has not been built upon a few outstanding titles by a handful of individual filmmakers made but rather was the result of a collective and dedicated effort. Naturally, there are differences in the quality of films from the past three decades, but together these films constitute a film archive reflecting the diverse aspects ofChinese society in this era, with a value that extends beyond film and into the realms of sociology and anthropology.
The turn of the new millennium was a turning point for the dissemination of independent film in China. Its efforts to enter public spaces commenced at that time, starting with film clubs’ screenings scattered throughout a few big cities and later spawning independent film festivals. For more than one decade, due to the identity of independent film that has been shaped by the system in which it exists, this endeavor has proven to be a consistent struggle revolving around social inclusion and exclusion since that time. Chinese contemporary art experienced a similar phase until it finally gained a solid foothold. but independent film has never passed through this hard time,which still has not yet achieved a not necessary to be imposing but appropriate position in the cultural fabric of Chinese society. This is also the reason why the imagery of wild grass remains appropriate with it as an analogy today.
Since already sprouted out, independent films of course make their own sense. This sense does not just exist in the filmic texts per se.. As powerful as those filmic texts are the actions of those many individual filmmakers. Their actions are symbolic, since they actually conducted social intervention and participation as individuals through their respective film practices.This participation has been concerned with freedom, which is hidden within the crevices of this era. The filmmakers have discovered these niche spaces, delved into it and explored a more broader and profound world. In this era, the granted space is as such and filmmakers have immersed themselves into their craft, demonstrated with their actions the limits and possibilities of freedom.
This is an ongoing process. If there is no single dimensional modernity, then independent film, especially independent documentary film, offers the flip side of modernity: it is actually an organic component of this indivisible whole. Many years later, if independent film has not been dispersed, forgotten, or submerged by the passing of time, it will always have an opportunity to calmly release the energy accumulated from within, and re-launch a dialogue with us as a collective memory.
(Written in Oct.2013 for the 10th edition of Shanghai Biennale )