Meishi Street, a documentary film, is a component of the Da Zha Lan Project that Ou Ning hosted. He had extended the experience and implementations learned from the research project Sanyuanli in Chengzhongcun, Guangzhou, in 2003. Gathering various artists from different fields through a collaborative collective effort, and displaying their end result in videos, including documentary films and large volumes of photographs, more works were published in print and posted on a website. However, the scale of the project is not primarily due to the number of participants, but rather to abstracting a sample of a typical community in an urban setting, and an inquest on contemporary urban culture from multiple perspectives. The abstraction of such a sample demonstrates Ou Ning’s cultural identity and a stance nurtured and established since his young adulthood that can be basically labelled as a leftist intellectual for the masses. Both the Sanyuanli project or Dashilar are impoverished old communities that showcase the chaos and power of reality; when examining such reality, he tries to apply an open-minded perception. In practical terms, it is a dimension where the present meets the past, a kind of search and building of a sense of history in a pile of old papers where objects are worn and saturated – he seems to believe that, only from learning of the past can one gain a better understanding of one’s present situation. With regards to this, from the works done by Ou Ning and his partners, we realize that these artists who are fundamentally bear the identity of artists have already transcended art and entered into the broader field of sociology.
It is just in the sense of social culture study, the self-initiative and depth of intervention that the Dashilar project has shown itself to far exceed the “Sanyuanli” project. Perhaps it was a demand proposed by the reality of this area. When Ou Ning brought his group to begin working on this project in September 2005, the Dashilar relocation project had already been there for one year, and the relocation for road expansion in preparation for the Olympics that had already been in progress for the past nine months was coming to an end – in Beijing, or cities nationwide, relocation is perhaps the most fierce, therefore a very obscure aspect. Under this circumstance, Ou Ning developed a model of community involvement – they had given the camera to a citizen, Zhang Jinli, who was willing to film his own life and the neighbors. As the most famous “nail household” – someone who is unwilling to move out of the neighborhood, he was the first to participate in the project.
Involving community participation through video is not innovative in itself, but more importantly is its implementation in the minority regions, for instance in Yunnan, is a manifestation of an intellectual behavior. Researchers on minority groups there and anthropologists have given cameras to the locals, letting them to record the life and culture of their own village, with which they can discover and assess the value of those traditional objects. Under such circumstances, the use of the camera emphasizes its utilitarian function, and the energy imbued in this method is tremendous. It allows the disadvantaged group and culture to realize its own value; it is highly political yet not as conspicuous. Meishijie as a sample within the contemporary context, and it allows us to see the significance of such energy in details.
In December 2005, I saw Zhang Jinli’s video for the first time. It was a 35 minute short film and there was no official title; perhaps calling it a “self-portrait” is more appropriate. The main cameraman of the Dashilar project, Huang Weikai edited out this version from the first nine days of the material Zhang Jinli filmed (from November 12 to 21, 2005). He tried to keep all clips in their entirety, and keep the editing to the minimum. He roughly structured a line of logic and left a man’s honest understanding of his overall life – the so-called overall refers to those clips that included all important subjects for Zhang Jinli: himself, the places he frequents, his restaurant, his daughter, the street he lives on, and the problems with relocation that he tries to solve. Such understanding is moving, and he allowed us to realize how he understood himself with the assistance of the camera. Especially for someone who had just picked up the camera for the first time, filming oneself is a kind of instinct, and there are no specific rules or limitation to the use of the camera. He still conversed freely with others, or rambled on his own, or even gave the camera to someone else or fixed it in a certain place, appearing candidly in front of the camera, performing, singing or speaking; this became his approach. First of all, such instinctive documentation is meaningful for him because it is a kind of approval of his own existence – this does not imply that his past existence was meaningless, but rather his recording made him aware of it clearly. This awareness is especially important for his struggle, because only when he sees himself in the video, knowing that everything has the possibility of being recorded, he gains greater courage and strength for his actions. What happened thereafter proved this theory, which also confirmed Ou Ning’s prediction. When they handed the machine to Zhang Jinli, Ou Ning thought he was smart, and would understand how to use the camera very quickly – the use of the camera is not only being familiar with the techniques. That 35-minute short film is moving because to a large extent, it embodies a yet unexecuted strength, or in other words, a kind of possibility.
The reason for discussing my impression on this short film repetitively is because Meshijie kept the essence of such a video, and there is a kind of intrinsic connection – even though the editing was done by Ou Ning and Cao Fei, one can clearly perceive their intellectual make-up from this work, and further, express an attitude or stance with such a make-up. Yet primarily, what is the logic behind such make-up? They are not looking for scenes of everyday life at Meishijie, but the genealogy of certain struggle. This is the reason why two thirds of the material used in Meishijie was from Zhang Jinli’s filming; it was a natural extension of the 35 minute short film, and it allowed us to learn how a camera can be used in a fierce era once it was used to learn about oneself. When it commanded by common citizens, in the hands of those without power, what are the functions can it serve? Meijieshi is a video blending in various images of the community as well as the uniqueness of its cameraman, and if we speak of the attitude and stance of this work – that is its attitude and stance.
As a documentary on a struggle, it of course serves as evidence for the subject it represents. Meishijie today has became a thoroughfare, and like other sections in its surrounding, it’s refreshing and impregnable. The characters and scenes we encountered in the film – even though was only filmed a year ago—have already disappeared. However, because it was filmed, it left marks for that struggle and damage. They still exist, and will prolong its presence, its concreteness, tangibility—a memory with a physicality.
The strength of this documentary is that it exceeds what we can perceive not only through physicality. Ou Ning said that what it intends to express is its positive value as the recording of the awakening of the struggling conscience, and at the same time, it showcases how the camera can be instrumental for rebellion. Is Zhang Jinli someone who is naturally gifted with rebellious spirit and ability? When he first appeared in the film, emerging out of a water path on Meishijie, he did not show any unique characteristics different from the other inhabitants around the water path, only that they all lived on this street, and the others were not necessarily short on the seed to rebel. What was different came afterwards for Zhang Jinli; the camera induced the budding and growing of this seed. What is undeniable is that as a person, his story changed consequentially. The film showed the growth of this rebellious individual. When he was on the roof, and saw the police coming over in their suits, his instinctive reaction was to panic, and his instincts told him to hide the camera. However, this fear soon disappeared, and he pointed the lens toward them carelessly, even beginning to joke with someone who appeared often in the film. Eventually, he even brought the camera to the scene of his own house that was being demolished by force. On that scene, the camera from the officials was also rolling; they encounter two of the cameras, and it is the most metaphorical moment of this film. Jokingly, it does not possess the violence of bulldozers demolishing the houses, but signaled the role of documenting with a lasting perspective. Who has the right to record history?
Therefore, for this documentary, it not only demonstrates an understanding of the function of a camera, but also shows an unprecedented contemporaneity in Chinese documentary films from the actions of the public and the relationship between the two – it is subversive. This subversion is not based on the fierce reality of relocation – such reality or similar situations can be found elsewhere; moreover, for those with power, such ferocity is even necessary. As they have already had power in their hand, they are not afraid to exercise it because only by exercising power, can its true presence be testified – the so-called subversion has a type of possibility: it provokes the courage of people in similar situations, perhaps the farmers who lost their land, or perhaps for workers who lost their jobs. When they don’t have a camera, they are still the disadvantaged, but once they have it in their hand, they gain strength, and enter the process of awakening and rebellion. A rebellion is often associated with rights, but eventually it points to a kind of right – and the endless expansion of this right will eventually disappear. This is the meaning of subversion.
What is the right Zhang Jinli had gained from documenting his actions? The power given by the camera did not prevent the bulldozers from demolishing his house, nor did it necessarily help him to receive more financial compensation. It has only provided another angle, what is different from the camera in the archway. That is a camera representing the perspective of the state, and the story it tells would certainly be different from Zhang Jinli’s recording, or even the complete opposite. In our daily atmosphere invaded by various media, it is difficult to understand such difference, nor could it allow us to witness the tears streaming down the face of Zhang Jinli when he watched his house of the past half-century being torn down.
The concept of the “Alternative Archive” was born from this. Vis-à-vis the documentation and memory recorded by the state, it follows a kind of individual emotion and narrative logic. Meishijie is an alternative archive, complete by involving artists and locals. For Zhang Jinli, it must have been one of the most important experiences in his life, an experience that can be shared with those who have been in similar situations during this time, and not only the retired soldier in the film at the moment of forced demolition, or the courageous woman posting slogans on her own wall. Recording history is a right, and if everyone records our time, recording the life and incidents important to them, then at least one can show the situation of the past to others of his own living environment. At least one would have constructed a memory that is unique to himself that does not blend in with any other’s. This awakening is important to every individual.
The subversion in Meishijie can be associated with the promotion of the “alternative archive.” In this era connected to the internet, this narration would induce a kind of “indiemedia”, a voice and discourse different from mass media. Moreover, Ou Ning put forward the concept of “home show” in the Second Get It Louder Exhibition – the collective artistic activities carried out in private settings, which is coherent with this video in formal terms formally and in essence. Pondering if films like Meishijie were to be disseminated through such a channel, what would be its impact?
To this level, the intrinsic characteristic of this film as well as its related aspects of aesthetics for documentary films all seem to be unimportant, because what is aesthetic is political. As a single work vis-à-vis the overall cultural aspiration and possibility of the Dashilar project, is perhaps powerful yet limited, yet the energy it has in store is limitless in the extent it reaches and the actual context it renders. It is the reason why the ferocity it presents is not desperate but worrisome.