LI Xiaofeng 黎小锋 and J.P. SNIADECKI 史杰鹏
Hybridity has been a vital thread within the development of Chinese independent cinema, and it continues to inform innovative approaches to filmmaking today. While specific uses of ‘hybridity’ in feminist and post-colonial discourse have produced vigorous debates (Haraway 1985; Bhabha 1994), in this context we conceive of hybridity as novel imbrications of cultural expressions that, while situated within specific contexts, move across genres, disciplines, and ideologies. Two prominent conceptual and practical frameworks that have inflected non-commercial filmmaking – both within China and beyond – are contemporary art and ethnographic methodology. For the former, we recognize that the independent film community in China has not only enjoyed financial support by the commercial success of Chinese contemporary art worldwide, but also that many independent filmmakers in China come to the moving image from art backgrounds (such as painting, sculpture, performance, poetry, etc). Perhaps it should not be surprising that, regardless of previous training, a growing number of filmmakers are making work that fruitfully crosses over into ‘art spaces’ such as galleries, museums, and festivals via installations and experimental work. For ‘ethnographic methodology’, we frame the approach not as tendentious disciplinary expertise but rather as an open practice of relation, rapport, connection, solidarity, and understanding through shared experience and affect (a non-proprietary mode of participant-observation) which has informed documentary, avant-garde, as well as fiction film throughout the history of independent cinema in China. Indeed, ‘participant-observation’ is not the sole provenance of anthropology. Rather, it is an ongoing activity with which all sentient beings engage by virtue of being sentient, and from which artists, filmmakers, activists, and anthropologists alike can generate innovative reflections on lived-experience. Significantly, independent Chinese cinema has not merely been a passive recipient of influences from anthropology and art, but has powerfully invigorated and challenged the staid orthodoxy of ethnography and the commercial excess of contemporary art.
Scholarship in the past two or more decades has highlighted the heightened imbrication of cinema, ethnography, and contemporary art (Russell 1999; MacDonald 2014; Balsom and Peleg 2016). Yet these works often give short shrift or even entirely omit discussion of how these cross-fertilizations and border-crossings play out in Chinese independent cinema. With the fourth edition of the Chinese Independent Cinema Observer, we seek to address this oversight and offer an exploratory step towards embracing not only the vibrant interchanges between cinema, art, and ethnography, but also the diverse range of filmic expressions they produce. Our exploration is open-ended and capacious, and we reject the typical policing of genre and disciplinary boundaries. As a result, this issue largely consists of reflections by filmmakers on their unique processes, either through their own writing or in conversation, as well as interpretations and analyses by film scholars and critics.
As has been delineated in previous issues of this journal, any discussion of Chinese independent cinema today needs to acknowledge the stultifying political climate in which all spheres of cultural production are forced to operate. The current environment in China is characterised by the heightened regulation and censorship, overt legal and extra-legal oppression, and the reinvigorated insistence that art serve to celebrate state nationalism. Just listing a few of the lowlights in the past decade help paint an appropriately dismal picture: since the 2010s, three independent film festivals in China (China Independent Film Festival, Beijing Independent Film Festival and Yunnan Multi Culture and Visual Festival) have been shut down; in March 2017, the new Chinese Film Law was enacted, stipulating that films without a film public screening permit cannot be released in cinemas nor participated in international film festivals; otherwise, the production company will be punished.1 These events have dealt a devastating blow to Chinese independent fiction films, which had developed a certain investment scale. Some fiction films could barely pass the censorial process while still retaining independent attributes, but their critical gestures were significantly decreased. Many independent filmmakers turned to commercial production. As the control over documentaries becomes evident, the production, distribution and dissemination of Chinese independent documentaries have been increasingly conditioned to vary degrees. Independent filmmaker Lin Xin, for example, once expressed his concern at a conference in Nanjing about the lack of new productions and successors for Chinese independent documentaries.
We tend to believe that, under the pressure of censorship and self-censorship, Chinese independent documentaries have presented hybridity of aesthetic expressions by virtue of their low budgets, individuality, flexibility and concealment: incorporating innovative technology to expand the possibility of art creation; based on contemporary aesthetic trends, seeking a certain balance between fiction and non-fiction; and, by interacting with contemporary art, anthropology, and experimental cinema, forming cross-disciplinary visual form such as ‘essay film’, ‘film poem’, ‘private film’ and ‘sensory ethnography’.
In response to the ongoing theoretical exploration of contemporary Chinese independent cinema – especially Chinese independent documentaries, this issue is divided into three sections as follows.
This section is a collection of writings by filmmakers in the form of their journals, diaries and notes, reflecting, sorting and summarising their personal filmmaking trajectories to explore new creative directions and possibilities. Among them, the writing of Cong Feng, Li Ning, Zhang Ping, Cang Shan Er Hai, Gu Xue and Jin Jiang collides and intermingles with contemporary art to some extent.
Cong Feng used to be a poet himself. After Doctor Ma’s Country Clinic (2008) and The Unfinished History of Life (2011), his creation concept significantly changed. He began to download a large number of existing ‘acquired images’ from the internet and edited them into several ‘essay films’, such as Stratum 2 (2021). The narration of these works often comes from poetry written by him, so his works can also be seen as ‘poetry film’. His article ‘Changes in the Field: Reflections on My Filmmaking in Gulang and Beijing’ is a reflection of the theoretical thinking beyond the Stratum series.
Li Ning is not only a documentary filmmaker but also a performance artist. His Tape series record the tangled relationship between himself and his life while engaging in his years of body art experiences as a metaphorical thread throughout the works. The article ‘From The Dictionary of the Soul to The Workshop’ compiles the creative reflections and insights from his two latest projects, in which he uses the body as a method and the image as a medium, reflecting a strong sense of linguistic self-consciousness.
Zhang Ping is a contemporary artist who used to travel to Tibetan areas for a long time, and she has turned to documentary filmmaking in recent years. Intriguingly, her most iconic documentaries, such as No Land (2015), Healing Balm (2017), Love Song for Living, Love Song for the Dead (2019) and Hei Qi (2021), are all about her decaying hometown and her elderly parents. In particular, certain details of her father’s life trajectory are repeatedly spotlighted via the camera. Like a written documentary, Zhang Ping’s ‘The Death of My Father: A Diary’ records her father’s departure.
Cang Shan Er Hai (penname), who has long been involved in contemporary art and photography, has recently entered the field of documentary. He has completed one feature film and has two others in post-production. His article ‘Cinema as an Absolutely Impure Art and the Neglected Impurity and Beyond: A Pessimist’s Observations and Reflections of Contemporary Art’ embodies his persistent quest: how to pursue purity and dignity in art amidst the profit-driven vulgarity and mediocrity? It is worth noting that the process of writing this manuscript underwent many back-and-forth revisions (as requested by the author himself), which indicates not only the author’s precision of an idea and a word but also his pursuit of absolute purity.
Gu Xue has an academic background in experimental art and has worked as a curator. Her representative work, The Choice (2019), was done in one long take, with a clear experimental art attribute. In ‘Some Notes on The Choice’, Gu Xue reviews the process of making The Choice and her future creative directions.
Jin Jiang, the documentary filmmaker and photographer with a contemporary art background, made the documentaries Shang Ajia (2018) and The Broken Ridge (2020) with his calm observation. His structural approach and editing style demonstrate an extraordinary novelty. In his essay ‘Some Notes’, Jin Jiang shows the awareness of reality and truth, the vigilance of ‘storytelling’, and the interest in the uncontrollable.
In comparison, the articles by Du Haibin, Gui Shuzhong and Yu Mengting are clearly related to anthropological images.
As a long-time independent documentary filmmaker, Du Haibin, in ‘Documentaries about People’, draws on the creative experiences of two anthropological documentary filmmakers, Robert Flaherty and Jean Rouch, and his own practice to explore the significance of using the camera to understand people, thereby triggering a certain creative mechanism.
As a poet and anthropological documentary filmmaker, in ‘The Story of a Well’, Gui Shuzhong recalls a period of his fieldwork practice: by tracing the story of an ancient well in a Hakka region, understanding its origin, sovereignty and use, and thus experiencing an anthropological method of observation.
As a female filmmaker with a background in photography and a long history of documentary filmmaking in Tibet, Yu Mengting, in ‘A Female Perspective on the Production of Tibetan Anthropological Documentaries’ incorporates her fieldwork practice and filming experience with her female perspective, affective narrative and family narrative, to discuss her own unique experience and prudent thinking in Tibetan documentary filmmaking.
Moving Image Reviews
The authors of this section come from the fields of curation, poetry and philosophy
In ‘World Picture: Xu Bing’s Dragonfly Eyes’, Dong Bingfeng introduces the theme, framework and focus of the contemporary artist Xu Bing’s exhibition Dragonfly Eyes (2017). Composed of realistic surveillance images and fiction narratives, Dragonfly Eyes crosses the barrier between contemporary art and cinema and blurs the line between fiction and non-fiction. When it was presented in the gallery as an ‘artist’s film’ alongside the artist’s articulation and the viewer’s commentary, it kindled a new meaning of cinema.
In ‘Along the Path Provided by Lockdown’, Zhang Yaxuan describes the exhibition of documentary filmmaker and contemporary artist Wang Bing at the Kunsten Festival des Arts (KFDA) in Brussels. During the pandemic, Wang Bing incorporated performance art and video installation in an open space in Brussels to demonstrate his own experience of quarantine. While ‘quarantine’ originally implies a barrier, Wang’s Scenes: Glimpses from a Lockdown’, in Zhang Yaxuan’s eyes, also implies an attempt and effort toward mobility and coexistence.
As a poet and one of the protagonists in Li Xiaofei’s Assembly Line series, Xiao Kaiyu, in ‘An Escape from the Existing Principles: From Man vs. Machine to Dogma and Exaggeration’ psychoanalyses the characters in Li’s documentaries/contemporary art videos.
Based on Wu Trilogy and You Trilogy, philosopher Weston Adam in ‘Grand Closing of Wu Trilogy and You Trilogy: The Waxing Moon’ draws on Laozi’s Taoist doctrine and Heidegger’s concept of existence in an attempt to understand the cultural interests and textual meanings of Zhang Dawei’s experimental films.
This is a collection of five interviews with filmmakers conducted by J.P. Sniadecki, Li Xiaofeng and Zhang Zimu.
Yu Guangyi, who studied printmaking in his early years, is a documentary filmmaker who relies on instinct. His works are relatively in a traditional style with natural language. While filming his four documentaries in Daxing’anling, he confessed that he liked the sense of fiction film in his documentaries. In fact, from interviews, we know that he is ready to move from non-fiction (documentary) to fiction (feature film).
Ma Li has a long history of working in television, but from Mirror of Emptiness (2011) and Born in Beijing (2011) to Inmates (2017), she has completely disposed of the influence of television and adopted patient and acute eyes to focus on the dilemma of people persistently. In the interview, Ma described her ideal state of creation as that she and her camera could arrive at a certain level of serenity and thus capture a certain subtle relationship.
Xu Ruotao comes from a contemporary art background and has created a body of films that are impressive in their formal diversity and playful in their structural experimentation. His film Expressionism (2018), which binds two artists together in a provocative riff on the Stanford Prison Experiment, takes a powerful reflexive turn when the actor-subjects question the legitimacy of the filmmaker and crew. Yumen (2012), which he co-directed with J.P. Sniadecki (the interviewer) and artist Huang Xiang, is a unique, oneiric examination of a so-called ‘ghost town’ in western China through a collaboration between the three directors and local Yumen participants. Interspersed scenes of performance, sensory ethnography, and contemporary art throughout the film reflect the efforts of the filmmakers to explore the potential of collaborative practices and spatial narrative for documentary.
Guo Jing, an anthropologist and documentary filmmaker, is also one of the founders of the Yunnan Multi Culture and Visual Festival. Zhang Zimu’s interview focuses on the rural video education activities that Guo Jing initiated and promoted. His ecological vision and archival practices provide a reference and a route for those engaged in related field work.
Ecology, and its cinematic evocation, is the backbone of the new short ‘avant-documentary’ The Raw and the Cooked (2022), co-directed by two young filmmakers, Lisa Marie Malloy and Dennis Zhou who worked in close collaboration with the Chens, an Amis family in eastern Taiwan. In the interview, they generously discuss their relational approach to cinema, and share insights into their use of sound and non-human perspectives.
We hope this new issue will evoke the interests of our readers and colleagues alike. As this is not a comprehensive treatment of hybridity within Chinese independent cinema, but rather aims to serve as an opening to a wider exploration, we welcome feedback and future contributions to the discussion.
1 See Article 49, People’s Republic of China Film Industry Promotion Law, March 2017.
Balsom, Erika and Hila Peleg, eds. (2016) Documentary Across Disciplines. MIT Press.
Bhabha, Homi. (1994) The Location of Culture. New York: Routledge.
Haraway, Donna. (1985) ‘A Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, Technology, and Socialist Feminisms in the 1980s’, Socialist Review, no. 80: 65–108.
MacDonald, Scott. (2014) Avant-doc: Intersections of Documentary and Avant-garde Cinema. Oxford University Press.
Russell, Catherine. (1999) Experimental Ethnography. Duke University Press.