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Mao's Yan'an talks on art echo in the villages of China, as documentarian Wu Wenguang leads a team of videographers on a mission to teach ordinary people to make films about their own communities.
Chinese documentary director, writer, and educator Wu Wenguang's most recent project, the China Village Self-Governance Film Project is entertaining and charming, despite its best efforts to be a public diplomacy collaboration between China and the European Union. The film series, a palette of combined works including video village self-governance reports by rural Chinese and a documentary describing the process of preparing the villagers to take their role behind the camera, provides a startling and guileless view of the lives of the people most underrepresented in Chinese media.
Wu, the central figure in China's "New Documentary Movement" -- a cinematic trend that emerged in Beijing in the early 1990s -- ably captures the personalities and struggles of his charges with such grace and naturalness that while the representation of village self-governance is poignant, the most lasting impressions from the film are the excitement of the villagers about their exposure to and interaction with the documentary mode. If this seems like a violation of all of the principles of good documentary filmmaking, take heart. The foundation of the project was to give rural filmmakers the chance to shoot the events of their own communities, rather than to have those events shot by outside filmmakers. In the end, the documentarian impulse of Wu's team does take over, and team member Jian Yi directs a useful and interesting "before, after, and during" short about the village documentary-making project. However, the line between Jian Yi's documentation efforts and villager documentation efforts is drawn clearly.
Screenings of the China Village Self-Governance Film Project are divided into two parts. The first part of the screening is Jian Yi's documentary. The second part of the screening is comprised of the villagers' own videos. Combined, Jian Yi's documentary short and the villagers' ten-minute individual documentaries create an astounding juxtaposition of positions and perspectives. Meta-media and media overlap for multiple levels of representation of the same local spaces to expose an often-undocumented space in China.
In all parts of the project, technology is omnipresent, and referred to openly as part of the process of documentation. I would argue that this approach contributes to the honesty of the work, and that the directing team, by acknowledging the role of the camera as an active agent in the life of the villagers, ultimately put the village democratic processes in a more honest context. The villagers were offered weeklong trips sponsored to Caochangdi, Wu Wenguang's studio in Beijing by the EU and Chinese representative bodies, to learn filmmaking techniques for their individual projects. As he recounts in a Q/A session after a screening at the Redcat in Los Angeles, Wu found the villagers for the project through newspaper and online ads, and selected the new filmmakers with a goal of ensuring diversity of region, gender, and age. The villagers found their way to the project despite the warnings from pundits and family members concerned about scams and scandals; more powerful was the genuine interest to learn new technology and to document their lives. In speaking of the China Village Self-Governance Film Project, Wu rightly shares authorial credit with the village filmmakers, asserting that the work is a work of collaboration, not a directed effort.
One of the most noticeable drawbacks about the project is the fact that only two of the villagers edited their own films. When asked about the implications of the lack of control of the filmmakers over their final product, Wu only responded that more training was to be instituted for the next project in order to ensure the final story relates closely to the filmmaker's vision.
Truthfully, some of the most interesting parts of the story emerged from outside the stated aim of documenting local village self-government. In roughly half of the village documentaries, voting never occurs, or otherwise other topics dominate. Seeing old women get off of their bikes to talk with one another at a dirt road intersection in a Northern Chinese village offers a surprisingly intimate and prosaic view of the side of China that often gets left out in most economic growth rhetoric. Hearing ethnic Tibetans matter of factly discuss environmental changes in the snowcapped mountains surrounding their village, and what those changes mean in their belief system, provides a surprising alternative discourse to much contemporary discourse on global warming. Hearing a young urban professional talk about how removed his life is from life in his village is more revealing to the audience on a human level than hearing the specific reasons why he failed to go home and fill in his last ballot. More generally, the ten villager documentarians exposed bits and pieces of perspective into the lives of Chinese people by capturing domestic moments through happenstance while attempting to find democracy in China.
The process of making the film was so well received that Wu has received offers from producers in other countries who would like to make use of his method. Wu's first round of films offers both textual documentation of rural reforms in China, and a commentary on the process of offering villagers the opportunity to document their political lives. The next phase of the project should be something to look out for as another important step toward understanding the parts of China that have been left behind in the burgeoning coastal economic boom.
Date Posted: 2/16/2007