Forum, September 2020

The 1990s Chinese Observational Documentary and Its Place in Documentary Film History


  • Chi Wang

Bill Nichols points out in his paper how the pursuit of aesthetic uniformity may cause ethical damage to the observational documentary. Taking the Chinese documentary as an example, I am interested in how the expressive vagueness of observational film may puzzle audiences and lead scholars to create problematic accounts of film history. Although the observational documentary arrived in the early 1960s, when it was to a large extent the result of advances in technology, it is not until the 1990s that the first observational documentaries showed up in China, more than a decade after the sync sound camera was introduced to Chinese TV production (in 1979). In Chinese documentary studies, it is commonly understood that the 1980s Chinese documentary, which is also called zhuantipian (专题片, literally “special topic program”), is fundamentally official political propaganda, and it is by means of the mode of direct cinema that Chinese documentary started to rebel against “the old, rigid aspects of Maoist utopianism and established political ideologies” and eventually formed the so-called Chinese New Documentary Movement, as Lu Xinyu, possibly the best known Chinese documentary scholar in the west, has famously articulated since 2003.   However, as I argued elsewhere (新纪录运动理论献疑, “China’s New Documentary Movement Theory Revisited” ), this observation, or even the whole concept of the New Documentary Movement, can be challenged.

To say that the 1980s Chinese documentary is dominated by political preaching overly simplifies the complexity of history. No doubt, the making of didactic documentaries has never stopped in China; even today it is still the case. However, we cannot omit that the general trend of the 1980s documentary, the start of which is signified by the making of The Silk Road (1980), is to establish a distance from state ideology. This tendency is well exemplified by the most influential documentaries including Once Upon the Yangtze River (1983), Once Upon the Grand Canal (1986), and The Yellow River (1987). By the end of the 1980s, as shown by River Elegy (1988), the film widely seen as the prelude of the 1989 democracy movement, an oppositional ideological stance visibly took shape. In short, the 1980s is not an era of Maoist zhuantipian.

What happened in 1989 (a brutal crackdown, including the Tiananmen Square incident, suppresses the democracy movement; Zhao Ziyang the comparatively open-minded top leader of the CCP is removed and political reform comes to a halt) shut down the making of the documentary The Fifth Modernization, which was made by the same group who made River Elegy, but also expelled the possibility for any TV documentarist to challenge the dominant official ideology perceivably. Throughout the 1990s, except for the traditional zhuantipian-like documentaries that represent the official ideology, the other general trend is composed by works that “tell the ordinary people’s own stories” (讲述老百姓自己的故事), as the slogan of the well-known TV program, Living Space, says. No social conflict or political event can adopt a perspective that directly challenges the state. Many people claim that it is mainly the “independent filmmakers” who worked outside the official media that made the rebellious works. However, after checking the “independent documentaries” of the 1990s, it is easy to see that these works never touched any politically sensitive people, event, or issue at all. Though there is a clear difference between the “New Documentary Movement” and those films obviously boasting the official ideology, it is hard to say that the former constitutes any challenge, or rebellion, against the latter.

Among the factors contributing to this misperception, the most critical one may be the formal choice of the observational mode by the “New Documentary Movement.” No matter whether it is for aesthetic uniformity, political safety, or simply the pursuit of “objectivity,” these filmmakers make minimum use of voice-over narration or even entirely abandon it, as we see in No. 16 Barkhor South Street (1996) and Yinyang (1997). Except for the seemingly direct and transparent representation of what is happening when the camera is running, almost no further explanation or comment is made. For the first time in Chinese documentary history, the documentary text becomes, to use Umberto Eco’s term, a much lazier machine. Without a clear supporting context, the audience has to spend more time figuring out what they see. This seems to be another paradox of observational documentary: the more immediacy the film establishes, the less apparent it is what the viewer sees.

Yingyang (1997) clip with English subtitle

Correspondingly, different, or even contradictory, directions of interpretation become much more possible. For example, when No. 16 Barkhor South Street (1996), the most representative film of the “movement” according to Lu Xinyu and many others, was screened in America, some viewers argued that this is no more than “complementary propaganda,” and some others claim that what they see is “omnipresent social control.” This kind of divergence is not strange. Even Chris Berry, possibly the most prominent western scholar supporting the concept of the New Documentary Movement, sometimes acknowledges that for the Chinese documentarists, “being socially and politically engaged has never been an option” (2007). Berry ascribes this to the harsh political environment in China. This is, of course, true. But I would point out that this is also the choice of the filmmakers themselves. Although usually they are recognized as independent filmmakers, most of them still work together with the official TV system in one way or another. Actually, in 1998, Duan Jinchuan, Jiang Yue, and Kang Jianning, the three top figures of the “movement,” established the company China Memo Films, and their long-term business partner is always CCTV. Surely they do work outside the state media, but at the same time, they are far from politically independent. It is in a vague area they stand. The choice of the observational mode, especially the political vagueness it brings about, seems to echo this ambiguous position well.

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