POWER IN THE FRAME
China’s Independent Documentary Movement
Since its emergence in the late 1980s, independent documentary cinema has become one of the most vibrant spheres of artistic expression in the prc, and a central forum for registering social change and critically depicting current realities. With its aesthetics of spontaneity, immediacy and on-the-spot realism, it marks a distinct departure from documentaries of the past in formal as well as epistemological terms: instead of letting ideology lead the camera, contemporary filmmakers prefer to face the world with minimal a priori knowledge, allowing the lens to wander and observe what unfolds. In what follows, I will chart the development of this movement over the past two decades through several key films, examining their relation to the prc’s Socialist past, and their efforts to reinvent realism, investigate state power and organize politically.
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- Jiwei Xiao: A Traveller’s Glance Object of fierce controversy when first shown, Antonioni’s documentary Chung Kuo—filmed in the PRC during the Cultural Revolution—has since been largely overlooked within his oeuvre. The director of L’avventura as failed Marco Polo, whose patient, humanizing gaze left a record of China’s past that is belatedly being rediscovered.
- Ismail Xavier: Ways of Listening in a Visual Medium Within a mediasphere dominated by telenovelas and spectacularized news, what role for documentary film? Recent examples of a critical, anthropologically inflected cinema from Brazil.
- Wang Bing: Filming a Land in Flux The director of West of the Tracks discusses his upbringing between rural and urban worlds, his film education and his documentary practice. Epic portraits of China’s changing face, and of lives transformed by the gravitational pull of socio-economic laws.
- Zhang Xudong: Poetics of Vanishing Cinematic portraits of China’s breakneck social and economic transformation, as seen from street level at its provincial margins. Zhang Xudong on motifs of disappearance, demolition and mobility in the films of Jia Zhangke.
- Xinyu Lu: Ruins of the Future West of the Tracks, Wang Bing’s stupendous documentary on the collapse of heavy industry and the fate of workers in China’s North-East, viewed in comparative perspective by a film-critic compatriot. Memories of the battlegrounds of Manchuria, and echoes of Lukács, Benjamin and Hobsbawm, amid the debris of an epoch and its human fall-out.