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.

First, however, it is important to register the legacies of China’s cinematic tradition; today’s documentary practitioners follow in the wake of a long history of socially and politically important filmmaking. Starting in 1896, when it made its first appearance in the country in Shanghai, cinema enchanted audiences seeking entertainment in urban China. Social reformers and revolutionaries were also quick to harness its historiographical, educational and mobilizing powers in response to the turbulent first decades of the twentieth century.footnote1 ‘Actualities’ were made as early as 1911 showing the uprisings which overthrew the last imperial dynasty. Over the next two decades, individuals, private firms and the Nationalist army made newsreels and educational documentaries to instruct the new citizens of the Republic, as well as to capture historical moments.footnote2 While Hollywood’s influence was the dominant one in the period before 1949, the theories and practices of Soviet directors such as Sergei Eisenstein, Dziga Vertov, Vsevolod Pudovkin and Grigorii Alexandrov—as well as Lenin’s dictum that out of all the arts, cinema was the most important—were introduced to China in the late 1920s and early 30s.footnote3 The entrance of leftist writers and dramatists into Shanghai’s major studios marked a watershed in film culture. Social-realist features—such as Bu Wancang’s Sange modeng nüxing (Three Modern Women, 1933), Cai Chusheng’s Yu guang qu (The Fishermen’s Song, 1934) and Yuan Muzhi’s Malu tianshi (Street Angel, 1937)—were instant hits in the major cities. Seldom experimental, such films used existing genres, such as melodrama, to propagate revolutionary ideas. In 1938, the Chinese Communist Party set up its first film unit in their base area of Yanan, with equipment donated by the Soviet Union as well as the international Left: the influential Dutch filmmaker Joris Ivens sent his own camera.footnote4 While cinema’s function as entertainment never diminished, these developments, followed by its conscription for mobilization and propaganda purposes during the Sino-Japanese (1937–45) and Civil (1945–49) wars—on both the Kuomintang and ccp sides—formed a tradition in which the value of cinema was bound to its social meaning and political role.

After its founding in 1949, the prc devoted many resources to film production and exhibition across the country, heeding Lenin’s enthusiasm for cinema and Stalin’s regard for it as the marker of socialist development in a country.footnote5 The number of movie theatres grew rapidly in cities, and mobile projection units travelled extensively in the countryside; films were screened regularly in factories, barracks, schools, workers’ clubs and open-air village squares. The total number of such units increased from 648 in 1949 to 9,965 in 1957 to 115,948 in 1978. Tickets were cheap and often distributed for free through people’s work collectives: attendance expanded from 47 million in 1949 to 822 million in 1954, then to 2.8 billion just four years later.footnote6 The prevalence of film, as an experience of socialist modernity, cultivated a cinephilia shared by a broad cross-section of the population. The popular base and political importance of cinema ensured that it would continue to play a key role in the national culture: in the wake of the Cultural Revolution, for example, it was melodramas and elegiac documentaries that provided catharsis for a population in need of mourning, reconciliation and new visions of the country’s past and future.

Socialist-realist principles were consolidated as the guiding canons of cinema in the 1950s, after bitter political struggles over film syntax and meaning.footnote7 However, the state’s tight control over cinema contributed to an increasing lack of authenticity and spontaneity. Characters became one-sided, ambiguity became suspect, and Socialist tragedy by definition was non-existent. Film became a tool to illustrate ideology and visualize a model proletariat, and ceased to express authentic lived experience. The visible world in front of the camera was considered too chaotic, accidental and mundane to convey the essential realities of this new society. Documentaries, in particular, became dramaturgical, soliciting highly choreographed, symbolic performances from its subjects.

The late 1970s and early 1980s brought a reorientation, as filmmakers began to grapple with the questions of how to represent ‘reality’ and engage with the ‘people’. Theories and practices from world cinema contributed to the shift, with Chinese intellectuals eagerly learning from the West in the 1980s, following the announcement of the open-door policy. Michelangelo Antonioni’s documentary Chung Kuo (1972) had been denounced as anti-Chinese and counter-revolutionary in 1974, but a decade later its neorealist aesthetics and tender depiction of unrehearsed street scenes became a source of inspiration for documentary makers associated with Chinese Central Television. The ideas of André Bazin and Siegfried Kracauer spurred much discussion of cinema’s relation to reality.footnote8 Bazin’s endorsement of Italian neorealism’s phenomenological approach—against any a priori point of view—resonated in China, as did Kracauer’s emphasis on the camera’s redemptive capacity to investigate and bear witness to the physical realities of everyday life. Rather than relying on ideologically pre-determined categories, filmmakers hoped to break the state’s monopoly on interpretation of the physical and social world and return that right to ordinary people, who could perceive and judge reality with their own senses.