Filmed insights into China's big change

Updated: 2013-05-24 15:20

By Kelly Chung Dawson in New York (China Daily)

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 Filmed insights into China's big change

Chinese Realities/Documentary Visions at the Museum of Modern Art in New York is screening documentary films recording changes in China. Kelly Chung Dawson / China Daily

An urge to record the phenomenon of China's transformation over the past two decades has propelled what has come to be known as the New Chinese Documentary Film Movement.

Pioneers such as Duan Jinchuan, Zhang Yuan and Wu Wenguang have pushed a hugely influential "reality aesthetic", taking advantage of developing technologies that allow regular citizens to tell the stories they believe are important.

Chinese Realities/Documentary Visions, which runs at New York's Museum of Modern Art until June 1, showcases 28 films that comprise a selection of the movement's most important works.

Kevin B. Lee, vice-president of programming and education for dGenerate Films, is co-curator of the exhibition with Sally Berger, assistant curator in the department of film at MoMA.

It is the largest program of independent Chinese films to be staged outside of China, according to MoMA.

"Even within the international community, these films have not received their full due in terms of their importance as works of art and reflections of what's really going on in China today," Lee said. "There has been an important impulse to capture China's reality as it undergoes major changes, and it's a tremendous gesture that MoMA is recognizing the importance of these films.

"It's not just a program of great movies; there is a real sense of purpose behind the selections, which tell stories of the transformation of both China and the artists who are trying to make sense of these changes. There is a radical shift happening in who gets to tell stories in China."

Director Wu Wenguang, whose groundbreaking 1990 film Bumming in Beijing: The Last Dreamers is widely believed to have launched the New Chinese Documentary Film Movement, also noted the significance of MoMA's film series.

"MoMA has collected the most important films of the past 25 years, with subjects ranging from the social condition, human rights, and daily life of human beings," he said.

Bumming in Beijing, which will screen at MoMA this Saturday evening, demonstrates the slice-of-life narrative style that the movement's most notable directors have perfected, Lee said. Wu and other directors have chosen to film people they've spent long periods of time with, capturing real emotions and interactions that Western audiences are rarely exposed to in most international productions.

House of Flying Daggers director Zhang Yimou also dabbled in the genre, and his 1992 film The Story of Qiu Ju, which used hidden cameras in rural China, is featured in the series.

Also included are several fiction films that have either utilized documentary storytelling tropes, or have been influential on the movement, Berger said.

Director Zhang Yuan's 1990 film Mama, for example, features scripted scenes of a mother and her son, who has learning disabilities, inter-cut with real interviews with the family members of people with mental health problems in China.

"This film was really significant because at the time, Chinese mainstream media and entertainment treated mentally disabled or single parents as taboo topics," she said. "The documentary aesthetic was important in emphasizing the reality of the situation, even if the film was fiction. In many of these documentaries we're hearing the stories of people who don't get into the news, and you hear alternative, unique voices."

Another interesting thread that runs through the series is the blurry line between state and privately sponsored filmmaking, Berger said. Wu Wenguang used film equipment borrowed from his previous employer CCTV, to film Bumming in Beijing.

A number of CCTV filmmakers were inspired to create work of their own as a result of their exposure to the new documentary movement, she said. The popular CCTV news show Oriental Horizons was deeply influenced by the movement.

"Documentary films have typically not gotten as much respect as fiction films, but in China it's a very interesting dynamic," Lee said. "These documentaries have been very influential, even though people might not realize it. The fiction films that we have in this series reflect that, and the lines start to blur."

Although the movement initially received very little exposure, even within China, the rapid proliferation of various technologies has made it possible for amateur filmmakers to find a voice online, Lee said.

Wu is excited about MoMA's series, because Chinese documentary filmmakers still struggle to show their work outside of China.

"It's a very infrequent occasion for a film exhibition about China to happen in the US and Western countries, and it's not easy for independent filmmakers from China to present their works, even in Chinese festivals," he said. "I think this will give American audiences a wider view in looking at China now. For a public who is used to seeing China through TV news or newspapers, they will find a deeper understanding here."

 (China Daily USA 05/24/2013 page11)