Chinese Documentary
at Home in the World

A Report on the China-Australia Documentary WorkshopBeijing,
July 11-13, 1997

Chris Berry

The China-Australia Documentary Workshop was held in Beijing between July 11 and 13 of this year, coincidentally in the run-up to CCTV's large-scale international documentary film festival. The event was an eye-opener for everyone. At the summing up on the final day, the Chinese participants emphasized that this was the first time they had been able to have extended and intensive face-to-face discussions about the practical details of their craft with fellow professionals from overseas. Both the rat-race of international film festivals and the Chinese propensity for large-scale formal events like the CCTV festival later in the month had precluded such contact in the past. One even described it as an "historic breakthrough." For the Australians, the intensive nature of the event and relatively small number of participants provided an opportunity to learn more about the rapid development of independent documentary in China. Not least was fact that word "independent" itself is still sensitive in China, carrying possible political connotations it would not anywhere else in the world and which the Chinese independents themselves do not espouse.

The workshop was initiated by Australian documentarist Sally Ingleton, who has recently completed a new film shot in China about two young women fashion designers and called Mao's New Suit, and film academic Chris Berry. The workshop was supported by the Australian Embassy in Beijing, and hosted in China by the China Documentary Film Association (Zhongguo Jilupian Xueshu Weiyuanhui) and Beijing Television Station. Bob Connolly, director of the Joe Leahy trilogy and Rats in the Ranks, accompanied Berry and Ingleton prior to his participation in the CCTV event together with his partner Robin Anderson. Chinese participants included documentary professionals from Beijing TV as well as internationally known independents such as Wu Wenguang (Bumming in Beijing, 1966--My Time in the Red Guards, At Home in the World), Jiang Yue (The Other Bank) and Duan Jinchuan (The Square; No. 16, Barkhor South Street).

In meetings with Chinese independent documentary filmmakers such as Wu, Jiang, and Duan over the last two years, they had indicated they were moving from amateur and informal filmmaking towards a more professional status that would enable them to participate in the local and international industry in a recognized and regular manner. Ingleton and Berry felt that Australia's long tradition of documentary filmmaking together with its many independent producer-directors provided the foundation for a fruitful and practical exchange of knowledge and experience. Connolly, on his first trip to China, was particularly astounded by the Chinese work that he saw, feeling that further professional development would lead to a bright future for filmmakers who were showing the world a China never seen before.

Formal meetings were held on the 11th and the 12th in Beijing TV's headquarters, and an informal meeting with core members of the group was held in a bar in downtown Beijing on the 13th, where the karaoke machine's video monitor was commandeered to screen films. On the 11th, brief overviews of the industry in each country were followed by a screening of Ingleton's Mao's New Suit, which received a warm reception. Ingleton works as an independent raising money through pre-sales to television, and placed an emphasis on her desire to make her work accessible to large audiences without compromising her own aesthetic and ethical standards. Chinese participants were struck by her eclectic, pragmatic use of different styles to create a fast-paced and entertaining film. In particular, the use of extra-diegetic music provoked a lot of questions, as many Chinese filmmakers seem to avoid such elements on the basis of a more purist understanding of documentary. Ingleton indicated that while she was careful to avoid directing her subjects in any way, she also believed that a documentary is the expression of the documentarian and that this licenses devices purists might avoid. Furthermore, she emphasized that there an independent does not necessarily have to make an either-or choice between purism and mainstream documentary, but that a wide range of other possibilities can be explored.

The designers featured in Mao's New Suit, Guo Pei and Sun Jian, attended the screening, and a lively discussion of how they had worked with Ingleton and their responses to the film ensued. Both they and other Chinese participants expressed surprise and delight with the informal and humorous manner in which the film presented them. Over the last decade, Chinese documentary film has moved away from highly scripted and planned production methods, and television shows such as CCTV's Dongfang Shikong (usually translated as "Oriental Moment") have won enthusiastic audiences with vox pop-style interviews and more relaxed techniques. Nonetheless, it was clear that a concern with "face" would have inhibited Chinese filmmakers from the more candid elements of Ingleton's film. For example, Guo Pei expresses disappointment with her boss and both designers are rather disparaging about their competitors in a fashion competition, which might be seen as immodest by Chinese standards for women.

The discussion about Ingleton's working relationship with Guo and Sun also revealed that the ethics of working with subjects was only now emerging as a major issue for Chinese directors. This became even clearer in that afternoon's screening of a newly completed work by China's first woman independent documentarist, Li Hong. Her Out of Phoenix Bridge, to be shown at Yamagata later this year, is a remarkable two-hour work shot over two years. It follows four young women from Phoenix Bridge village in Anhui province who have come to Beijing to work as maids. Although their living and working conditions in Beijing are extremely tough, this is probably the period of their lives in which they have greatest freedom before they return to the village to marry.

Amongst other things, the women are extremely frank about their sexual experiences. When asked later what would happen if this film was broadcast in China and their parents saw it, Li agreed that it would lead to terrible difficulties. Ingleton explained that she only included Guo Pei's complaints about her boss because Guo resigned from that company after the shoot. Of course, Li's film was shot in an informal manner with no expectation that it would be broadcast in China, but the entire issue of the ethical responsibility of filmmakers towards their subjects as well as the question of contractual arrangements clearly needs to be addressed as further professionalization of the independent sector in China occurs.

On the 12th, Bob Connolly's Black Harvest was screened and received with great enthusiasm. In the ensuing discussion, Connolly revealed that he had spent eighteen months editing his most recent film, Rats in the Ranks. This precipitated a second major revelation. The idea of editing as a creative part of filmmaking is more or less unknown in China. In contrast, both Connolly and Ingleton emphasized that for them it was the most crucial stage of the creative process. Connolly made an analogy with sculpture: the shoot is like selecting the block of marble from the quarry, but you only discover the final form of the sculpture or film in the paring down process that occurs in the workshop afterwards.

The absence of an editing tradition in China became on ongoing topic of discussion during the rest of the workshop. This clearly contributes to the relatively loose style of many Chinese independent films, both features and documentaries. It is partly attributable to the broad Chinese tradition of seeing film as a medium for popularizing literature, with a corresponding emphasis on the script, and to the censorship tradition, which does not allow for much change after script approval. Although neither tradition has a direct connection to documentary, they have clearly influenced the entire film culture. As a result, to this day there is no separate editing department at Beijing Film Academy.

Both Ingleton and Connolly were astounded by the material that Li Hong has shot, emphasizing that only a Chinese woman could have captured it. But both felt the film was more like an assembly edit than a final cut. The Chinese filmmakers were particularly curious to know more about how an editor works creatively with a director, and all participants in the workshop agreed that a future priority for any further cooperation should be an editing workshop. Other priorities for craft training identified in the workshop included sound, with too many filmmakers relying on camera mikes, and cinematography, with excessive reliance on the tripod characterizing too many films today. Chinese workshop participants were already quite clear on the need for these changes, but emphasized that necessary expertise in the use of radio mikes, DVC cameras and so forth was still lacking in China.

In the afternoon of the 12th, Duan Jinchuan's No. 16, Barkhor South Street, which won the 1997 Grand Prix at Cinéma du Réel in Paris earlier this year, was screened. Part of a trilogy, the film is a pure observational piece that Duan acknowledges was inspired by the work of Frederick Wiseman. It focuses on the activities of the lowest level of government in the People's Republic of China, the neighborhood committee, on Barkhor Street, a particularly sensitive location in Lhasa because it has been used frequently as a site for demonstrations in the past. The film ends with celebrations for the anniversary of the Chinese "liberation" of Tibet, but the main emphasis is not on politics but on day-to-day administration. The pure observational technique is particularly useful in the Chinese context, because the absence of narration or staging avoids many potential censorship difficulties.

No. 16, Barkhor South Street is not only a breakthrough film because of the Cinéma du Réel award. It also marks a significant move in the professionalization of Chinese documentary. First, Duan spent many months editing the film, many more than most Chinese filmmakers would use. Past experience has already taught him to avoid the camera mike and made him fully aware of the technical standards required for broadcast. Second, the film was not made on an informal basis but with a Tibetan producer in an entirely regular manner. Quite apart from an content issues, this has made it much easier for the Chinese authorities to accept the work after its success in Paris, and indeed it was featured in the CCTV event a few days later. The inclusion of Duan's film in itself further underlines the promising possibilities that are emerging for independent documentarists in China today.

The informal meetings on the third day were used to workshop segments of films by other filmmakers, including Jiang Yue's work on a coal mine. Following previous discussions, particular emphasis was placed on different editing possibilities. In the course of this event, a final and potentially very significant piece of information was gleaned. This year, CCTV has engaged outside documentarists to make films for them for the first time. Hitherto, all documentary work by Chinese TV stations has been in-house, which clearly limits the growth potential of an independent sector. Most of those commissioned by CCTV this year have been other TV stations, but they also include Jiang Yue and Duan Jinchuan. Jiang will work further on his coal mine project, whereas Duan is shooting a film tentatively titled Sunken Ships about the efforts of entrepreneurs in Northeast China to raise the Chinese battleships sunk off Dalian in the Sino-Japanese War of 1894 and turn them into a tourist site. Through this, Duan hopes to explore the intersection of capitalism and nationalist/patriotic sentiment in contemporary China.


Chris Berry

Chris Berry currently lectures in Cinema Studies at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia. He lived in China in the late 1980s, working in the film industry there. He is the editor of Perspectives on Chinese Cinema (BFI, 1992), and has published extensively on Chinese film internationally. In 1995, he curated the NETPAC (Network for the Promotion of Asian Cinema) Selection, which was on Asian documentaries that year.