Docbox Books

Fang Fang,
A History of Chinese Documentary Film

Beijing: Chinese Drama Publishing House, 2003. ISBN: 7-104-01860-3
Shan Wanli

In common with most other nations, China’s motion picture history began with Chinese film documentaries. The earliest was shot in 1905, a year generally acknowledged as marking the onset of Chinese feature and documentary film production. Countless reels shot by generations of Chinese documentarists throughout this one hundred year epoch now constitute the mother lode of Chinese cinematic history. Yet few works by Chinese writers on Chinese documentary film, and fewer still on its history, have been published.

It was not until the beginning of this century that, one by one, books on the history of Chinese film documentaries began to emerge. Among them, A History of Chinese Documentary Film by Professor Fang Fang of the Shanghai Drama Academy, published in 2003 by the Chinese Drama Publishing House, could be said to be the most complete and systematic account. This monumental work of 500 pages took seven years to complete, and touches upon all aspects of Chinese film—its source and evolution, the dynamic between documentary and feature film, the upsurge of independent documentary makers and their ever more frequent international exchanges.

China’s earliest film documentary was shot by master photographer Ren Qingtai. Having studied photography in Japan, Ren opened his own photographic studio in Beijing upon his return to China. Before long, films made in the West began to arrive in China, and he was simultaneously running his Beijing studio and putting on film shows. Disenchantment at screening only foreign movies eventually decided Ren Qingtai to make a Chinese film, and in 1905 he shot the first Chinese film. It was based on an extract from a performance of the Peking opera Conquer Jun Mountain. Since then, films on politics, economics, military affairs and cultural strength have documented the respective benefits and services that they render to the Chinese public.

The relationship between documentaries and fiction films is an issue that permeates twentieth-century film documentary history. A connection based both on antagonism and mutual dependence undeniably exists between them, yet many nonetheless see the two mediums as incompatible. In common with their counterparts outside of China, however, Chinese filmmakers have long since broken the boundaries between documentaries and fiction films. For example, Cheng Bugou’s Kuang Liu (“Raging Torrents”) of 1932, generally believed to be the film that launched China’s Left Wing Film Movement, is a classic fiction film presented in documentary form, whereas Zheng Junli’s Min Zu Wan Sui (“Long Live the Chinese Nation,” 1940), which was shot in the style of a fiction film, is regarded as a documentary masterpiece.

A proliferation of independent film documentarists occurred in the late 1980s. Until then, Chinese documentaries had for the most part been officially commissioned, mainly because individuals were hard pressed to find the funds necessary to own or even to hire cinematographic equipment. Since the 1990s, however, particularly just after the turn of the millennium, the advent of comparatively low-priced, light-weight shooting and editing equipment enabled Chinese documentarists to work independently. The most obvious difference between independent and officially commissioned documentaries is that the former express an individual point of view while the latter disseminate the official line. Yet a working relationship between the two exists, as independent documentary makers often work on their own projects using equipment made available to them by official film units, and government authorities employ independent filmmakers to help collate and disseminate propaganda.

Interchange between Chinese and foreign film documentarists has trodden a tortuous and winding course, but since implementation of the Reform and Opening policy in 1979, there has been increasingly frequent dialogue. Chinese film documentary makers have had opportunities to learn from their overseas counterparts’ experience, and the documentaries that have since ensued enable Chinese audiences to comprehend the history of and current situation in countries outside of China. At the same time, Chinese documentaries screened overseas and those made by overseas filmmakers within its borders have heightened international awareness of China’s rich splendor. Despite severe restrictions and low monetary returns, compared to those generated by feature film production, Chinese documentary film crews have worked to create a substantial body of work that has made an inestimable contribution to human inter-communication.

A History of Chinese Documentary Film carries a detailed description of this process. The writer also discusses more obscure documentaries long neglected by film historians, such as those made during the Republican Government film movement, films shot in China by Japanese film organizations, filmed accounts of the “cultural revolution,” documentaries made in Hong Kong and Taiwan, and the development of anthropological films in China. The reader’s first impression of this volume is that it is based on abundant historical data, and its oral history approach makes clear that many facts come from people actually involved at the time. A History of Chinese Documentary Film is a ground-breaking, pioneering piece of work on a fascinating subject.

—Translated by Katharina Schneider-Roos and Pamela Lord


Shan Wanli
Researcher at the China Film Archive, and editor of Documentation and Fictionalization (2001).

Michael Renov,
The Subject of Documentary (Visible Evidence Volume 16)

Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2004. ISBN 0-8166-3441-6
Kris Fallon

Early on in the Introduction to his new text The Subject of Documentary, Michael Renov articulates the focus of the book by stating “I want to ask how and to what effect viable versions of the self come to be constructed through these late-twentieth-century media practices.” But even as this foundation is established Renov undermines its straightforward clarity by deconstructing and destabilizing its key terms. The “poetics of audio-visual autobiography” which he seeks is complicated by the slippery nature of what defines the self, the life, and the writing practice that flow into the “auto” the “bio” and the “graphy.”

Such is the nature of criticism in the post-structural age, and such is the meticulous and insightful approach that Renov will take in much of the text that follows. The book, which is the 16th volume in the Visible Evidence series, collects a series of individual essays that Renov wrote over a twenty year period for various conferences and publications. Paired with a general introduction and chapter introductions, the book forms what is certainly the most complete text to date on what could be alternately termed the “subjective documentary” or the “film/video/new-media autobiography.” Like many of the texts in the series, The Subject of Documentary starts with what seems a focused segment of documentary and ends with a comment on the genre as a whole.

Renov divides the essays into three sections. The first section, “Social Subjectivity,” deals with those occasions where an individual subjectivity collides with larger social and political issues. Here Renov looks not only at works that would easily be classified as “autobiographical” (Jonas Mekas’s Lost, Lost, Lost, Rea Tajiri’s History and Memory, etc.) but reverses the model and looks at the way traditionally political films relate objective events from a subjective point of view. The second section, “The Subject in Theory,” forms what he calls the “theory core” of the book. Here Renov draws out some of the foundations for subjectivity in the documentary through reference to ideas taken from psychoanalysis (primarily desire, which Elizabeth Cowie and others have written on), postmodern theory (through the breakdown of objective “master narratives”), and ethical discourse (drawn primarily from the late ethical philosopher Emmanuel Levinas). And finally the third section, “Modes of Subjectivity,” offers a look at the array of different formats in which the autobiographical impulse manifests itself from the video to the personal webpage.

The collected nature of the book and its tripartite structure feels more focused and arbitrary than expansive and exhaustive. Certain chapters focus in on one specific film (Abraham Ravett’s Everything’s for You, Chapter 10, for instance) giving those sections a type of “case study” perspective that places the book in the vein of other documentary anthologies like The Documentary Tradition and Documenting the Documentary. Other chapters examine a range of films tied to a given topic (Silverlake Life, Tongues Untied, and Blue as they relate to Lacan and mourning in Chapter 7, for instance) which gives those sections a greater kinship to previous theoretical works like Representing Reality and Claiming the Real. Using this varied structure allows Renov to cover a great deal of ground while taking the time to linger on certain points of greater interest.

Furthermore certain overriding themes do emerge from the individual chapters. Without utilizing an overtly “historical” approach, Renov manages to place the Montaignean essay within the tradition of the autobiography and then in turn to place a certain strand of documentary filmmaking (starting with Dziga Vertov continuing through Rouch and the verite filmmakers before finally landing in the realm of hyperspace and the personal webpage) within this autobiographical/essayistic tradition. In the midst of putting together this timeline, Renov further establishes documentary’s place within the rise and fall of modernism’s ego-driven social engineering and postmodernism’s subjective expres-sions of personal truth. While it may take some flipping back and forth between chapters, the final result is a subtly crafted move forward in the analysis of the history of documentary film and a firm establishment of its place between the literary and new media genres.

Though Renov often places his ideas and the films he looks at in opposition to the socio-political “discourses of sobriety” that Bill Nichols discusses, taken together one can see that documentary is capable of being simultaneously subjective and objective, of revealing the self through focusing on the other. Given the new horizons that Renov opens up for the documentary, it will be interesting to see where the next generation of technological changes and filmmakers will take it.


Kris Fallon
Sally Casanova Pre-Doctoral scholar in the Cinema Studies department at San Francisco State University. He is currently working on a thesis studying the use of still photos in documentary film.