Academic journal article China Perspectives

Filming Space/Mapping Reality in Chinese Independent Documentary Films

Academic journal article China Perspectives

Filming Space/Mapping Reality in Chinese Independent Documentary Films

Article excerpt

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Since the beginning of the 1990s, independent documentary filmmakers have explored the Chinese territory and made visible people and places rarely seen or even taken into consideration by traditional media. This movement has grown in a specific space often described as an intermediate realm between the public and the private sphere, and has dedicated itself to the recording of China's margins, both geographical and social.

As an attempt to reflect on society, documentary cinema deals with people and their living conditions. But the choice of a topic or of a main "character" is often related to another underlying but nonetheless very significant choice: the filmed space. The famous documentarist Frederick Wiseman has built all his filmography around this very concept: each of his films is the description of institutional spaces (jail, hospital, museum, etc.) and the way people interact in them.(2) In this type of film, and also in Chinese independent documentaries, places and topics are intimately related. While space plays a strong role in defining the scope of the film's subjects, its mode of representation also conveys the filmmaker's opinion about the event as well as his aesthetic preferences.(3)

In the case of Chinese independent documentaries, not only have the filmmakers shed light on certain places, populations, and contemporary issues, they have also reconfigured the aesthetics and the practice of documentary film by questioning the medium and setting a number of new rules. Among those are the rejection of television norms for documentary films and the adoption of a style close to direct cinema, which includes a new approach of both subject matter and filmed counterparts. By focusing on ordinary people and giving them a space for speech, by developing their topics in full-length movies, and by rejecting any kind of didactic purpose (such as no explanation through voiceover) they aim at the standards of auteur cinema, and at a certain degree of "truth," as well.

The emergence of this movement outside the realm of the film industry and television questions the status of documen- tary film in China, both as a visual work - its aesthetics, meaning, and role - and as a cultural product - its economy, audience, and distribution.

In most countries, the distribution of documentary cinema is more difficult than it is for fiction films, as screening opportunities and dedicated institutions are relatively scarce. These films usually remain a product for television broadcast, even though they sometimes get screening opportunities in regular movie theatres. In the case of Chinese independent documentary films, as they are drawn away from the normal dissemination channels from the very start, and as auteur documentary film is a largely neglected cinematic form in China, it becomes especially hard to show them. However, filmmakers and film critics have taken into account these difficulties and the particular status of Chinese independent cinema to create the conditions for these movies to exist in a specific sphere, even though this space is a rather narrow one. The independent festivals, archives, cafés, and events that allow them to exist demonstrate the prominence of physical space as a means of disseminating movies, even in the Internet age.

Given the importance of the notion of space in its relationship to cinema in general and to this cinematography in particular, I would like to sum up and challenge some of the issues space raises when in contact with Chinese independent documentaries. This paper aims at taking space as an entry point to study, both on the level of the films and on the scale of the "New Documentary Movement," the many ways geographic data merge with the independent practice of recording and showing reality in China. I will focus on the influence of space on the choice of topics, the roles space plays during the shooting process, and the relationships it induces between the filmmaker, the filmed counterparts, and the viewer. …

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