Academic journal article China Perspectives

"My Work Constitutes a Form of Participatory Action"

Academic journal article China Perspectives

"My Work Constitutes a Form of Participatory Action"

Article excerpt

Professor Ai, you're a scholar as well as a film director. Could you please talk a little about your dual identity?

I graduated from Beijing Normal University's Department of Chinese, and for a very long time I lived the typical life of a scholar: teaching and writing. In 2004 I began filming documentaries, and at this point I no longer have time for any strictly academic writing. I still carry out my responsibilities in guiding graduating students, but my main form of expression is now documentary film.

How is your role as a director related to your role as a professor? Do you feel your identity as a scholar influences the way you create documentaries, and if so, to what extent? Do you feel you derive any benefit from your daily interaction with students? What do you hope students can learn from your work besides what they learn at the university?

On the relationship between my identity as a director and my identity as a scholar: one important relationship is that I still get no outside funding for my films, so my living expenses and most of the expenses attached to shooting and producing my films are drawn from my retirement pay as a professor. My role as a scholar affects my filmmaking in that I still have to devote a certain amount of time to teaching.

I still very much enjoy my interactions with students, but this past October, I was prevented from lecturing at Fudan, Peking, and two other universities. I previously received honoraria for lectures, which supplemented the costs of my documentaries, but now it looks as if that will no longer be possible.

Some of my documentaries were previously used as reference materials in university gender studies courses. However, the subject matter of some of my more recent films, such as Taishi Village, is considered taboo, and the space in China where such works can be adopted for educational purposes is shrinking.

I feel that my work can help students understand some important changes taking place in China right now, such as the rights defence movement, people's living conditions, and the possibility for change. Mainland China's media are strictly controlled, and it's hard for my works to be shown even in privately-organised film festivals. But many overseas university libraries and research institutes collect my works, and I feel their students can use my works in China studies, gender studies, and cultural studies.

As a professor of literature, you haven't limited your focus to academic research, but have branched out into rights defence and activism. Why is that? How is it meaningful to you?

The way I see it is that some scholars have a problematic conception of "learning," and seem to regard it from a purely theoretical standpoint with little practical relevance to society. For a very long time I regarded learning in the same way. When I began making documentaries and became involved in public events, I realised that society's practical issues too seldom make their way into academic research. In other words, academic research is somewhat removed from social issues, and this should change. We should reflect on how learning can change society - there's so much that needs to be done. If you're lecturing to students about social justice while turning a blind eye to so much unfairness in society, isn't that being divorced from reality? Social justice issues in particular need scholarly observation and consideration. If these two trajectories (academia and society) can't be joined somehow, we'll never have justice. In this scenario, scholars fail their social responsibility, because imparting knowledge becomes nothing but a means of livelihood instead of an effort to change society. Such people can be considered "knowledge professionals" but not "citizens," because they use social resources purely for personal gain and to maintain the privileges they enjoy. I watched the documentary Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media, and I feel that professors should be like Chomsky, involving themselves in social events, and using their specialised knowledge to promote critical thou^it. …

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