China’s indie doco scene

I missed the 2nd 同性恋电影节 Beijing International Gay and Lesbian Film Festival a couple of months ago, but City Weekend had this great article on the indie doco scene in China, which is queer, political and making the kind of films I’d queue to see at my local film fest. One I’d really like to see is 杜海滨 Du Haibin’s film on transsexual showgirls in Chengdu人面桃花 Beautiful Men.

China’s New Documentary Movement, from its inception in the early Nineties through its heyday in 2003, had neither manifesto nor central directives. The “movement” revolved around questions of how to use documentary film to grasp at truths both big and social, small and personal, contradictory and contested. The “movement” began in the form of private gatherings among edgy film-makers, such as Wu Wenguang, a forerunner with his now-classic Bumming in Beijing (1990), whose most recent documentary, F*ck Cinema was screened with much aplomb, alongside the works of many up-and-coming filmmakers, at 798 Art Factory’s 2005 Dashanzi International Art Festival this past May.

Du Haibin’s Beautiful Men follows the lives of a close-knit group of drag queen performers in Chengdu. On stage, the drag queens act out their “inner desires,” working as exotic, cross-dressing dancers for a living and making the stage into a platform for embodying the gender some believe they were born to be. The filmmaker’s use of a simultaneous dual image frame, in which their everyday life “as men” goes on alongside “the enactment of their chosen [female] identities on stage,” highlights the dual nature of their lives. The film has an uplifting ethos, reminding us of the beauty of tolerance and glorious diversity of the human condition.

— City Weekend

The Raw and The Reel
August 01, 2005 – by He Chang

China’s DV handicam documentarians are producing a mosaic of images telling the story of a country in the throes of massive change and the resilience of the human spirit Du Haibin’s Beautiful Men follows the lives of a close-knit group of drag queen performers in Chengdu

Crystalline Northeastern snow falls on a boy in hand-me-downs, standing in the remnants of a decaying factory complex in what once represented China’s industrial might. This striking scene is but one moment in the mosaic of Chinese “indie” documentary film of recent years, reflecting the desire shared by many filmmakers to capture the raw and the real, bearing witness to the resilience of the human spirit as people struggle to triumph over adversity and make places for themselves in a world that dizzies with the speed of its transformation.

With a spate of flashy film festival awards in recent years, Chinese documentaries have arrived in style on the international scene. And films like Du Haibin’s Beautiful Men, darling of this year’s Beijing Gay and Lesbian Film Festival, signal that times are changing and the people on the margins of society are making inroads into the public sphere.

China’s New Documentary Movement, from its inception in the early Nineties through its heyday in 2003, had neither manifesto nor central directives. The “movement” revolved around questions of how to use documentary film to grasp at truths both big and social, small and personal, contradictory and contested. The “movement” began in the form of private gatherings among edgy film-makers, such as Wu Wenguang, a forerunner with his now-classic Bumming in Beijing (1990), whose most recent documentary, F*ck Cinema was screened with much aplomb, alongside the works of many up-and-coming filmmakers, at 798 Art Factory’s 2005 Dashanzi International Art Festival this past May.

The growing availability of affordable DV handicam technology democratized indie filmmaking, presaging a wave of films documenting the everyday, ordinary and marginalized alike, such as Yang Lina’s Old Men (1999), Zhao Liang’s junkie punks in Paper Airplane (2000), Du Haibing’s vagrants eking out a living around a railway station selling scavenged trash in Along the Railway (2001), the ramshackle rockers of Luo La and Zhang Yang’s Post-Revolutionary Era (2001), the laid-off industrial poor of Wang Bing’s West of Tracks (2003), or the flowering of gay culture in a farrago of documentaries such as Han Tao’s BaoBao (2005), Tian Gebing’s Barbie Doll (2005), Cui Zi’en’s Withered in a Blooming Season (2005) and Du Haibin’s Beautiful Men (2005).

Among the proliferation of documentarians in the post-New Documentary era, several stand out for the evocative power and social importance of their films.

Yan Yu and Li Yifan’s Before the Flood, documenting the lives of people relocated to make way for the Three Gorges Dam project, won the prestigious Wolfgang Staudte Prize at the 2005 Berlinale Film Festival. Before the Flood chronicles the building of the dam on the Yangtze River, slated for completion in 2009, which will permanently submerge hundreds of villages, historical sites and archaeological treasures. It documents the human experience of this monumental undertaking and the bustle of irrepressible life that goes on, even in the face of great change and formidable challenge. The filmmakers expressed their desire “to find and capture on-camera examples of human dignity before the flood.”

Du Haibin’s Beautiful Men follows the lives of a close-knit group of drag queen performers in Chengdu. On stage, the drag queens act out their “inner desires,” working as exotic, cross-dressing dancers for a living and making the stage into a platform for embodying the gender some believe they were born to be. The filmmaker’s use of a simultaneous dual image frame, in which their everyday life “as men” goes on alongside “the enactment of their chosen [female] identities on stage,” highlights the dual nature of their lives. The film has an uplifting ethos, reminding us of the beauty of tolerance and glorious diversity of the human condition.

Wang Bing has also garnered both international acclaim and merit-based grant funding for his work. His monumental nine-hour documentary about the changing fortunes of working-class Chinese in Shenyang’s once-booming Tiexi District is a kind of “ordinary epic” of China in transition. A panoramic saga in three segments – Rails, Rust, Remnants – culled from over 300 hours of footage, West of Tracks addresses the fate of China’s laid-off workers.

Particularly moving is the story of Old Du and his seventeen-year-old son Du Yang. Before the wave of lay-offs, Old Du worked security at the Tiexiqu railroad. Later he made a living scavenging on the grounds of his old worksite. Accused of stealing coal, he is arrested. Not knowing when his father will be released, Du Yang paces the doorway of their tiny quarters, the weight of his anxiety heavy in the air. After Old Du’s release, in a scene so intimate and gripping that one forgets about the presence of the camera altogether, Du Yang gets drunk as they dine in a cheap dive. Crying and cursing, he falls to the floor, threatening to hit his father for leaving him alone. The tenuousness of their lives is laid bare, showing us the critical importance of family, now more than ever a crucial and necessary part of Chinese culture. Old Du’s attitude is commendable as he takes the vicissitudes of his life in stride, and faces an uncertain future with a subtle courage that is his most invaluable resource.

By the Edge of the River, the latest film by photographer and film-maker Zhao Liang – whose work has attracted international attention for the intimacy of its gaze – is in the final stages of editing and will be screened soon. Drawing on his childhood in Liaoning, along the banks of the Yalu River, on the border of impoverished North Korea, Zhao Liang mediates on change and longing, and, in a parallel to his earlier film Paper Airplane, he examines the predicament of being existentially adrift.

Although the New Documentary Movement reached its peak in 2003, having fulfilled the function of spreading and popularizing documentary filmmaking, its legacy is enlarged and expanded in new ways as the boundaries between video art and documentary film are being stretched by artists such as Han Bing. Han’s background in painting, performance art and conceptual photography lend a combination of aesthetic sensitivity and conceptual preoccupation to his documentary films. His current project, Beijing Underground Passages (due out next year), takes the dixia tongdao (underground passages) – their dank, poorly-lit passages teeming with vagrants, disabled, merchants hawking petty wares, rock n’ roll youth with their acoustic guitars and earnest songs, idle itinerants, and mingong peasant construction workers – as a metaphor for the variegated forms of human existence, that characterize the underbelly of contemporary Beijing, as people struggle to make a place for themselves in this courageous new world, and try to face the challenges of a new era with dignity.