In this volume, adapted from his PhD dissertation defended at Monash University in 2014, Dan Edwards introduces the reader to Chinese independent documentaries, a highly diverse body of films increasingly popular in Chinese studies. In the introduction, the author lays out his research hypotheses and directions. He announces a particular emphasis on the films’ political dimensions, especially for those made after the second wave of independent productions from the 2000s onward. His study is based on Luke Robinson’s distinction between “private” documentaries focusing on personal – or, rather, “intimate” – subject matters, and “public” ones, those relating to topics of a more general relevance to the Chinese society.1 Edwards sees a growing interest from Chinese independent filmmakers for the second category, which prompts him to engage in a discussion on the “public sphere” in China, thanks to authors such as Gramsci, Foucault and Habermas. Unsurprisingly, the author indicates here that the Habermasian “public sphere” does not fit the Chinese political and social structure. Borrowing from Chris Berry and Lisa Rofel, Dan Edwards thus sets out to examine the “alternative public sphere” created by the independents by combining film analyses of major productions, and observations on the specific “screening culture” that emerged from the 2000s on (p. 4).
The first chapter adopts a historical perspective to describe the evolution of independent documentary film practices from the “underground” to an “alternative public sphere.” Edwards insists on the importance of the “digital era” both aesthetically (with a discussion on xianchang, see below) and structurally, in opening up this sphere. Drawing on these premises, the second chapter expands the discussion on the relationship between films, filmmakers and audience. Indeed, at the core of Chinese independent documentary activities, there is a “public of viewer-producers,” illustrated here by the late cine-club Utheque and its most prominent founding member Ou Ning. This collective, based in the Pearl River Delta, was instrumental in fostering a participatory and socially-engaged filmmaking practice in the region by organising screenings and debates, as well as producing film projects such as San Yuan Li (Cao Fei and Ou Ning, 2003) and Meishi Street (Ou Ning, 2006). The third chapter is dedicated to the topic of historical memory, with an introduction to prominent filmmaker Hu Jie and the analyses of two of his most famous films, Xunzhao Lin Zhao De Linghun (Searching for Lin Zhao’s Soul, 2004) and Wo Sui Si Qu (Though I am Gone, 2007). Chapter 4 examines the activist documentary film practice of Ai Xiaoming in relation to the Right Defence movement, with an analysis of Taishi Cun (Taishi Village, 2006) on land rights in Southern China and two other documentaries on the HIV blood scandal, Zhongyuan Jishi (Epic of Central Plains, 2006) and Guan’ai zhi Jia (Care and Love, 2007). The book concludes with a fifth chapter on the “ethics of encounter in Chinese documentary”, based on a reading of Zhao Liang’s masterpiece Shangfang (Petition, 2009), a documentary shot over a period of 12 years on the life struggles of several petitioners in Beijing. This topic is an occasion for the author to draw a parallel between popular discussions about the perceived decreasing morality in contemporary Chinese society and the equally popular issue of ethics in “Western” documentary film studies. Here, Edwards relays a common concern voiced by some foreign film scholars and critics on the supposed lack of regard by Chinese independent filmmakers for the ethical handling and portrayal of the protagonists, and the repercussions their documentaries may have on their lives. Quoting an interview with Zhao Liang where the filmmaker talks about his own doubts and regrets, Edwards concludes with the comforting statement that “certain Chinese documentarians have grappled at some length with ethical questions in the process of making their films.” (p. 131) It should be pointed out that ethical concerns are a particularly common topic of debates in the independent milieu, and the fact that Chinese filmmakers answer them in a different way to their “western” counterparts has a lot to do with how representational issues and broadcasting rights are handled in different contexts. Operating in a non-commercial, unregulated and unofficial realm, Chinese independent filmmakers’ ethical concerns are unsurprisingly different, and the personal risks they take as well as their own modes of self-depiction should also be taken into account to explain their attitude. These broad and complex issues are oversimplified in Dan Edwards’ discussion, especially when the author opposes a supposed “Chinese” belief in the objectivity of the DV to a (similarly supposed) “Western” distrust towards digital images (in reference to Lev Manovich’s writings). (p. 135) The reader may also regret that no reference is made to some of the most vocal commentators on the issue of documentary ethics, Brian Winston for instance.2 Other documentaries on petitioners such as Ma Li’s brilliant Born in Beijing could also have been fruitfully compared to Zhao Liang’s film in order to offer some contrast on the ethical treatment of protagonists by different filmmakers.
All in all, this book does a good job of introducing a readership with no prior notion of Chinese films, China, and documentary films in general to works of tremendous relevance to political and social debates in China, and those that are noted for their contribution to the documentary aesthetics of these past 25 years. Edwards writes in a very clear and no-nonsense fashion, which is a relief from often abstruse academic literature. Each chapter contains a short synthesis on the films’ social or historical issues that is quite useful for those unfamiliar with them.
This volume is not the first publication on the topic, and for those active in this area of research, there may be a feeling of déjà-vu. One root problem of the book is that it is based on limited original research – apart from interviews with six Chinese filmmakers (p. 1). The bibliography seems to indicate that the author also relied on a relatively small amount of sources as most of the important primary texts in Chinese are missing, and many English-publishing contributors are not mentioned.3 In some cases, the author relied on a single online source no longer available to the reader (see chapter 2), and not cross referenced.
Some parts of Edwards’ argument consist in a synthetic write-up without much critical or conceptual effort, for instance when he ventures into debates as complex and as feverishly discussed in academic circles as the topic of the “nascent civil society” in China (p. 3). One can also regret that major research questions and tropes about Chinese independent documentaries remain unchallenged. For instance, the opposition of binaries such as state and civil society or official and minjian documentaries is not really discussed. Are the “formerly marginalized viewpoints” being “publicly represented” (p. 68) through these films, given their limited and now diminishing audience? In a way, these questions seem already well-worn today because they have been discussed at large before, but by not engaging any deeper in the discussion, Edwards gives the impression that he is cutting corners. A case in point is the debate on the “concept” of xianchang, a term that has generated much literature in the area of film, theatre, and new media. Here, Edwards merely lays out Luke Robinson’s and Chris Berry’s respective analyses on spontaneity and “on-the-spot realism” (p. 32).4 However, a critical, historical and trans-disciplinary engagement with this word would make clear that xianchang is generally used as a spatial equivalent of the time-based idea of the “direct” (as it implies in this context the use of onsite direct recording techniques). In the context of television broadcasting, it refers to the notion of “liveness,” as the common use in Mandarin since the adoption of the technique indicates.5 In his observations on Chinese independent screening culture, it seems that the author did not manage to identify some of the main events, venues or organisers (BIFF, CIFF, Yunfest, Caochangdi Workstation), as he mostly describes short-lived structures located in the Beijing centre, or groups that he perhaps was more acquainted with. This is detrimental to his demonstration, but the lack of first-hand experience could have been balanced by more secondary reading, interviews, or by a close following of exchanges on social media. Since Edwards explicitly focuses on documentary films as an alternative public sphere, it would probably have made sense to more soundly investigate the physical and online spaces where it manifests itself.
Dan Edwards, Independent Chinese Documentary: Alternative Visions, Alternative Publics. (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2015).
- Luke Robinson, Independent Chinese Documentary: From the Studio to the Street (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013) ↩
- See for instance Brian Winston, Lies, Damn Lies and Documentaries, (London: BFI, 2000). ↩
- To be fair, I must admit that in this increasingly popular area of research, it can be difficult to keep track of all the new publications. Even though my research precedes his by a few years, I was myself surprised to discover Edwards’ work only now, especially because in my PhD dissertation published in French in 2015 too, I focus on similar filmmakers and topics. ↩
- In this section of the book, Berry is not mentioned. However, Edwards is referring to his translation of jishizhuyi, first appearing in “Getting Real: Chinese Documentary, Chinese Postsocialism,” in Zhang Zhen, The Urban Generation: Chinese Cinema and Society at the Turn of the Twenty Century (Durham/London: Duke University Press, 2007), p. 122. ↩
- I also draw a parallel between the theoretical use of xianchang in performance art and its wide adoption on the independent cinema milieu in the second chapter of my book. See Judith Pernin, Pratiques indépendantes du documentaire en Chine. Histoire, esthétique et discours visuels (1990-2010) (Rennes: Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2015). ↩