Les États généraux du film documentaire 2015 Doc History: China

Doc History: China

Anyone wanting to write a history of Chinese documentary will stumble over a paradoxical mix of rarity and profusion. Historical rarity: documentary production as such (excluding state production) started recently, twenty-five years ago, at the end of a decade marked first by a relative opening to foreign influences then by the bloody closure of Tian'anmen. Contemporary profusion: a number of factors – the need for low costs and discretion, a brutal reality that has trouble disguising itself, the exteriority of cineastes from the institutions – mean that most of the production coming from China is documentary, alongside a few fiction films of a similar vein. It is not by chance that this brief and plethoric history began just when government policies were beginning to change. The strategy of giving birth to uninhibited capitalism from the entrails of severe communism destabilised the social relationships on which the latter was based without actually abolishing them. Hence the appearance of a new caste of artists, less directly subservient to an overly stereotypical representation of social classes (dubbed "socialist realism" which was more diverse than it appeared to be) and in this way less integrated into national structures. This is perhaps the reason why people made anomic were confronted with social anomalies revealed by the gap between a discourse of equality and a practice of division. If Wang Bing or Zhao Liang film the deprived, it is because, among other things, they recognise in them an exclusion which, in totally different ways, they also share.
This programme does not pretend to retrace the whole of this history – that would be impossible – but concentrates on films testifying to the mutation in the status of the artist. Significantly, the work often considered the foundation stone of Chinese documentary, Bumming in Beijing by Wu Wenguang (1990), focuses on Beijing bohemians practicing their art in situations both precarious and clandestine. The film is as historically important – and even more so in that Wu remains a patron of many younger filmmakers – as it is now ignored, overcast by the more recent glory of those who made the transition to digital first. The film's strategy is perfectly simple: a series of interviews in a fixed frame is cut together with scenes showing the creators at their work. The influence of this first-born of Chinese documentary on today's production is perfectly visible. This cinema is more than any other an art of piety and contemplation. It is more concerned with allowing other people's speech to blossom across the screen than inventing forms principally preoccupied with signalling their own cleverness. The aesthetic sobriety sometimes criticised in this cinema derives uniquely from a concern to find a match between the destitution of the people being filmed and the identical destitution of the gesture of testifying. But the film also shows the hidden, cultural, side of the economic opening. These artists don't quote Mao but Artaud or the great American writers, absorbing into their discourse everything the West has produced in praise of expressive subjectivity.
It is in this intermediary space, between hyperbole of the self and desire for the world, that we can situate Liu Xiaodong, the painter filmed by Jia Zhang-ke in Dong (2006). Here we find the other term of this story: the artist is henceforth celebrated, but mourns a working class world with which he formerly lived in solidarity. The film shows the filmmaker and the painter travelling from the Three Gorges to Thailand, recreating the world on their canvases. And above all, it offers a reflexive compilation of the entire history of Chinese art: from the scrolls on which scholars produced ethereal landscapes to the somewhat exuberant production of contemporary artists passing through the socialist phase with its glorified bodies of proletarians.
This pair of films thus provides insight into the new positioning of artists – the very ones from which the documentary school was born that feasts our eyes. They will be accompanied by an unclassified object, Disorder by Huang Weikai (2009), a film of found footage whose effect goes beyond words. The cineaste collected amateur films showing different urban conflicts and slightly filtered them to provide a somewhat homogenous grain. The film as a whole forms an insane spectacle on the violence of the relations of domination (by economic or police forces) and on the daily accidents in cities that have become too tentacular for any state authority to control. An absolute film, and absolutely different from anything that has been done before.

Gabriel Bortzmeyer

Debate in the presence of Gabriel Bortzmeyer, member of association Camira.