Rural Films in an Urban Festival: Community Media and Cultural Translation at the Yunnan Multi Culture Visual Festival

Jenny Chio

One of the distinctive hallmarks of the Yunnan Multi Culture Visual Festival (hereafter referred to as Yunfest), a biennial independent documentary film festival held in Kunming, Yunnan Province, has been its inclusion of community-based video documentaries produced by rural, often ethnic minority, filmmakers, mostly from across China. From the first Yunfest in 2003 up to and including the 2013 festival—the event’s final edition, which was planned but canceled at the last minute—the Yunfest program featured a stream that showcased community-based, participatory videos made by and depicting the lives of rural, ethnic minority and other marginalized groups from China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Southeast Asia, and, occasionally, the United States and Europe. In 2003, this program stream was called “Face to Face”; between 2005 and 2013, it was titled “Participatory Visual Education.”

This chapter explores how Yunfest’s organizers and participating filmmakers created and sustained the social, political and cultural value of rural media-making within an urban film festival. What distinguished the

J. Chio (*)

Emory University, Atlanta, USA © The Author(s) 2017

C. Berry, L. Robinson (eds.), Chinese Film Festivals, DOI 10.1057/978-1-137-55016-3_14

Participatory Visual Education (PVE) program at Yunfest was its explicit emphasis on bringing rural filmmakers to Kunming, the provincial capital, to attend the festival. This ensured not only that filmmakers had the opportunity to field questions and discuss their works, but also to participate in the experience of the festival itself—from watching other people’s films, including more “mainstream” Chinese independent documentaries shown in the other program streams, to being addressed as a filmmaker in a public forum. In turn, I argue that the festival at times became a space of cultural translation in a process that entailed a doubled movement: first, for urban film festival audiences to see rural China as presented in documentaries made by rural Chinese; and second, for rural Chinese filmmakers to be seen as filmmakers in the context of the film festival—in an urban, modern social space. Over the years, the main screening venues for Yunfest included major public institutions in the city such as the Yunnan Provincial Museum, Yunnan Provincial Library and the Yunnan University Anthropology Museum, as well as local commercial cinemas.

For rural filmmakers, the process of cultural translation often begins with their participation in externally sponsored community media training workshops. Many of the rural films shown at Yunfest over the years were funded and facilitated through such programs, as will be discussed later. From taking part in a workshop, usually organized in county-level towns, to exhibiting their films at the festival, these filmmakers and their works are explicitly engaged in a process of translating their experiences and ideas across known social binaries (urban-rural, cultural majority-minority, rich- poor). Indeed, as I aim to show, by analyzing the work of rural documentary filmmakers in their production and consumption contexts, it becomes clear that these documentary videos are, or should be, participatory both in their making and in their seeing. In a parallel instance, for example, Jennifer Deger argues that in her collaborative image-making work with indigenous Yolngu people in Australia there is a “degree to which this work was created by a group of people with a shared understanding of how images both provoke and demand the active participation of viewers in processes of seeing and making visible.”1 Likewise, the context of the PVE screening program at Yunfest, with its emphasis on bringing filmmakers, films and audiences into real-time physical contact and discussion, also extends the obligation and responsibility of participation into the space of the festival itself, suggesting that the burden of translation should not rest on the shoulders of the filmmakers alone.

In this chapter, I focus specifically on the PVE stream at Yunfest, which over the years has featured a range of documentaries produced by rural, ethnic minority Chinese through community media training programs organized under the auspices of rural development and anthropological research projects. Many of these programs were run by scholars from research institutions such as the Yunnan Academy for Social Sciences and Yunnan University, as well as organizers and filmmakers based at the local offices of national and international development organizations.2 First, I outline some of the defining features of the PVE program stream. The efforts of the scholars and supporting institutions who funded and organized many of these rural community media workshops, combined with the participation of rural filmmakers at festival screenings and discussions, transformed the film festival into a space in which rural experiences and perspectives were translated for an urban context. This cultural translation occurred both in the content of the films themselves and in the structure of the Yunfest screenings. The second half of the chapter offers a few case studies of media-making at the rural margins, including an analysis of two screening and discussion sessions during the 2011 edition of Yunfest. My conclusion presents some preliminary ideas on the necessity and significance of further work on Yunfest and its influence on media-making in rural China.

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