A History of Participatory Visual Education at Yunfest
A brief outline of Yunfest’s PVE program stream illustrates the festival’s central commitment to promoting community-based media and to creating a space for dialogue on issues related to the experiences of rural, ethnic minority and other marginalized groups. Logistically, Yunfest began under the direction of Professor Guo Jing, who in the early 2000s was employed by the Yunnan Provincial Museum where he supported a variety of local documentary film screening events. He later established the Visual Education Department of the BAMA Mountain Culture Research Institute within the Yunnan Academy of Social Sciences, which oversaw Yunfest from the mid-2000s onwards.3 The first Yunfest, held in 2003, was organized around the idea of dialogue through video. As Guo wrote in his preface to the catalog,
Because we are far from the center, far from the influential broadcasting nerve centers, we need an original perspective. The region south of the clouds (Yunnan) is a border area. Neither in the political or commercial mainstream, it provides its impressions from the margins... This allows for a space where a multiplicity of perspectives can coexist, and different voices can be heard, different voices allowing for the development of real dialogue. “Different voices” and “dialogue”: these can be taken as two central themes in the Visual Festival.4
In the initial iteration of the festival, the community films were grouped under the heading “Face to Face”, which featured documentary films and photographs from Hong Kong, the United States (focusing on the work of Kentucky-based Appalshop, a long-running US community media organization established in 1974) and southwest China. The latter included work from a project directed by Guo, run under the auspices of BAMA, and called “AZARA Video Workshop: Participatory Video Education.” This particular project, one of the first in the province to utilize the relative affordability of digital video (DV) to facilitate community media productions, featured collaboratively made films shot by anthropologists and rural residents in three Tibetan villages in Yunnan. Other work from China included photographs from the Photo Voice project, which supplied rural villagers with cameras to document their cultural livelihoods and was funded by The Nature Conservancy, a globally prominent non-profit environmental conservation organization headquartered in the United States.
In 2005, PVE was introduced as the name of the entire Yunfest community media program. It featured 27 films and an explicit mandate to showcase the work of filmmakers from Yunnan. Two of the 27 films were from outside China (one on indigenous community media in Alaska, another on swidden agriculture in Japan). Of the films from China, the majority were produced through community media programs and workshops organized by Guo and the BAMA Mountain Culture Institute, The Nature Conservancy, and local Chinese organizations such as the Kawagebo Culture Society in Deqin, northwest Yunnan, and the Center for Biodiversity and Indigenous Knowledge, based in Kunming. According to the 2005 Yunfest website, funding for many of these projects came from international donor organizations such as the Ford Foundation and Conservation International.5 Six films included in the PVE program were produced as part of larger scholarly projects by university researchers in
Kunming and Beijing, and two were films made by regional television stations or their employees.
As Yunfest itself gained prominence in the broader landscape of independent documentary film in China, so too did the PVE stream.6 The 2007 edition of Yunfest featured 31 PVE films, although that year’s festival was moved at the last minute, and without any official reason, from Kunming to smaller venues in the city of Dali.7 In 2009, Yunfest returned to Kunming with 41 films in the PVE program as well as a day-long discussion panel on “Documentary Film and Rural Society.”8 The films in the 2009 PVE program were no longer limited to Yunnan but included community-based documentary media from across China. Works from more well-known community media projects by Chinese independent filmmakers and artists, such as Wu Wenguang’s China Village Documentary Project and Ou Ning’s Dazhalan Project,9 were screened. A conceptual shift from the 2005 to 2009 PVE programs can be seen in the organization of these films in the catalog. Whereas the 2005 films were listed individually, most films in the 2009 PVE program were grouped under the titles or names of the larger community media projects of which they were a part. These included the first series of films produced under the community documentary training project, From Our Eyes10 (then funded by Shan Shui Conservation Center, a Chinese environmental organization), and multiple projects funded by the Hong Kong-based rural development organization, Partnerships in Community Development. This relatively small alteration in the program reflects, I believe, changing conditions for the production of rural media in China, where such films are increasingly seen as valuable parts of broader projects under the funding umbrella of large, often international, development and donor agencies, rather than solely as individual works. The implications of this shift in recognition and naming will be discussed later, both in terms of how this influences the production process and the imagination of these films as a form of cultural translation, and how it shapes the screening experiences, where rural media is subsumed under broader discursive frameworks (and attendant expectations) of development and modernization. Conversely, the consequences of overlooking the influence of funders and other organizing forces have been assessed by Matthew Johnson in his critical reading of the China Village Documentary Project. He notes that these films were typically presented as “direct encounters” with village filmmakers and without much attention to the EU-funded project of which they were originally a part. In this case, Johnson argues, the films made by village participants have largely been celebrated as independent, unmediated works, thus obscuring the transnational negotiations and networks between organizers in the EU and China that enabled their production.11
The last Yunfest actually held in Kunming took place in 2011. That year, the PVE stream grew to accommodate over 17 different community media projects, screening over 50 films.12 Again, like previous years, the majority of films were from rural China, although there was a special selection of films on agriculture in the United States, development in Laos and community issues in urban Shanghai. Last minute negotiations between the Yunfest organizers and government officials in Kunming resulted in the PVE screenings being held almost exclusively at the Yunnan University Museum of Anthropology, rather than in the Yunnan Provincial Library as planned and where the majority of Yunfest’s films were shown.13 As in 2007, no official public explanation was given for why the PVE films were shifted to the new location, although many festival attendees surmised it had to do with the prevalence of films by and about Tibetans in China, and the upswing in violent, public protests and self-immolations in Tibetan communities since 2008. Indeed, by 2011, the overall political atmosphere was increasingly tense; that year, Yunfest was not the only independent film festival to face government restrictions. In 2013, despite having finalized a full screening program—including a PVE program of 32 films from 6 different community media projects across China—the festival was canceled entirely.14
Even as Yunfest gained national and international attention as an important site for independent documentary film culture in China throughout the early 2000s, the growing size of the PVE stream at each Yunfest demonstrates just how significant these films were to the intended experience of the festival as a whole. Documentary film in China, as represented by the Yunfest catalog, included work from a diversity of perspectives and backgrounds, from state television employees to self-proclaimed documentary filmmakers to researchers and first-time documentarians, whether students or rural villagers. The plurality of films and filmmakers at Yunfest therefore increased the expectation and the obligation for active participation on the part of its attendees, a characteristic obvious from the very beginning with the first edition’s focus on dialogue through video.