The Cross-Cultural Potential of PVE

Looking back over the PVE programs from 2003 to 2013, some common characteristics emerge. The films classified as PVE generally fell into two categories: first, films produced by participants of community media training programs, usually related to issues of rural development, cultural heritage and sociopolitical change; and second, films about rural or ethnic minority cultural practices produced by researchers and filmmakers with a scholarly intent or emphasis. The first type of film was most prevalent in the PVE program stream; the other festival streams, including the Competition films, Youth Forum, Showcase (non-competition documentaries), Film Forum (a special series of films by international documentar- ians) and Media Melanges (documentaries from other Asian countries) often featured films that addressed rural social issues but were not necessarily produced in an explicitly scholarly or community-centered mode.15

Thus, in order to explore the potential benefits and consequences of screening films under the PVE program rubric, it is vital to disaggregate the various points at which these films, including their production and consumption, may highlight the possibilities of cultural translation, of creating the opportunity for bridging a socially recognized “gap” or form of difference. The inclusion and screening of community media at Yunfest renders the time and space of the film festival into a potential venue for cross-cultural translation across the rural and the urban, between ethnic minorities and the Han majority in China. The inclusion of community media in Yunfest’s overall program reflected the values of the organizers, namely Guo and his colleagues at the BAMA Mountain Culture Institute, and their ambitions for the festival itself as a social space for dialogue and discovery across sociopolitical boundaries, real and imagined.

Even before screening at Yunfest, however, the films produced by rural, ethnic minority participants in video training workshops are often intended expressly to represent, and to translate into terms understandable by mainstream urban audiences, the range of contemporary experiences and concerns dominating lives and livelihoods in culturally, politically and economically peripheral regions of the country. This process of cultural translation associated with community media comes by virtue of being produced through a training workshop run by urban Chinese and funded by outside, often international, donors with their own agendas.16 Likewise, the training gained through participation in the workshops, the experience of shooting and editing a documentary film, and the experience of seeing and discussing one’s work with an audience in a provincial capital city, all constitute a second act of cultural translation—the translation of the presumably “urban,” or at least modern, subjectivity of “media-maker” by individuals who have been marked, by both external and internal logics of identity and status, as un-urban, un-mainstream and un-modern.

Another example from Australia, where media collaborations in indigenous and Aboriginal communities have been widely promoted in government policies and critically assessed by scholars, illuminates how cultural translation operates in production and consumption contexts. Philippa Deveson argues that a 1968 government-sponsored film project on the impact of a major bauxite mine on a Yolngu Aboriginal community at Yirrkala (in the Northern Territory) began with Yolngu participation and a conscious awareness of “the potential of film as a medium of communication.”17 When project director Ian Dunlop, an Australian anthropological filmmaker, arrived to make the film, Yolngu immediately began directing him on what to shoot, and “Yolngu became active participants, even producers, of films for which they had a clear purpose, and with which they continued to engage making the most of the medium’s potential for both intra- and cross-cultural communication.”18 Devenson notes two reasons for the perceived efficacy of film for Yolngu:

First, from the beginning, Yolngu clearly saw the value of film as an instrument of education and, through this, political and legal persuasion. Second, film was taken up as a means of recording their culture for future generations of Yolngu, and even of directly addressing those generations.19

This awareness of film’s ability to communicate across political, social and even temporal boundaries played a vital role in shaping Yolngu participation in documentary filmmaking projects, both in the production and the circulation of particular works. However, it occurred alongside a recognition of the local import of these films for cultural preservation. Devenson recalls, anecdotally, that when one of the primary Yolngu filmmakers she worked with, Wukun Wanambi, attended an academic conference with her in Melbourne in 2008, he chose to speak about the pressing political issues facing his community rather than filmmaking. Although initially concerned about the lack of congruence between the proposed presentation topic and his actual speech, Devenson concludes,

Wukun was doing what Yolngu have always done—that is, taking the opportunity of a public forum to make a political statement. He was in fact demonstrating Yolngu agency in action—by using the conference as an opportunity to further a Yolngu agenda, in the same way his fathers had responded to the opportunity for cross-cultural communication presented by the Yirrkala Film Project.20

I dwell at some length on this example from Yolngu country because I believe Devenson and Wanambi’s experiences, as collaborators in a filmmaking project in remote Australia and as co-presenters at an academic conference in urban Melbourne, offer an insightful parallel to the process of cultural translation at the PVE screenings of Yunfest.

While their goals at Yunfest may not be quite as explicitly political— indeed, many of the films were framed within current Chinese state discourses about rural development—these filmmakers also, by virtue of their willingness to participate in community media workshops and festival screenings, recognized the potential for their films to speak across social and economic boundaries to urban Chinese, and to future generations both rural and urban. Part of this mandate came from above, from workshop funders who provided financial support for projects that directly addressed issues such as environmental conservation and cultural heritage. Films such as Hemp Weaving by Miao filmmaker Hou Wentao, and The Wonders of Water by the late Tibetan filmmaker Wangta, thus take up these topics. However, in making these works, rural filmmakers also attested to the social and cultural value of documentary film not just for outside funders and scholars, but also for themselves and their communities. Wangta, who made two films through programs organized by Guo Jing and his colleagues, remained extremely active inFrom Our Eyes training workshops and screenings, and traveled frequently to participate in events as both a mentor and a student until his untimely passing in 2012.21 Hou Wentao continued recording and making films after participating in a community media workshop in 2006, and planned to establish a village-based documentary group to record local Miao cultural traditions.22 Furthermore, given that both the community media workshops and Yunfest were often organized by the sameKunming-based scholars, it would have been clear to participants from the start that their films would very likely be screened at the festival and that they themselves would be invited to attend, show their film, and participate as a filmmaker.

Like Wanambi, therefore, Yunfest thus became a potential venue for thesecond act of cultural translation—to present oneself as a rural filmmaker in an urban festival.

By considering the PVE program from a wider perspective, namely from the community media workshops to the actual film festival space, the cross-cultural potential of PVE becomes clearer and more complex. To reiterate, these rural Chinese documentary films engage in a first level of cultural translation by virtue of their production within the framework of community media training workshops run and funded by outside, nonrural, and mostly non-ethnic minority scholars and organizers. The second level of cultural translation, then, happens when the films are screened at Yunfest, in front of an audience that is potentially open to the urban public in Kunming. Although the majority of audience members of the PVE program at the 2011 Yunfest were other rural filmmakers, along with a handful of scholars, what mattered was the fact that Yunfest took place in an urban context and that anyone from the public could attend. It was the imagination of an urban public audience for rural documentaries, alongside the very real presence of the filmmaker standing before an audience in Kunming, that allowed for the possibility of cross-cultural translation in the film festival space. As I will demonstrate in an example below, the opportunity to attend Yunfest as a filmmaker required rural filmmaker Wang Zhongrong to negotiate his own subjectivity and self-positioning at the festival while in the process of explaining his commitment to documentary filmmaking to a public audience.

Of course, the community media training workshops and PVE/Yunfest as a screening site can only create the conditions of possibility for the exchange of knowledge and experiences. It is important to stress that the potential for rural media to translate ideas, perspectives and experiences across social divides lies not in the content of a documentary film, but rather in the spaces of its production and consumption. The space of Yunfest becomes a place with the potential for boundary-crossing to occur, a space where the film festival audience is shown what rural China “looks like” on video, and where rural filmmakers (including other rural media producers attending the festival) can be seen as modern media producers and consumers. The doubled movement involved in cultural translation thus raises a more fundamental question about how media production, particularly when utilizing digital technologies, is often inherently associated with modern subjectivities.

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