Media from the Margins

Wanning Sun has analyzed numerous instances in China of cultural production by migrant workers, including documentary videos, poetry, magazines and photography. One particular case helps illuminate how the uptake of media technology is often assumed to lead to the formation of modern, urban subjectivities for socially and politically marginal groups. However, this example also suggests how this uptake alone is not necessarily enough to foster transformations in the social consciousness of the wider public. Wang Dezhi, whom Sun describes as a “self-appointed ethnographic filmmaker” in Picun—a large migrant community on the outskirts of Beijing—is exceptional in his commitment to producing documentary and feature films about migrant life.23 At one level, Wang Dezhi “attributes his development from rural migrant youth into filmmaker to his exposure to cultural elites, academics, and filmmakers when he was an activist at the Picun [migrant workers cultural activism] center,” as well as the influence of Chinese independent documentary films and filmmakers.24 He had seen such works at screenings and festivals in Songzhuang village, home of the Li Xianting Film Foundation and the Beijing Independent Film Festival (see Flora Lichaa’s chapter in this volume for discussion of this festival). Wang Dezhi was not only inspired by and adopted the documentary aesthetics and topics of urban Chinese filmmakers, many of whose films dealt directly with the brutal effects of urbanization, rural poverty and political marginality; he also incorporated his own activist sensibilities into his filmmaking. His films sought to depict migrant lives from the migrants’ points of view for a migrant worker audience, with the ultimate goal of raising class-consciousness and awareness of social conditions. However, Sun argues that as a result of his commitment to making films about migrant life for migrants themselves, he has found few willing viewers in Picun; migrants in Picun wished to escape their lives when they consumed media products, not be reminded of their daily hardships and struggles. As Sun explains, “the rural migrant audience for such films is marginal at best—an ironic recapitulation of their status in Chinese society itself.”25

If Wang Dezhi had had the chance to join in a community media workshop, one organized and run by urban scholars and funded by international and domestic development agencies, it is perhaps possible that his films would have found a more receptive audience. That said, these viewers would not necessarily be the audiences he claimed to seek—the migrant workers of Picun. Wang Dezhi’s situation is a stark reminder of the participatory effort involved in cultural translation. While he enthusiastically “translated” mainstream, urban, Chinese independent documentary film styles and topics into his own work as a local activist-filmmaker, he encountered greater difficulty in translating this urban documentary film practice into a form that would be appreciated by his target audience. To his credit, Sun notes, this lack of local interest did not dissuade Wang from continuing to make films and supporting the Picun migrant activist community center in other ways, and certainly Wang’s own commitment to advocacy for migrant rights has been remarkable and successful.26

Wang Dezhi’s efforts do however point toward the confluence of factors that renders cultural translation more possible at a film festival like Yunfest. The infrastructural support provided by workshops and venues like the PVE program offered rural filmmakers the imagination of an existing urban audience, a reason to invest their time and energy into making a documentary film. Furthermore, Yunfest was literally a physical space in a political, social and economic center (the capital of Yunnan) that brought rural media and rural filmmakers out of the margins, giving both them and their films the time and space to be seen and heard. In ideal circumstances, the PVE screenings would have allowed rural filmmakers to both appreciate the space for self-reflexivity effected through the “othering” process of seeing one’s work on screen, and to prompt audience members to consider the lives of others through engagement with the film and filmmakers during discussion. In practice, of course, the reality of PVE screenings and of fostering “dialogue through video” at Yunfest was much less straightforward.

Two cases, based on my observations during the 2011 Yunfest, help to illustrate the challenges and underlying assumptions about cultural and social differences that frame the screening of rural documentaries in an urban film festival space. As noted earlier, in 2011, the PVE program was moved at the last minute from the main venue at the Yunnan Provincial Library to a classroom in the Yunnan University Anthropology Museum building.27 One immediate result of this change in venue was that on the first day most of the audience members were other community media organizers and filmmakers, whose works were scheduled to be shown and who had been informed of the new location. The very first screening was a new film by Wang Zhongrong, a Miao resident of Taimoshan village just outside of Kunming. He was one of the first participants in the community media training programs organized by Guo Jing and his colleagues from 2004 to 2005. Wang showed his third film, titled Taimoshan Story Part 1, about life and ritual practices in his village.28 In it, he documents a series of collective village labor projects, from bridge building, ditch digging and road paving, and ends with wedding preparations, including scenes of a pig being slaughtered and villagers enjoying the feast. Stylistically, the film engages an observational aesthetic, with some conversations subtitled into Chinese (in the film most villagers speak either a local Miao dialect or a regional variant of Mandarin Chinese), few interviews, and no voice-over.

After the screening, Wang Zhongrong fielded questions in standard Mandarin; he began by explaining that the collective work depicted in the film was a type of traditional labor and that these projects took place every year and were organized by the village. An audience member asked him if villagers migrated to find work elsewhere, followed by another question about why he did not migrate. Wang replied that people from Taimoshan did not migrate much, despite it being only 45 kilometers from Kunming, and moreover, that when they watched the news, all of the thieves in the city were reportedly rural villagers who could not find work in Kunming and resorted to stealing. Implying that he would rather not be associated with this group, but without suggesting one way or another if he thought it was actually true or merely a common stereotype, Wang added that he would rather stay in the village making films. “I’m not someone who likes to be a migrant worker,” he said. He explained that he began making videos in 2005, and to the question of how he developed this particular interest, he replied he could not say, only that “a hobby is a hobby.” Other villagers were also interested in DV filmmaking, he added. The last question, from a child perhaps seven or eight years old, asked if his filmmaking was for financial or social purposes, and how he managed to pay for it. Wang responded, politely but evasively, that “the things one does for oneself don’t require a lot of money.”

The topics raised in this brief discussion were somewhat unsurprising, given current concerns in China over rural-to-urban migration and rural social stability. And yet, the unfolding of the conversation also revealed the difficulties in translating rural experiences through a documentary film screening in an urban context, even when audience members and filmmakers meet in a relatively open space for dialogue. The fundamental problem is that these dialogues are framed from the outset around preexisting social binaries and their attendant expectations: rural or urban, poor or rich, marginal or mainstream. Rather than asking about content of the film, for example, the first questions posed to Wang were about rural labor migration, a topic frequently reported on in the news but not discussed much, if at all, in his documentary. When responding, Wang took on the role of Taimoshan village representative, explaining that the villagers did not migrate much, and also justified this statement by referencing news reports and common stereotypes of rural migrants as thieves in the cities. In so doing, he reaffirmed the “rurality” of Taimoshan residents while adopting some degree of agency over urban assumptions by refuting the expectation, first, that all villagers migrate or desire to migrate, and second, that villagers are morally suspect. At the same time, while being positioned as a rural village resident, Wang also sought to embody the modern, and arguably urban, subjectivity of a film director. When asked about his own personal motivations and capabilities as a filmmaker, his responses were vague. Perhaps this was because it is difficult to elaborate on one’s own intentions; alternatively, perhaps it was his way of adopting the self-consciously noncommittal stance of many contemporary film auteurs who (as I observed during the discussions for the main competition screenings) also displayed a similarly deliberate reluctance to discuss their personal motivations and ambitions. However, compared to an urban filmmaker in China—one whose works circulate through networks of domestic independent film festivals and possibly even overseas among film scholars and China enthusiasts—Wang Zhongrong’s ambivalent selfpositioning only seemed to render him more marginal, to the point where the final question zeroed in on his financial situation and how he could afford to make films. While, in the world of art versus commerce, some filmmakers might wear their economic precarity with pride as a symbol of independence, for Wang, this question in the context of the PVE screening room ran the risk of reinforcing his economic and social marginality.

However, Wang Zhongrong’s peripheral status was also the result of his relative autonomy. His 2011 film was produced outside of any organized community media training workshop, forcing him to singlehand- edly shoulder the burden of explanation. For Wang to show his film and occupy the position of an independent rural filmmaker before an audience of workshop participants, urban scholars and city residents demonstrated both great humility and confidence on his part. His desire to share his work publicly came at the cost of having to answer broad, generalizing questions about being rural in China today, but his participation in Yunfest suggested that this was a price he was more than willing to pay in return for the opportunity to be regarded as a filmmaker.

All of the other films screened in the PVE schedule were part of larger workshops and initiatives, which granted these rural documentaries a conceptual framework for interpretation—in other words, a purpose. A second anecdote from the 2011 Yunfest PVE program, this time on the discussion of films made by participants in the China Village Documentary Project, highlights the benefits and disadvantages of viewing rural media as part of larger umbrella programs with specific themes and emphases. Many scholars have discussed the origins of this project, in which Wu Wenguang invited ten rural villagers to learn documentary filmmaking at his studio space in Beijing, with funding and support from European Union and Chinese government organizations; one of the most critical voices is that of Paola Voci.29 As Voci points out in her reading of the project, Wu has insisted over the years on presenting the films as a group, as parts of a single project that he created and has sustained, which Voci argues suggests his desire to retain control over the framing and interpretation of these films. Moreover, in the first rendition of the project films released in 2006, each film begins with a still image featuring the individual filmmaker’s name, gender, home village and home province.30 By starting each film in this way, the

persona [of the filmmakers] is thus clearly positioned as an individual subjectivity, but also simultaneously deprived of ‘true’ cinematic authorship... Conversely, in these movies the villagers cannot free themselves from their social belonging and are therefore defined not simply as makers of their documentaries but, first and foremost, as subaltern men and women, who thus need to explain and justify their incursion into filmmaking.31

Seen in this light, the questions Wang Zhongrong fielded, and his responses to them, can be understood as precisely an attempt by the audience at Yunfest to find an explanation and justification for his “incursion into filmmaking.” Wang did not have a program organizer or curator guiding his work, whereas Wu Wenguang, Voci notes, has served as the speaker and representative for the films of the China Village Documentary Project at most screenings in China and at almost all international screen- ings.32 At the 2011 Yunfest, only Wu was present for the screening and discussion; he explained that since only two out of four new films from 2009 were selected for screening, and there was not enough funding provided to bring all four filmmakers to Kunming, rather than cultivate feelings of envy among the filmmakers, he came alone.33 On the one hand, this was a pragmatic decision stemming from financial and political considerations. On the other, rather than the festival space becoming a means to traverse the rural-urban binary, these screenings instead relied upon Wu Wenguang, an urban independent filmmaker and artist, to explain his perspectives and experiences as a broker and coordinator of the film training program, rather than addressing the films and filmmakers themselves.

In spite of, or perhaps because of, this, Wu’s discussion raised a number of important questions and issues related to rural filmmaking and community media. When asked what his motivations were for training rural villagers in documentary filmmaking, and why he found it interesting, Wu replied that in fact it was not difficult to use DV technologies to give people a voice and that individuals like Wang Zhongrong were also doing this type of work. He then posed a series of rhetorical questions back to the audience about the development of self-awareness in rural filmmakers: Would rural villagers make videos if there were no overarching organizations? Just showing their videos in their villages was not interesting for these directors, he claimed—it was more fun and desirable for them to go elsewhere to show their films, to Kunming, Beijing or overseas, or to use the language of my analysis here, to be able to translate themselves, and not just their work, into different spaces and contexts. Is DV a weapon?, he continued. It records, but can it help solve village problems? Recording video is one thing, he added, but actually speaking is another. As for the motivation of the rural filmmakers, he surmised, did they really want to address village problems (such as water pollution in one of the films shown, Jia Zhitan’s My Village 2008) or did they just want to become famous documentary filmmakers?

The points raised by Wu revealed, to a certain extent, his own frustrations with his documentary training project as it had unfolded. He ended his discussion by describing the new project he was developing: working with young chinese students, artists and other filmmakers on recordings of collective memories of the Great Famine.34 He conceded that not many of the rural filmmakers from the China Village Documentary Project had stayed on, especially the younger filmmakers, whom he claimed just wanted to “have fun with video” rather than take documentary seriously. Arguably this could be in part because of the lack of resources (and perhaps the lack of effort on the part of all parties) to recognize these rural filmmakers as filmmakers and not just as rural villagers with cameras. Indeed, it is probably a given that rural filmmakers like Wang Zhongrong or Wang Dezhi are few and far between—the promise of a biennial festival screening in Kunming is probably not enough to motivate many young rural villagers to devote their own time and money to making films that their fellow villagers do not necessarily want to watch. If this is the case, then, what is the value of devoting an entire festival program stream to community media, much of it produced in rural China? Is it just to provide urban audiences with a glimpse of life in rural, far-away places? Or is there, as Wu Wenguang added in his comments at the 2011 Yunfest, something more that community media and rural films can do?

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