"Chinese Realities/Documentary Visions", a 28-film series on show at New York's Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) until June 1, shows the mainland's documentary filmmakers have been producing interesting, often provocative works for more than 25 years.
Programmed by distributor dGenerate Films' Kevin Lee and MoMA film curator Sally Berger, the series features a selection of works that cover a wide range of subject matters and, also, demonstrate an unexpected degree of formal experimentation.
Among the works are Bumming in Beijing: The Last Dreamers (1990) by Wu Wenguang, considered the father of China's modern documentary movement, and Wang Bing's three-part West of the Tracks (2003). The recent trend of merging documentaries with fictional drama is highlighted in Jia Zhangke's 24 City (2008) and Pema Tseden's Tibet-set Old Dog (2011). Also screening: Zhang Yimou's The Story of Qiu Ju (1992), to show the influence of documentary techniques on feature filmmaking.
Documentary filmmaking didn't properly arrive on the mainland until 1988, when China Central Television (CCTV) made and screened Presenting River Elegy. The six-part series was broadcast in June 1988 - a time of relative media and intellectual freedom - and provoked debate because its makers said traditional customs were an obstacle to progress.
But the documentary was labelled "anti-communist" in the media crackdown which followed the June 4 incident the next year, and even blamed for helping to incite the student revolt; some of the filmmakers were arrested, and some fled to the US.
"There was an openness in the arts and the media during the era of the economic reforms, and River Elegy illustrates that," says Lee. "It really caused a sensation, and there was a lot of discussion about the way it was describing China's future. It was remarkable to see that playing out in the state-sponsored media, on national broadcast television, and to see it generate the amount of discussion - and controversy - that it did. I don't think anything since has reached that level."
Independent documentary filmmaking was born a year later, with Wu's Bumming in Beijing. This work examining the lives of five artists who lived in Beijing was shot just before June 4, and Wu filmed extra footage after the crackdown to show how it had affected their lives. "It captures the spirit of that era and encapsulates the anxieties and hopes of people then. It gained an extra level of poignancy and historical importance because it was made during that period," Lee says.
Wu borrowed video equipment to make the film, and that inspired others to follow suit. "The sense of intimacy he achieved with his subjects by interviewing them at length about their deepest hopes and fears was new," Lee says. "The personal nature of the film, and the individuality he depicted in the subjects, had not been seen in Chinese cinema until then. It was very striking."
Wang took that intimacy to extremes in West of the Tracks: he spent two years living with, and filming, his subjects. The resulting document of northeast China's failing state-run heavy industries is a masterpiece. "He had to invest that amount of time so that they became comfortable with the camera and forgot they were being filmed," says Lee. "As the film progresses, reality starts to seep through. You get some intimate and revealing moments, thanks to his total commitment, and his dedication to his subject matter and to filming it in as truthful a way as possible."
Most of the documentaries in the MoMA series have not been seen by many people on the mainland, but Lee says they have still been influential. "There is a certain degree of openness in Chinese television that you can attribute to these independent filmmakers. Although not many people in China get to see these works, they are made by people who are somehow connected to the media industry, the Chinese TV industry, or at least know people in it.
"Some were even made using CCTV equipment and resources. So those who work within the system are exposed to them. They find them very courageous, and very cutting edge in terms of the subject matter and the way they tackle it. It rubs off on them. The influence of these films may not be obvious, but it is there in the mainstream media."