Instead of a Chinese documentary which couldn’t be shown due to some legal dispute, the cinema attended by yours truly this afternoon screened the documentary “My Camera Doesn’t Lie”, by Solveig Klaßen and Katharina Schneider-Roos. 92 Minutes, digital video, Chinese with English subtitles. (From the linked site, one can download an informative brochure on the film, as pdf.)
“My Camera Doesn’t Lie” is a rough’n ready documentary on current filmmaking in China, well, actually in Beijing. Interviews with filmmakers, a critic, a professor, and lots of clips from films, most of which I’d love to see. Here’s a list with all the names of people and films featured. Extracted:
- Liu Hao, director
- Cheng Qingsong, film critic
- Wu Wenguang, documentary director (“Bumming in Beijing”),
- Wang Xiaoshuai, director
- Zhang Yuan, director (“East Palace, West Palace”)
- Emily Tang, director (“Conjugation”)
- Jia Zhangke, director (“Xiao Wu”)
- Dai Jinhua, professor
- Wang Quan’an, director (“Lunar Eclipse”)
- Ju Anqi, director (“There is a strong Wind in Beijing”)
- Wang Chao, director (“The Orphan of Anyang”)
- Cui Zi’en, director
- Liu Bingjian, director (“Men & Women”)
- Li Yu, director (“Fish and Elephant”)
Most of the time in this film, you see and hear people talk, tell, narrate, which can get a bit tiring if (like me) you don’t understand Chinese and just get to listen to staccato-ish singsang, while you’re reading subtitles and watching faces doing their staccato. The stories are intriguing, though, and worth one’s patience. Filmmakers, more or less young, living under extremely unstable conditions, with no “working group” to be associated with (apparently a requirement for an honourable social existence in Chinese society), no insurance, nothing.
They have two choices: to make films outside any legal framework, freely, but under precarious economic conditions and with the constant threat of some neighbourhood committee watchdog bringing the police upon them, or to submit their films to censorship. In terms of distribution, this boils down to a simple choice: show your films in China (when censured) or don’t get anyone in China to see them.
The neighbourhood committee, by the way, a constant in all (the few) recent Chinese films I’ve seen: constant control, always looming. In “my camera doesn’t lie”, a director walks about his neighbourhood with the (Western) filmmakers, and while they talk, two elderly people come up to them and sternly inquire for credentials, for approval by the neighbourhood committee, insisting, insisting, insisting, until the camera moves away from the people and fixes its gaze on a broken window frame.
The bizarre result of this entire situation is that most of the films listed above haven’t been seen inside the PRC at all (or perhaps only by a handful of friends of the directors), and abroad mostly in the context of film festivals. This is all the more bizarre as these are very rough films with gripping tales of city life, quick and chunky visual material to be digested by those you can see on it. At least such is my impression from the clips shown in the documentary itself, as I haven’t seen any of these films in full.
- “East Palace, West Palace”, named after two public toilets that used to be located on the east and west sides of Tiannanmen square: a gay man is interrogated by a policeman, the whole night. Shown in Cannes in 1997; smuggled out of China while director Zhang Yuan was under house arrest and deprived of his passport. In the documentary, Zhang Yuan announces his readiness to submit his next film to censorship because he’s had enough of the festival circuit and wants Chinese to see his films. An understandable move, somehow. The critic Cheng Qingsong denounces it and voices his strong disappointment with Yuan’s development. For him, Yuan caves in, sells out.
- “There’s a strong wind in Beijing”: a wild trip, filmed on all sorts of 16mm material director Ju Anqui could lay his hands on. Occasionally they ran out of material and just kept recording scenes with sound alone. The basic idea is to just walk up to people and ask them whether the wind in Beijing is strong – all sorts of people. The film team walk into a public toilet, opens a door and asks a man just engaged in shitty business whether he thinks the wind in Beijing is strong; they enter a school and ask perplexed children, and so on. Hey here’s streaming video of this piece.
- “The Orphan of Anyang”: a man comes across a baby, given away, with a slip of paper attached: take care of the baby, you get 200 yuan a month. He makes the deal, with the mother who is a prostitute, ends up moving in with her. According to the director, the film is about a man who enters deals purely out of his own economic and sexual interests, but ends up getting deeply touched and moved by other human beings, the prostitute, the baby.
“My camera doesn’t lie” also deals with gay filmmaking in Beijing, and has been advertised as the first documentary on gay filmmaking in China, even though this is only one form of filmmaking that features in it.
I forgot the name of the director who most extensively talks about gay life and films in China over the past few years (it wasn’t Zhang Yuan), but he is shown while shooting a fictional documentary about “money boys” in Beijing. The documentary also contains a clip where he is speaker on a radio station devoted entirely to public toilets (the main meeting place for gays a few years ago). He’s a very eloquent personality. Most notable his way of looking at social changes in China: it would be wrong to say that society has opened. Society doesn’t open, one has to open windows for it. In some countries, the director says, you open windows easily with just so much as a slight push. In China, however, you have to push very hard, and for a long time, for windows to open just a tiny little bit. And this, he concludes, has happened over the past years, as far as gay life is concerned. At least in Beijing.
On documentary in China, see also: BÃ©rÃ©nice Reynaud, “Dancing with Myself, Drifting with My Camera: The Emotional Vagabonds of ChinaÂ’s New Documentary” (belatedly noticed at a usual sucpect’s site)