By Rose (Siru) Zhu
Storied Chinese director Wu Wenguang is an internationally recognized documentary filmmaker considered by many to be “the father” of the Chinese documentary. His first film, “Bumming in Beijing: The Last Dreamers” was released in 1990. The documentary vividly depicts the lives of five young artists living in Beijing during the cultural and political turbulence of 1988 and 1989. Since then his work has been recognized at various international film festivals—from the Hong Kong International Film Festival to the Montreal World Film Festival—earning critical praise and awards. Dramatically different from Chinese documentaries up to that point, which were methodically planned and pre-scripted, his unprecedented use of rough, handheld camera shots and penchant for spontaneous, free-form interviews were as revolutionary as his choices of subject matter. Bumming in Beijing is therefore generally recognized as the first “authentic” Chinese documentary.
Since 2010, his independent film production studio at CaoChangDi Workstation in Beijing has been working on a documentary series entitled “The Folk Memory Project.” The project encourages and helps people in Chinese cities to return to their ancestral villages to document “lost histories”— stories largely undocumented by official and mainstream media. On June 16, 2014, Prospect Journal staff writer Rose (Siru) Zhu sat down with Mr. Wu Wenguang, the pioneer of the Chinese independent documentary industry, for a discussion of his work, success, and the creative inspiration behind his love for the untold story.
Rose (Siru) Zhu: I watched your documentaries. A lot of them are depicting people who live on the edge of society. You are also working on The Folk Memory Project, which reveals a lot of “hidden history” [stories that lie outside of the mainstream or official narrative of 20th Century Chinese history]. Do you think it is because of your past experience that makes you want to unfold the stories of these types of people? Do those memories and experiences resonate with your own?
Wu Wenguang: Not really. We can call these, village memories. Villagers are actually the most ordinary people. They have lots of memories and experience, especially during the time of the Great Famine [a widespread famine that took place from 1959 to 1961 in China during Mao’s Great Leap Forward and one of the worst famines in the world history]. They are the most unfortunate ones, but we barely have any information about them.
Zhu: In your other interviews, you said that if the memories don’t get to be recorded and documented, they would be forgotten?
Wu: Actually a lot of them are already being forgotten. It has always been this way, being neglected [by mainstream history].
Zhu: Why did you choose the time period of the Great Famine?
Wu: This is the most obvious history [of the Chinese revolutionary era]. People who actually suffered in the famine never had their voices heard. It has always been other people who voice their opinions. Nobody actually thought about his or her experience during the famine. We hear pieces of stories from some people, and other pieces from other people. It is hard to put them together as a complete story. Plus, if we put many of these complete stories together then it can possibly be the start of the folk memory [collective histories that are passed down through word of mouth]. But that’s the way we should start to do this.
Zhu: I think people are lacking awareness and attention of these kinds of hidden memories, or people are just simply not willing to bring them up. I remember you said in an interview in 2004 that not enough [public] attention is focused on documentaries. You already had four documentaries by the time of that interview, but none of them were screened in China; all of them were screened overseas. Chinese television channels didn’t start to show documentaries in general until 2010.
Wu: Those are not documentaries; those are television feature films.
Zhu: Yes, like the famous “A Bite of China” [a television series produced by China Central Television that features beautifully-filmed Chinese cuisine and its history].
Wu: The first important characteristic of documentaries is being real in the present, what is being revealed behind that is the pain and illness of the society, and people’s life stories. Life stories of course can’t just be drinking coffee or some other cliché that can be touched on lightly or mentioned casually. But this important essence can’t be achieved after the television channels broadcast it.
For instance films about food, you can make them look visually pleasurable, but they don’t have the essence. But think about why the mainstream media pitch these kinds of shows so much. It’s because the food is extremely unsafe. They spent a lot of money to promote food, to ease people’s uneasy minds. I think it’s probably because of that. People don’t have much security and trust in food. If one day I don’t have security in air [because of bad air quality] then maybe they [the government and mainstream media] will shoot that they transplant some blue skies to Beijing.
Zhu: Why do you think are the reasons that your movies are not being screened in China? I know your documentary “1966, My Time in the Red Guards” might be too sensitive for censors. But what about pieces like “Bumming in Beijing,” which are not sensitive?
Wu: The documentaries were screened in many places in China. It’s just that it didn’t go through the mainstream media. I suppose the reasons might be that the mainstream media doesn’t like this type of film.
Zhu: I think documentaries have positive influences on society. You said it can raise civil consciousness. But what do you think we can do to raise people’s awareness and interest in documentaries?
Wu: The reality is that you can dig into the first level, the second level, but maybe not the third level. There is the control of the mainstream media, government, institutions and also commercial influences in it. For example like Sina and Tencent, [major websites and online platforms in China] and many more media outlets are able to broadcast these kinds of films. Other than censorship, they will first consider the relatively low level of acceptance and popularity of these documentaries among audiences. It’s not like the companies will think that “Oh, these films are talking about serious matters, we should play it.” The media won’t consider that. I know about these kinds of private media outlets.
Even if there is no more government censorship in the future, commercial censorship still exists – the so-called viewership rating or ranking. The situation is actually quite the same in western countries. It depends on viewership rating or ranking whether the media will show the films or not. But there are many very good documentaries that have been screened on some American television channels. Also, besides television, they also have art cinemas, film festivals and other institutions to show these films.
Zhu: You’ve mentioned in other interviews that documentaries are the bridges among people. The existence of a lot of stereotypes, confusion, and conflict is because of a lack of knowledge and misunderstanding. How do you think your documentaries help with solving these problems?
Wu: We can use documentaries to shine lights on shaded things and to build bridges between worlds that don’t know and understand each other. But this is just an ideal statement. If the media outlets for spreading the messages are so limited, then that statement is just a beautiful dream, because some things in the real world you just can’t change. You can dig into the third level but you can’t just force the door to open and force things to happen. But we can at least try to do what we are currently able to do. As for what would happen after that, we will see. After you do what you can do, for example like these scholars from all over the nation come here to UCSD for a week [to participate in the UCSD sponsored workshop “The Tangled Dynamics of Independent Filmmaking in Contemporary China” held June 16-22, 2014], watch some of the films made by the Caochangdi Workstation, the villagers, and myself and discuss them. There are more than ten of them. This is something that will naturally happen after you do things that you are able to do.
Zhu: When you were shooting some sensitive topics or memories, did you encounter any obstacles?
Wu: When you are shooting, it’s usually combined with what you are able to do and shoot and what you are interested in. It’s not like we are shooting just to be sensitive, and to dig out the forbidden areas. It’s not like the more real the story is, the more you want to push in with your camera in that direction. The thing that matters the most is that if you are interested in the stories. What you are interested in is, of course, hidden, also sometimes sensitive.
It depends on different filmmakers too. For me, what I am interested in are outside of people’s common sights. All of my films, like “Bumming in Beijing: The Last Dreamers,” and even films I make now are like that. So it’s not about them being sensitive. I think it is better to understand this situation by combining these two factors: ability and interest.
Zhu: As you said that a lot of times, things that you are interested in are hidden and also sensitive at the same time.
Wu: Yes. All these things have the sensitive factors. But it’s not like you are a suicide bomber, you explode once and that’s it. No. You grew up in that society, you will have a natural intuition in choosing themes. It’s called walking in the line. So generally speaking, it’s not that the more political the more sensitive the documentary is. It is also not that when you have something sensitive in it, then it is a deep documentary. Me personally focus more on the documentary itself, any thing, any object in daily life has something very interesting in it. It’s not about what you shoot; it’s about how you shoot it. That’s why in these recent years, I observe through personal films, it’s like writing.
Zhu: Earlier this year, it was the 25th anniversary of the June 4th Tiananmen Square Massacre. Were you shooting “Bumming in Beijing” at the time? What was your situation? What did you see?
Wu: I went out on the streets everyday. There was something new happening everyday. But I was not a participant: I was a bystander and a follower. My attitude and emotions were for sure on the students’ side. When it was getting close to June 4th, I was also worrying about when the oppression was going to happen, how it was going to happen and what would happen after that. I had no idea. In reality, that night, it is not easy to talk about. The mind is all blank. You don’t know what to say and what you should say. I stayed until around eight or nine in the morning. Everybody left the square. It was already almost ten when I got back to where I lived.
Afterwards I felt that the incident flipped a huge page of the era. A very important and huge one. For me it was also the start of another kind of life. But I didn’t feel it until later. The so-called democracy and freedom, you being a bystander, a waiter, it will never happen in front of you. But how you should be a part of it, you don’t know the right role and position that you can participate in. There were some things before June 4th that you could jump in, some opportunities. You could hold a flagpole, you could be like some more impulsive people, but it wouldn’t change your role as a bystander at the time. The preparation for faith in democracy in this society is a very long process.
Obviously at the time of 1989, we didn’t have the preparation for democracy and freedom at all. You can think about it now, if June 4th had ended up in a different way, what would this China be like? None of us will imagine that in an optimistic way. Another thing is the social democracy. Do people already have the civil consciousness? How many of them do? How much of that do you have or have you already started to build up? So I told myself that this was the start of a new life.
It was all about going abroad at the time. People wanted to go to America, to Europe, Australia, as long as it’s not Vietnam or Myanmar, anywhere. Friends are all looking for ways to get out. Me too. But when everyone was talking about the only way out was going abroad, I found something problematic was that you were following another trend. I felt it when I was in an elevator one day. It was the elevator in a motel. There were a lot of people in it. It was very crowded in the elevator, our faces were right next to one another. It was after lunch, there was the smell of smoke, meals and alcohol. This is the place where everybody was trying to get out. But in order to get on the elevator, people have to withstand it. After I got out of the elevator, I saw the ugly reflection of myself. Even I knew how bad the conditions were in the elevator, I was still trying to get in.
Zhu: That’s why you decided not to go out?
Wu: People wanted to go abroad because there was no hope in the country, no freedom to do anything. I asked myself, did I actually do anything? I realized that I didn’t do anything. I liked traveling, bumming around. I went to Xinjiang, and then Beijing, painted some. But I didn’t actually do anything. I shot some materials for the first film [“Bumming in Beijing”], but didn’t edit it. I didn’t even know what that thing was.
Zhu: So you were kind of lost at the time, you were just following the big wave?
Wu: So I made up my mind that I didn’t want to go abroad, I needed to finish what I was supposed to do. I continued to do this at the beginning of the 90s, and then I finished the editing of this film. After I finished this film, I didn’t even know how I got the invitations from international film festivals. I went abroad, and felt that it was fortunate that I didn’t go out as a student, an immigrant, or something else. I was lucky that I didn’t become one of the people in the elevator. For me, the year 1989 was a significant moment to me personally.
Zhu: You didn’t join in the protests at the time, was it because you couldn’t find your position?
Wu: No. It’s because I am not sensitive about this kind of things, or even like them. I, of course, have attitudes and passions. But I was not naturally born to be an activist, or enthusiast, that I would do something beyond my personality. Besides at that time, a lot of things happened within the system. I was outside of the system. For example, some institutions organized protests, and sent water to the students, but it was all under the names of the institutions.
Photo by HotzingTone