tirsdag den 10. december 2013

onsdag den 19. juni 2013

Unearthing the Past: From Independent Filmmaking to Social Change

Wu Wenguang, considered the father of independent Chinese documentary film, has since 2005 slowly but surely been handing over the camera to people on the margins and to younger generations of Chinese documentary filmmaking. In 2010 Wu and Caochangdi Workstation initiated the Folk Memory Documentary Project, where young filmmakers go to the countryside to gather and document memories of the Great Famine (1959-1961) from elderly villagers. This text was originally postet on AsiaPortal's InFocus Blog.

Wu Wenguang introduces his film "Treatment".
Wu Wenguang introduces his film “Treatment”.
Bumming in Beijing
Wu Wenguang is known as one of the first to make independent documentaries in China. His first documentary film, Bumming in Beijing – The Last Dreamers, aired in 1990 and soon after the film toured the international film festival circuits. Wu started out in 1988 filming five artists, a writer, some painters and a theatre director all involved in the production of art on the edge of Chinese society. The artists had, for the most part, no Beijing registration and they stayed with friends or in shabby courtyard houses on the outskirts of Beijing close to the old summer palace while trying to practice their art in the China of the late 1980s. Only one of the five artists portrayed in the film remained in Beijing, by 1990 the other four had left China to pursue their dreams elsewhere in the world.  Wu’s documentary was the first in China to give the characters of a documentary a space to voice their concerns and dreams of the future, letting the narratives of their stories weave together presenting lives on the edge of Beijing, both figuratively and literally.
For the next ten years, Wu produced several documentaries concerned with people living on the margins of Chinese society and films related to sensitive historical issues. Meanwhile, he toured the international film festivals and presented and discussed his work with international filmmakers and audience. In 2000, when he again found himself at an international film festival and was yet again asked the question: What will your next film be about? Wu realized that he was not interested in ‘the next topic’, making ‘the next film’ or filmmaking in general for that matter. What he wanted was to make change possible by creating the conditions for change in people.  Wu believed the camera could be instrumental in this process: by giving people the opportunity to record and re-experience their lives through the lens of the camera, there was maybe a possibility of creating awareness of the marginalized person’s own position and thereby a possibility to empower this person.
Initial steps
The initial steps in the direction towards engaging in possible social change were taken in 2001, when Wu and the dance choreographer Wen Hui made the performance and documentary film Dance with Farm Workers. 40 migrant workers, originally from Sichuan Province, were hired to be part of a dance performance in collaboration with Wen Hui’s international dance troupe. Nine days of rehearsing culminated in a public dance performance which took place in an old, empty factory in Beijing. The process was intended to establish a relationship between the people who build the city (the migrant workers) and the people living in the city (in this case the dancers and documentarists), while it also directed attention to the poor conditions migrant workers often worked under and the local urbanities prejudice towards them.
Even though the intentions were sympathetic, and the film features moments of sincere interaction between the migrant workers and the dancers, the performance still seemed to reproduce an existing hierarchical relationship between migrant workers and urbanities. The workers remained workers in this new context. Nevertheless, Dance with Farm Workers represented a new attitude in Wu Wenguang’s documentaries moving towards a more engaging kind of filmmaking.
Handing over the camera – the Village Documentary Project
In 2005 Wu Wenguang initiated the Village Documentary Project – an EU-funded initiative projected to document the village self-governance system introduced in the 1990s with democratic elections at village level. Instead of going to the countryside himself, Wu decided to hand over the camera to the villagers themselves. The idea was that the villagers, by looking at their own community through the lens of a camera, would see the community with fresh eyes and reach another level of awareness. Wu advertised nationally for villagers willing to participate in the pioneering project and in the end ten villagers from all over China were chosen. They were given a camera and taught to use it through intensive workshops at Wu Wenguang’s Caochangdi Workstation in the north eastern corner of Beijing. Each villager made a film which related to the village self-governance system in their own village. The ten villager films feature very different perspectives on and circumstances for democratic elections in rural China, presenting diverse rural communities full of good-will, corruption, laughing children, misunderstandings, close relationships, stubborn village elders, younger generations with new views on society and in some cases seemingly democratic elections in village China. Wu Wenguang has with the Village Documentary Project taken a step back in order to provide a platform for the villagers from where it is possible to transgress social barriers and present rural problematics to a greater audience.
Collecting memories – The Folk Memory Documentary Project
Building on the experiences from the Village Documentary Project, the Folk Memory Documentary Project was initiated in 2010. Young people, some still in school and some recent university graduates, were engaged to go to the countryside to gather and document the memories of the Great Famine from 1959-1961 from elderly villagers, telling the previously untold stories of the millions who died because of the famine. Most young people in China today are taught that the famine was caused by natural disasters and debt to the Soviet Union, a narrative the filmmakers and the villagers come to question once they unearth the memories of the people. Each of the young filmmakers went to a village with which they had a personal connection, either they were born there themselves, their parents or grandparents had grown up there or a family member had been sent there as ‘sent down youth’ during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). The young filmmakers spend three months every winter in each their village collecting memories of the troubled and agonizing years of the great famine and being part of the rural community. The interviews with the elderly villagers are used in the documentaries and are gathered in a memory archive at Caochangdi Workstation.
At Lund University. From left to right: Zou Xueping Wu Wenguang Zhang Mengqi and Shu Qiao
While the young people are in the villages to shoot their documentaries they are advised by Wu Wenguang and Caochangdi Workstation to set up small scale, socially engaged projects. The young filmmaker Zou Xueping organized screenings of the Folk Memory Project films and arranged garbage collecting activities, to address one of the more pressing problems in many Chinese villages. Another participant of the project, Zhang Mengqi, made a public library to make books more accessible in the village and to create a place for sharing. A third participant, Shu Qiao, raised funds for a monument to commemorate those who died during the great famine, a way to create awareness in the village of the wrongdoings of the past. Furthermore, he engaged a school class (11-12 year olds) and had them collect and document the memories of their village elders. In this way, the memories of the great famine were transferred to younger generations and thus seized to be the taboo it had previously been. These films collects memories of a forgotten past of suffering and a the same time document young people’s journey into this past as they rediscover themselves through a process of interaction and engagement in an effort to dissolve taboos and traumas of the past.
With the Folk Memory Project, Wu Wenguang has handed over the camera to villagers and young people of China using the camera as a tool of unearthing the unknown and of transforming the present by rewriting history.
Mai Corlin

Wu Wenguang and the three young filmmakers Zou Xueping, Zhang Mengqi and Shu Qiao visited Lund University, Nordic Institute of Asian Studies (NIAS) and University of Copenhagen in April 2013 where they presented Caochangdi Workstation’s Folk Memory Documentary Project. Most of the films of the project can be viewed for a small fee on China Independent Documentary Film Archive: www.cidfa.com. For more about Caochangdi Workstation please visit their website www.ccdworkstation.com.

Mai Corlin is enrolled as PhD student at Aarhus University, Department of Culture and Society, Asia Section. Her project is entitled Utopian Imaginaries in Rural Reconstruction – Urban Activists in Rural China and is concerned with socially engaged art in the countryside of China.

Wu Wenguang presents the Folk Memory Documentary Project “Memory: Hunger – Protest Amnesia through Documentary and Theater”: 
 Clip from Bumming in Beijing – The Last Dreamers:
 Clip from Dance with Farm Workers:

fredag den 5. april 2013

Ou Ning on Anarchism

In an article by Ou Ning on his blog at Alternative Archive entitled "Autonomi: Utopia or Realpolitik" (Chinese: 自治: 乌托邦或现实政治), Ou Ning discusses anarchism in China in a historical and contemporary context. He focuses on the anarchism of Peter Kropotkin as one of the key persons for anarchistic theory and praxis, and he draws heavily on the anthropologist and anarchist David Graeber and his descriptions of contemporary anarchistic autonomy experiments and practices with the Occupy Wall Street Movement as an example of a succesful anarchi.

Ou Ning promotes a non-violent anarchism based on direct-democracy, where elaborate discussions will lead to some sort of consensus between the implicated people. Ou Ning furthermore argues that anarchism is actually already present in contemporary societies: "[...] if you stop waiting for the wave-like spectacle of a grand revolution but instead try to enter into the minutia of everyday life, then when you enter into shared life in urban communities, when you engage in volunteer work in exchange for time coupons, when you go to the countryside to learn about labour-exchange traditions, when you observe and take part in village autonomy and grassroots democracy, or when you create indie media in cyberspace, taking part in shared proposals as an individual, then you may encounter, learn about or practise the ideas of anarchism." (Ou Ning's blog).

A flowchart of consensus-based decision-making, created by Grant Horwood (aka "frymaster"), Wikimedia Commons, under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation license, Version 1.2

tirsdag den 26. marts 2013

Another China - Other Inequalities

Interview with Professor Min Dongchao, Nordic Institute of Asian Studies 
by Mai Corlin, PhD Student, Aarhus University

You can also find the interview with a Chinese introduction at the website of Centre for Gender and Culture Studies, Shanghai University.

Gender inequality is not simply the unfair treatment of men and women. It is a complex issue tied to a whole range of disparities in society at large, argues Professor Min Dongchao, who has just been awarded a Marie Curie International Incoming Fellowship and will be a guest professor at the Nordic Institute of Asian Studies for the next few years. Her object of study is the travels of gender theory between the Nordic countries and China.
Professor Min Dongchao
Just another day at the factory
Like many other researchers and academics of her generation, Professor Min Dongchao was young during the turbulent years of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). Most of China’s schools and universities were closed down during that period, and the youth were sent to the countryside or to factories to learn from the working class. Professor Min spent the Cultural Revolution as a worker at the Tianjin Machinery and Tool Factory, beginning her factory career at the age of 15 in 1969 and staying there for eight years.
“During the Cultural Revolution, society was turned upside down. We grew up in a transformed environment with no language to talk about gender or differences between the sexes, because there wasn’t supposed to be any difference. Everybody wore the same kinds of clothes, did the same job, got the same pay, and so forth. There was basically no sexual division in society — at least not on the surface,” says Professor Min Dongchao.

The open door
It was only after the death of Mao Zedong in 1976 that schools and universities reopened, and it became possible for at least some of the so-called “sent down youth” to return to the education system. Once again, society was turned upside down: Foreign cultures and influences entered the country, spurring an irreversible development of Chinese society.
“Suddenly we could watch films and television from abroad, films that often demonstrated a clear gender differentiation, where men looked like men and women looked like women. So we wanted to look good, and we wanted to look different from men. Women started wearing makeup, and clothes in general became more colorful. Suddenly, a more diverse expression and mode of behavior were allowed again,” explains Min.
But there was another side to the new developments. It soon became more difficult for women to find employment, and they were paid gradually less, as men were generally favored in job situations. The factories started to lay off workers, and women were often the first to go. Other problems such as prostitution and men taking second wives also resurfaced and, according to Professor Min, this laid some of the foundation for why women and gender studies started taking off in China in the 1980s.
Professor Min returned to China in 2004 after almost ten years in the UK, and discovered a country in rapid transition. The new generations of young girls had reversed the Cultural Revolutionary tradition of going to the countryside. Instead, they were heading to coastal cities to work in factories — a mixed experience, to most. On the one hand, they experience the freedom of getting their own job, earning their own money, and freeing themselves from the pressure of country life. On the other, they work under exploitative conditions, are paid very little, and without any unions to protect them.

The introduction of gender
United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women Opens in Beijing, September 1995. Photo: UN Photo/Milton Grant
United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women Opens in Beijing, September 1995. Photo: UN Photo/Milton Grant
United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women Opens in Beijing, September 1995. Photo: UN Photo/Milton Grant
Gender as a concept was introduced into China in connection with preparations for the Fourth UN World Conference on Women, which was held in Beijing in 1995. There was growing awareness of increasingly visible gender inequality, and a new conceptual language to discuss these issues was made available to concerned academics and activists.
One of the gender-related issues under discussion in recent years is quotas. During the Mao era, the sex ratio was 50-50 in most party and government organs. In 2008, the government introduced gender quotas stipulating that 22% of the congress should be female, and last year, in collaboration with the All-China Women’s Federation, it was decided that there should be at least one woman on village committees. Professor Min, however, argues that the solution to gender inequality issues doesn’t lie only in quotas or the recognition of gender issues. Rather, it is a matter of general inequality in society at large:
“Gender equality should be addressed as a very important issue, and by this I don’t just mean gender difference — it is not a matter of achieving complete similarity between the sexes. Gender inequality has to do with general inequality in the society at large, the gap between rich and poor, inequality between the regions, between city and countryside. There are males and females of all classes and walks of life, so there are very rich females and very poor males. Gender inequality exists and can only be understood in the context of all levels of society, and within all classes. The inequality gap in general is growing bigger, which in turn affects gender inequality. When you conduct your research you may forget this, you may think in different categories, but you always have to see the society as a whole. The conditions for life in China are so dependent on geography and class. In many rural places, there are no proper schools, and children run around hungry. And then you have Shanghai with its multimillionaires — even billionaires. If you only look at one class or one geographic location, you get a skewed picture of what is actually going on in China,” Professor Min emphasizes.

The local is not subordinate to the global
Many academics agree that you cannot separate globalization and the local; they are two sides of the same coin. In other words, you cannot take the local out of the global. Globalization happens in the local. Professor Min argues that this is the case even for places with myriad global connections, like London: Even though all the money flowing through the financial center influences London from abroad, there is still a feature of something “local.” Understanding the global in relation to the local is a way to give prominence to people, because they are the ones who experience the changes on an everyday basis, and they are the ones who actually “practice” globalization.
As Professor Min notes, “We often see the railway as a symbol of globalization, because it links places together, but what we tend to forget is that there are places and people in between the stations. As with railways, there are different routes for gender studies in China. Some people go to Beijing and Shanghai and read Judith Butler, and then others go to the poor areas, like Yunnan. In Yunnan they have gradually changed the gender discourse and related practice, and as a result, the Yunnan Province Women’s Federation has managed to obtain more funding for larger projects than they have in places where they have not yet incorporated the new discourse.”
“Yunnan Province Women’s federation is a good example of how the global and the local are linked, of how things change in a local environment,” she argues.

The next generation
female students protest
Female students protest gender quotas at Guangzhou University. Photo from http://www.whatsonshenzhen.com
The new generation of women has begun to stir up radical performances and protests in the big cities. One example is a domestic violence protest last year in which young women painted their faces so it looked like they’d been beaten, and posted pictures of it on the Internet. Another incident was the Occupy Toilet Movement, where women occupied men’s rooms to protest the lack of women’s toilets in most public places.
“They might have gotten the idea from Taiwan or Hong Kong,” Professor Min adds.
Last year, some universities refused female applicants even though they had the same scores as their male counterparts. The Ministry proclaimed that for the sake of the country the universities needed more men, not girls. The women reacted by staging a happening where they shaved their heads and stood out on the street in defiance.
“Because of the Internet, this protest became a big deal. I think it’s good that young women have started to react to society’s gender inequalities; it is a good sign. I think it’s important that they protest, that they fight for something. My generation is about to retire, and we need the younger generation to take over and do the job. I hope that is what we’re seeing now,” Professor Min concludes.

Professor Min Dongchao, director of the Centre for Gender and Culture Studies at Shanghai University, has received the Marie Curie Actions International Incoming Fellowship and will be a guest professor at Nordic Institute of Asian Studies (NIAS) at the University of Copenhagen from April 1, 2013 to March 31, 2015.
Professor Min’s project is titled “Cross-Cultural Encounters — The Travels of Gender Theory and Practice to China and the Nordic Countries” and is concerned with the cross-cultural translation of knowledge and practices that may or may not take place when different cultures interact, and the resulting production of new knowledge. Taking the travelling routes of gender theory and practices to, and also between, China and the Nordic countries as the empirical object of study, the project will focus on the crucial questions of why and how knowledge travels or fails to travel.

fredag den 25. januar 2013

Demolition sites as time-keepers and sites of reconstruction

Still from the documentary film Meishi Street

"We know that in his work Proust did not describe a life as it actually was, but a life as it was remembered by the one who had lived it. And yet even this statement is imprecise and far too crude. For the important thing for the remembering author is not what he experienced, but the weaving of his memory, the Penelope work of recollection. Or should one call it, rather, a Penelope work of forgetting?" (Benjamin 1999: 198).

The quote above raises acute awareness of how memory and the representation of memory and history are constructed. It is a weaving of certain stories remembered more or less consciously, thus enabling us to understand the representation of the past and the future as subjected to the irregularities of (authored) memory.

Demolition sites are places where the past becomes evident in its absence and the future is constructed on the basis of an urban imaginary often structured in the image of the past. They can be understood both as endings and as beginnings; they represent longing, nostalgia, loss, as well as dreams and aspirations about the future. In Foucault’s optic a demolition site would constitute a heterotopia,[1] a place where the other spaces and places of the city can mirror themselves. The demolition site can perform this function by connecting sites and spaces that before have been disconnected. Thus politics, history, authorities, migrants, workers are all somehow represented in this place of demolition. One should not forget, however, that the demolition site at the same time also bears witness to the manner in which violence and power are monopolized (Elias 2005: 97).

In the documentary Meishi Street (2006) we see the demolition site as a form of timekeeper of urban history, and by documenting the demolition it preserves a piece of Beijing memory, becoming a temporary museological storage glass. This specific geographic place in pending is soon to be transformed into an unrecognizable business area conditioned by political and economic perceptions of what the past ought to have looked like. It is important to note that we are never shown the afterlife of the Dazhalan-area in the documentary film itself.[2]
The Dazhalan-area is now rebuilt as enlarged two-storey hutong-buildings suitable for space demanding commercial brands like H&M, Zara, Starbucks and old Chinese brands such as Buyingzhai or Ruifuxiang Silk Fabric Store. In the planning of the new Dazhalan, the Beijing municipal government tries to mimic some of the old physical features of Beijing by “reconstructing” and revitalizing the Dazhalan-area in late Qing-dynasty style in order to recreate some of the socio-spatial features of Beijing life. They try to recreate certain chosen characteristics by reinserting their ideas and perceptions of the neighbourhood. For now it is mostly a container for nostalgia and progress instigated by political and economic considerations, but will maybe in time succeed in being the lively business centre it purports to be.

Returning to Benjamin, the Beijing Municipal Government weaves the memory of Beijing by trying to reconstruct the flourishing Dazhalan of earlier times. Demolition sites become the site of Penelope’s nightly unravelings of the weaving, whereas the reconstruction is what Penelope weaved over again the day after. Certain things are to be remembered and certain stories are to be told in the trajectory of Chinese history.

[1] http://foucault.info/documents/heteroTopia/foucault.heteroTopia.en.html
[2] Afterlife should be understood in Walter Benjamin’s translational terms (Benjamin 1999 [1970]: 72), and should also be understood in regard to Victor Hugo’s (Wong 1999: 21) idea of translation as an act of violence against the area, in its translation into something new, different or better in the words of the local governments. Meanwhile I do not wish to imply or impose with value the original features of the place.