Originally published in RealTime arts magazine.
You Can’t Build on an Emptiness – IFChina Original Studio
|IFChina Original Studio founder and filmmaker Jian Yi, outside the studio on the campus of Jinggangshan University. Photo: Dan Edwards|
Ji’an doesn’t look like the most auspicious place for a groundbreaking experiment in China’s budding civil society. The town doesn’t appear in any English language guidebooks, the local station platform is just a low-slung slab of concrete and, in early spring when I visited, a bone chilling mist hung over the town. Yet this minor Chinese city is home to IFChina original studio, a bold attempt to generate community participation in the arts and oral history in the heart of one of China’s poorest regions.
“We wanted to start with oral history because this place is so special – the Chinese revolution under Mao Zedong started here,” explains Jian Yi, a gently spoken local filmmaker whose credits include the documentary Super, Girls (2007). Jian Yi founded IFChina Original Studio with his wife Eva in 2009 on the campus of Jinggangshan University. Their activities include theatre classes, video workshops and photography programs, all built on an oral history foundation.
In a nation where history is always highly contested and politicised terrain, IFChina’s attempts to record personalised stories from China’s recent past and incorporate these into theatre and film projects is not only brave – it’s virtually unprecedented. “We are really doing groundbreaking work,” Jian Yi acknowledges. “We are facing an audience with zero literacy about documentaries and narrative films...many people who come to our screenings say, ‘That was the first documentary I ever saw’.”
Despite being a minor city, Ji’an provides fertile ground for a documentary maker looking to generate community interest in oral history. The remnants of the Chinese Communist Party fled to this area after thousands of members were massacred by Chiang Kai-shek’s forces in Shanghai in 1927, an incident that led to a fundamental shift in the previously urban-based party. As Mao Zedong rose to the fore with his vision of an agrarian-based revolution, the Communists regrouped and declared a Chinese Soviet Republic just south of Ji’an, a region they controlled until 1934, when encirclement forced them to embark on their “long march” to northwest China.
Since founding IFChina Original Studio, Jian Yi has been working with locals – mostly students from Jinggangshan University – to capture this history before it vanishes with only official accounts remaining that leave much unsaid. He cites a story from a 97-year-old local as an example of the tales they have uncovered: “This guy told a story of how his sister tried to get back the body of her husband, one of two men ‘wrongly executed’ by a faction of the Communists.” The murdered pair were local bandit leaders that Mao had persuaded to join his cause, but who were then killed in circumstances that remain unclear to this day. “The story was so human – you know, when we talk about Jinggangshan we think about this huge revolutionary era that’s so heroic. But this one little human story can reveal a side to the era that has been previously buried under slogans and a ‘grand’ historical narrative.”
IFChina Original Studio also works with locals to record more contemporary explorations of China’s rapidly shifting social reality. The 10,000 Village Writing Project will see students from rural areas at Jinggangshan University trained in recording oral history. “We’ll ask them first to write about their own family,” says Jian Yi. “We already have some young people writing about their experiences with the One Child policy. Most of the young female students from rural areas have younger brothers, so all of them have experience of the punishments of the policy. Then they will expand to their extended family, and the village as one community.”
One of their primary goals is to create a series of handbooks that will facilitate the creation of similar projects around the country, as well as hopefully leading Ji’an locals into more sophisticated forms of expression like documentary films. Jian Yi sees this nurturing of local culture as vital to China’s future, as the nation stands at a crossroads between its poverty stricken past and a materially wealthy but potentially culturally impoverished future under a system rife with restrictions.
“I’m convinced culture is a basic need,” Jian Yi asserts. “People are still trying to survive, but I don’t think we can survive as a proper society without culture. Many people around me are very cynical, while many people who do think independently tend to be very critical. I think it’s a step forward from not thinking at all, but then they don’t have the kind of positive energy which a society needs to cultivate and build something. I don’t think you can build something on negative energy, I don’t think you can build something on an emptiness.”
It was his desire to build and cultivate a positive ethos in one of China’s more disadvantaged regions that led Jian Yi to give up a comfortable academic position in Beijing and return to his hometown to establish IFChina Original Studio.
“I lived in Beijing for more than a decade – going to school, teaching and working,” Jian Yi recalls. “Being in Beijing you really begin to have illusions about the country and you begin to misjudge many things. When I came back [to Ji’an] every year to visit relatives, I felt like I was in a different world. So that was the first objective – to get reconnected to social realities. The second objective was to do something similar to what Wu Wenguang and I did with the Villagers’ Documentary Project.”
The Villagers’ Documentary Project was an earlier attempt to forge a creative space for China’s rural classes, who despite comprising the majority of the country’s population, rarely have the chance to represent their own lives in any medium, let alone a relatively expensive one like video. Jian Yi was able to garner funding from an EU project on village governance in 2005 and worked with well-known Chinese documentary maker Wu Wenguang (whose credits include China’s first independently produced documentary Bumming in Beijing back in 1990) to train farmers in documentary making. Jian Yi says his work on the Villagers’ Documentary Project gave him the experience and confidence he needed to strike out and establish IFChina Original Studio a few years later.
In addition to fostering localised forms of creative expression, an important part of the studio’s vision is giving Ji’an locals exposure to visiting foreign residents and interns. These programs, in turn, provide visitors with a chance to experience China away from the booming urban centres like Beijing and Shanghai. “I think it would be very exciting for people to come here to do their work, because it’s a totally different environment to Beijing,” enthuses Jian Yi.
IFChina’s internship program provides young people with interests ranging from arts management to filmmaking an opportunity to spend anything from one month to a year working at the studio. Similarly, the residency program provides a chance for scholars, artists and filmmakers with an interest in participatory cultural work to spend one to two months living on campus at Jinggangshan University, working with IFChina.
As well as accommodation, the studio provides volunteer translators who will help residents visit the region’s more remote revolutionary sites, including some historic villages. “You know, the social realities are there – Mao Zedong started from the villages here, and today China’s rural areas are still where China’s future has to come from,” comments Jian Yi.
Although IFChina Original Studio is clearly underpinned by an ambitious vision, Jian Yi sums up their work in quite modest terms: “We try to do very little things in a little community.” Yet as an earlier generation of Chinese in the same area demonstrated 80 years ago, little things with deep roots can one day change a nation.
Arts workers and scholars interested in internships or residencies at the studio should contact Jian Yi via the IFChina website at: www.ifchinastudio.org