|Logo for the 8th China Independent Film Festival, where controversy erupted over the issue of ethics in Chinese documentary.|
Ethics in documentary making is always a loaded subject that can raise the heckles of directors, viewers and subjects alike. Documentary makers not only have to negotiate their often fraught relationships with their subjects, but also have to consider the fact that their camera-mediated interactions are going to be put on public display on cinema and TV screens across the planet. Given the explosion in independent Chinese documentary making over the past ten to fifteen years, and the fact that many of these films involve a discomforting degree of observational intimacy, it should come as no surprise that debates centred on ethics have recently come to the fore in China.
The fault lines of the debate were thrown into sharp relief at a forum at the 8th China Independent Film Festival in Nanjing late last year (28 October-1 November 2011), when a heated discussion by academics on ethical issues was denounced the following day by a group of filmmakers in a series of “big character posters” (dazibao). Public posters proclaiming social or political messages have a long tradition in China, though they are particularly associated with the early Cultural Revolution years, when highly bombastic competing dazhibao from various Red Guard factions were plastered on every wall in cities across the country. Shelly Kraicer reported on the events in Nanjing for CinemaScope soon after they occurred, while the Harvard-based Chinese scholar Ying Qian recently penned a more detailed account and discussion of the issues thrown up by the forum in China Heritage Quarterly.