Thursday, June 28, 2012

“Climaxes Can’t be Judged by the Critics”: the Debate on Documentary Ethics in China

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.

Both Kraicer and Qian concur that the controversy revolved around the analysis offered by the academics on the forum panel, particularly the comments from well-known Chinese scholar Lu Xinyu, who reportedly questioned the manner in which Chinese documentaries speak for China’s diceng, or “lower classes.” Ying Qian goes into some detail about Lu’s arguments and her criticism of attempts by figures like curator Wang Xiaolu to formulate a “contractual spirit” in Chinese documentary, based on mutual respect and obligations between filmmakers and subjects. Ying Qian writes:

“For Lu, the bifurcation of Chinese society into the lower castes and elites made it impossible for meaningful ‘contracts’ to be co-signed by individuals across the social divide. She argued that such ‘contracts’ serve merely to protect filmmakers, while their subjects lacked the wherewithal to enforce the contract if it is breached… She declared that people from the bottom layer of society have no voice, and that they cannot meaningfully consent to the agendas of those who are more powerful.”

According to Qian, the other panellists – Wang Xiaolu, Angela Zito (New York University) and Guo Lixin (National Chengchi University, Taiwan) – were quite critical of Lu’s views. Beijing Film Academy Professor Zhang Xianmin also criticised her conception of class as being too rigid and deterministic, while scholar and filmmaker Guo Xizhi argued that ethical issues have arisen in Chinese documentary due to a lack of awareness regarding “the ethical complexities of representation” rather than class differences or problems with the documentary form per se.

Both Qian and Kraicer claim that the filmmakers present in the audience were given little opportunity to speak, which is odd given the forum was part of a film festival. It’s hard to judge from second-hand accounts what the dynamics in the room were like – I’d be curious to know if the filmmakers were actively excluded from the discussion or simply felt alienated from the debate and hence declined to comment. In any case, the directors expressed their displeasure with the panel the following day by issuing a “manifesto” entitled “Shamanism-Animal,” a term Ying Qian says came from Ji Dan (whose latest film I reviewed in my last post). Signatories included Ji Dan, Hu Xinyu and Cong Feng. Interestingly, Xu Tong, whose films have done much to spur the current debate about ethics, was present at the festival but his name didn’t appear on the posters.

The filmmakers' dazibao at the China Independent Fiml Festival in Nanjing last year. Image China Heritage Quarterly.

Shelly Kraicer translated the manifesto’s content at the end of his CinemaScope article. As readers can see, it was more a series of aphoristic thoughts by the filmmakers than a coherent statement. Although the points are quite disparate, Qian notes there is a strong reaction against theory – or at least over theorisation – running throughout the document. Hu Xinyu, for example, posted an observation which makes some points that I think could be applied to film studies generally:

“Talk too much about theory, and you sound pretentious. Overemphasize theory and you sound authoritarian. Life is not a two-sided coin: you have no right to force it to be either one way or the other. Of course, you can use theory to impress the kids. The motivation for documentary comes from a shame of one’s own ignorance. There’s no place for any talk of an avant-garde or of theory.”

While rejecting an overly theoretical or intellectualised approach to film studies, the filmmakers pushed a vision based on the belief that, to quote Ying Qian, “documentary cinema is an art form possessed of an innate logic that can only be appreciated outside the realm of rational reasoning.” Song Chuan, fore example, wrote in the manifesto: “Making documentary cinema reproduces the feeling of making love. The climaxes can’t be judged by the critics.” Which makes for an interesting image, even if we’re left wondering what it actually means.

There’s an interesting tension underlying all these comments, between an approach to filmmaking based on intuition and a desire for individualistic artistic freedom on the one hand, and a scholarly study of film based on rational analysis and categorisation on the other hand. I wasn’t at the Nanjing festival, but judging by these articles and the manifesto I think the filmmakers make some valid points. Too often film criticism and academic scholarship is concerned with pressing cinema into preconceived categories. Academic writing especially is expected to position itself vis-à-vis a pre-existing discourse, which often leads to work that is inherently conservative and restrictive in its thinking. As one unnamed contributor wrote on one of the posters:

“Rather than simply passing judgement on documentary ethics, film critics should foster a film critique based on artistic intuition that, rooted in intrinsic film language itself, inquires into ethics.”

The key issue here I think is the question of “judgement.” I agree that critics and scholars should not set themselves up as arbiters and judges, but rather foster a spirit and language of critique and inquiry. Of course, this is easier said than done, and I’m often concerned that in my own writing that I fail to strike the right balance between critique and simply preaching my own values. We when react in a strongly negative fashion to a film, it’s hard not to simply write about the film the viewer feels should have been made, rather than intelligently responding to what is actually on screen. It’s a fine line to walk, and film writing should be subject to critique and debate just as much as the films themselves. Film writing should never become a means for critics to proclaim their moral superiority over filmmakers.

On the other hand, I think filmmakers should be cautious about throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Much of the Nanjing manifesto simply reads like anti-intellectualism, which itself can become a kind of elitism. It’s all too easy to claim artists exist on some transcendent spiritual plane that is incomprehensible to lesser mortals, and therefore any rational discussion or ethical questioning of their work is invalid. Documentary film is never simply an “artistic” creation, even though the best documentaries involve great artistry. No-one – least of all the actual filmmakers  – should ever forget that documentaries are dealing with real people and creating representations that can engender very real world consequences for their subjects.

Xu Tong’s work is instructive here. I’ve had reservations about both the Xu Tong films I have encountered (Fortune Teller and Shattered), but it is an earlier work I haven’t seen called Wheat Harvest (2008) that has stirred the greatest controversy in China. The film is about sex workers and has been stridently criticised – including protests at the Hong Kong Chinese Documentary Film Festival – because the filmmaker allegedly failed to inform his subjects they were being filmed for a documentary. As Ying Qian points out, despite the fact that sex work is rampant in China, it’s still illegal. So even setting aside the question of the subjects’ personal feelings in Wheat Harvest, “exposing” young women in this manner potentially places them in considerable danger. According to this article by Wang Xiaolu (Chinese only), when Wheat Harvest appeared on the internet, one of the subject’s boyfriends learned that his girlfriend had been a prostitute and locked her up as a result. Wang says Xu Tong has since pulled the film from circulation, but that must be scant consolation to the young woman involved. It’s hard to see how exposing your unwitting subjects in this manner is anything but a pretty blatant abuse of trust.

Xu Tong's Wheat Harvest.
 These kinds of real world repercussions can’t be glossed over by simply invoking a “shamanistic spirit” and dismissing anyone else’s right to judge your work. Why, after all, do filmmakers make documentaries and screen them publicly if they do not wish for them to be discussed and debated? Plastering posters on the walls of a festival in response to a discussion you’re unhappy with also strikes me as slightly childish. As noted earlier, in a Chinese context it evokes memories of the early Cultural Revolution years – hardly a heritage anyone looking to encourage civil discourse and productive debate would want to draw on.

It would be interesting to know how the controversy has played out since Nanjing. Hopefully these events will foster more discussion and fruitful debate, rather than simply entrenching the protagonists in their respective positions.

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