Over the past decade a growing number of Chinese documentaries have reached the West, providing insights into a world that is not only opening up to us, but also opening up the Chinese people themselves. These insights have often been shaped as peeks into intimate settings, such as families and civil or work communities. Also, they have taken us from well-known places such as Beijing and Shanghai to the economic, cultural, and geographical outskirts and fringes of China.

The 2012 International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR) programmed a section with such recent Chinese documentaries, entitled Hidden Histories. They were hidden as untold, and in China remain hidden as censored: they are not allowed to be screened. Rotterdam is traditionally a safe haven for censored artists and shows these films in combination with works by artist Ai Wei Wei, best known for his Sunflowers Seeds exhibition at the Tate Modern (100 million, individually made in China), his design of the Olympic Stadium in Beijing (A.K.A. the bird’s nest), and his protests against the Chinese regime (A.K.A. tax evasion).

Ai mainly focuses on processes, which he explains in Fairytale, a film documenting one if his projects at Dokumenta 2007 in Kassel, Germany. He ‘injected’ 1001 Chinese people in the population of Kassel (about 200.000 inhabitants) to see if this would make a difference. What are the mutual prejudices and how does this intervention change the daily routines in Kassel? The organization and preparations are documented in China, where villagers go through bureaucratic ordeals to get the proper forms and local party branch stamp for a passport (a story in the story; of course nobody knows where the stamp is, until it shows up on a messy shelve), and in Germany, where these people need to be housed (in what looks like a huge hospital ward) and fed. The Chinese visit the Dokumenta 2007 and Kassel, and the response of visitors as well as inhabitants is included at the end of the film. Of course the question surfaces – and is addressed: to what extent these individuals are objectified as part of an exhibition. But the same question can be posed about the artist, frequently photographed himself. When another of his contributions, an inverse temple framed by Qing doors, windows, and chairs, collapses, Ai likes it even better, because it combines human and natural forces. As if putting it up was only part of the process.

 Ai’s focus on process rather than object, or road rather than goal, permeates his other films as well. Ordos 100 documents the effort to include 100 of the best architects in the world in the design of a new residential area in Ordos, Inner Mongolia. Each is to design one villa of 1000 m2. We witness a kick-off meeting where architects individually share their ideas and collectively, inspired by the UN, come to no decisions. There is a second meeting around troubles with the investor – over money of course – and at the end of the film, the project is still not finished.

In Disturbing the Peace Ai Wei Wei and his lawyer confront the Chengdu police when, arriving as witnesses in Tan Zuoren’s trial concerning the release of sensitive information on the Sichuan earthquake and its many victims. Ai and his colleagues are hauled out of their beds in the Ease and Comfort Hotel (the Chinese have a talent for naming their buildings) in the middle of the night and one of them is detained without any charges. The film is not about the trial for which Ai and his colleagues collected valuable evidence, but about the confrontation with the authorities and their bureaucratic ways. The core of the film is an endless discussion with a number of police officials, chiefs, and chief’s chiefs, in which demands go back and forth repeatedly but no concrete information seems to be exchanged. The ‘appointment’ is only a ‘getting there’, an ‘on the way’, but it does not reach any conclusion. In that sense it fits seamlessly with Ai’s installations which record movements on and around Beijing’s famous ring roads, also exhibited at IFFR.

The films discussed above are documents in pure direct cinema: close up on the action, spontaneous, energetic. Also close up on the action is Bachelor Mountain by Yu Guangyi, about 46-year old San Liangzi who is uselessly in love with lesbian Wei Meizi. We see him struggle to make ends meet while she is running the family inn, with ambitions to expand, put it on the map and make money. San lends a hand, unsolicited and unwanted. A typical scenes is near the end, when, after having added four extra rooms, Wei hosts a party for tourists, with loud karaoke disturbing the otherwise peaceful village in China’s north eastern Heilongjiang province. She frantically arranges for fireworks ‘because that is what tourists want’. Right after the last rocket, San is there to clear away the boxes: let’s get it over with. It’s an intimate film revealing topics such as homosexuality and prostitution. There are few contemplative moments in the film; action and talk guide the editing, some extra info in conveyed in texts.

Another intimate and revealing film is Shattered by Xu Tong. The film chronicles the life story of Tang Xixin, 80, but it also includes old family photos and explanatory texts, which become somewhat redundant. His youngest daughter, former madame and now aspiring to exploit an illegal mine, joins him. They talk, they quarrel, they fight, and she cleans his ear. Although the camera follows the characters closely, there remains a sense of distance.

These films focus on people who despite China’s economic boom struggle to escape poverty. But such people are not only to be found at the edges of the country. When the Bough Breaks by Ji Dan portrays a Beijing family, father, mother, daughters Xia and Ling, and son Gang, who not only struggle to survive together in a household where even water is not readily available, but also struggle for an education, to the point where Xia has to sacrifice hers for Gang. With the father an alcoholic, the mother incapable of making decisions, and the two quarreling continuously, the children need to be the grown-ups. Apart from exploring the economic situation of the family, the film is also about family dynamics: slowly, not surprisingly, with the passing of time, Xia turns into her father.

Quite different in observational styles are Whose Eyes by Tan Tan and Apuda by He Yuan. Tan Tan shows a 2×2 split screen with surveillance images from busses, banks, and ATMs. The accompanying soundtrack comes from a crime show, whose hosts keep asking why those who witness the assaults on the driver and customers do not act. Tan Tan questions the morality of people, but also the morality of surveillance cameras themselves.

Shot by the young anthropologist He Yuan – a researcher at the Institute of Ethnography at the Yunnan Academy of Science
More tranquil is Apuda, a beautifully shot, very serene film about son Apuda who accompanies his father on his last stretch of life on earth. They are two lonely souls in a small, poor village. The filmmaker just observes in very static shots and doesn’t ask questions on screen. Apuda and his father exchange everyday trivialities, and the son seems to speak to himself, although one wonders if he’d still do that if the filmmaker wasn’t around. This is the kind of film most critics and audiences love: cinematographic, tranquil, ‘authentic’. However, at the same time it is your classic example of what many theorists and scholars reject as aestheticization and exploitation of the under-privileged. Apuda is described in the festival’s catalogue as is “a simple man, who almost thinks like a child – a good child” because he takes care of his dad. Others say he is mildly mentally disabled. Their little home and everything in it looks incredibly filthy. It remains unclear whether the filmmaker invited the characters to talk or not, but they don’t really have much to tell about themselves. In any case, we don’t really learn who they are, and how they got here. Which results in an aesthetic but rather empty film. One could indeed question the morality of such a camera too.

Modern Times Review