Beginning this Wednesday, May 8, and running through the rest of the month, MoMA presents Chinese Realities/Documentary Visions, a retrospective series of nonfiction and nonfiction-inspired film from China. The work reflects changes to the nation’s documentary aesthetics over the past quarter century, which has come hand-in-hand with rapid modernization in the wake of China’s remarkable economic transition. Series curators Sally Berger and Kevin B Lee have assembled examples from as far back as 1988, pre-Tiananmen Square, to brand new work, spanning state-sanctioned productions to underground, independent work – the majority largely unseen by Western audiences outside of some limited festival exposure. In addition to panels, more than two dozen films make up the series, including several fiction films employing documentary strategies as well as hybrid projects. The following highlights a number of the notable documentary selections:
The influence of Wu Wenguang, acknowledged as one of the pioneers in the Chinese independent documentary movement, is decidedly felt, both in examples of his own work, and projects he instigated or inspired. Adopting a looser, handheld style of intimate long takes, his self-taught approach to documentary filmmaking approximates an Eastern take on cinema verite – a departure from the more conventional and tightly controlled Chinese documentary practice that preceded him. Wu’s first film, 1990’s observational portrait of artists, BUMMING IN BEIJING: THE LAST DREAMERS (LIU LANG BEIJING) (pictured above), launched the country’s independent nonfiction movement, while the more recent FUCK CINEMA (CAO TA MA DE DIANYING) serves as a cautionary tale, following a rural transplant seeking success in China’s film industry. Other selections demonstrate his impact, including participatory project CHINA VILLAGERS DOCUMENTARY PROJECT (ZHONGGUO CUNMIN YINXIANG JIHUA) (pictured) and Zou Xueping’s THE SATIATED VILLAGE (JIU ZU FAN BAO DE CUN), a meta response to Wu’s Folk Memory Documentary Project.
A number of offerings use nonfiction to explore Chinese systems of authority. Duan Jinchuan, who largely learned his craft on his own while working for Tibetan television, and is indebted to Wu and inspired by Frederick Wiseman, presents NO 16 BARKHOR SOUTH STREET (BAJIAO NANJIE SHILIU HAO), a state-approved documentation of a Lhasa neighborhood government committee. Zhao Liang’s five-hour epic, shot over a dozen years and banned in China after its Cannes debut, PETITION (SHANG FANG) (pictured), includes clandestine filming of villagers seeking redress in Beijing for matters back home – also presented in a shorter two-hour version. In his DISTURBING THE PEACE (LAO MA TI HUA) celebrated and persecuted artist/activist Ai Weiwei investigates corruption only to face violence from local authorities as a result.
Several other films present a critical view of the unintended consequences of China’s rapid growth and urbanization. Among these are Wang Bing’s three-part, nine-hour opus, WEST OF THE TRACKS (TIE XI QU) (pictured), a chronicle of the post-industrial fate of a once-thriving district; Huang Xiang, Xu Ruotao, and JP Sniadecki’s YUMEN, an experimental ethnographic look at a formerly bustling ghost town; Huang Weikai’s “anti-city symphony” DISORDER (XIANSHI SHI GUOQU WEILAI), exposing the darker side of urban life; and Ning Ying’s RAILROAD OF HOPE (XI WANG ZHI LU), a precursor to LAST TRAIN HOME exploring the migrant experience, but also doubling as a metacommentary on the role of the documentary filmmaker.