New Chinese Documentary challenges the power over what will be known about the past. Its focus is on the repressed history of individuals.
History and memory haunt us. There is no way to escape, only to repress. The past is always a work in progress into the present. To better live the present, it is crucial to understand the past. The trauma of recent Chinese history remains a subject of repression today. From the Anti-Rightist Movement to the Cultural Revolution, and later the Tiananmen Event of 1989, the very force that caused all this suffering governs the construction of historical narrative – and also access to archival materials. However, this history is still the living memory of many Chinese people today. The concern of many Chinese intellectuals has become how to preserve these repressed private memories, and how to access history through the perspectives of individuals.
I will examine the role of Chinese independent documentary in restoring the repressed past and the dynamic relationship between past and present, individual and nation – by analyzing Hu Jie’s two oral history films: Searching for Lin Zhao’s Soul (2004) and Though I am Gone (2006). They are both devoted to the victims of the Anti-Rightist Movement and the Cultural Revolution.
The New Chinese Documentary Movement emerged in the historical, political, and social context of the 1980s and 1990s. It rebels against the established political ideologies in China. The prevalence of affordable digital cameras facilitated the burgeoning of individualized documentary making. In the context of the New Chinese Documentary Movement, digital technology is most importantly used to gain better access to the repressed truth and to challenge the hegemonic representation of “history” and “reality” in mainstream media. It gives ordinary people the means to capture and preserve the lives and memories that are missing or distorted in the official rhetoric. Independent Chinese documentaries record what people are unable to see or are forced to forget.
However the contradiction between the democratic nature of digital technology and the strict governmental control over the circulation and distribution of moving images makes the liberating power of digital technology a utopia in China. Due to the marginalized status of Chinese independent documentary and its restricted domestic circulation, it is difficult, if not impossible, to have any direct and immediate impact on society.
In the book The New Chinese Documentary Movement: For the Public Record, authors Chris Berry and Lisa Rofel use the term “alternative archive” to indicate the value of Chinese independent documentaries today. These documentaries might not be able to reach their intended audience or change people’s perception of history immediately; the hope is that they will be kept as historical evidence for the future.
Nanjing-based documentary filmmaker Hu Jie used to work for the official Xin Hua News Agency before he quit the job in 1999. Like many other independent filmmakers in China, Hu Jie was trained as a painter with no professional background in filmmaking. But his heightened concern about repressed history and social injustice urged him to pick up the camera in order to both represent and excavate the debris of history. To a certain extent, Hu Jie’s documentaries can be seen as historical archives in themselves, showing the entangled concerns surrounding legal issues, power relations, memory functions and technology. His films not only preserve the traces and living memories about the victims of historical trauma, but also delineate the broader social and political environment of that historical period through the life stories of its victims. He gathers subjective accounts and evidence, and then compiles them with emphasis on discontinuity, gaps and historical specifics, posing the question of “what is it possible to talk about?” By rendering historical weight to repressed individuals, Hu Jie challenges official history and provides his own account of historical reality.
In Searching for Lin Zhao’s Soul, Hu Jie deliberately includes his own voice or image, turning the documentary into a personal journey. At the beginning of the film, Hu stands in front of the camera, saying:
“Four years ago, I heard a story about a female student from Beijing University who wrote a lot of impassioned and humanistic poems with her blood at Tilanqiao Prison in Shanghai and was then executed. This girl was called Lin Zhao. It was the first time I heard this name. After the Anti-Rightist Movement of 1957, the entire Mainland China stopped thinking and lived in the midst of lies and horrors. It was this girl who started to think independently … This story made me decide to give up my job to look for the lost soul of Lin Zhao.”
The story of Lin Zhao and the life of Hu are intertwined. Thirty-one years after Lin Zhao’s death in 1968, Hu was shocked not only by the striking story itself, but also by his insufficient knowledge of that period. Making this documentary cost Hu Jie his job at the state news agency. It is this repression that makes the alternative archive crucial to the understanding of history.
Freedom is always based on knowing where the taboos are, what can be remembered and what should be forgotten. It is not surprising that at first most people refused to talk about Lin Zhao in the film’s interviews – since this is the memory they were trying to escape and forget, both voluntarily and as mandated by the state. As survivors of a traumatic history, this past is not only too painful to remember but also disturbs the peaceful present. They are aware that to speak up in the documentary is to align themselves with the marginalized alternative, to have their memory recorded and archived as opposition to the authority. For Hu Jie, the spirit of Lin Zhao is an independent thinker who expressed her critical thoughts even under the most difficult conditions. His research on Lin Zhao’s story discovers the repressed potential for change.
Believe in history for one day people will talk about today’s suffering. I hope to be able to tell people in the future of this pain.
Another person who holds out hope for change is the main character in Hu Jie’s Though I am Gone – the 85-year-old scholar Wang Jingyao, who worked for the Social Science Research Institute. Wang’s wife Bian Zhongyun was the vice principal of the Girl’s Middle School attached to Beijing Normal University. She was beaten to death by her students at the beginning of the Cultural Revolution. Wang carefully recorded and collected every detail of her tragic death; the photographs of her dead body, her bloodstained clothes, the watch that stopped at the moment of her death, and even her hair. In the same way that Hu Jie painstakingly put the fragmented memory and story of Lin Zhao together, Wang obsessively captured and kept traces of his beloved wife, and guards these archival materials not only as his personal memory and lived experience, but also as evidence of historical truth that should be shown to the public in the future. As Wang firmly states in the film, “this is a tragedy of my family, but it is by no means simply a personal case. If I don’t tell the truth of history, I would be ashamed of not doing my duty.” Instead of letting the past fade away like most people, Wang chooses to linger in the painful memory which would otherwise be buried under the debris of history. Wang’s archiving-to-documentary process reflect Hu Jie’s own documentary making as a process that shares the same spirit of independent thinking.
An archive is closely bonded to power at the very moment of its birth. It is essential to ask: Who has the power to guard what? How does it relate to the public? What is the reason for and consequence of inclusion and exclusion? To what extent do archives wield power over truth and authenticity? The confrontation between an official and alternative archive is ultimately a contest for power, the power of knowledge production, the power to control what will be known about the past. Both Searching for Lin Zhao’s Soul and Though I am Gone are saturated with the tension between the official and alternative archive around the issues of historical knowledge, accessibility and guardianship, authenticity and objectivity.
What Lin Zhao, Wang Jiangyao and Hu Jie also have in common is their marginality – caused by their refusal to conform and compromise to the authority. Lin Zhao refused to engage in self-criticism even when all her peers did so, and she insisted that it was the entire country rather than she who had gone mad. In her blood-written poems and articles, she firmly refuses to become “the slave of the tyranny.” As she wrote: “The vulture is eating your heart; the iron chain is confining your body. But your soul is freer than wind. Your will is stronger than rocks.” The writings that expressed her dissident voice were kept as evidence of her criminal behavior, with no public access. All traces of her story have been eliminated from the national historiology. In the same way, Wang Jingyao used his Seagull camera in his struggle against the authority and society.
Moved by Lin and Wang, Hu Jie says: “Because the Chinese authority does not want us to remember the history, we non-official people should remember on our own.” Hu’s documentaries and Chinese independent documentary in general, embrace perspectives from the margins of society and public knowledge, and strive to build an archive for the repressed history of individuals.
Archives are not always available to the public, and their accessibility largely determines the circulation of the memory embodied in them. The difficulty of accessing the official archives of Lin Zhao is mentioned several times in Searching for Lin Zhao’s Soul. They are still kept secret from the public through the power of private curation. The documentary does not tell us how Hu Jie eventually got to these archives or how he finally persuaded his interviewees to speak freely in front of the camera.
The tension between confidential archive and public knowledge is very palpable. In an interview with the Chinese Sunshine TV station, Hu reveals that Lin Zhao deliberately kept her blood letters and poems in the prison so that they could survive and be archived as part of her “criminal records.” However, the poems and letters she asked people to take out of the prison all disappeared: “The severe social environment at the time forced people to destroy these documentations, which would otherwise become part of their “criminal records.” Only the state archive had the right to preserve them. In the film, we see that a poem Lin Zhao wrote to her friend on the back of her photo was crossed out. Letters from her were missing and memories about her faded away. It is these missing pieces about her life, the discontinuity and gaps caused by suppression that attracted Hu, making him think about who has the right to preserve what. Lin Zhao’s strategic use of the official archive indicates her belief in a new interpretation of her thoughts in a different historical context; that her pain and suffering will be told to people in the future and that her “criminal records” will eventually be turned into the “criminal records” of the autocratic regime she was fighting against.
In Though I am Gone, Wang’s materials kept after his wife’s death are not only the media through which he accesses the past and indulges in grief – but also his aspiration for the future. At the beginning of the film, when the director asks him about the psychological trauma he experienced while taking pictures of his wife’s body, Wang replies: “I had a clear mind at the moment, that is, to keep the record of history.” Indeed he sees himself as an archivist, collecting the “criminal records” of historical atrocity. Like Lin Zhao, he wishes to restore justice for his wife and millions of other victims. However, in spite of his eagerness to make his archive public, its accessibility is rather limited, and he has to place his hope in an imagined Cultural Revolution Museum of the future.
Independent Chinese documentary itself, whose accessibility and circulation is not controlled by its creator, is “supervised” by the authority. The alternative documentary is trapped in power relations, constantly challenging and being challenged by the authority. The writing of modern history, as the prerogative of the state, banishes subjective storytelling and eliminates the dangers of otherness. It disguises the fragmentation and incoherence of history with a fictional linear, progressive timeline.
Hu Jie’s intentional use of archival footage of the Anti-Rightist Movement and the Cultural Revolution in both films can be interpreted as a critique of this petrified historiology. The cheerful and heroic tone in the official footage sounds comfortably ironic when juxtaposed with the heartrending stories of Lin Zhao and Bian Zhongyu, since it was precisely these “celebrated events” that engendered such tragedies.
The interview is the primary method applied by Hu to tell the story of Lin Zhao and Wang’s wife Bian Zhongyun. The recording of testimony turns their private remembrance into a visual archive of people recollecting their memory. The past should not be viewed as static and separated from the present; rather it is always in dialectical dialogue with the present. What people thought and said about Lin Zhao at the moment of today’s recording may be vastly different to what they might have said ten or twenty years ago. The content of interviews also tells us the story of a person through their facial expressions, tone and mood. Pity, fear, anger, melancholy, all these deep and complex feelings are missing in the standardized official footage. History is not petrified in the dusty archives; it is alive in people’s memory and lived experience today.
Lin Zhao’s ‘vilification’ of the Communist Party and her dream of a democratic society were actually very insightful – she was one of very few people who remained clear-headed. Wang Jingyao lives in a time in which a whole society is trying to forget its past. He is not simply addicted to the traumatic past but firmly holds onto his dream for the future. So the alternative archive is also a site for potential change, stored with hope._
This article was first printed in the Norwegian film magazine WUXIA.