Documenting personal stories of underclass China at DOXA

The annual Vancouver Documentary Film Festival, DOXA, has been showcasing and celebrating independent documentary films since 2000 and this year’s event, which will take place at various cinematic venues around the city from April 30 to May 10, will be the longest DOXA festival at 11 days. The festival will host a number of different thematic programs in order to explore the full range of what’s happening in documentary filmmaking around the world.

One of this year’s programs is Wild Grass: New Chinese Images, which highlights emerging trends in independent documentary filmmaking in China. Dorothy Woodend, DOXA director of programming, says these films mix different forms of expression and combine experimental and conventional modes of filming, leading to unique storytelling.

“There is a very rough and ready sensibility to these films – it’s not nearly as slick or formalized as Western films – and there is a freshness, a new kind of filmmaking not informed by film school aesthetics. That’s where you get new types of storytelling and ideas, and that’s what we were looking for,” says Woodend.

Director Shen Jie in a scene from "Karst Elegies" | Photo courtesy of The Artsbiz Public Relations

Director Shen Jie in a scene from “Karst Elegies” | Photo courtesy of The Artsbiz Public Relations

A new kind of Chinese documentary

The films in the Wild Grass program are a small sampling of the output of an ongoing cinematic revolution in China. Zhang Yaxuan, film critic and the Wild Grass’ guest curator, compares recent Chinese independent documentary to what the Chinese poet Lǔ Xùn called “wild grass” – a modest, yet resolute, symbol of life growing and surviving in inhospitable environments.

“Within the cultural fabric of Chinese society, independent film has not yet achieved a conclusive and appropriate position, let alone an imposing one,” Zhang says. “This is also the reason why the imagery of wild grass remains such an appropriate analogy for independent film today.”

While Chinese mainstream documentaries tend to mimic the tradition of propaganda film and reinforce state ideology and social organization, Zhang argues independent film undermines official authority and creates its own unique traditions and aesthetics. Independent filmmakers focus on stories that aren’t normally covered by the mainstream media: neglected stories of the underclass citizens of Chinese society. The rise of digital technology has helped liberate filmmakers’ dependency on official technical resources in order to elicit a more personal relationship between film and subject.

“Independent film’s relationship with society became simpler and clearer; just like the shoots of wild grass spreading out across a wasteland, it possessed an explicit non-official nature,” says Zhang. “The individual is not obliged to come from the right family, or possess any specific identity or an elite background. [Digital technology] has distributed power and possibilities to every individual for them to use video cameras and make films.”

From Inner Mongolia to the South China Karst

The films in the Wild Grass selection embody several recurring themes in Chinese independent documentary filmmaking: the lives of ordinary people, the physical environment and the tenuous relationship between urban and rural culture.

For instance, Xu Tong’s “Cut Out the Eyes” provides a glimpse of Er Housheng’s life as an Er ren tai wandering performer. Xu follows the performer around the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region and shows how, through song and comedy, Housheng entertains his audiences, enriches the lives of his family and perseveres in a world of darkness.

Shen Jie’s “Karst Elegies” revisits the director’s home village, a tranquil countryside that is slowly being urbanized. Shen explores the myriad attitudes and experiences its residents have had and, through a fire ritual, offers an elegy for the dead and a prayer of hope for his hometown.

These, and the other films of Wild Grass, highlight the ever-changing stories of an intensely personal China, one rarely seen before.

“Many filmmakers have been working and advancing in silence. But this is the toughness of Chinese independent documentary. They have all taken their own paths, but they all delve deeply into the textures of Chinese society, recording and preserving images and memories for posterity,” says Zhang.

To learn more about Wild Grass and the other films and programs playing at DOXA, please visit