Chinese Visual Festival 2011: Screening Day 1

The Chinese Visual Festival is described by the organisers as ‘a twin art festival dedicated to promoting Chinese independent documentary making partnering 10 documentaries shown at Birkbeck College and London Confucius Institute for Traditional Chinese Medicine with a video art and photographic exhibition at 17 Dorset Square, Marylebone’, and is timed to coincide with the 90th Anniversary of the Communist Party of China on 1st July

The Chinese Visual Festival, which kicked off 30th June and runs through to July 15th 2011, had its first full day of screenings on Saturday 2nd July at the lovely, though bizarrely hard to find Birkbeck Cinema. The day consisted of 3 sessions and included an impressive variety of feature length documentaries, reportage style shorts and art pieces, all aiming to present a glimpse into unseen aspects of life in modern China.

The day began with screenings of “Rabid Dogs” (Cao Fei) 8’, “Tide” (Yao Songping) 10’ and “Brave Father” (Li Junhu) 50’, which were previously reviewed here as part of the Chinese Visual Festival press preview evening, and which were followed by a lively panel discussion session covering topics such as documentary and independent film making in China, film funding, and the always fascinating issue of the notorious Chinese censors.

The second session dived straight into themes of economy and society in modern China, with a series of three 10 minute special interest shorts which highlighted areas of growth and conflict. Undoubtedly the most memorable of these, and indeed of the festival as a whole was “Feed on Iron” from director Jin Huaqing, which tells the shocking story of a town called Fengjiang, located south of Shanghai, which serves as a dumping ground and recycling plant for huge piles of electronic waste and debris. The sheer amount of junk and scrap which has built up over the last twenty years, much of it toxic or non-degradable has caused awful and irrevocable damage to the local environment, almost to the point where it resembles a post-apocalyptic tech-graveyard of rust and broken machines. Inevitably, the workers, many of whom are migrants forced by poverty to sacrifice their health in dangerous conditions, have also suffered, many contracting cancer and other diseases. Although there is clearly more to be told, the short gets its point across in harrowing fashion, with some grim and powerful images of people sifting through e-waste, bundling up vast bales of wires and living in unimaginably hellish conditions.

Ma Fangfang’s “View Point” offered a different and quite unexpected look at rapid economic growth in China, focusing on the burgeoning recruitment crisis – a theme which might surprise viewers expecting a picture of chaotic unemployment and a lack of opportunities. Set in Yiwu, the film instead shows companies desperately trying to attract workers at an employment fair, attempting to lure them in with promises of good conditions, living expenses and bonuses. However, most of those in the short are unsuccessful and rarely manage to convince workers to sign employment contracts, mainly due to a lack of guarantees regarding their treatment and wages. Through this the short presents a very interesting picture of a manufacturing boom being threatened by the lack of migrant workers, something which Ma Fangfang really brings to life with a down to earth, though almost playful approach, mostly allowing the workers and recruiters simply to speak for themselves. This successfully lays bare the oddly ironic complexities of the situation, and though brief, “View Point” gets its point across in a succinct and even handed manner.

The last of the reportage shorts was “Patent Wars”, by Long Miaoyuan, set at a trade fair and following a team of investigators working for Dahon, the world’s biggest manufacturer and seller of folding bikes. The company, and the biking industry in general is one of the few to have experienced growth during the recent global recession, but is increasingly finding its profits being hit by other business stealing their designs and technology – apparently in this regard Dahon suffers almost as much as Microsoft in financial terms. Although a little dry and not offering much in the way of background, the short does a good job of illustrating the company’s frustrations and the intricacies of the legal labyrinth surrounding the issue.

The second session’s main event was a rare screening of “Nu”, a feature length piece from Cao Fei, whose “Rabid Dogs” and “Hip Hop” shorts played earlier. The hour and twenty minute work was part of the Yuannan New Film Project, and depicts Cao Fei herself and three friends as they take a road trip out of the city, travelling up into the rivers and mountains of a remote rural region, documenting their experiences and impressions via handheld video cameras. “Nu” is a challenging and multi-layered film that succeeds on a number of different levels, and one which has a very different feel to her other works shown at the festival. At its most basic, the film engages as a portrait of Chinese youth exploring the near-mythical countryside, with Cao Fei playing upon the obvious differences in culture between the modern and traditional. Through capturing the attitudes of the young travellers, the film also touches on the contrasts in music, dress, religion and politics between them and the more old fashioned people they encounter. At the same time, “Nu” is very down to earth, and has the genuine feel of a naturalistic holiday film, with the four youngsters all behaving irreverently and very much having concerns such as sex on their minds, constantly badgering locals about prostitutes.

Whilst on the one hand this may appear to simply portray them as disrespectful, the fact that Cao Fei herself is one of the four pushes the film to suggest a tackling of the issue of identity. A documentary film maker projecting herself as part of her own subject is in itself a fascinating gambit, and this does invite different readings of its ambitions and marks it as a bold, brave work. At the same time, the film also impresses on a visual level, through some spectacular scenery, which is clearly as stunning to the city-dwelling travellers as it is likely to be to Western audiences. This also allows Cao Fei to again highlight the contradictions and possible incompatibilities between the youths and their surroundings, in some ways the antithesis of each other, yet both unmistakably belonging to different aspects of a constantly changing China.

The third and final session started with Zhu Chunguang’s “For the Love of Shakespeare”, probably the most well known film of the festival. The appeal of the hour long documentary is certainly easy to understand, as it has a truly unique and compelling subject in a group of Chinese children in a remote mountain school in Hebei being taught English through the recitation of the complete collection of Shakespeare’s sonnets – despite the fact that neither they nor their teacher are able to understand a single word they are memorising. Based upon ancient Confucian teaching techniques, the children are told that the method will help them to learn English when older, with the primary aim of being able to later share the classics of Chinese literature with the West. Although many of the local parents have their doubts, the teacher Mr. Tong is adamant that his approach is best, neglecting other subjects such as maths in his drive to drill the sonnets into his pupils’ heads. The film focuses in particular on Guo Xin, a 6 year old girl whose parents are keen for her to enter the forthcoming ‘Young Shakespeare’ recital contest.

“For the Love of Shakespeare” certainly has a dynamite hook, and although it quite obviously skirts around several interesting issues, Zhu Chunguang ensures that it remains enthralling throughout. By turns amusing, sad and hopeless, the film makes for an effective and startling piece, with some unforgettable scenes of the children almost robotically chanting the sonnets, Mr Tong proudly showing off their abilities to the locals, staging impromptu performances almost everywhere he takes them, including the post office. The film also benefits from a pleasingly non-judgemental take on its subject matter (which for the record was just as shocking to Chinese audiences as it will be to those in the West), never allowing it to become a sideshow attraction. Indeed, through following the ups and downs of Guo Xin’s later progress, some of which are particularly heartbreaking, the film does raise very interesting questions as to whether or not Mr Tong’s techniques, and recitation in general are harmful or in fact in their own way beneficial. This in itself taps into wider issues of education, though without every losing sight of its all important human factor, with some touching sequences involving an understandably bewildered foreigner who is lured to the village to assist with the teaching, and one where the children get together to write a letter to the then US President Bush, begging him to stop starting wars around the world. Although this might perhaps leave the film open to accusations of being a little too emotive, Zhu Chunguang keeps it grounded and worthy, making for a documentary which is both stimulating and highly enjoyable.

The last film of the day kept to the theme of children, with the feature length documentary “Kindergarten” by Zhang Yiqing. Shot over a period of 14 months and originally released in 2004, the film charts the daily lives and experiences of a variety of children at a boarding kindergarten in Wuhan, Hubei Province, and is a remarkably intimate experience. Focusing almost entirely on the children themselves, aside from a few one on one interview sessions, the film for the most part is content to watch them as they play, fight and gradually grow up and learn important lessons in life. Although the film’s basic premise is indeed simple, it provides a rich and moving exploration of its subject, with a lively feel that helps to distract from some of its more obvious moments. The film is at its best and most powerful during the later stages when the children begin to exhibit signs of adult like understanding, initially to the amused surprise of the viewer, though increasingly with a sense of near despair. Through this, the film emerges as a powerful cataloguing of the loss of innocence, as the children discuss subjects which range from which boys like which girls in the class, through to more weighty and contentious issues such as money, bribes, violence and anti-Japanese sentiment. The film does have a considerable emotional impact, and though occasionally a touch manipulative, it certainly hits its targets, and by examining the behaviour of the children it successfully calls into question the role of adults and their influence in their development, in the process forcing viewers to take a long, hard look at themselves.

Still to come is a talk with the artist Adrian Fisk on 5th July, and a final screening session on 7th July including “My 4-fen Land” (Yan Fei) 5’, “Water and Land” (Huang Cong) 11’, and the highly anticipated “Mask Changing—A Letter to Antonioni” (Pan Jun) 60’, which offers a fascinating follow up on Michelangelo Antonioni’s acclaimed 1972 documentary “China”. The evening also includes Chinese Martial Art and Chinese Traditional Dance Performances.

More information and tickets are available at the Chinese Visual Festival Official Website.

Chinese Visual Festival 2011 from Jingjing Xie on Vimeo.