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The Art in Activism

by Aoife Cantrill



In the decade prior to the 2008 Olympics, a trend of politically motivated ‘camera activism’ gained traction amongst a small group of Chinese documentary filmmakers. Social issues, like internal migration, and natural disasters such as the Sichuan 2008 earthquake, provided ample material for documentary makers seeking to capture the lives of those left behind by China’s economic rise. Ai Weiwei’s work in this genre has found audiences in the West through his exhibition work – for example, shots from 4581 and The Crab House were both shown as part of the retrospective on Ai Weiwei’s work at the Royal Academy in 2015. Through Ai Weiwei’s success, a link has been forged between political commentary and Chinese documentary filmmaking in popular consciousness – a connection that has proved difficult to shake.


In this context, it was refreshing to see three early films by the Chinese director Zhao Liang shown at the Open City Documentary Festival in September under the softly apolitical title of ‘The Art of Non-Fiction’. The onus here seemed to be on the creative process, not political commentary. I attended the screenings of Crime and Punishment and Petition at the Institute of Contemporary Art in London, spitting distance from Buckingham Palace and a world away from Northeastern China, where both films are set. Zhao Liang himself was in attendance, dressed simply on both occasions in a dark blue canvas overshirt and trainers. He briefly introduced the films, then answered the audience’s questions in a short discussion following the screenings. Throughout, I noticed that Zhao himself seemed reluctant to take up the mantle of ‘camera activist’. He distanced himself from the broader political significance of the films, instead emphasising the human relationships he documents in both. He painted himself as something of a bystander, documenting individual realities, as opposed to an activist with an agenda. This was quite a recast for a director whose early works are often mentioned in the same breath as the work of Ai Weiwei and other ‘camera activists’, including Hu Jie and Ai Xiaoming.


Independent documentary filmmaking is a relatively young genre in China. Zhao is among the first generation of filmmakers. He belongs to the school of creatives that emerged during the 1990s, pioneered by directors including Wu Wenguang, whose 1990 documentary film Bumming in Beijing used a digital video (DV) camera to create an intimate portrayal of ‘drop-outs’ living in Beijing at the end of the first decade of ‘Reform and Opening Up’ – a set of policies that moved China towards a market economy and allowed for greater interaction with the West. Prior to the 1990s, Chinese documentary films were primarily put together from set pieces. Spontaneous interactions were generally foregone for staged conversations and scenarios. These ‘special-topic films’ (zhuanti pian) were challenged by a new form of realism that saw the filmmaker establish relationships with subjects with the camera rolling. In Zhao’s work, the interaction between filmmaker and subject becomes a central dynamic of the documentaries themselves.


Social and political commentaries on Chinese independent filmmakers abound, but their role as creatives – and as creators of art – is underacknowledged. This is clearly something that Zhao Liang and the festival organisers were hoping to redress. There is no escaping the hard politics of Crime and Punishment and Petition – both address issues of law and order and social repression in China. But the attempt to place emphasis on the people in the documentaries themselves, and on Zhao’s skill as an artist, felt a welcome antidote to the assumption that all that independent Chinese documentary filmmakers have to offer is political commentary.


Composed of one month of edited footage, Crime and Punishment follows a group of young policemen in Liaoning Province, Northeast China, going about their daily business. The station is based in a small town close to Dandong, a large city on the Yalu River that demarcates the Sino-North Korean border. Northeast China is cold in winter, and the film frequently capitalises on the dramatic landscape. There is a prolonged shot of two cops play-wrestling in the snow against a backdrop of mountains and a frozen lake. Later, we watch two policemen and a lumber thief trekking through the snow to the supposed scene of a crime. Zhao grew up in Liaoning and the site of filming was very close to his hometown. He explained that local connections made it much easier for him to gain access to the local police bureau (gongan). It is clear that the police feel comfortable in his presence, sharing an offhand joke with him or slipping him a smile during an interrogation. Zhao had originally travelled to the northeast to film another project but was immediately taken in by the personalities of the policemen and their work.


The documentary strikes a fine balance between showcasing how institutionalised the young men are (Zhao described them as ‘brainwashed’); and the mundanity of their daily routines, as well as their laddish sense of humour. We watch them take part in drills, and reprimand local pickpockets and timber thieves. We also watch them play-wrestle, discuss anti-hair thinning products and comfort military cadets who have been dismissed from training. By juxtaposing the institutional with the personal, Zhao achieves his goal of letting the individual take centre stage.


However, in the talk following the film, it became apparent that this contrast is very much Zhao’s construction. The film begins with a three-and-a-half minute sequence of the officers meticulously folding their bedding in a brightly-lit dormitory. There is no dialogue: we only hear the sound of the cops’ breathing and their hands beating the khaki coloured duvets into shape. Zhao revealed that the folding of the bedding only happens every two weeks prior to dormitory inspection. He also acknowledged that violence, which plays a prominent role in the film, was a rare occurrence in reality. The overemphasis on both violence and institutionalisation was purposeful and makes the documentary far more politically charged. As a result, it is perhaps unsurprising that Zhao decided not to show the finished film to the policemen who are its main subjects.


The most striking character in the film is an elderly scrap collector named Wang Yufu. The police catch him illegally collecting scrap without a permit, confiscate his horse and cart, and take him to the bureau for questioning. The exchange between Wang and a young policeman lasts for almost half an hour, taking place in a white-walled office dominated by a large, dark wooden table. Wang sits off to the side and moves from chair to chair throughout the scene; Zhao keeps the camera frame focussed tight around his face. We hear the cop’s voice during the exchange, but rarely see him. Toward the end of the conversation, Wang explains why he collects scrap, as farming doesn’t bring in enough money:


Cop: Well I can’t release your cart – if you don’t come back tomorrow, how am I meant to find you? I won’t find you, is that not correct?


Wang Yufu: Where am I going to go? I’m around here everyday. If I’m not busy on the farm, I’m here collecting scrap. Where else would I be? Besides, it’s not like I’m a murderer, running from the law. I’m just a junk collector. Hardly beats begging, but what else is an old guy like me going to do? What choice do I have? And I’ve still got to work on the farm, plant and harvest the crops. So in the slack season I collect junk to make a few cents here and there. Just enough to keep us in salt and soy sauce. No crime in that, is there? I couldn’t run off if I wanted to.


Through the attention of his lens, Zhao empowers Wang and shines a light on the urban poor. The close-up shots are reminiscent of Luo Zhongli’s famous Father (1980), a six square metre oil painting of an elderly man’s face against a gold yellow background. In the foreground of the painting, the man holds a white rice bowl. Father was part of a series of paintings by Luo that focused on rural China. The thirty minute scene with Wang recalls this iconic image and updates it to reflect the precarious economic reality of urban poverty.

Zhao’s second film, Petition, is considered his magnum opus. The two-hour feature documents the lives of petitioners living next to Beijing South Station between 1996 and 2008. The practice of ‘petitioning’ – where ordinary people can report their complaints to the government – has a long history in China. In Petition, Zhao captures Beijing through the eyes of his subjects, each of whom has been wronged by their local authority, and has now journeyed to the capital seeking recognition of wrongdoing in addition to some form of compensation. The film focuses particularly on the story of a mother and daughter, Qu and Juan. Qu’s husband was killed in suspicious circumstances whilst at work and throughout the film she pursues the truth of his death, despite being arrested and detained in an asylum on numerous occasions. The work culminates with the demolition of Petitioners’ Village – an area in which petitioners had constructed temporary and permanent homes over the course of the decade – and the reconstruction of Beijing South Station in preparation for the Olympics. In the final sequence, we watch the fireworks of the Olympics opening ceremony bursting in reds and greens over the crowds in Tiananmen Square; a panning shot of the new ultra-modern Beijing South station; followed by a short interview with a petitioner who still lives near the station despite the demolitions and is hiding in a small hole under a bridge.


It was clear in the discussion following the screening that the film is a deeply personal project for Zhao. He explained that he was still quite young when he began filming Petition and that witnessing the suffering of the petitioners made the filming process a painful one. The twelve-year timespan also gives a glimpse of Zhao’s development as a creative. He pointed out that he began filming with a Sony DV camera in 1996, yet by 2008 he was working with more advanced equipment. He also commented on the development of his craft as a filmmaker over the course of the decade, calling himself a novice, who filmed overtly (and illegally) in petition offices and running from authorities upon discovery. He noted that by the end of the process, he had learned to be more cautious.


One of the film’s central features is Zhao’s close relationship with Qu and Juan. There is one scene in particular where we see Zhao slip from observer to active participant in the lives of the petitioners. Juan has decided to leave Petitioner’s Village to start a new life with her boyfriend outside Beijing. She doesn’t tell her mother of her plans to leave and instead hands a letter to Zhao, asking him to act as messenger. In the following scene, we see Qu in her home:


Qu: It’s really hot, I’ll turn the fan on (She fiddles with the electrics to turn on a small makeshift ceiling fan). Have you seen Juan? She’s been so busy.

Zhao: Juan gave me this letter – I really have seen her. I’m not lying. She said she is going away for a few days.

Qu: She’s left? She’s gone? (she opens the letter.)

Zhao: Yes. She said she is going away for a few days, she told me to console you.

Qu: No. She’s left, you don’t need to console me. (she goes inside to pick up her bag.)

Zhao: She’s already left on the train.

Qu: Where has she gone?

Zhao: She went on the train; I don’t know where.

Qu: Not possible.

(The camera follows Qu walking around the neighbourhood near her home, and up to the train-tracks leading to Beijing South station).

Qu: No, stop following me! (she pushes the camera away.)


They continue to talk until at last she starts to run and Zhao falls behind. Qu’s distress is evident throughout the scene. Zhao admitted that his close relationship with Qu and Juan – a key feature of the documentary – was a product of his naivety as a filmmaker. He now carefully maintains a sense of distance between himself and his subjects.


In many ways, Petition and Crime and Punishment are relics of a bygone era. They document a time before WeChat, a social media platform now hugely popular in China. An audience member asked Zhao how his filmmaking method has changed since Petition. He referenced the increased restrictions on independent documentary filmmakers working in China – more censorship, with fewer screenings, and less funding. The attempt to cast Petition and Crime and Punishment as works of art, rather than works of activism, is undoubtedly related to this external pressure. We ought not to diminish the broader political significance of these two early films from Zhao’s portfolio. But his current emphasis on the narrative of individuals, as opposed to narratives of the nation, and his captivating aesthetic, allow us to return to his early work in order to explore their value as art and activism alike.


Aoife Cantrill reads Chinese Studies at Hertford College. It’s ee-fa, for the record.


Art by Ellen Sharman