A legal scholar describes Chinese documentary filmmaking and why it is so effective in citizen movements.
As China’s commercial society develops, people are increasingly feeling resentful and resistant toward its repressive political system’s human rights violations. Post-totalitarian political systems can no longer meet the public’s growing awareness of their rights and their demands for freedom and democracy. This phenomenon can be seen as the principal contradiction in Chinese society today, and it is against this background that the civil rights movement came into being. The arrival of the Internet in China noticeably hastened its growth, broadened it, and changed its appearance. From text to photographs, images to videos, traditional media to citizen journalists, one-way flow of information to interactivity, these shifts suit the development patterns for both communications and social movements. In particular, the documentary has played a highly visible role in the Chinese citizen campaigns.
After local officials sold Taishi Village land in 2005 without publicly disclosing the details, villagers, with the help of lawyers, journalists, and scholars, waged a fierce campaign to have these officials dismissed. This incident, in Panyu, Guangdong, became one of the famous cases of the growing Chinese citizen rights defense movement. Ai Xiaoming’s documentary, “Taishi Village,” documented the event. Lawyers were beaten, villagers were arrested, and the whole village was shrouded in an atmosphere of terror. The last scene of the documentary showed the filmmaker being blocked in her car and beaten by a group of unidentified thugs. Terrified, with her car window broken, she used her phone to call for help. The producer added the following subtitle: “During the shooting process, I found that many [government] agencies have video cameras; I think the villagers should have a video camera of their own.”
Ai Weiwei’s “Mother Tihua”
I have been involved in several human rights cases as a rights defense lawyer, which left me with the intense feeling that China has neither an independent judiciary nor an independent media. Therefore, to broadcast the truth and appeal to public opinion and the power of justice, the only means at our disposal are the channels outside of the official media. Naturally, documentaries, with their use of images and direct observation of people, are easiest for people to understand, and can create sympathy and have a powerful impact. Documentaries can sometimes amplify the voices of those involved, advance the progress of the incident itself, and even become the critical turning point of a public incident.
One kind of documentary is the direct recording of a particular case or incident, such as “Mother Tihua” by Ai Weiwei. It documented all of Ai’s experiences as a court witness in Chengdu right before the Tan Zuoren trial. The release of “Mother Tihua” sparked an enormous reaction on the Internet, with many clamoring to see it. It made a huge contribution to publicizing and mobilizing for Tan’s case. It led Professor Ai Xiaoming, another documentary filmmaker who released “Citizen Investigation”—a documentary about the investigation of the Sichuan earthquake conducted by Tan and other volunteers—to bring out “Why Are the Flowers So Red,” which documented Ai Weiwei’s own investigative work after the earthquake and the making of “Mother Tihua.”
The Yang Jia case,1 which happened before the Olympics, greatly shocked the Chinese public, especially the netizens in China, and was as influential as the Sun Zhigang case in 2003.2 “An Isolated Man” by Ai Weiwei examines Yang Jia’s trial and the deep underlying cause of the incident through an analysis of Yang Jia’s experience. To Ai Weiwei, Yang Jia’s case had the same significance as the Taishi Village case had to Ai Xiaoming. Both cases brought about certain transformation in these two important public intellectuals, one from the south and the other from the north. With their actions and documentary work, they have become prominent figures in the Chinese citizen movement.
Ai Xiaoming and He Yang’s Documentaries Celebrate Rights Defense
In 2006 and 2007, Professor Ai Xiaoming took great risk to complete two documentaries, “Central Chronicle” and “Loving Care.” The two films documented villagers suffering from HIV/AIDS in Henan and Hebei Province and their struggles in the difficult process of appealing their cases. Ai said, “Every time I film I get into direct conflict with the local government.” The local government named her as the “reactionary professor” and forbade villagers from being interviewed by her. In addition, her work “The Train to My Hometown” illustrates the story of migrant workers returning home from Guangdong for the Spring Festival, while “People’s Representative Yao Lifa” focuses on the life of one person in a local movement. These works document the formation and efforts of civil society organizations at the grassroots level, while the works themselves are part of these efforts.
Ai Weiwei’s “Good Life” is the story of Feng Zhenghu’s difficult experience fighting for the right to go home. Feng Zhenghu waited for 92 days in the Narita Airport in Japan before he could go home, making him a legendary figure of the civil rights defense movement. Petitioners from Shanghai went to rescue him, waving the flag of support, and Twitter users showed their concern and support over the long haul until finally Feng was able to return home. The incident boosted the strength among citizens in their difficult struggles for civil rights defense.
Independent filmmaker He Yang’s “Hanging Photo Door” discusses how human rights lawyers Tang Jitian and Liu Wei had their licenses suspended by the Beijing Municipal Bureau of Justice. His other documentary “Emergency Shelter” tells the story of the persecution of human rights lawyer Ni Yulan. While defending the rights of evictees, Ni was beaten and became crippled. Afterwards she was falsely accused of assaulting a police officer, and was sentenced to two years in prison for “obstructing official business.” Upon her release, her house was demolished in an act of retaliation, and she was forced to live on the street. She set up a tent in the emergency shelter corner of the Huangchenggen Park. Facing the camera, she calmly talks about how she suffered brutal abuse and torture over the years. Although from a documentary film perspective the film has too much narrative and too few scene changes, making it less enjoyable, the story of Ni itself is powerful enough to make up for these deficiencies.
The case of Ni was reported some years ago, but did not attract too much attention until the release of He Yang’s documentary. After it was released on the Internet, thousands of people circulated it on Twitter and other microblogs, making Ni’s story widely known. And Xiao Wei, the guard, and others involved in the persecution of Ni were then strongly condemned by netizens. Many people also sent donations and goods to the emergency shelter to show support for Ni. On “6-16” (June 16), the day of Dragon Boat Festival, netizens organized a summer night party to show their solidarity with Ni. When police took Ni to the police station, the netizens just set up tents outside the police station in protest. On June 27, the Southern People Weekly reported on Ni’s case, and netizens “surrounding and watching” the police station. The reporting definitely helped Ni’s situation. The documentary undoubtedly played the most critical role in the citizen campaign around this incident.
Direct Participation in and Documenting Citizen Actions
Another type of documentary directly participates in and records citizen actions. One example of these dynamic citizen actions is the three Fujianese netizens case. In June and July 2009, Fan Yanqiong, Yu Jingyou, and Wu Huaying were accused of libel because they uploaded videos and posted comments on the Internet related to the case of Yan Xiaoling.3 They were then detained, charged, and convicted. The incident attracted continuous attention and prompted strong protests among netizens. There were multiple “surrounding and watching” actions before and after the trial, sentencing and the prison release [of the netizens]. Each time, people documented the actions using hand-held digital video cameras, mobile phones, still cameras, or professional video cameras. Afterwards they transmitted the sounds and images to Twitter, microblogs, and other social networking sites. Some of them produced documentaries, presenting the details of the situation at the scenes and the ins and outs of the case. One documentary, “Let the Citizens and Justice Shine Brighter than the Sun,” chronicled the scenes before the trial [of the three netizens] on March 19, 2010, as well as the “surrounding and watching” action on April 16, 2010, the day the verdict was announced. The large number of people, the enthusiasm, and the orderly assembly alone are themselves worthy of a book.
The three Fujianese netizens case was different from the Panyu Trash Fire incident4 or the Xiamen PX case.5 The protests among netizens during the three Fujianese netizens case were not directly related to their own interests. Rather, they held clear political demands for freedom of speech. There are different versions of the April 16 documentary spreading on the Internet, including a version by Piao Xiang, one by Ping Xiu, and one by Xiaofan. Meanwhile, He Yang’s version, which provides an overview of the case, is still in production.
Piao Xiang’s “Citizen Action: Zhao Lianhai’s Case Outside the Courts” documents citizen protests in front of the Daxing District People's Court [in Beijing], at the trial of Zhao Lianhai, a parent of a “kidney stone baby” who developed kidney stones due to ingesting poisoned milk powder. In Beijing, Xu Zhiyong, Teng Biao, and many others who initiated the Citizens Concern Group against Violent Demolition and Eviction, also mainly made use of digital video recording to directly document scenes of sudden and violent demolition [of people’s homes].
In citizen actions to “surround and watch” “black jails” and rescue petitioners, the video camera has not only represented the rights of citizens, but also suggests the power of speech. The greatest fear of those in Beijing who set up “black jails” and illegally detain petitioners is being exposed. In incidents such as the Dingzhou murder case in Hebei,6 the Shanwei murder case in Guangdong,7 and the tens of thousands of violent demolitions and mass protests that occur each year, citizen videos have served as a means for victims to capture evidence and deliver the truth to the general public.
After the Nail House event in Chongqing in 2007,8 major websites such as Sina, Six Rooms, Tudouwang, Youku and other video sites all created ‘Nail House’ video columns on their websites. Citizen journalists uploaded live video daily and tens of millions of Internet users watched, spread, and joined the discussion. It became a classic case of a citizen campaign in China. Afterwards, during the PX incident, the documentary “We Do Not Want GDP, We Want to Survive” was broadcast on YouTube and other video sites. Some people regard this documentary as the representative of Chinese online video activism. Zhou Shuguang, Beifeng, and others revealed their talent in these incidents as exemplary Chinese citizen journalists. The videos “Wuxi Floods” and “What Can I Do to Save You, Taihu Lake,” which examined the water pollution problems in Taihu Lake, in Jiangsu Province, and “Voice of the Nu River,” which records the protests in the Xiao Shaba Village in Yunnan along the Nujiang River,9 are all examples of documenting and promoting citizen campaigns to protect the environment.
Documentaries of citizen campaigns will develop rapidly. The rights defense movement is in full swing, citizens’ awareness of the rule of law and the spirit of resistance are rising rapidly, and NGOs are growing stronger and taking increasingly active roles even under the current difficult environment regarding the rule of law. The international community is also paying increasing attention to the impact of the Chinese rights defense movement on China’s political transformation. Additionally, the rapid development and popularization of visual electronic media, digital video, computer editing, broadband networks, mobile Internet, blogs, and microblogs rapidly spread the concepts of “visual rights,” “image rights,” “media activism,” “people media,” and “individual media.” All these concepts will soon gain widespread attention. The “new documentary” movement of the 1990s is no longer content with recording the fates of individuals or objectively presenting the experiences of a community. Rather the movement now places more emphasis on the public spirit and participatory consciousness among the people, while displaying the strength of visual images.
Milestone: Hu Jie’s Documentary Rescues History
Memory and forgetting are a major topic in Chinese citizen campaign documentaries. Speaking of the Chinese documentary movement, one cannot ignore Hu Jie. He began producing independent documentaries in 1995, releasing “Yuanmingyuan Artists,” and “Mountains,” which presents the lives of workers in small coal mines. The 2004 “In Search of Lin Zhao’s Soul” is a milestone in the history of China’s independent documentary films. Hu Jie became one of the most important pioneers and torchbearers in the promotion of citizen visual campaigns. In 2005, Lu Xuesong, a female teacher at the Jilin College of the Arts, was suspended by her school because she took students to watch this documentary. The incident brought Hu Jie, Lin Zhao,10 and documentary films to the greater attention of civil society.
After that, Hu Jie released “Although I Am Gone,” which tells the story of a school principal named Bian Zhongyun who was killed by the Red Guards in Beijing during the Cultural Revolution. “My Mother Wang Peiying,” another documentary about the Cultural Revolution, tells the story of a mother of seven children who spoke out against lies out of a sense of justice and was brutally denounced and sentenced to death. Almost all of Hu Jie’s documentaries are efforts to “rescue history.” The films—whether they are about the Anti-Rightist Movement, the Cultural Revolution, more recent historical events, or efforts to prevent forgetting or dig out the truth—are all integral parts of citizen campaigns.
After the Sichuan earthquake of 2008, the government issued a ban on the media and used every means available to threaten and block citizen investigators from accessing information. Guards were placed at the ruins of some school buildings to prevent photographing and filming. Parents were warned, and petitioners were arrested and even sentenced. Tan Zuoren, because of his investigation, was sentenced to five years’ imprisonment on the charge of “inciting subversion of state power.” Those arrested or sentenced to prison terms also included Huang Qi, Liu Shaokun, Zeng Hongling, Pan Jianlin (the creator of the Sichuan earthquake documentary, “Who Killed our Children”), and others. In this context, Ai Xiaoming’s “Our Babies” is a steadfast and angry protest. She documented the sorrow and the struggle of ordinary people and questioned the grand stories that sang the praises of the authorities.
Ai Weiwei’s earthquake investigation was a major chapter in citizen campaigns. His films “4851” and “Recitation” cannot easily be described as documentaries, but should nevertheless be discussed here. The 87-minute long “4851” has no plot, no portraits, and no scenes—it is only a long list of names of the students who were killed during the Sichuan earthquake with background music. “Recitation” uses the participation of ordinary citizens; it is a compilation of the sounds of each person reading the name of a student who died in the earthquake. That is a typical case of using people’s memory to oppose the policy of forgetting. Facing the truth of deaths, and an unclassifiable piece of work, people cannot but reflect on their own attitudes toward suffering, humanity, and the political system. If more people conscientiously preserve and share their collective memories, then lies and forgetting cannot wreak havoc on people’s spiritual life. If the citizens’ rights defense struggle is aimed at rebuilding civil society and the political structure, then the struggle against forgetting is aimed at reconstructing a spiritual homeland for the people and self-identity for their community.
Another representative figure of Chinese citizen journalists is Tiger Temple. His 24-hour Blog is well known, not only because it launched the migrant assistance scheme and regularly broadcasts videos of the lives and sufferings of displaced persons, but also because he has actively participated in a wide range of citizen actions in recent years. Although most of his video works are not strictly documentaries, the immediacy, grassrootsness, and persistence in them have gradually created a large impact. “Working toward a Civil Society” is the most recent documentary series by Tiger Temple.
Additionally, works such as Zhao Liang’s “Petition,” Wang Libo’s “Burial” on the Tangshan Earthquake, and Chen Weijun’s “A Good Death Is Not Better than Staying Alive” on AIDS, should be counted as artistic investigations into preserving the memory of the people.
The Arrival of the Citizen Campaign Documentary
The Internet has had an important impact on Chinese citizen campaigns, and it has been equally important to documentaries. Ai Weiwei once said in a discussion, “Turn on the camera. Start shooting. All else is secondary.” As the number of participants in citizen campaigns and citizen videographers grows, official efforts at blocking and intercepting are increasingly unable to cope. Apart from using private mail, gifts, or privately copying and broadcasting, the main modes of transmission rely on the Internet. One method is by sharing videos on websites such as YouTube, Tudou, Ku6, or by publishing videos directly on a personal blog. Another is via peer-to-peer file sharing such as eDonkey (eMule) and BitTorrent. One can also use online file hosting services such as Namipan or 115. The struggle between citizens disseminating the truth and Internet filtering, blocking, and shut down will inevitably continue. An era of documentaries by the general public and a boom in documenting citizen campaigns will come inevitably, just as a free and truthful China will.
“If there is no visual expression and memory, our understanding of history and society will only be vague concepts, and therefore easily forgotten. Without the pounding of emotion or the empathy for pain, our values can easily be replaced by other concepts.” Ai Xiaoming’s statement confirms the advantages of video as a language. People like Ai Xiaoming and Ai Weiwei, who participate in actual direct action, have become models of public intellectuals. In his recent visit to Beijing, Adam Michnik11 said during a discussion, “In an authoritarian system, a poet is not merely a poet, a philosopher is not merely a philosopher.” As for the documentarians who participate in citizen campaigns, they have never identified themselves merely as visual artists. Of course, documentary filmmakers who care about and participate in citizen campaigns need to exercise an appropriate amount of reflection on their roles as spokespeople, their own right to have their say in the context of the objective impartiality of their medium, and the ethical issues of intent and responsibility. Under the current situation in China—a place that lacks press freedom and creative freedom, a place where human rights are commonly trampled on and a place with a severe shortage of an independent critical spirit among intellectuals—to dig out the truth, listen to the underclass, care about the weak, refuse to forget, or criticize the authoritarian system are the rarest and most commendable acts.
The history of documentary as a battle weapon for participating in social movements began in the 1960s. From France, Canada, and the United States, to South America, the Middle East, and even Taiwan, Hong Kong, and other places, many documentary films have played positive roles in social movements. And what is happening in the Chinese citizen campaign documentaries will enrich the documentary’s appeal, as well as enhance the experience of citizen campaigns and political transformation. The real attractiveness of documentary lies in its ability to close gaps in time and space and connect isolated worlds. The monopoly of information is the weapon of autocrats; but citizen documentaries can, to a certain extent, weaken their ability to cover up. Just a few documentaries have already made the dictatorship pay a huge price. One can imagine that with the expansion of the citizen documentary campaign, covering up the truth will be a futile and obsolete trick. At that time, there should be meaningful changes to the ways that power is exercised.
Original English translation by Florence Lai and Interlocals.net; edited and revised by Human Rights in China. Reprinted with permission.
1. In July 2008, Yang Jia killed six police officers and wounded several others after attempting to seek apologies from the police who had abused him. He was convicted of murder and executed the following November. But for the Chinese public, he died as a victim of criminal injustice—and as a celebrated hero and martyr of the petitioner movement of China. ^
2. Sun Zhigang was a 27-year-old university student who died in police custody on March 20, 2003, after being detained for not carrying a residence permit (hukou) or temporary living permit (zanzhuzheng). After an autopsy revealed that he had been severely beaten prior to his death, a public uproar in the press and on the Internet caused the Chinese government on June 20, 2003, to end the custody and repatriation procedure whereby migrants could be detained and sent home for not carrying proper identification. Xu Zhiyong wrote a public letter to the National People’s Congress regarding the case. ^
3. In February 2008, Yan, age 25, died in police custody after what her mother believed to be the result of gang rape by elements with connection to the local police. The police announced that Yan died of an ectopic pregnancy. ^
4. In November 2009, the proposed construction of a trash incinerator in Panyu drew large-scale protests. ^
5. The proposed construction of a paraxylene [PX] production facility in Xiamen was halted in December 2007 as a result of citizen actions. ^
6. On June 11, 2005, hundreds of men armed with shotguns and pipes attacked a group of farmers in Dingzhou, Hebei Province, after they refused to surrender land to a state-owned power plant. Six farmers were killed and nearly 100 seriously injured. ^
7. On December 6, 2005, residents of the town of Dongzhou, Guangdong Province, who were reportedly armed with knives and homemade bombs, clashed with police, who are believed to have fired live bullets into the crowd. As many as 20 people are reported to have been shot. ^
8. “Nail house” refers to a household that refuses to relocate. In this case, Wang Yu and his family held out for three years until April 2007 when they received what they considered to be just compensation. ^
9. Also known as the Nujiang, the Salween River is 1749 miles long and flows from the Tibetan Plateau through China, Burma, and Thailand into the Andaman Sea in Southeast Asia. ^
10. In 1957, during the Hundred Flowers Movement when intellectuals were encouraged to criticize the Communist Party of China, Lin Zhao, at age 25, was branded a “rightist.” She was arrested in October 1960, and later sentenced to 20 years in prison and executed in 1968. ^
11. Polish journalist and, from 1966-1989, a leading organizer of the illegal democratic opposition in Poland. ^