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AppalaChina: Kentucky Meets Kunming in International Filmmakers' Exchange

By L. Somi Roy

At the home of filmmaker Liu Xiaojin in Kumming. Back row, left to right: Liu Xiaolin's husband, Mao Xuhei; Mimi Pickering; Greg Howard; Liu Xiaojin and her daughter, Momo; Maureen Mullinax, Front row, left to right: Elizabeth Barret; Somi Roy; Barret's daughter, Ada. Photo courtesy of L. Somi Roy.

In March 2003, as we began screening documentaries by filmmakers from rural Kentucky to audiences in southwest China, American missiles began raining down on Baghdad; Hu Jintao replaced Jiang Zemin as part of the most extensive leadership change in China since the death of Mao Zedong in 1976; and whispers about the burgeoning SARS epidemic started to circulate. It was a sobering reminder of the vast realities of the modest inquiry that had brought ten of us––nine from AppalShop, a media collective in Appalachia, and myself, a film curator from New York––into contact with our counterparts in the Yunnan and Sichuan provinces. It was just as well that we intended to talk about globalization and regional culture in a newly connected world.

Setting Appalshop in China

We were in China for three weeks and we formed the American contingent for a project called Appalshop in China, which included a conference on documentary film featuring Appalshop's film, in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan Province, and a presentation of these films as part of the Yunnan Multi-Culture Visual Festival in Kunming, the capital of Yunnan Province. The project had its beginnings in an exploration of the role of documentary films in cultural preservation, the focus of two seminars I had organized in Indonesia in 2000. Following those seminars, I was asked to organize media interactions for several Asian Cultural Council fellows visiting the United States, and I decided to introduce two ethnographic filmmakers from China—Bibo Liang from Chengdu and Liu Xiaojin from Kunming—to the collective in Appalachia.

 Appalshop, based in Whitesburg, Kentucky, was established in 1969, under one of President Lyndon B. Johnson's Great Society programs, to bring filmmaking to underserved communities in the United States. Over the course of more than 30 years, Appalshop emerged as one of the most vital and energetic American arts institutions. Its distinctive approach is to have people from the region take into their own hands the documentation, representation, interpretation and preservation of Appalachian life and society through film, as well as theater, radio and the Internet.

Since Sichuan is home to 13 of the 55 minorities of China, and Yunnan to no less than 26, the ethnic minorities and diversity of their home provinces are the subject of Bibo's and Liu's films. With their sensitivity to local minority cultures, their geographical remove from the centers of power in China, and histories of mining and environmental degradation in the mountain regions of their provinces, the filmmakers had much to talk about with their Appalachian hosts when they visited Whitesburg in the spring of 2001. Their interaction turned out to be an unlikely but eye-opening meeting of minds. It led me to think further on media exchange forums on issues of documentation and interpretation, not only to preserve traditional and local cultures, but also to find new ways for filmmakers to interact with a rapidly globalizing world.

Similar but Different

When Bibo and Liu returned to their respective hometowns, they took up my suggestion of inviting the filmmakers they had met in Kentucky to China. With encouragement from the Asian Cultural Council and support from the Institute of International Education, they organized the conference and presentations in Chengdu and Kunming. Though similar in intent, the events in the two cities could not have been more different. The Chengdu-Appalshop Documentary Conference, under the aegis of CETV (Chengdu Economic Television, the city's commercial television channel, where Bibo is a producer), the Sichuan Cultural Association and the Sichuan TV Artists Association, was attended by about 80 television professionals from Chengdu and other cities in Sichuan Province, as well as about 15 students from Sichuan University. All of the screenings at the conference were of Appalshop films, with the exception of Bibo's latest docmentary, Old Photos (2002), an arresting portrait of an American photographer who worked in Sichuan in the early part of the 20th century. The participants—young, articulate and mostly male—did not hesitate to make comments and question the American visitors.

The Appalshop presentations that followed in Kunming, which Liu organized with the help of her friend and our interpreter and interlocutor—Jeff Crosby, a local American resident—included screenings and discussions at Yunnan University, as well as at the first annual Yunnan Multi-Culture Visual Festival. Ninety-three Chinese documentaries were screened, most of them independent; fewer than ten were productions from television stations. Filmmakers from all over China attended, and there were participants from England and Thailand, as well. In addition, in Kunming the Yunnan Provincial Television Station screened for us some of its current productions. Among them was a very funny and sharply observational film, as yet without an English title, by Cao Wei, a producer at the station, about traditional and local Party leaders tussling over who should be in charge of the revival of their harvest festival. Liu's Chronicle of the Minority Institute, a work-in-progress about the passionate quest of one man to preserve the minority cultures of the province, was also screened.

Regional Exchange

The thinking behind both the Chinese filmmakers' visit to Appalshop and the Appalshop filmmakers' visit to China was that there is a need for international exchange between regions—not nations—that have certain cultural affinities and concerns. Appalshop in China was conceived of less as a US-China filmmakers' exchange than as an Appalachia-Southwest China regional exchange. In effect, it was an experiment in, and exploration of, a new link-a remapping of culture, so to speak. It was therefore gratifying that filmmakers in Southwest China responded with enthusiasm to the notion that we had come directly to Chengdu and Kunming, deliberately steering clear of Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong. As a professor of communications at Sichuan University, Mao Lifeng (we called him Chairman Mao, since he was also chairman of Chengdu's Movie Critics Organization) pointed out, exchanges between regions away from the traditional centers that force one to look at the details of one's life could not but have a salutary effect on the documentary filmmaker and his art.

Two Chinese documentaries I saw during the trip gave me an idea of the context in which documentary filmmakers in China are working. A recent mainstream Chinese documentary on the Dai minority was depressingly representative. With its authoritative voice explaining how the Dai lived among the trees, intoning over visuals of happy children wearing makeup and hardworking tribesmen in colorful and obviously brand new head scarves, it reminded me of documentaries made elsewhere in Asia.

The second was The Oroquen, a ravishing film made in 1963 by Yang Guanghai, the 71-year-old pioneer of Chinese ethnographic film. The ideological perspective was clear and direct, with roots in the traditional ethnocentrism and historical attitudes of China's Han majority, seen through a Marxist lens. The Oroquen, the nomadic tribesmen who were the subject of the film, were happily making the Marxian progression from tribal social organization to a settled agricultural society under Communism. Produced by the Beijing Science Education Movie Factory, the film was an example of the first generation of ethnographic films produced in the People's Republic of China.

The questions flowed easily at the screenings in Chengdu. Much of what the participants—who were industry professionals—wanted to know about related to documentary filmmaking and production in the US; many of their questions were about budgeting and funding. Dave Reynolds explained how he draws up marketing strategies and oversees the distribution of Appalshop films. But some of the questions were also fine critiques, such as those posed to Tom Hansell. After the screening of his Coal Bucket Outlaw, about a couple who go in and out of the coal-trucking business, some participants wanted to know why, for instance, the film mentions the hard, dangerous work that hauling coal entails, without showing any footage of road accidents. Or why the seasons in the background remain unchanging in a film that took two years to make.

No Budget Restraints

We got a starkly different picture of documentary production in China from two filmmakers from Deyan Television Station after a screening of Mimi Pickering's Hazel Dickens: Its Hard to Tell the Singer from the Song, her film about the famous exponent of old-time bluegrass country music. They explained that filmmakers at Chinese television stations are on salary and have no budget limitations if they can justify stories of contemporary social interest—whether they are about the environment, culture or economic agricultural practices—and get them approved by the station. Their films are 20 minutes in length, and take about three months to complete, from proposal to airing. It made for a fascinating exchange as Pickering's hour-long film, edited down from 30 hours of footage, was shot over the ten years it took to raise funds and complete the project.

An informal roundtable organized by Guo Jing, the director of the Kunming festival, consisted of ten Chinese filmmakers and three Appalshop filmmakers who gave direct insights into the somewhat different problems faced by independent filmmakers like Liu, who have to find their own funding for their films. There are no private foundations or private funding agencies in China for independent film production. The more established independent filmmakers receive funding from regional television stations that air their works. Occasionally films like The Secret of My Success (2002) and No. 16 Barkhor South Street (1997), both by Beijing filmmaker Duan Jinchuan, are shown in summer slots on the country's main network, CCTV. Foreign television such as NHK from Japan and BBC-2 and BBC-4, which have sales agents to help develop the greater China market, offer another source of financing for the better-known independent filmmakers.

Even independent films that regional TV stations finance often run into problems if they diverge significantly from the direction of politically approved "reform." Liu's Mask (2000) was produced by Yunnan TV, which has yet to air it because the station wants to cut the film from its current two hours but lacks the funds to do so, and perhaps also because the theme of the impact of recent political and economic changes on traditional regional opera is politically sensitive.

One might venture to think that the independent artist is no longer at odds with the Chinese Communist Party. The current political doctrine of the Three Represents (announced by Jiang Zemin in 2001 to make the party seem more inclusive to all elements of society) has essentially replaced the traditional Marxist concept of class struggle with one-party rule. With the party in control politically to ensure stability, China is more open and free to pursue wealth and capitalist growth, throwing filmmakers into a new and complex situation. Television stations receive visits from party officials every month, to ensure that filmmakers know the lines not to cross. As Pickering observed, the situation is not that dissimilar from market-imposed restrictions on certain subjects in the US.

As for me, I could not help but think of the powerful political forces back home that seem intent on turning the US into a one-party capitalist society like China. If globalization grows within the framework of increasingly monolithic political structures, regional alliances across international borders may increase in importance as lifelines for regional diversity and local cultures.

Different Ways of Storytelling

It was apparent that the filmmakers from Appalshop, located in a town with a population of 1,200, did not really have anything technical to teach the producers from a major television station in China's fourth-largest city, population 11 million. But what they did bring was not only a different picture of America but also a different method of looking at one's own culture, and a different way of telling a story.

Elizabeth Barret's Stranger with a Camera (2000), a documentary about how a filmmaker from Canada was shot to death by an Appalachian farmer, impressed viewers with its insight into American poverty and issues of representation. One of the film's main themes is who is empowered to make images of whom.

Some who wondered how the film got made saw how Appalshop is able to be independent and to exercise the right to free expression. Barret pointed out that the collective receives federal and public funding, indicating that, through public broadcasting, American television has room for this kind of critique: provocative and controversial to some, but essentially not threatening to the government.

One prominent feature of the Appalshop films that drew attention in Chengdu—the absence of voiceover narration—was viewed as disturbing by some of the Chinese participants because to them it indicated a lack of authority. Realizing that the Chinese filmmakers had no frame of reference to the American documentary in general, Appalshop filmmakers took pains to explain that even in the US, non-narrated interviews and footage style, although far from uncommon in independent documentaries, were unusual in most mainstream documentaries.

Many of the Chengdu participants commented that they had never seen filmmakers appear as actors in their own works-Hansell appears in Coal Bucket Outlaw, and Barret in Stranger with a Camera. Barret saw herself as a guide to and an interpreter of what she was learning about the media through the event she was exploring on film.

Such a self-reflexive approach might have made one of the Chinese films featured in the festival in Kunming more accessible. Chen Jianjun's Herdsmen, produced by CCTV and Xinjiang Telecom, follows a Kazak family of the nomad Turkic culture in the Uighur Autonomous Region of China. With its detailed observation of the family's daily regimen (some of it staged) over the course of the dramatically changing seasons, the film is a rare ethnographic portrayal of a vanishing way of life. A purely observational approach when making a film about the Other is understandable political strategy in China. Yet, given historical Han attitudes toward minorities in China and rapid globalization, Herdsmen left me uncertain about the film's perspective on endangered cultures.

A symposium on Modern American Media of Film and Television and Culture at Sichuan University was attended by about 30 students. There, Appalshop's Herb E. Smith observed—after the screening of Whoa! Mule (1989), his groundbreaking music video featuring the banjo player/farmer Lee Sexton, and his more recent The Ralph Stanley Story—that Appalshop was still a laboratory of learning, offering no answers and no solutions. The style of its films has been never to follow the spotlight, because the spotlight moves on quickly in America; the films are straightforward and therefore do not go out of style. There are no voice-overs and no voice of authority, but rather a multiplicity of voices; and, Smith added, if ever there was a trick, it was to have no trick but to keep it simple.

Earlier at the conference in Chengdu, in response to questions from a young producer from Chongqing Television, Barret explained that Appalshop filmmakers have an allegiance to their community, their culture and their region and so are extremely aware of the consequences of media and therefore spend a lot of time with their subjects before filming them. Barret herself found that she defined her role in the community even as she made the film Stranger with a Camera; she asked people featured in the film to stop by the editing room and screened the work-in-progress for them as she went along.

I and Thou

At the festival in Kunming, we had an opportunity to see what is perhaps the closest counterpart to the Appalshop philosophy in China in the works of the five filmmakers, three women and two men, who formed the Beijing-based collective called I and Thou. The filmmakers share ideas, work on each other's films and often share household chores and living arrangements. They were the most open and sympathetic of any of the Chinese filmmakers we encountered to sensitive national issues such as Tibet, and spoke of the pressures and harassment they felt when, every now and then, the Beijing police dropped by their editing rooms for unscheduled inspections.

So it did not come as a surprise that this collective admired Greg Howard's Justice Delayed, a consciousness-raising film for and about sanitation workers in Lexington, Kentucky, asserting that there was a need in China for such media activism. Surprisingly, after the screenings of Howard's film or of the excerpt from Maureen Mullinax's Reaching for Higher Ground: Youth Activism in the Mountains, there was little discussion about labor and union-organizing among the working class.

There was general recognition among the professional filmmakers in Sichuan and Yunnan of the importance that Appalshop places in demystifying the filmmaking process in order to connect with young people and enable them to explore filmmaking as a way to become creative and learn about their own communities. At the festival in Kunming, we encountered a similar project of empowerment and community. The Azara Visual Workshop, composed of Guo Jing and his team of community researchers, has undertaken a fascinating experiment called Participatory Visual Education (2000-2002). For this project, Azara gave video cameras to Tibetan villagers in western Yunnan, and asked them to make short films about their own lives. It was part research project, part attempt to provide the villages with self-education in their own local culture. Azara has produced four short films.

New Perspectives

It was an unusual dialogue that took place between the filmmakers from Appalachia and the filmmakers of southwest China. Barret perhaps spoke for all of Appalshop when she said that they were lucky not only to see that their media transcended distance and language but also to have the opportunity to see their own work in a different context, which allowed for new perspectives.

Kunming, despite being perched a mile high in the mountains, has balmy sub-tropical weather, and a charming bohemian, artistic flair. As China's southernmost major city, it seems to exude an openness and diversity, as evidenced, for example, by its recent exploration of its cultural affinities with Southeast Asia. In Chengdu, no one raised his hand when Smith asked the audience at Sichuan University if anyone was from the mountains. At the Kunming festival, on the other hand, one of the organizers was an anthropologist from the Naxi minority, and the video projectionist was a Tibetan. In contrast to laid-back Kunming, Chengdu is bustling; it alternates with Shanghai every other year as host to China's television festival and market. The 2000-year-old city seems to be sprouting right before one's very eyes.

The old lifestyle does not go unmourned. Over jasmine tea at a spanking new Chengdu teahouse, one Sichuanese filmmaker ruminated that he does not yet feel at home in the new China. He said that his encounter with the filmmakers from Appalshop had brought to mind his grandmother, who, while marveling at the brand new road in front of her house, still missed the old broken-down street she had lived with for so many years.


L. Somi Roy was project director of Appalshop in China. He is a film and media curator based in Brooklyn, New York.

Editor's Note: The complete version of this article originally appeared in the Summer 2003 issue of Persimmon magazine. Go to