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Folk Memory Project at Open City 2024: “Between Autoethnography and Anti-ethnography”

By Arta Barzanji

A group of middle-aged Chinese women talk to each other.

Shao Yuzhen films My Village 2008. Courtesy of Zhang Mengqi

In 2005, Wu Wenguang, a founding figure of China’s independent documentary movement, joined forces with choreographer Wen Hui to create the Beijing-based Caochangdi Workstation. The collective’s first initiative, the Village Documentary Project, selected ten villagers from nationwide applicants who’d come across newspaper ads about the project. The villagers were trained to use DV cameras over three days and returned to their respective villages with their new tools to gather materials. With no specific instructions on what to capture, they were free to film whatever they saw fit. After a month, they returned to the filmmaking home base, where they worked with editors who helped shape each filmmaker-villager’s footage into a stand-alone, 10-minute-long documentary. The result was a collective film, China Villager Documentary Project: China Village Self-Governance Film Project. The mouthful of a title came from the project’s origins as part of public communication activities of the EU–China Training Programme on Village Governance, a joint undertaking between the European Union and the Chinese government aimed at “bolstering grassroots democracy” in Chinese villages. Incidentally, this coincided with a further opening up of China’s economic relations with Europe. In 2006, six of the filmmaker-villagers were invited back for a two-week-long workshop focused on editing and computer literacy, which, if they wished to, would equip them to create more projects.

In 2010, the Workstation launched its second major collective initiative, the Folk Memory Project. More open in its scope of constituents (expanding beyond villagers to students, filmmakers, dancers, and other artists), this project was more specific in its subject matter: its explicit aim was to record and preserve recollections of the Great Famine of 1959–61 from the generation who experienced it firsthand. The ongoing project has resulted in more than 100 documentaries, capturing the oral histories of 2,000 villagers from over 200 villages in China. , In addition to the original theme, the films have also now covered memories of the Great Leap Forward, the Four Cleanups Movement, and the Cultural Revolution.

This context, pivotal to understanding the full historical, cultural, and anthropological significance of the films, was partly drawn from the detailed intros to the “Folk Memory Project: Between Autoethnography and Anti-ethnography” programs at the 2024 Open City Documentary Film Festival’s mini-retrospective of the Folk Memory Project (and supplemented by other sources). During these introductions, the program’s guest curator, Hyun Jin Cho, set the scene by framing the screenings along several key terms: critical alternative history-makingethics of positionality, and dichotomies of subject/filmmaker and insider/outsider. These concepts prove central to the program’s four films, carefully selected to give a representative glimpse into the variations existing within the wider output of the Folk Memory Project as a whole.

Each of the four documentarians has a different relationship not only with their respective villages but also with the cinematic apparatus used to document these rural communities and the histories that lie within them. Whereas Zhang Mengqi began her engagement with the Folk Memory Project as a young urban artist with ancestral ties to the 47 KM village, before moving there permanently after several years of documenting the community as a visitor, the middle-aged Shao Yuzhen has been a farmer in Shaziying her whole life, with no background in arts prior to being selected as one of the original participants of the Village Documentary Project. Occupying a middle ground between Zhang and Shao, Li Xinmin, who had left her village at age fourteen to earn a living as a maid in the city, returned to the hillside Huamulin after seven years to document not only the oral histories of her ethnic minority village but also that of her family, while Hu Sanshou, a graduate of the Xi’an Academy of Fine Arts, traveled to his family village to explore his grandparents’ memories. While the prompt of the Folk Memory Project stays the same throughout these films, the program demonstrates how the particular relationship of the documentarian with the cinematic apparatus, as well as the village community in each case, yields unique results and dynamics.

A young girl in a red coat stands in front of a brick building in the middle of winter.
Self-Portrait: Window in 47KM. Courtesy of Zhang Mengqi

Self-Portrait: Window in 47 KM (2019), the opening film in the program, begins with a shot of faded writing on an old village building’s wall. Fifteen-year-old Fang Hong, together with an offscreen voice belonging to the director, Zhang Mengqi, reconstructs the written message as “Only socialism can save China.” “Have you seen this slogan before?” asks the filmmaker from behind the camera, to which her young companion answers in the negative. Zhang follows up with a series of challenging questions: “What does it mean to be a patriot?” “Does China need saving?” and “What word would you use instead of ’socialism’ in the sentence if it was about your village?” Fang’s answer, after some deliberation: “People, only people can save the village.” This opening serves as a clear statement of purpose: of the program’s emphasis on history-making from below, of granting expressive subjectivity to those who’ve hitherto only existed as statistics within Official History.

The majority of Self-Portrait’s alternative historical narrative arrives in a series of long takes of a small, decrepit room, where an 85-year-old villager, Li Guiting, warms himself by a small fire. Flanked by a sizable illustration of Mao in the background, we look at and listen to Li’s account of his life, which begins before the Communist Revolution, when he was sold at age five to another family by his older brother due to debilitating poverty. But crucially, the looking and the listening are divided into two distinct activities: we don’t see Li speak but hear the audio of the elderly farmer playing over his image.

Scenes of Li’s chronological remembrances interweave with Zhang and Fang’s visits to other elderly villagers. Like Li, they sit by the fire in humble dwellings adorned only by imposing portraits of Mao. Unlike their neighbor, however, the other villagers are not asked to recount their painful memories. Instead, they sit as models for Fang, who captures them in her colorful drawings. Perhaps one villager’s experiences are sufficiently representative of a whole community’s memories of hunger, death, and starvation.

The film avoids the use of any archival material, aural or visual, restricting itself to what is said and remembered of the past in the present. Creating archives is, in itself, an intentional, political act. Rather than dealing with the existing archives—whether challenging, complicating, or accepting them—the films coming out of Caochangdi Workstation decide to forgo the concrete images of the past in favor of its elusive memories. Paradoxically, the concreteness of the existing archives is less objective than the fading, scattered oral memories; the “History” of the image is countered by the “history” of the voice.

Shifting focus from individual to communal memory, the program’s second film, Mountain Village (2013) by Hu Sanshou, captures the collective recollections of its elderly villagers, with the Great Famine emerging as the theme. The decision to frame the speakers in medium close-ups with wide lenses ensures the backgrounds remain mostly visible (if a bit out of focus), neither obfuscating the interviewee nor the setting. The harrowing remembrances of the past are interrupted by the unfolding of the present: mundane scenes of cooking, cleaning, community gatherings, and so on. Thematically, they serve to juxtapose the past and present; structurally, the mostly wordless, active (i.e., moving) scenes compensate for the lack of (subject or camera) movement of the talking heads, making sure the audience gets a rest. 

Back to Huamulin (2011), the third film of the program, has a similar structural conceit, as filmmaker Li Xinmin’s conversations with her family are divided by scenes of everyday life. The two films’ schematic structure and lack of a distinct personality, best demonstrated by their nearly identical use of breathers that briefly relieve the audience from the difficult topics tackled in the talking-head scenes, points to the possible influence of the workshopping, whereby the Folk Memory Project works are molded into their final shape.

In contrast, Shao Yuzhen’s My Village 2008 not only escapes the aforementioned formula but is positively brimming with personality. Energetic in its onscreen action and editing alike, My Village trades the schematic construction of the other films for a less predictable and more dynamic structure that not only observes the villagers’ lives but actively participates in them. Not so concerned with individual villagers’ past as with the community’s present, it’s a truly rare instance of the filmmaker not as an outsider, anthropologist, historian, artist, detective, or descendent, but a villager-become-filmmaker. The woman behind the camera is not looking in from the outside but exists organically within the unfolding daily life of the community. Art is embedded into the daily life of a villager who discusses specifics of farming costs, energy bills, and irrigation issues with other farmers during her shots without attempting to orchestrate a picture of the village for the audience or shed light on the plight of the farmers.

Yet the film is not entirely free of anthropological encroachment. In a Rouchian instance, Shao’s camera turns on a French film crew, who, with their professional camera, boom pole, and lights, are interviewing a farmer couple about the effects of the one-child policy, only for the villagers to eloquently defend what they deem as the necessity of the policy for a certain period. Another group of outsiders looking in appears in the form of a Chinese TV news crew. Armed with a sizable camera that gives them an air of officiousness, they film Shao with her small DV camera, ordering her not only where to stand but also to not just stand in one place but move around. The newsman in charge, who treats the provincial filmmaker with a mixture of haughtiness and amusement, directs Shao to walk toward the camera on the roadside. She protests: “Don’t you already have a shot like that? But that’s exactly how my film starts!” Little do the city filmmakers know that, as they capture their postcard images of the old villager and her unassuming camera, she’s returning the exoticizing gaze back at them: the hunter becomes the prey, and the conceited reporter ends up as the butt of the joke.

The filmmaker’s emergence from within the community eliminates the respectful, dignified remove that we’re used to in such documentaries; it affords the film precious luxuries such as humor, banter, and engagement without the risk of judgment or the dull disinterest of critical distance. It also allows for an organic movement between interview, observation, engagement, and first-person narration, such as when the filmmaker gives a first-person account of the damage done to her watermelon farm by the storm before running into another farmer who is biking past and continuing the conversation about the storm.

My Village’s freshness underscores the significance of extending the sphere of artmaking to those not traditionally in the bubble of art and culture. A variety of documentary workshops, many of them in North America and Europe, claim to do just this. But their objective function (regardless of subjective intention) often ends up not as “cultivating diverse new voices” but as making films fit for festivals and distribution, molding new projects into shapes digestible for the industry, feeding and sustaining the system as it exists. Another alternative nonfiction model, the proliferating academic film, tends to be so preoccupied with a circular quest for illustrations of its own theoretical discourse as to foreclose its own prospects.

During the Q&A after her screening, Shao, who is now in her 70s, described herself as “a very ordinary village woman” who didn’t know anything about art or technology before 2005. Following her participation in the Village Documentary Project workshop, she began consciously documenting her village, not just because she found it interesting but also because she saw it as her obligation since she was the only villager with the training and equipment required to carry this out. She added that these encounters with art and culture have tremendously raised her horizons of life. My Village 2008 is free from festival tropes to observe on its own terms and unburdened by official discourse to engage in its own manner. What Leon Trotsky wrote about the position of the Russian working class vis-à-vis culture in 1924 is here demonstrated by a Chinese villager in 2008: “The working class doesn’t have to and can’t break with literary tradition because it’s not in the grip of this tradition.”

Arta Barzanji is a London-based Iranian filmmaker, critic, and lecturer. He has written for publications including MUBI Notebook, Sabzian, and Variety. His current film project is the documentary Unfinished: Kamran Shirdel.