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Documenting change: DV in the PRC

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Cannes it wasn't, but for one week at the end of March, the city of Kunming in southwest China's Yunnan province provided Chinese documentary makers with a unique platform to show China and the world how today's Chinese see themselves and the world around them.

The Yunnan Provincial Library's four auditoria were packed for a solid week with twentysomething and middle-aged Chinese plus a light smattering of North Americans, Japanese and Europeans. They were here to see what China sees when it looks in the mirror.

A documentary festival in all but name, the second biennial Yunnan Multi Culture Visual Forum, aka Yunfest, was nearing the end of a week of hundreds of hours of documentaries, discourse and deconstruction of everyday life in post-millennium China. Even in 2005, such opportunities to view China through Chinese eyes are still rare.

This year's Yunfest featured 98 entry films, all made by Chinese. A telling indicator of the stage of development of Chinese documentaries: more than 90% of the entry films were shot by self-funded filmmakers using digital video (DV) technology.

Themes covered in the films ran from the daily life of coal deliverers or railway workers to Tibetan pilgrimages to the economic pressures experienced by ordinary Chinese as the country continues to move from a centrally planned economy to a more market-oriented one. Regardless of the film, it seemed that change was Yunfest 2005's leitmotif.

The films and public discussions belied the notion of China being a country where individual expression and access to information is strictly controlled. Far from being underground, Yunfest was held at the provincial library with the blessing of the Yunnan Academy of Social Sciences, the provincial arm of government organ China Academy of Social Sciences.

Yunfest organizer Yang Kun, a Kunming native with a Master's in visual anthropology from Yunnan University, said Yunfest's primary goal was to assemble the best documentaries being made in China and use them to initiate a dialogue.

"What's important is seeing the world through different perspectives," the soft-spoken Yang said between sips of tea.

"Our question is: What do we do after we express ourselves and our views of the environment and the world that surrounds us?"

Yang emphasized the need to make documentaries more accessible to the general public. The selection of the provincial library as the site for this year's Yunfest - Yunfest 2003 was held at Yunnan University, also in Kunming - was a deliberate attempt to bring documentary films closer to those with the least awareness of the medium, he said.

"Documentaries in China suffer from a major contradiction," Yang said. "They are close to all of us in that they record elements of our lives that are taking place around us every day. But they are also far from us because we have nowhere to go see them."

This is changing. China's inchoate documentary scene, which barely existed 10 years ago, is developing rapidly. Yunfest is one of the first but it is not the only documentary festival in China. Similar events have sprung up in the cities of Beijing, Xi'an and Guangzhou.

Yang cited the widespread availability of DV technology in China starting from 1996 as the catalyst for the development of documentaries made outside of the state-run mass media. DV cameras are now available in China for as little as 1,000 yuan (US$120).

For most audience members, the technology and technical skill behind the documentaries was secondary to the topics addressed by the films. Director Huang Weikai's film Floating, which won Yunfest's Viewer's Choice award based upon an audience vote, was one of the films that struck the biggest chords with viewers, many of whom said afterward that it captured the life of young Chinese better than any studio movie or television show they had seen.

A rough-around-the-edges look at the life of idealistic youth in China's massive cities Floating follows the life of Yang, a street musician in his late twenties living in Guangzhou, as he chases the elusive dream of becoming a rock star. Yang's hopes gradually fade as his girlfriend attempts suicide after their breakup and a series of encounters with security guards and police eventually culminates in his detainment and forced return to his hometown in central China.

A memorable scene from the film depicted Yang and his friends drinking copious amounts of beer with local policemen in a hole-in-the-wall restaurant. At first Yang and his friends get into impassioned discussions of hope and youth with the officers. As trains of thought get derailed by the constantly flowing brew, talk gives way to rock as the youths sing their favorite pop songs to an audience of red-faced and smiling cops and a crying baby a few tables away.

Floating was a fairly representative film for this year's Yunfest in that it focused on the challenges faced by ordinary Chinese today. One of the few films that chose to look backward at China's past was Ban Zhongyi's Gai Shanxi and Her Sisters, which focused on one Chinese comfort woman's contributions against the Japanese occupation of China in the early 20th century. The film stood out at the festival in that it was the only screening in which a film affected noticeable political or nationalist feelings from the audience.

One of the major elements of Yunfest that sets it apart from festivals elsewhere in China is its focus on issues in Yunnan province, one of China's most ethnically, geographically and biologically diverse regions.

Yunnan, which shares borders with Vietnam, Laos and Myanmar and occupies a portion of the Tibet-Qinghai Plateau, is home to dozens of China's ethnic minority groups. Of these minorities, Tibetans are the best known outside of the region, but there are numerous others including the Naxi, Yi, Bai and Dai that have made major contributions to the province's unique multicultural makeup.

For many of these minority groups, China's rapid economic development since the country launched its economic reforms at the end of the 1970s has brought money and goods to Yunnan's thousands of remote villages. It has also brought new problems: the fading of age-old traditions, the degradation of Yunnan's unique environment via industrialization and the province's booming tourism industry and social problems such as drug addiction and HIV/AIDS.

Aside from documentaries, Yunfest featured a module entitled "Visual Participatory Education" which consisted of 28 video presentations, all but a few made by Chinese, which primarily focused on the challenges faced by Yunnan's ethnic minorities and their traditions as they struggle to adapt to 21st century realities.

Tiger Day, one of the standout entries in this module, documents the use of tradition by the Yi people of Ninglang County, Yunnan, to combat drug addiction. The video's most powerful scene featured a drug addict standing before his entire village as he vows to quit and is bound to a partner who is thereafter to be held responsible by the village for the young man's success or failure in quitting.

Another of Yunfest's non-documentary components was a series of public discussions led by American NGO The Nature Conservancy (TNC), which has a significant presence in the province's northwest, adjacent to Tibet.

Stefan Kratz, director of operations for TNC's Kunming office, said that the group was initially approached by Yunfest because of the overlap between the issues the festival wished to address and TNC's experiences and projects in the province, particularly development issues surrounding sacred geography such as Mount Kawakarpo, a Tibetan holy mountain located on the Yunnan-Tibet border.

"Yunfest came to us and said they wanted to address community issues in Yunnan," Kratz said. "Community issues have a lot to do with the work that we have been doing in Yunnan, so we had a lot of experiences to share."

One of the more popular exhibits at Yunfest was Photovoice, a project in which TNC gave cameras to villagers from northwest Yunnan to document their lives and the places where they live. Many of the camera recipients, who ranged in age from children to septuagenarians, had never used a camera before. The result was a unique first-hand documentation and narration of the social and environmental changes the region has experienced in recent years.

Aside from new Chinese documentaries, Yunfest also featured classic documentaries from Japan and the US, providing the audience a first-hand look at the stark contrast in styles between China's nascent documentary scene and its more developed foreign counterparts.

American documentarian and author Carma Hinton, who spent her early childhood in post-revolution China, wowed the audience with her fluent Mandarin Chinese as she translated her 1982 film All Under Heaven, a look at the traditions of rural China after the Cultural Revolution and a few years into the launch of the country's open and reform policies.

After her film's screening, Hinton related to the audience the difficulties of making an objective documentary in rural China in the early 1980s. Hinton also described the rejection of her film by many China scholars in the US.

"They were disappointed that I chose to show what they considered an ugly face of China," Hinton said.

For the audience, the film was a rare opportunity to look back on a time when their lives and their country were vastly different.

Twenty-three year old Pan Qi, who grew up in the countryside in eastern China's Jiangsu province, said Hinton's film was the most accurate representation she had seen of China in the 1980s.

"There were many things in this film that were exactly how I remember my early childhood," Pan said.

Yunfest's very existence illustrates the major changes that have taken place during Pan's life, especially in terms of access to media and information for the average Chinese.

"Back then in most villages there was usually only one family with a television. Everybody in the village would go to that family's house just to look."

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