China Now: Independent Visions
Cinema on the Edge Global Tour
San Francisco (various locations)
November 19-22, 2015

Pace Godard, “The problem is not to make political films but to make films politically.” Like any aphorism worth its salt, this one is liable to mean different things to different people. In China today, for instance, an independent film is intrinsically a political act. There, unlike here, “independent cinema” means something quite specific: unsanctioned by the government and thus confined to a grassroots network of festivals, art galleries, campus screenings, and online hubs. These venues were integral to the explosion of independent cinema following the game-changing proliferation of cheap DV cameras in the early 2000s. Much of this work is hard-hitting in both form and content, but one imagines that the Chinese government is less concerned with aesthetics than occasions for assembly and critical inquiry. Exhibition venues are especially exposed, leading to the unfortunate, if all too familiar, situation in which work intended for a domestic audience is easier to access outside the country. A big part of the value of a traveling program like China Now: Independent Visions, beyond spotlighting films of note, lies in drawing attention to this social context.

Still from "Egg and Stone," 2012. Dir. Huang Ji. Courtesy of Cinema on the Edge

Still from “Egg and Stone,” 2012. Dir. Huang Ji. Courtesy of Cinema on the Edge.

San Francisco Cinematheque, the Center for Asian American Media, and Yerba Buena Center for the Arts are hosting an eclectic five-program sampling of the larger series. Egg and Stone is the weekend’s only feature-length narrative, and it radiates anger in spite of its minimalist narration. Shot in the same rural village where writer-director Huang Ji was herself sexually abused as a child, the film outlines a girl’s troubled coming-of-age with patience and precision. Darkly glowing tableaus give form to trauma’s haunting afterlife, taboos be damned.

Still from Ping'an Yueqing, 2011. Dir. Ai Weiwei. Courtesy of Cinema on the Edge.

Still from Ping’an Yueqing, 2011. Dir. Ai Weiwei. Courtesy of Cinema on the Edge.

More squarely in the realm of social activism is Ping’An Yueqing (2011), a fine example of the kind of hard-nosed documentaries produced by Ai Weiwei’s studio. The film stages a citizen’s investigation into the death of Qian Yunhui, a village representative who advocated for locals in land disputes with the government. The government claims his grisly death was a traffic accident—he was run over by a truck—while many of the villagers believe it was murder.

What gradually becomes clear from Ping’An Yueqing’s dizzying merry-go-round of interviews is that this central mystery will remain unresolved so long as the facts of the case remain hidden from view. In the absence of any definitive account, the film floods the viewer with information—itself a radical gesture given the suppressive context in which it was made. Considered next to a polished activist documentary like Citizenfour (2014), Ping’An Yueqing’s rejection of a clear narrative arc is even more striking than its marked lack of concern for any kind of surface gloss. As Weiwei told China Now: Independent Visions co-organizer J.P. Sniadecki in in a 2011 interview for Cinema Scope, “The most important thing is to record, the second most important thing is to record, and the third most important thing is to record.” To wit, shot after shot of villagers refusing to speak to the camera for fear of being abducted by the police constitutes its own kind of testimony. Unapologetically mired in conflicting accounts and intimidation tactics, Ping’An Yueqing does eventually zoom out to consider the broader controversies of China’s land reforms—but it retains the disorderly urgency of Weiwei’s flares against the Great Firewall.

Still from "Yumen," 2013. Dir. Huang Xiang, Xu Ruotao, and J.P. Sniadecki. Courtesy of Cinema on the Edge

Still from Yumen, 2013. Dir. Huang Xiang, Xu Ruotao, and J.P. Sniadecki. Courtesy of Cinema on the Edge.

Co-directed by Sniadecki with Chinese artist-filmmakers Huang Xiang and Xu Ruotao, Yumen (2013) is the kind collaborative, genre-bending work that signals a vital art scene. The film is remarkable for being shot on 16mm, a medium largely held by the state, but one entirely fitting for the film’s search for lost time. At first glance, Yumen appears to be a conventional landscape film shot in an abandoned oil town, but its deck comes packed with jokers. Documentary exteriors of ruins lead to expressionistic interiors; pop music unexpectedly flits across the soundtrack; historical testimony is intercut with ghost stories; and two solitary figures wandering the ruins are occasionally given to performance art in the same way that characters in a musical burst into song. In one such passage, the camera leads a young woman through an open-air market as she sings along to Bruce Springsteen’s My Hometown, the song’s all-American nostalgia doubly displaced in China’s rust belt. More hauntology than history, Yumen’s layered evocations of the past continue to reverberate long after the end credits.

Still from I'm Not Not Not Chen Zhou, 2013. Dir. Chen Zhou. Courtesy of Cinema on the Edge

Still from I’m Not Not Not Chen Zhou, 2013. Dir. Chen Zhou. Courtesy of Cinema on the Edge

Among the short films sprinkled across the weekend, a clear standout is Chen Zhou’s very yellow I’m Not Not Not Chen Zhou (2013). The piece originated as a gallery installation, but its philosophical slapstick more than merits theatrical presentation. Playfully incorporating politically resonant themes into its anything-goes narrative sketches, the film underlines the necessity of irony as a sense-making tool. Significantly more austere is Dismantling Clematis #16 (2014), a closely observed documentation of a tree surgeon’s painstaking work to extricate a burned bonsai tree from its wire supports. The concept wears a little thin by film’s end, but it yields an undeniably resonant metaphor for the delicate task facing advocates of China’s closely monitored, and increasingly circumscribed, independent film scene.