Unearthing the Past: From Independent Filmmaking to Social Change

Wu Wenguang, considered the father of independent Chinese documentary film, has since 2005 slowly but surely been handing over the camera to people on the margins and to younger generations of Chinese documentary filmmaking. In 2010 Wu and Caochangdi Workstation initiated the Folk Memory Documentary Project, where young filmmakers go to the countryside to gather and document memories of the Great Famine (1959-1961) from elderly villagers.


Wu Wenguang introduces his film "Treatment".

Wu Wenguang introduces his film “Treatment”.

Bumming in Beijing

Wu Wenguang is known as one of the first to make independent documentaries in China. His first documentary film, Bumming in Beijing – The Last Dreamers, aired in 1990 and soon after the film toured the international film festival circuits. Wu started out in 1988 filming five artists, a writer, some painters and a theatre director all involved in the production of art on the edge of Chinese society. The artists had, for the most part, no Beijing registration and they stayed with friends or in shabby courtyard houses on the outskirts of Beijing close to the old summer palace while trying to practice their art in the China of the late 1980s. Only one of the five artists portrayed in the film remained in Beijing, by 1990 the other four had left China to pursue their dreams elsewhere in the world.  Wu’s documentary was the first in China to give the characters of a documentary a space to voice their concerns and dreams of the future, letting the narratives of their stories weave together presenting lives on the edge of Beijing, both figuratively and literally.

For the next ten years, Wu produced several documentaries concerned with people living on the margins of Chinese society and films related to sensitive historical issues. Meanwhile, he toured the international film festivals and presented and discussed his work with international filmmakers and audience. In 2000, when he again found himself at an international film festival and was yet again asked the question: What will your next film be about? Wu realized that he was not interested in ‘the next topic’, making ‘the next film’ or filmmaking in general for that matter. What he wanted was to make change possible by creating the conditions for change in people.  Wu believed the camera could be instrumental in this process: by giving people the opportunity to record and re-experience their lives through the lens of the camera, there was maybe a possibility of creating awareness of the marginalized person’s own position and thereby a possibility to empower this person.

Initial steps

The initial steps in the direction towards engaging in possible social change were taken in 2001, when Wu and the dance choreographer Wen Hui made the performance and documentary film Dance with Farm Workers. 40 migrant workers, originally from Sichuan Province, were hired to be part of a dance performance in collaboration with Wen Hui’s international dance troupe. Nine days of rehearsing culminated in a public dance performance which took place in an old, empty factory in Beijing. The process was intended to establish a relationship between the people who build the city (the migrant workers) and the people living in the city (in this case the dancers and documentarists), while it also directed attention to the poor conditions migrant workers often worked under and the local urbanities prejudice towards them.

Even though the intentions were sympathetic, and the film features moments of sincere interaction between the migrant workers and the dancers, the performance still seemed to reproduce an existing hierarchical relationship between migrant workers and urbanities. The workers remained workers in this new context. Nevertheless, Dance with Farm Workers represented a new attitude in Wu Wenguang’s documentaries moving towards a more engaging kind of filmmaking.

Handing over the camera – the Village Documentary Project

In 2005 Wu Wenguang initiated the Village Documentary Project – an EU-funded initiative projected to document the village self-governance system introduced in the 1990s with democratic elections at village level. Instead of going to the countryside himself, Wu decided to hand over the camera to the villagers themselves. The idea was that the villagers, by looking at their own community through the lens of a camera, would see the community with fresh eyes and reach another level of awareness. Wu advertised nationally for villagers willing to participate in the pioneering project and in the end ten villagers from all over China were chosen. They were given a camera and taught to use it through intensive workshops at Wu Wenguang’s Caochangdi Workstation in the north eastern corner of Beijing. Each villager made a film which related to the village self-governance system in their own village. The ten villager films feature very different perspectives on and circumstances for democratic elections in rural China, presenting diverse rural communities full of good-will, corruption, laughing children, misunderstandings, close relationships, stubborn village elders, younger generations with new views on society and in some cases seemingly democratic elections in village China. Wu Wenguang has with the Village Documentary Project taken a step back in order to provide a platform for the villagers from where it is possible to transgress social barriers and present rural problematics to a greater audience.

Collecting memories – The Folk Memory Documentary Project

Building on the experiences from the Village Documentary Project, the Folk Memory Documentary Project was initiated in 2010. Young people, some still in school and some recent university graduates, were engaged to go to the countryside to gather and document the memories of the Great Famine from 1959-1961 from elderly villagers, telling the previously untold stories of the millions who died because of the famine. Most young people in China today are taught that the famine was caused by natural disasters and debt to the Soviet Union, a narrative the filmmakers and the villagers come to question once they unearth the memories of the people. Each of the young filmmakers went to a village with which they had a personal connection, either they were born there themselves, their parents or grandparents had grown up there or a family member had been sent there as ‘sent down youth’ during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). The young filmmakers spend three months every winter in each their village collecting memories of the troubled and agonizing years of the great famine and being part of the rural community. The interviews with the elderly villagers are used in the documentaries and are gathered in a memory archive at Caochangdi Workstation.

At Lund University. From left to right: Zou Xueping Wu Wenguang Zhang Mengqi and Shu Qiao

While the young people are in the villages to shoot their documentaries they are advised by Wu Wenguang and Caochangdi Workstation to set up small scale, socially engaged projects. The young filmmaker Zou Xueping organized screenings of the Folk Memory Project films and arranged garbage collecting activities, to address one of the more pressing problems in many Chinese villages. Another participant of the project, Zhang Mengqi, made a public library to make books more accessible in the village and to create a place for sharing. A third participant, Shu Qiao, raised funds for a monument to commemorate those who died during the great famine, a way to create awareness in the village of the wrongdoings of the past. Furthermore, he engaged a school class (11-12 year olds) and had them collect and document the memories of their village elders. In this way, the memories of the great famine were transferred to younger generations and thus seized to be the taboo it had previously been. These films collects memories of a forgotten past of suffering and a the same time document young people’s journey into this past as they rediscover themselves through a process of interaction and engagement in an effort to dissolve taboos and traumas of the past.

With the Folk Memory Project, Wu Wenguang has handed over the camera to villagers and young people of China using the camera as a tool of unearthing the unknown and of transforming the present by rewriting history.

Mai Corlin


Wu Wenguang and the three young filmmakers Zou Xueping, Zhang Mengqi and Shu Qiao visited Lund University, Nordic Institute of Asian Studies (NIAS) and University of Copenhagen in April 2013 where they presented Caochangdi Workstation’s Folk Memory Documentary Project. Most of the films of the project can be viewed for a small fee on China Independent Documentary Film Archive: www.cidfa.com. For more about Caochangdi Workstation please visit their website www.ccdworkstation.com.


Mai Corlin is enrolled as PhD student at Aarhus University, Department of Culture and Society, Asia Section. Her project is entitled Utopian Imaginaries in Rural Reconstruction – Urban Activists in Rural China and is concerned with socially engaged art in the countryside of China.



Wu Wenguang presents the Folk Memory Documentary Project “Memory: Hunger – Protest Amnesia through Documentary and Theater”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pA9DVwbatJY

 Clip from Bumming in Beijing – The Last Dreamers:


 Clip from Dance with Farm Workers:



Nordkorea og os: Farcen at græde i kor – bag om mediedækningen

 Af Ida Zidore, medlem af U-landsnyt.dk’s redaktion og MA of Journalism and Media.
This article was published in Ulandsnyt.dk on Thursday 22 December 2011.

Nordkoreas “Kære Leder” er død. Tilsyneladende er historier om grådkvalte studieværter og Kim Jong-Ils feticher nogle af de mest interessante for de danske nyhedsmedier.

Hvis der er noget, vi danskere ikke er opdraget til, er det at tilbede despotiske ledere og totalitære systemer. Der skal være plads til det rimelige og det sandhedssøgende.

Og fremfor alt skal der være plads til det enkelte menneske.

Mediernes parodiske fremstilling af Nordkorea i disse dage trykker på nogle farlige knapper. Hvis man ikke allerede havde fordomme liggende om nordkoreanere som en flok imbecile verdensbenægtere, kan man hurtigt få dem.

Det kan undre, at farcerne får lov at dominere mediebilledet. For hvor sandhedssøgende og væsentlig er nu egentlig dén form for journalistik?

Selvom der også foreligger politiske analyser og kommentarer til lederskiftet, er vigtige elementer udeladt fra dækningen. Den nordkoreanske befolkning fremstår aldrig som andet end en identitetløs og grinagtig masse.

Det er ikke helt ufarligt. Sprog og billeder skaber distance, så farcerne får en konsekvens.

En identitetsløs flok

I mit kandidatspeciale undersøgte jeg, hvordan fjendebilleder af Nordkorea bliver skabt gennem sprogbrug i vestlige medier. Helt konkret undersøgte jeg en række lederartikler bragt i Politiken, The Guardian og The New York Times i løbet af år 2010.

I artiklerne var befolkningen stort set aldrig fremstillet som andet end identitetsløs – og derfor tenderende til ligegyldig – masse. Noget af det samme synes at have gjort sig gældende i de danske medier siden mandag.

Det er klart, at Nordkorea er et særligt tilfælde for journalister. Bare at komme ind i landet som reporter kan som bekendt være en udfordring. Men gengivelsen af de officielle nordkoreanske billeder af grædekor er stadig et valg, der ikke kun kan skyldes manglen på alternativ kildemateriale. Mange nordkoreanere lever i eksil, men kommer sjældent til orde.

Pointen er, at når de grinagtige billeder af befolkningen ikke får en modvægt, skabes distance. Set i et humanitært perspektiv er det ikke helt ligegyldigt. Distancen får nemlig konsekvenser. Kim Jong-Ils død går ind i rækken af episoder, der medvirker til et afstumpet billede af et helt land.

Ifølge FN er omkring 6 millioner mennesker i Nordkorea lige nu ramt af hungersnød. Det er måske ikke tilfældigt, at der ikke løftes mange danske øjenbryn. For hvem bekymrer sig om de, der ingen identitet har?

Den gamle “vi mod dem”

Ifølge mit speciale har distancen rødder i et sprogligt forsimplet modsætningsforhold mellem Nordkorea på den ene side og den vestlige verden på den anden.

Flere steder i lederartiklerne forekom det, at en underliggende præmis var et lighedstegn mellem ordene ‘Vesten’, ‘os’, ‘vi’ og tilmed ‘Verden’ på den ene side, og ordene ‘de’ og ‘Nordkorea’ på den anden.

Man kan vel næppe forvente, at læserne skal kunne identificere sig med andre end “vi i Verden”? Nordkorea bliver altså hurtigt en fremmet størrelse.

Der er nu ikke noget nyt i den dikotomi. Modsætningsforholdet er et sprogligt levn fra den Kolde Krig, hvor den kommunistiske blok blev portrætteret i medierne som den ‘Frie Verdens’ onde alter ego.

I det hele taget findes der adskillige historiske eksempler på, at binære modsætninger i sproget har været brugt til at skabe eller fastholde fjendebilleder.

Den græske historiker Herodot beskrev allerede omkring år 450 f.v.t. fjenden i Orienten som den direkte modsætning til den suveræne græker. Fjenden var portrætteret som irrationel, svag, tom og fremmet. Ikke langt fra det billede af Nordkorea, min analyse viste.

At præmissen stadig gør sig gældende i en tid, hvor liberale, vestlige medier hævder at være neutrale og upartiske, kan være forstemmende. Ligesom det kan være forstemmende at være vidne til den unuancerede og farceagtige dækning af Kim Jong-Ils død i disse dage.

Episoden gør det bare endnu mere aktuelt at fastholde den tåkrummende banale pointe, at det vi ser er billeder og forestillinger. Det er ikke sandheden. Der bor 23 millioner mennesker i Nordkorea.

Når fjenden bliver et umenneske

At Mission Øst er den eneste danske nødhjælpsorganisation, der uddeler mad i det sultramte land, kan være tankevækkende.

Generalsekretær Kim Hartzner har udtalt, at hungersnøden er en af verdens mest oversete katastrofer. Nordkoreanerne har desperat behov for hjælp.

Men humanitær bistand forudsætter jo helt grundlæggende en bevidsthed. Social, politisk eller økonomisk. Derfor må første skridt mod hjælp være bevidstheden om, at nordkoreanere er andet end en “ond, identitetsløse masse”.

Man danner sin egen sandhed på baggrund af det, man ser og hører. Lige siden verdens første krigskorrespondent William Howard Russell rapporterede fra Krim-krigen har journalister vidst, at vinkling betyder alt, når parterne i en konflikt kommer til orde.

Samtidig er umenneskeliggørelse via sproglig praksis helt grundlæggende for dannelsen af fjendebilleder.

I de artikler, jeg analyserede, blev Nordkorea – bevidst eller ubevidst – fremstillet som overvejende utroværdig, barbarisk, destruktiv og irrationel. Det modsatte af det ‘gode’. Menneskelighed var helt udelukket.

I disse dage kan danskerne primært se det nordkoreanske folk som en farce af et grædekor. Det er ligeså forsimplet og farligt.

Ida Zidore er uddannet MA i Journalism and Media within Globalization: the European Perspective fra Swansea University, Universiteit van Amsterdam, Danmarks Medie- og Journalisthøjskole og Aarhus Universitet. D. 15. December bestod hun sit afsluttende speciale Beyond the Enemy: North Korea and Iran in Western Newspapers.

Chinese Internet: The Sixth Chinese Internet Research Conference in Hong Kong

Jesper Schlaeger Master of Political Science, Copenhagen University (jesper.schlaeger@gmail.com)

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Guangzhou, 16 June

The sixth Chinese Internet Research Conference (CIRC http://www.circ.asia) convened on 13-14 June 2008 in Hong Kong, China. This year’s theme was: “Myth and Reality”. Maybe not a very innovative conference title, yet nonetheless it still seems to be necessary to weed out misunderstandings and exaggerated accounts of the hypothesized effects of the internet as a harbinger of social and political change in China.

The conference revealed a reserach community still struggling with the methodological and methodical challenges of moving to ‘cyber-soil’. Several survey studies had been conducted but they face serious challenges as far as validity is concerned.

A need for more critical approaches was espoused by Bu Wei. She had conducted a very impressive litterature review in order to find out, which methodologies and which research objects the previous research on Chinese internet applies. Among the important conclusions were that studies of accessibility (for handicapped people), gender etc. were underprioritized. Methodically there was an overweight of pre-scientific ‘guestimations’, yet as Bu’s study also showed there were several positive tendencies, as the later part of the sample included more studies based on sound social science methodology.

Exciting grounded theory based research was presented by Peter Marolt, whose PhD dissertation on geographical aspects of blogging will be forthcoming in about half a year.

A study of broad interest is Jens Damm’s analysis of the Chinese diaspora – an analysis of centuries of identity creation among Chinese emigrants of which the paper presented at the conference is only one of the chapters.

Jiang Min presented a paper on ‘authoritarian deliberation’ which resounded the discussions of ‘consultative authoritarianism’ this time moved into cyberspace. Definitely an interesting contribution to the discussion of public spaces, and a useful pointing out, that the internet enables a higher degree of public participation in political and social matters in China.

A lot of research attention is given to the ‘blogosphere’ where assertions of political dissent are quite widespread even though always downplaying direct critique and instead using more subtle ways of communicating disagreement. A number of prominent Chinese bloggers and internet media people participated in the panels which gave rise to a good debate and mutual learning between scholars and practitioners. For people interested in the Chinese blogosphere – but not proficient in Chinese – Roland Soong’s blog is a good place to get up-to-date (http://www.zonaeuropa.com).

The papers and presentation slides should be available on the conference website www.circ.asia.