New Docs from Old Shanghai
A young mother brings her newborn baby into the city from the countryside. With her last few dollars, she checks into a cheap hotel and asks the whereabouts of the district court. She's come to find the father of her illegitimate child and sue him for child support. The ensuing battle between the desperate mother and the recalcitrant father, in and out of court, has all the essential elements of a melodrama. Yet this is not a daytime soap. It's a real-life story that happened in Shanghai in 1993. And, thanks to Shanghai TV's progressive documentary unit, we have it on videotape in a documentary called Maomao Goes to Court.
Up until a few years ago, the only documentary films you would expect to come out of China were political propaganda films or maybe a few safely sanitized travelogues. But as Chinese society changes at the pace of an erupting volcano, Chinese TV stations are starting to spew out real documentaries that not only are topping the ratings in China but are getting attention at international festivals. Something just short of a revolution (dare I use the word?) is taking place in Chinese documentary videomaking, and Shanghai TV is on the front lines.
Recently I had the opportunity to visit Shanghai TV and meet with some of the folks in their documentary film unit. Walking from the low-rise facilities they haven't quite moved out of and across the parking lot into the spacious skyscraper they haven't quite moved into yet was like dissolving from the 1940s to the middle of the next century. I talked to Liu Jingqi, who has been head of documentary production at Shanghai TV for many years. Although from the old guard, he's an astute executive, a survivor of bad times making up for lost time with big plans for Shanghai TV's international Documentary Production Unit. He told me about the changes that are now making it possible—even essential—for them to make films that people really want to watch, now that they have to make a profit based on advertising. This has become easier since today they can take on topics that were once considered taboo. No, they can't produce POV-type films that might challenge the supremacy of the Chinese Communist Party or portray the Dalai Lama as a hero. But there are lots of other subjects, mainly in the "human interest" category, that have kept them extremely busy since things began to loosen up about three years ago.
I watched a selection of Shanghai TV's nonfiction works and quickly discovered that some exciting things are happening in the development of the Chinese documentary. From the last of the Shanghai trishaw drivers to the exam hell of Chinese high school students to a mating service for the elderly to the plight of Chinese students in Japan to some even more controversial topics (described below), it became clear that the Chinese are now producing films that fly in the dogmatic face of what the word documentary has meant in China for more than 40 years. What is both new and surprising is the filmmakers' willingness to show that life is sometimes not so pretty in the people's paradise. Intriguing in their intimacy, these programs present slices of daily life and portraits of ordinary people that touch on some sensitive social issues.
Unemployed is a candid view of how the move to a market economy has thrown hundreds of thousands of Chinese citizens out of work. It features a job fair in which hordes of hopefuls search the bulletin boards and go through the grueling process of looking for a livelihood outside the protection of the iron rice bowl. We hear the sad stories of several workers who keep losing their jobs through no fault of their own. The manager of a corduroy factory laments that he had to lay off hundreds of workers because his factory was antiquated and therefore unprofitable. After all, it's now a market economy. One woman who got laid off decided to invest her meager savings into a small shop; eventually she started a consultancy helping others to do the same. Times are changing, this film seems to say, and the changes are often painful.
The Big Move is about the thousands of people who are forced to resettle to make way for a major expressway through the heart of Shanghai. It shows the real-life traumas of families who suffer from the displacement, real tears and anguish and drama as everyone packs up their furniture and heads to uncertain lives in government housing. It reminds me of some of the films I used to make for the Singapore government-subtle propaganda posing as documentaries. When an authoritarian government is planning to do something they know will upset a lot of people, they commission a documentary that airs people's concerns, but it always ends with the inevitable conclusion that, despite the inconvenience, everyone has to fall in line for the overall good of society.
A genuinely touching and unusual story with no discernable propaganda intent is Reunion Day, about a man who returns to China from Taiwan to see his wife, whom he hadn't seen for 40 years. She's now remarried to a man 20 years her senior, a crusty geriatric in blue peasant garb who naturally objects to this whole reunion business. Originally intended as a quickie news item shot at the airport, Reunion Day develops into a documentary when the video crew follows the love triangle to the family's poor home in a narrow Shanghai lane. The Betacam becomes a teapot on the table as years of pent-up bitterness come out on all sides. The Taiwan husband, who has incredibly bad taste in shirts, insists on taking his long-lost wife back to Taiwan with him. She wants to go, but only with her second husband's approval, since she doesn't want to be left out of his will. Strangely, an unusual affection develops between the two men as they try to work out some sort of compromise. In the middle of all this, the geriatric bid for a government flat comes through, and she badgers him to will half of it to her—but they suddenly remember that they were never officially married. So they drag the codger down to the court to get married and then quickly divorced (is this plot thickening?) only to find out that, due to a bureaucratic technicality, he can't will anything to her unless they are still living together. You wonder what they're really arguing about, since none of the three seems to be an especially good catch. Finally they agree that the first husband will return to Taiwan, and the bitter woman will join him after her 84-year-old husband dies. The only major flaw in the film is that they really milk it at the end, stop motion, freeze frames and all, when the woman tearfully sees her long-lost love off at the airport.
Now that Shanghai TV can afford to send its crews far afield, a distant news item sometimes develops into a documentary. For example, in the summer of 1994, when crews went to cover the floods that ravaged Hunan, they came across a man and his son who insisted on taking their unmotorized boat up the flooded river in spite of the obvious dangers of such a journey. The boatman tells them he's simply got to go upriver to pick up their cargo or he will lose a week's earnings, a prospect devastating for anyone living at subsistence level. You might call this a Chinese river version of The Old Man and the Sea. No sharks. Just a man and his son against the mighty rushing river. And a Betacam crew covering it all with some of the most beautiful camerawork I've ever seen. In The Boatman, the camera is everywhere: in front of the boat, behind the boat, on the steep bank as the boat passes by, in the bottom of the boat looking up at the boatman, following inches behind the boat man's sinewy legs as he pushes thigh deep against the rapids. Finally they reach their destination, a sand bank where the man and his son fill their boat full of the precious cargo-a pile of dark sand that is apparently in great demand for construction.
If you think it was a heroic feat for the boatman, then what about the TV crew who not only had to take their own boat up but also shoot the documentary? The cameraman on The Boatman was Li Xiao, a tough, lanky fellow who learned about deprivation when he was banished to the countryside during the Cultural Revolution. A stint in the Chinese navy didn't make him any softer. He told me about the difficulties of the nine-day boat trip into this rugged remote region. They often had to rush ahead of the other boat, then scramble up steep, slippery banks with all their gear to get shots of him passing by, then play catch-up again, over and over again. It was a miracle that the Betacam continued to operate in the off-and-on rain. They were concentrating so much on the shooting, he recalled, that they forgot to bring along enough food, although there was plenty of water to drink.
Li Xiao and his colleagues at Shanghai TV are responsible for some memorable videography. Although not big on interior lighting, they make creative use of natural light. They have a knack for unusual compositions that seem to capture the moment, compositions that are both aesthetically pleasing and have meaning: a low-angle shot of the strained face of the boatman with oars crossing in the foreground, a sneak shot of the Taiwan husband handing a soft drink to his geriatric competitor, a closeup on the distraught young mother who, in the middle of an interview, turns to her child with a loving look that no actress could duplicate.
By the way, three-month-old Maomao got her day in court, in the arms of her extremely determined mother, and they won the case, sort of. Producer Wang Wenli got the arrogant alleged father to state his case on camera. Swaggering even while sitting at the table, he comes off as a prime specimen of the male chauvinist pig. He insists that there is no way he could be the father, that the young woman is just a golddigger, and he couldn't afford to pay anything anyway since he's been laid off from his factory job. Just about the time you want to throttle him, he gets up and leaves, first reaching for his crutches. As he makes his way out of the room, the camera tilts down to reveal his deformity from the waist down. Anyway, they do a DNA test and prove that only he could be the father. In the tiny empty courtroom the couple sit on opposite ends of the same bench, not looking at one another. The mother insists on 60 yuan a month. He says he can only afford 30 yuan, and they proceed to haggle with the judge over what amounts to U.S. $4 a month.
After the decision—50 yuan a month—by a judge who doesn't look much older than the mother, producer Wang Wenli (in a move for which she has been criticized in the Chinese press) takes the little bundle of life from its mother's arms and presents it to the father. "Aren't you happy to be the father of such a beautiful baby?" It's the first he actually looks at her. The camera keeps rolling. Long pause. Then the man completely loses it. Tough guy is reduced to a blubbering gush of tears.
This is the stuff that compelling documentaries are made of. Exploitative? Yes, as all documentaries are to a certain extent. Propagandistic? Sometimes, indirectly. Free to express? Within certain limitations. Liu Jinqi, Li Xiao, Wang Wenli, and the others at Shanghai TV have created what I'm sure will come to be known as the "Shanghai School" of documentary filmmaking. They don't set out to make beautiful films like National Geographic nor hard-hitting films on controversial issues that you would expect to see on PBS or public access TV. What they do make are meaningful narratives about real people leading drab lives in a sometimes cruel society. Their unique style is a cross between the early French cinema verite and today's American reality TV, but without the pretentiousness of the former and with much more depth than the latter. What is striking is their intimacy, their ability to probe deep into people's private lives and reveal certain truths about the state of society or the human condition without having to actually say anything.
But before we get too excited, let's put things into perspective. This is not a Chinese grassroots independent filmmaking movement. This is a large regional TV station whose infrastructure has been provided by the Chinese government and which has been given a new mandate by the government-to earn money-along with some new but limited freedoms. It is this unusual situation of being able to enjoy the weight of government authority combined with the wider parameters that has allowed a station like Shanghai TV to barge into people's lives, cameras rolling, and capture their most candid moments without having to be too terribly concerned about individuals' rights. (Can you imagine what would happen if a video crew in, say, New York descended upon a local hotel and asked for the young mother staying there with her illegitimate child and the desk clerk actually got the key and showed them to her room? The lawyers would love it.)
As long as conditions remain favorable for Shanghai TV and the other Chinese quasi-government stations that are following their lead, and as they get richer from increasing advertising revenue, we should expect to see more award-winning documentaries of the "Shanghai School" coming out of the new and ever-changing China, as it continues to evolve, inevitably, in the Chinese way.
IDA regional board member Len McClure is an award-winning Documentary filmmaker based in Hong Kong.