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Remember to Tell the Truth

Young Chinese Filmmakers Return to the Countryside to Exhume a Buried Past

The recording of memory brings history to life and creates a legacy of its own. In 2010, documentary filmmaker Wu Wenguang launched the Memory Project to try to shine a light on the long-shrouded memories of one of modern China’s most traumatic episodes—the famine of 1958-1961.

For the past two years, working from a base in an arts district in suburban Beijing, Wu has dispatched young filmmakers back to their rural hometowns to collect the oral histories of famine survivors. But the project is not only about recovering history. “Children in the city forget about life in the village,” says Wu, whose project is designed to forge inter-generational connections between young filmmakers and a painful national history too often glossed over by official accounts.

For the young documentarians involved, almost all of whom attended college and now live in cities worlds away from their family villages, returning home to interview elderly villagers is more than an exercise in historical research—it’s a struggle to reconcile the official history taught in China’s schools with each family’s experience of what really happened. It’s a stutter-step toward understanding a nation’s evolution.

“It’s often hard to differentiate between our two selves, the filmmakers and the social workers” - Wu Wenguang

By incubating films that record a tragic chapter of China’s political past, the Memory Project also makes a significant contribution to a new phase in China’s cinematic evolution. During Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward (1958-1961) and the subsequent Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), Chinese filmmaking was highly restricted and used largely as a means to deliver state propaganda. With the advent of political reforms announced in 1978, China’s film culture began a rapid evolution. Filmmaking morphed from an instrument of the state into a medium that spawned a diverse industry, giving rise to the careers of everybody from the well-known “fifth generation” directors Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige, to filmmakers operating in a wholly independent sphere. Prominent within this independent landscape is the New Documentary Movement, of which Wu is a key member.

Wu, widely considered the godfather of modern Chinese independent documentary film, is a director and educator long preoccupied with how Chinese youth get by in an atmosphere of constant change. In 1990, his debut film, Bumming in Beijing: The Last Dreamers, Wu portrayed with unprecedented candor the attitudes of young Chinese in the wake of a failed push for democracy in Tiananmen Square in 1989.

Zou Xueping
Assistants from Zou’s village who aided the filmmaker in interviewing elderly survivors of the famine and raising funds for a memorial to commemorate those who starved to death from 1958-1961.

The Memory Project extends the youthful exploration of Wu’s own early films to a new generation. Now in his late fifties, he continues to engage China’s youth by placing cameras directly into the hands of filmmakers in their late twenties, who are too young to remember the upheaval of 1989. Wu attempts to reconnect young Memory Project filmmakers with history, and also pushes for transparent and creative storytelling in Chinese documentary film.

In 2010, Wu’s small army of amateurs returned for the first time to their hometowns to collect accounts of a time when the widespread food shortage and starvation that accompanied the Great Leap Forward caused the premature deaths of between 15 million and 40 million people (official numbers fall at the low end of that range). 

In an attempt to bring firsthand accounts of this horror to the world, Wu and a few of his student filmmakers screened their films at the 6th Reel China Film Biennale at New York University in October. It was the Memory Project’s second visit to New York, but the first with the directors present, introducing their work and interacting with audiences throughout the United States.

In 2011, when Wu alone presented the films at NYU for the first time, director Zhang Mengqi’s first film, Self-Portrait with Three Women, turned heads. This year at NYU, Zhang was proud to introduce in person her sophomore effort, Self-Portrait at 47 Km. “This room recognizes me, even though I don’t recognize the room,” Zhang, 25, said with a smile.

For Zhang and her fellow directors, Luo Bing (Luo Village: Pitiless Earth and Sky) and Zou Xueping (Children’s Village), traveling half the globe to present their films to a live audience has been but one part of their ongoing effort to coax the world into a better understanding of what China has been through to get where it is today.

In producing her two previous films, The Hungry Village and The Satiated Village, Zou Xueping, 27, returned to the place she was raised in east China’s Shandong province, drawing out her grandparents’ and her elderly neighbors’ stories of suffering and endurance in a time when some people ate tree bark to survive.

Even as Zou has connected with the stories of the past, her own filmmaking journey has been fraught with obstacles. Facing initial reluctance from suspicious villagers and her own parents’ misgivings only strengthened Zou’s resolve to use her camera as a tool to engage with the village. “If anything in my identity has changed in the past few years, it’s that my identity has gradually become more and more wrapped up the village,” she said. “The old people and I have slowly grown to understand one another. I now have a totally different understanding of Chinese history and where I come from.”

In a China where youth flock to big cities in droves seeking jobs and excitement, rural villages become virtual ghost towns of an ebbing elderly population. But the Memory Project forces the inter-generational engagement that once was a cornerstone of village life but today is often reduced to brief annual visits home during Chinese New Year.

“Most people my age, with the exception of my [Memory Project] peers, are just concerned with other things like making money,” said Zou. In her third film, Children’s Village, Zou gathers a group of kids to assist in the collection of their village elders’ memories. On screen, she and the children wander dusty streets seeking tales of plight and strength and raising funds for a monument to those who starved to death. From the get-go, Wu and other New Documentary Movement filmmakers used inexpensive digital cameras to capture stories from the fringes of Chinese society either ignored or suppressed by the mainstream. In going against the grain, lines began and continue to blur. Determined to use film as a means to improve village life, Zou embodies her mentor Wu’s early pronouncement: “It’s often hard to differentiate between our two selves, the filmmakers and the social workers.”

Director Luo Bing, 26, is similarly conflicted. His second film, Luo Village: Pitiless Earth and Sky, picks up where his debut, Luo Village: Ren Dingqi and Me, left off. Both chronicle his attempts to unearth and publish his elderly neighbor’s famine memoir.

In a discussion at NYU, Luo addressed the tension between his objectives as a director and personal involvement in village life, his commitment to documentary film sometimes clashing with his stake in the village that shares his family name. A particularly arresting scene in the second film shows a village house in flames. Luo’s camera calmly records the blaze from a nearby field. “That fire made me realize my place in the village,” Luo said “I made the decision to film the fire, rather than to help. I’m still just an onlooker.”

Because its films focus on the tragedies of the past—rather than on prickly contemporary issues—The Memory Project thus far largely has been spared official censure by government agencies typically prone to clamp down on content deemed embarrassing to the ruling Chinese Communist Party. But the climate for documentary film in China remains tenuous and any widespread distribution of Memory Project films in China is unlikely.

Even for those whose involved in the films, concerns often arise. Many are still unaccustomed to documentary not used as propaganda. Some say the films reflect poorly on China’s villages and the CCP. Others express wariness of the directors’ own politics. “Best not to air anyone’s dirty linens in public,” cautions one member of Luo Village, staring into Luo’s camera.

Some of the elderly subjects struggle to hear and speak. Some have died since the directors first found them in 2010. But the Memory Project lives on. Even as it records stories that are fading, the project’s films are capturing lives still unfolding. Zou, who has plans to return to her village a fourth time, camera in hand, says,“I feel like I’m just beginning.”

Wu has inspired his proteges to reconcile their own histories with their place in society and the possibility of filmmaking as a career. Zhang’s emotional series of Self-Portraits question her own identity. The first, an intimate investigation of the women in her family told through archival footage, interviews, and dance performance, contrasts starkly with the follow-up, Self Portrait at 47 Km, a frustrated personal history. Zhang’s process tells us that true social documentary relies on confronting both the political and the personal. She plans to go back to the oddly-named village of 47 Km to keep shooting, to capture the next chapter, the next change.

“With your first film, it’s fascinating. It’s like falling in love,” said Zhang Zhen, associate professor of Cinema Studies at NYU and co-curator of Reel China since 2001 with NYU Center for Religious and Media Studies Professor Angela Zito. “But by the time you’re making your second or third film, it’s like a marriage,” Zhang continued. “You’re committed. All you can do is keep on going.”