In 1997, as James Cameron’s Titanic sank box office records around the world—including in China—Sally Berger, assistant film curator at the Museum of Modern Art, worked to bring New York moviegoers a raft of Chinese movies they’d never heard of.
The fourteen films in the series were not martial arts pictures or costume dramas, but instead movies like director Wu Wenguang’s stark 1990 documentary Bumming in Beijing, which captured the lives of a group of artists struggling to find their way in the shaky aftermath of the crushed democracy movement of 1989.
Even when China was but the world’s eighth largest economy and barely on the minds of most Americans, Berger felt outsiders needed to understand the country better. Now China’s economy is No. 2 and stories about it hit American front pages nearly every day. Time again for a reality check.
So it is that on Wednesday, May 8, at MoMA in New York, Berger and co-curator Kevin B. Lee unveiled Chinese Realities/Documentary Visions: The Evolution of Documentary Practice in China, 1988-2013. The program of twenty-five films is set to run through June 1.
“Over the past three decades, China has been radically transformed through all kinds of economic and social changes, and it’s led its artists and filmmakers to ask, ‘What is real in our world, and how is reality constructed?’” Lee, a Chicago-based independent distributor at dGenerate Films, said. “One big part of this is the regulation of Chinese media, which leads to a version of reality on movie and TV screens that’s often unrecognizable relative to what people in China actually experience. So we selected a number of really groundbreaking films that probe deeply into this question of what is real.”
In the sixteen years since the first big Chinese film series at MoMA, Chinese filmmakers have focused either on mimicking Hollywood fairy tales—mostly badly, failing to gain traction overseas—or tried to tell their own stories about what’s really going on around them in China, often in direct conflict with officialdom eager to promote a tidy version of the nation’s smooth progress under Chinese Communist Party rule—meaning no distribution at home.
In homage to the spirit of the 1997 series, which screened several films forbidden from being shown in public in China, Wednesday’s opening night film at MoMA is director Zou Xueping’s The Satiated Village (2011), a young woman’s documentary about the elders in her village who survived the famines that killed, by conservative official accounts, some 15 million Chinese from 1958-61.
Zou, a film student, belongs to a Beijing collective founded by Wu Wenguang, which equips young Chinese filmmakers with cameras and tasks them with capturing stories typically erased from official media. Last summer, a public independent festival in Beijing that featured Zou’s film and several similarly unflinching others had to shift to a tiny private venue when the electricity to the public venue where it was being held suddenly and inexplicably shut down.
Over the next twenty-five days, MoMA will screen celebrated Chinese non-fiction films of recent years such as Wang Bing’s West of the Tracks (2003)—a three-part, nine-hour portrait of an industrial wasteland—and Zhao Liang’s 2009 Petition, an exploration, twelve years in the making, of the world of petitioners who travel to Beijing to seek justice. Also showing are milestones along the road of China’s documentary practice, films such as the 1992 drama The Story of Qiu Ju—in which director Zhang Yimou used hidden cameras to capture actual street scenes he then cut into his fictional film—and a condensed version of the 1988 television documentary River Elegy, a series that was censored after 1989 for its criticism of traditional Chinese culture as an obstacle to social progress.
MoMA also will offer up a few brand-new films—including Longing for the Rain, the first narrative feature by noted documentarian Yang Lina, the story of a Beijing housewife seduced by a phantom lover threatening to destroy her middle-class life.
For students of the global village trying to follow the development of the “real China”—that complex, fast-paced capitalist place not seen in martial arts costume dramas—an evening talk on Friday, May 10 with director Wu may be the best scene-setter. Titled “Baring your Stuff,” the talk will pair Wu with curators Berger and Lee after a screening of the film that began it all, Wu’s Bumming in Beijing.
“We are coming full circle with Wu Wenguang, whose vision of China and the possibility for Chinese cinema is as eye-opening today as when we first met in 1997,” Berger said.
A full screening and lecture schedule for Chinese Realities/Documentary Visions: The Evolution of Documentary Practice in China, 1988-2013 is available here.