Documentaries South of the Clouds

Fujioka Asako

Invigorating blue skies spread above Kunming, 1890 meters above sea level in the highlands of Yunnan province in China. In this city where urbanization is progressing at a rapid pace, sunlight glints off a new office building soaring prominently over its surroundings. It houses the city government’s public relations bureau, and is therefore also home to the city’s public broadcasting station, Kunming television.

It was roughly twenty years ago at this television station that documentary filmmaker Wu Wenguang first became involved in video production. “Back when Kunming Television had just been set up, our offices consisted of only two rooms and a staff of thirteen. We didn’t even have a single camera amongst our equipment. When we needed one, we made do by borrowing one from somewhere else before going out to shoot.”

After graduating from Yunnan University and working as a high school teacher in the Xinjiang Uygur region, Wu Wenguang returned to his hometown of Kunming and began working at the local broadcaster. At the time, aside from China Central TV (CCTV), regional television stations were only just starting up and there were few people around with television production experience. A proficient writer, Wu tried his hand at “a few programs that blended my own self-written poetic narration with video footage” which were eventually broadcast by CCTV in Beijing, catapulting him to the position of top director at Kunming Television.

He then moved to Beijing, and while working for CCTV he started using their equipment to make his own documentaries brimming with the raw emotions of young people, such as Bumming in Beijing—The Last Dreamers (1990, YIDFF ’91) and 1966, My Time in the Red Guards (1993, YIDFF ’93). These works gave an outlet to individual voices and included gritty portraits of artists, which meant that they could never have been aired by public broadcasters during that era. Later Wu discovered the works of Frederick Wiseman and Ogawa Shinsuke while attending film festivals overseas and helped to introduce them to China, which gave momentum to the Chinese documentary movement.

In today’s China, in conjunction with the spread of digital video, the number of people freely making their own video works on personal computers is growing at an explosive rate. However, it was Wu Wenguang and his peers who began making independent works with content and formats that slipped through the loopholes of government control while pulling off the juggling act of simultaneously working for television broadcasters that were effectively government organizations. In this sense they were true pioneers.

Meanwhile, following the Tiananmen Square incident in 1989 Wu fled the confusion of Beijing to devote himself to editing works such as Bumming in Beijing in his hometown of Kunming. Boarding a sleeper train at Beijing station, it is a three-day journey southward; the journey to Kunming in Yunnan province, which skirts the borders of Vietnam and Myanmar, takes forty-three hours.


Yunnan is located near the upper reaches of the Mekong River which flows through Laos and Thailand, and has more in common culturally with southeast Asia than faraway Beijing. It is known around the world as a region rich in so-called tourism resources, such as the many ethnic minorities who live in its border-straddling mountainous areas, the picturesque mountains and lakes of its natural environment, and its clement climate.

The unique culture and ecological diversity of this region continues to attract many filmmakers. There’s a joke that says if you spend a year on the shores of Lugu Lake, you’ll bump into 100 film crews. Many documentaries made by local broadcasters such as Yunnan Television and Kunming Television focus on the area’s ethnic minorities, unique geography and abundant nature. For television stations that are basically mouthpieces for the provincial and city governments that control them it is considered taboo to touch on political or social issues in their programming, but they have long supported programs focusing on regional ethnography. Notably, Yunnan Television’s Hao Yuejun has won awards domestically and internationally for his excellent documentaries about the lifestyles of ethnic minorities and mountain dwellers.

Documentarists have been fascinated by Yunnan for quite some time now. Over ten years from 1957, China produced a series of documentary films about ethnic minorities around the country as part of a government project. During this time, many works were made about the Hani, the Zhuang, the Dai, the Miao and other nationally recognized minority groups, over half of which reside in Yunnan. This series of fifteen documentary films, co-produced by the Ethnic Research Institute of the Chinese Academy of Sciences with the Bayi Film Studio, the Beijing Scientific and Educational Film Studio and others, preserves in exquisite 35mm black-and-white footage the minutiae of the lifestyles and customs of ethnic minorities who would later be drastically transformed by the Cultural Revolution.

A prime example is 1957’s The Kawa (Wa) which documented the social customs of an ethnic minority who live in Yunnan’s Ximeng mountains. While taking in their slash-and-burn agriculture, the sacrifice of cows in religious rites, tribal warfare, headhunting customs and more, dramatic string music plays on the soundtrack. In addition, the commentary of the Marxist socialist narration evokes the political culture at the time of the film’s production. This documentary was screened in 2003 as part of a special retrospective including The Oroquen (1963) and The Azhu Marriage System of the Naxi (Mosuo) from Yongning (1965) at the Yunnan Multiculture Visual Festival, which invited director Yang Guanghai, an ethnic Bai from Yunnan, to share his experiences of filmmaking during that era.

One of the volunteer organizers of the festival, twenty-seven-year-old He Yuan, wrote of his impressions in the festival program. Thinking lightly of the “bunch of dusty old Chinese documentary films,” he arrived late to a screening and was blown away. Projected on the screen was an entrancing world of steadily beautiful images and music. “Something pushed me to invest myself in those images and explore what lay behind them.” Of ethnic Naxi descent, he subsequently collated and published long interviews with the elderly forerunners of these ethnographic films.

Recording the manners and customs of alien cultures, promulgating the official position of the incumbent government through authoritarian narration: this kind of pattern in classic documentary films was perhaps what Wu Wenguang’s generation resisted and rebelled against in the 1990s. However, political oppression has lessened, and the sensibilities of Chinese youth raised amid the wave of reform and liberalization are not the same anymore. The younger generation now can view these documentaries differently by taking historical and sociological backdrops into consideration. A sense of distance allowing people to rediscover the merits of these films has brought new respect for the work of these pioneers.


Incidentally, the production style of early independent documentarians such as Wu Wenguang in the 1990s involved being employed by or entering into a contract with a television broadcaster, and while working for them they diverted equipment and funds to complete their own creations. These passed from person to person on VHS as so-called “underground films” that could not be shown through regular channels.

Since the arrival of the age of digital video, it has become possible even for those with absolutely no connection to television broadcasters to buy digital cameras and engage in filmmaking through editing on personal computers. Today, a huge number of video works made by ordinary people are emerging all over the country without the intervention of government agencies. Simultaneously, an increasing number of television station employees dissatisfied with officially approved programming are also making films on their own.

Yunnan Television director Tan Leshui was born in 1955. In 1996, when sales personnel from Panasonic first came to his station to sell digital cameras, he bought one of their samples for himself for 38,000 yuan (US$4,600 at the current exchange rate). He is now on to his third camera.

In 2000, he formed the independent video production group Compound Eye Circle with television director friends of his generation. When one of their member’s works, made in their spare time, is completed, they hold screenings and appraise each other’s efforts. Members are in their forties, work for television stations or public institutions, earn a steady wage, and doggedly turn out self-made videos on subjects that interest them. Tan Leshui, who runs the private-sector environmental protection organization Yunnan, Man & Nature Foundation, is passionate about themes such as environmental conservation.

Tan’s father worked in national documentary production during the 1950s as a director and cameraman. Under communism, which held the ideal of multicultural coexistence, projects to document the way of life of ethnic minorities were looked upon favorably for their cultural merit, and massive funds and effort were invested in them. “Back then, documentary film producers were one part of a gigantic mechanism,” says Tan. “Their calling was to document these tiny communities on the verge of disappearing completely, and they engaged in their work with the aim of enlightening audiences.” Complicating the endeavor was the transportation and replacement of 35mm cameras and large scale shooting equipment in the mountains of Yunnan, which was extremely physically demanding.

“These days, I prefer to work on my own. With a television film crew you have to string along a group of at least five, but working on my own I could go on without being restrained by time or money. For ten years I have returned to film in the same village, and it gives me the freedom to move and edit on my own, which makes me very happy.” Tan complains that editing today is so enjoyable that it’s difficult for him to finish his work: a common concern for the many filmmakers who edit at home using a computer.

There are around ten directors at Yunnan Television making independent works on their own. In contrast to the situation over a decade ago when Wu Wenguang first began his own independent productions, this is an age where filmmakers can enjoy visual culture as a personal form of media without contradiction while remaining affiliated to the privileged media of public broadcasting. This way, they can own their own homes and drive foreign cars; the almost hobbyist self-expression of these financially and socially secure individuals is tolerated, which demonstrates one aspect of modern China.


In the high-rise Kunming Television offices which boast splendid views, documentary division chief Zhou Yuejun showed me several of his self-made works.

One six-minute short was about a television reporter interviewing an elementary school teacher. The teacher tries to attest to the impoverished childhood of a certain celebrity, but cannot come up with the kind of comments that the interview demands, resulting in retake after retake. In his capacity as a public official the teacher understands the kind of answers being sought from him, and his worsening anxiety is symbolic. In taking issue with the dynamic between interviewer and interviewee and the manipulations of the media, an image of individuals trapped and torn in between becomes visible.

Foggy Valley returns to a village of the Hani ethnic minority in order to recreate actual experiences of making an ethnographic program there. This village in the mountains receives many visitors who come to film the beautiful terraced rice paddies and the villagers in their traditional ethnic dress as they go about their farming. In return for filming a single water buffalo, the locals demand compensation. This work illustrates how television companies and the tourist industry have comfortably “paid” for their filming subjects over the years, and consequently warped the financial values of one community.

“When I talked with my teenage daughter about the confusion I felt in that village after returning home, she said to me ‘Dad, why don’t you make a program out of it?’ and I decided to do just that,” said Zhou. A friend was recruited to play the role of the director, and filming took place in the village where it all happened. The Hani boys who helped the original crew of the ethnographic program appeared as themselves in this re-enactment too.

The finished docudrama received high praise, and was subsequently purchased and broadcast by Kunming Television. But after it was broadcast even more people flocked to the village to film there, and some even offered to subsidize the educational expenses of the youths who appeared in the program. It appears as though this will provide further fuel for discussion about the influence and merits and demerits of the media.

Another Compound Eye Circle member, Kunming Television’s Liu Xiaojin, was a classmate of Wu Wenguang at Yunnan University. She has been a television director for almost twenty years, and today she also produces documentaries independently outside of the broadcast framework.

Mask began as a television documentary project, but its concept eventually expanded beyond the confines of broadcast requirements. In the beginning, the director had wanted to film a village festival where traditional theater is tranquilly offered in hope of a plentiful harvest. However, since television crews and newspaper reporters were frequent visitors to this well-known event, what was traditionally held only during a specific period in the Lunar New Year ended up being reenacted over and over again throughout the year for filming purposes. Requests to shoot the festival were met with demands for filming fees. Preparations for the sacred ritual were shortened and altered in order to prioritize the efficiency of the shoot. In Mask, directors, camera operators and cultural anthropologists offer each of their behind-the-scenes stories through their narration in an experiment that amusingly communicates the kind of machinations through which images transmitted by the media are created.

It is interesting to see that filmmakers such as Zhou Yuejun and Liu Xiaojin re-address simple questions that have arisen out of making documentaries for television, as well as how they introspectively deal with issues regarding the ethics of filmmaking. As being a television director in China is a highly privileged position in terms of finance, power, information and connections, the movement to make films outside the system is a telling one as it pertains to the issues that arise when “powerful” media act as intermediaries in communication.


Compound Eye Circle’s activities may take place “outside the system,” but that holds a different meaning to what it did twenty years ago. This is an age of reform and liberalization for television broadcasters. At Kunming Television, a new system will allow program proposals to be sought not just from within the station but also elsewhere, and outside producers will be able to gain a broadcast slot if they have a “strong project.” This is increasingly the case at CCTV in Beijing, which has introduced this system. In the future, externally (independently) produced works purchased by broadcasters or produced for a certain slot will surely increase as the industry moves toward a system similar to that used by Japanese broadcasters. But, what kind of “strong projects” will be chosen to broadcast by the authorities? In addition to political censorship, will viewership ratings enforce yet another type of censorship operated by “market forces”?

Until the 1990s, “outside the system” meant “underground,” and the only means of screening independent works were overseas film festivals or passing tapes on from person to person. Even today, officially there is little freedom to exhibit works. However, in major cities, venues for unofficial screenings have emerged in galleries and cafes that are in general implicitly tolerated by the authorities. In addition, there are also opportunities for screenings at universities, and although still uncommon there are also those who sell and distribute their works on DVD. Differentiations between productions from inside and outside the system are becoming more and more indistinct, and “independent” is no longer synonymous with “anti-establishment.”

Although a great many documentaries are being “produced” without the permission of broadcasters and the powers that be, it will be interesting to see from now on how opportunities for “exhibiting” them develop. With that in mind, the holding of the inaugural Yunnan Multiculture Visual Festival in March of 2003 was a breakthough. (See the adjacent column for details on the festival.)

The success of this event owed more than a little to multi-faceted small and large-scale video-making activity in Kunming today, as if many tributaries had converged to form a great river. What stood out were the comprehensive endeavors in production, exhibition and interaction of the generation following Wu Wenguang and the members of Compound Eye Circle, who are mainly in their twenties. These linguistically skilled young people study film from pirate DVDs, have an international outlook, and have developed the ability to use computers and digital cameras to the fullest extent. At the same time, they are aware of the values and culture that are being lost in Kunming as economic reform and liberalization rapidly transform society. These youths are beginning to make and screen their own films and videos.

For example, there is the East Asia Institute of Visual Anthropology (EAIVA) held from 1999 to 2004. Based in Yunnan University, twelve full-time students studied everything from the fundamentals of visual anthropology to practical work under instructors from Europe. The lingua franca was English. All costs were taken care of thanks to aid from the Volkswagen Foundation in Germany, and students did not have to pay for course or equipment costs. The curriculum emphasized meta-communication theory as it applies to participatory investigation and video production, and also examined the idea of “construed reality” that is film. Sixteen documentary works were produced by EAIVA.

The Kunming Film Study Group is a film club created by some of the most devoted film-lovers from within EAIVA. For two years, once every week, they have screened DVDs of films by Antonioni, Buñuel, Hou Hsiao-hsien and Kieslowski amongst others. They also published several issues of a journal, Filmnotes, which featured essays by group members and interviews with local filmmakers.

Established in 2001 at venerable local arts university Yunnan Arts Institute, the Department of Movie & Television Art has become a popular faculty that is flooded with applications from all over the country for its 150 student places. In 2001 a digital video festival was held at the school, and the university also provided a venue for and hosted events with the Yunnan Multiculture Visual Festival. The department’s curriculum covers film and video production in general, and recruits young instructors to create a lively atmosphere.

In addition, support for film and video production is growing at Yunnan Nationalities University and elsewhere, and regular video and slide shows have been held every week at Yunnan Provincial Museum since 2002, mainly based on themes regarding Yunnan’s nature and culture. At the center of this surge of activity is a group of young people that includes He Yuan. They independently take on the planning and administration of the Yunnan Multiculture Visual Festival, and are initiating a new visual culture particular to Yunnan.

Finally, there is a work I’d like to introduce. Jade Green Station is a feature-length documentary completed in late 2003 by Yu Jian, a poet of the same generation as Wu Wenguang. EAIVA graduates including He Juan and Yang Kun were heavily involved in its filming and editing. This visual essay which looks at a station on the railroad between Hanoi and Kunming built by France during their colonization of Vietnam, is neither ethnography nor video journalism as is often seen in Yunnan, but is rather an examination of a human and historical tragicomedy through the power of imagery which harnesses darkness and sound.

The values driving modern China are quietly undergoing a transition from “political” to “economic,” and the old cityscape in Kunming is being summarily replaced by shiny new buildings. In contrast to Wu Wenguang who once left Beijing behind in criticism of superficial television documentaries that pandered to politics, or perhaps just as he did, Yu Jian remains in Yunnan while declaring independence from the blinding speed and negligence of economic development.

—Translated by Don Brown


Fujioka Asako

Coordinator of New Asian Currents for YIDFF ’95, ’97, ’99, 2001, and 2003. From December 2003 lived in China for three months on a grant sponsored by the Agency for Cultural Affairs. Primarily researched Chinese documentaries in Beijing, and spent about one week in Yunnan.


Yunnan Multiculture Visual Festival

The first edition of this documentary film festival took place March 20-27, 2003 in Kunming, Yunnan. Its venues were Yunnan Arts Institute, Yunnan Provincial Museum, Yunnan Nationalities University, and Xinjianshe Cinema. While officially the organizer was Yunnan Provincial Museum, much of the budget came from personal donations and the festival staff were young volunteers. The festival director was Guo Jing, director of the Yunnan Provincial Museum. Posters, bilingual (Chinese/English) festival brochures, and schedule flyers were printed. Most films were digital video works, with a few exceptions projected on film.

The theme for the 2003 festival was “A tool for individuals and social groups / Dialogue through video.” The competition program for Chinese documentaries was selected from close to 100 works, and included both television and independent productions. Programs included new and old works by jury members like Duan Jinchuan and Jiang Yue, and important ethnographic films from the 1950 and 1960s. From overseas, guests and works were invited from Appalshop, a grassroots media training and video production center from a former coalmining town in Kentucky, USA. Sixteen documentaries by students of the East Asian Institute of Visual Anthropology based in Yunnan University were screened. Seminars and presentations about media education and other topics took place. Around seventy titles were screened in all.

The grand prize winner of the 2003 competition was Wellspring (Dir: Sha Qing / 2002 / 49 min / also winner of Ogawa Shinsuke Prize at YIDFF 2003).
The festival is scheduled to take place every two years. The next edition is planned for spring 2005.