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Excuse Me, Your Camera Is in My Face: Auteurial Intervention in PRC New Documentary Yomi Braester 11 The title of this chapter may be taken as a polite rendering of the answer given by an interviewee in There Is a Strong Wind in Beijing (1999, henceforth Strong Wind). The filmmakers intrude on a man in a public toilet, literally caught with his pants down, direct the camera and boom at him, and ask, “Is the wind in Beijing strong?” to which he answers, “Damn! I’m squatting here and you’re still fuckin’ asking?!” (Wo cao! Zhe’r dunzhe, ni ye tamade wen ya!). Strong Wind is an exceptional documentary by any standards, yet the scene exemplifies the approach of some recent PRC directors, who take a provocative stance vis-à-vis their subjects. The chapter’s title is also chosen to contrast the confrontational attitude of Strong Wind with the motto of recent documentary filmmakers and fiction directors, “My Camera Doesn’t Lie” (Wode sheyingji bu sahuang).1 The so-called New Documentary filmmakers of the 1990s have developed an aesthetics based on unscripted spontaneity that often underplays the filmmaker’s presence. The trend has received much attention due to its success in forming a prominent style, to the detriment of critical discussion of both state-sponsored propaganda — still the prevalent mode of documentary production in the PRC — and nuances within independent documentary filmmaking. The focus on the purported objectivity and passivity of the camera may be misleading. In fact, even the phrase “My Camera Doesn’t Lie” is originally paired with, “[yet] I am lying.”2 In the context of documentary films, the ostensible ceding of directorial power to the camera has obscured strong tendencies among new filmmakers to intrude upon their subjects, though usually in settings less compromising than the public toilet in Strong Wind. An emphasis in this chapter on films that subscribe to the filmmaker’s intrusion upon the scene, especially on instances in which the director’s intervention is accompanied by prodding the subject into action, offers a corrective view of New Documentary cinema. First, we should acknowledge variations within the trend and go beyond its current reception, which has tended to generalizations — whether opinionated condemnation or, more often, over- 196 Yomi Braester enthusiastic glorification as the latest word in world cinema.3 One should bear in mind that New Documentary filmmakers never formed a movement in the sense of a co-ordinated and uniform group, accompanied by manifestos or prescriptive rules. When Lu Xinyu writes of the “New Documentary Movement,”4 she does so to set the films apart from Maoist ideology and production patterns. Yet the movement has never committed to a single line, and shades of difference have already been noted, for example in Valerie Jaffe’s discussion of conflicting attitudes toward self and other.5 Moreover, insofar as the intrusive approach breaks away from a main mold that relies on distanced objectivity, the intention behind each case may not be the same. The intervention does not rely on an inherent rapport between the filmmakers and the interviewees. Whereas Strong Wind courts defensive and even aggressive responses, the other films discussed here seem to use the intrusion to get closer to, and even intimate with, the filmed subjects. The cases examined in this chapter might, in a different context, be dismissed as self-indulgent, part of a narcissism of which some independent filmmakers have been accused.6 The directors discussed here have encountered criticism for extreme self-absorption and accusations (in the case of Yang Lina’s Home Video) of a patronizing attitude toward their subjects (as I have heard Ning Ying’s Railroad of Hope described on occasion). Such charges privilege reportage-like exposés of larger social issues and stigmatize any manipulation, which is associated with official propaganda. The intrusive approach has emerged from a perception that current practices are inadequate, at least for some subject matter. Yiman Wang, in a chapter in this volume, also discerns a recent tendency toward directorial intervention, and links it to a discourse on intimacy and distance from the filmed subjects. Wang points to the tension between the perceptions that identification with the subjects is more ethical and that disaffection supports the film’s claim to truth. I claim that the directorial intervention is also motivated by the filmmakers’ conception of themselves as auteurs, not simply in the sense of stressing their vision, but more specifically exercising auteurship by being present in their films...

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Additional Information

ISBN
9789882206175
Print ISBN
9789888028511
MARC Record
OCLC
707092561
Pages
320
Launched on MUSE
2012-01-01
Language
English
Open Access
N
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