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  • DV:Individual Filmmaking
  • Wu Wenguang
    Translated by Cathryn Clayton

Two years ago, in May 1999, in a place in Shanxi Province called Guxian, I spent some time with a traveling performance troupe called the Far & Wide Song and Dance Troupe. This was a group of itinerant entertainers that traveled around from place to place, performing under the big tent they carted around with them. The boss, a fiftyish man named Liu, came from a small village in the Pingdingshan region of Henan Province. His two sons, their girlfriends, and some of his nieces and nephews were all in the troupe. Counting all the actors and crewmembers, there were probably around thirty people, all of them around twenty years old and most of them from rural Henan. I'd been spending time with this group since the previous year; I had first met them when they were performing on the streets outside the South Fourth Ring Road in Beijing. Ever since then I had been tagging along with them from time to time as they performed in suburban Beijing and Hebei and Shanxi provinces, filming them with a small digital video camera. Here I don't want to talk about what material I filmed or what I discovered about the "lower rungs" or that kind of thing; instead, I'd like to talk about how the feel of this project was totally different from the very "professional" kind of documentary filmmaking I had done before. With this project I just carried the DV camera around with me like a pen and hung out with the members of the troupe. Every day my ears were filled with the rough sounds of Henan dialect; in the evenings, lying on the stage under the big tent, I was surrounded by the sleeping forms of the roadies, and the air was filled with the stink of feet and the smells of the wilderness while the stars glittered through the holes and cracks in the tent's roof. Getting up in the mornings, I'd pull on my shoes, walk out of the tent, and take a piss in the wilderness, the air incomparably clear and fresh and perfectly silent. A young roadie would be squatting not far off, taking a shit; we'd greet each other: "You're up." At times like these, Beijing felt really far away. All that modern art—really far away.

Before that, for me documentary filmmaking wasn't such a casual, individual activity. It was the kind of thing that involved a bunch of people carrying big machines on their shoulders—very conspicuous, even from a long way off. But in 1995, after I finished At Home in the World (Sihai Wei Jia), I felt I had some serious problems. [End Page 136] The problems were not just with that film itself; I felt that all my documentaries were caught in a fundamental dilemma. This dilemma was that, on the one hand, in making documentaries I was working from individual motivations: I would shoot whatever I wanted and do whatever I wanted with what I shot, rather than conforming to the dictates of television or distribution networks. But on the other hand, the filming and production techniques I was using were the usual ones, techniques that required money. At the very least, before even beginning to film you had to have a little money to rent the camera equipment. But the resulting films usually had very little commercial appeal. This approach, of "taking money to play with ideas," meant that even the people who were interested in giving you money soon stopped daring to play along with you, and your own wallet was never thick enough to support you, so it was hard to sustain for long. Then I thought that maybe "use film, not video" was the way to go. At that time I was surrounded by a group of people talking about using the medium of film to make documentaries, reasoning that only in this way could a work be considered a "professional documentary film." I was an enthusiast of this approach, and my experiences at film festivals had led me privately to feel that using film instead...


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