In the beginning, Wu Wenguang’s world was red. Before his film Bumming in Beijing – The Last Dreamers brought him to the attention of the world in 1990, China’s premier independent documentary filmmaker was a fervent Maoist. Gareth George finds out how life for these Chinese creatives has changed in the past 30 years
A member of the Red Guards – Chairman Mao’s youth army entrusted to denounce and pass judgement on ‘bourgeois class enemies’ – Wu spent the final years of the Cultural Revolution, between 1974 and 1978, as a student farmer in the countryside. ‘Life was very hard, but I would have stayed forever if the Party had requested it,’ says Wu. ‘I loved Mao and wanted to be an instrument of the Party. My grandest dream was to go to Beijing. Have my photo taken in Tiananmen Square. Meet Chairman Mao.’
Wu remained a faithful instrument when recalled to study literature at Yunnan University. But with Mao dead things had changed in China. Wu changed too. ‘I hated myself for being so stupid. I wanted to be a different person. I believed in Mao. After he died I felt empty. I decided to become a writer.’ The party decided he would be a school teacher in Kunming. ‘It was then I realized if there is nothing to believe in, you have to believe in yourself. Rely on yourself totally.’ Wu left Kunming and wandered.
How a BBC documentary changed everything
By 1983 Wu was living in Beijing, among artists. He was ready to do something. He didn’t know what. He didn’t know how. He watched a BBC documentary called The Heart of the Dragon and it changed his life. ‘Of course I had seen hundreds of Chinese documentaries,’ says Wu. ‘But in each of those there was always a good man, a bad man. A lesson. Here was life.’ The documentary was in eight parts, each focusing on an area of Chinese society – Women, Work, Believing. Wu had a temporary job at a TV station and had access to the clunky cameras. He began interviewing his friends between August 1988 and March 1989, but after the June uprising he got out of the city, back to his home town in Kunming. In September 1989 he came back to find the people who appeared in the film. Two had left for the US. Another for Europe. But three remained in Beijing.
China's New Documentary Film Movement
The film became Bumming in Beijing. Wu found an audience eager for a homemade look at the Chinese experience, and the film wound up in Hong Kong just a year after the Tiananmen Square massacre. Wu became the first of what came to be known as China’s New Documentary Movement, although it was less a movement and more a hand full of people trying something new.
Critics took note of Wu’s intimate style and his use of handheld camera work, although for him, they were not so much stylistic considerations as practical ones. It was far from a glamorous lifestyle. ‘You have to remember that being an independent filmmaker in Beijing was different to being independent in Europe or the US,’ he says. ‘Here ‘independent’ means truly that. No government funding, no bursaries.’ But the ‘Movement’ has grown. As technology has made it easier for people to create their own films, more and more people from different backgrounds have begun to create their own documentaries. Some are artists and writers like Wu. Others are everyday people videoing what they see on their holidays. ‘Maybe it will even change things in society,’ says Wu. ‘We can’t say now, but in 10 years, perhaps, who knows?’
Kunming New Documentary Film Festival
From 1999 to 2003 10 or 20 new documentaries received enough backing to obtain a release of sorts, or at least a showing somewhere for other lovers of Chinese film. Between 2003 and 2006, there were 16. At this year’s Kunming New Documentary Film Festival, for which Wu has been a jurist since its inception four years ago, 300 works were entered, nearly all from Mainland China. Of the entrants 15 percent were showing their first ever film. Half were showing either their second or third. ‘Today, it’s so easy,’ says Wu. ‘Working with video is no different to being a writer. One person can do it alone, edit at home.’
Wu's workshop for young filmmakers
Today Wu wants to work more with young filmmakers. At his Ai Wei Wei designed studio in Beijing, Wu now offers young filmmakers the chance to come and work with him. When he first asked for applicants last year, he asked those interested to send a letter telling him who they were – no resume, no films. When he came to make a selection hundreds had applied. ‘It was very emotional. How could I choose?’ he says. ‘So I simply told them ‘If you can get here, you can come’.’ Fifty-six made the trip from all over the country. Some were of school age, others were studying at university.
Some of the young filmmakers were not so young. Wu let them stay in his studio and together they did a five day workshop and by the end each had completed a 15 minute piece. On the final day Wu screened the films. ‘The quality of documentary filmmaking here [in China] goes up everyday,’ says Wu. ‘Ten or 15 years ago our contemporary artists were making important, meaningful work, but now they are confronted with the market. It’s not easy for them to look beyond this and maintain their ideals and integrity. There is no money in documentary. The form remains pure.’
Recent work
Wu’s most recent work has veered away from what he sees around him. He confesses he has ‘no idea’ about today’s Beijing. ‘I’ve seen great change, especially since the early 1990s,’ he says. ‘But the Beijing I remember is just a place I used to be.’
Most recently, Wu has been working with dancers, including his partner Wen Hui, a dancer and choreographer, on a film called Memories, which was completed in October last year. ‘With performers there is an element of fiction, but some ways it is more real.
It was a different way for me and my friends to recall our time in the Cultural Revolution,’ he says. As China has opened up, Wu has been able to travel, having won an Asian Cultural Council grant that paid for him to travel the US meeting other filmmakers, talking about his experiences and showing his films. He has also been supported by and exchanged ideas with government supported filmmakers from Switzerland and the Netherlands.
The iron curtain of the Cultural Revolution must seem like a long time ago. ‘On the contrary,’ says Wu. ‘People say the Cultural Revolution ended in 1976 when Mao died. Others in 1978. But we are still here. We who lived through it. I make films because I lost myself and everything I depended on. I remember in the early 1980s I felt so lonely. I still do. I’m not the only one.’