Rebuilding Humanity: Gaze of the Exile and Chinese Independent Cinema.

Author:Fan, Victor
Position:Global East Asian Cinema: Abjection and Agency - Critical essay

Ever since its emergence in the 1990s, independent films and videos in Mainland China have been discussed by filmmakers and scholars both within China and elsewhere as a practice that occupies an abject position--a desubjectivized and deindividuated position that is ostracized by a political community (Berry, ed., 2003 [2006]; Ouyang 2007; Pickowicz and Zhang, eds. 2006; Zhang 2005; Zhang, Xie, and Chen. eds. 2006). On the one hand, it is seen by the political community (or authority) as a position that is unwanted, detestable, and subject to surveillance, disavowal, and containment. On the other hand, such an obsession by the political authority with externalizing it, desubjectivizing it, and containing it testifies the community's constant need to reincorporate the abject in order to maintain the community's own ontological consistency--and subjectivity.

The concept of abjection, initially proposed by Julia Kristeva (1980 [1982]. 1-6), refers to the way I am subjectivized and individuated, by perpetually forming a relationship with elements rejected by my body or psyche. For instance, when I see bodily fluids that I produced and rejected--nasal mucus, phlegm, or even semen--I feel disgusted by them. At that instant, these fluids are objectified. Yet. they were once parts of me and they continually seek to form a relationship with me. In her discussion. Kristeva (157-73) uses this psychoanalytical formulation to theorize the position of women as a form of abjection in relation to men. Later on, Judith Butler (2000) extends this idea to rethink bare lives, i.e. biological lives there are ostracized by a polis and reduced to animal lives, which can be managed, persecuted, or even executed without breaking the law of the land. Yet. as Giorgio Agamben (1995 [1998], 71-115) points out, a political community is subjectivized precisely by desubjectivizing and reducing all human lives to bare lives. And the state's power to manage and execute them instantiates its juridical authority.

One reason to consider Chinese independent cinema as a cinema of abjection is that many of these films and art works, as pointed out by Markus Nornes (2015, 29-56). Yiman Wang (2005, 15-26; 2011, 217-36). and Zhang Zhen (2007, 344-88), represent bare lives--migrant workers, lumpen proletarians, sex workers, dislocated children, political dissidents, women, and queer activists: lives that have been visibly deindividuated, desubjectivized, and depoliticized under state-controlled neoliberalism and biopolitics. Another reason is that these directors are themselves bare lives, who are under state observation, persecution, and ostracization. Yet, how individual/(de)individuated filmmakers negotiate with their respective abject positions differ from one another. Some filmmakers work peacefully with the party-state or even become part of it, most notably Jia Zhangke, who now serves as Representative of the People's Congress of the People's Republic of China (PRC) (Jing 2018). Others left Mainland China and started new creative lives in exile (Wen 2016).

In this article, I first reflect upon my experience as Film Consultant of Chinese Visual Festival (London) since January 2013 and map out the increasingly complex assemblage of Chinese independent film and art making. Then, I scrutinize my ongoing discussion with director Huang Wenhai (aka Wen Hai), a journalist-turned-filmmaker who has lived in exile in Hong Kong after his film Wo'men [We, 2008], a documentary about an older generation of political dissidents, put him into trouble. Wen Hai, together with Zeng Jinyan and Ying Liang, are some of the few outspoken filmmakers who ended up leaving the Mainland in order to avoid constant harassment by the party-state. Yet, more so than his cohorts, Wen Hai consciously delineates his works and his fellow artists' as a fangzhu de ningshi (gaze of the exile). In other words, he actively appropriates the abject position, from which he seeks to make sense of their struggle with deinidividuation and desubjectivization. Finally, I scrutinize Ying Liang's most recent short film, Mama de kougong [I Have Nothing to Say, 2017] to rethink how an independent director who occupies the abject position can constitute a new kind of humanity through an alternative or extraterritorial (a position that is doubly occupied and doubly ostracized by contesting sociopolitical forces) kinship (Butler 2000. 57-82; Fan 2015b, 389-402).

Before and After the New Film Law

On April 1, 2017, the new Film Law (People's Republic of China, 2016), which made any production, distribution, and viewing of films and other moving images unlicensed by the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television (SAPPRFT) illegal, became effective. As predicted by most Chinese independent producers and directors at the time, including Chen Yifan, Li Hongqi, and Zhang Xianmin, the execution of this has been extremely difficult in the age of cross-regional coproduction and online distribution. (1) Hence, almost a year later, in January 2018, most Chinese filmmakers I met at the International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR) could claim that this new law had very little effect on independent filmmaking. (2) Yet. it also means that the standard by which the party-state judges whether a film is legally passable or not remains nebulous.

The Film Law is one of the many steps by which the central government could take tighter control over what can be seen both domestically and overseas. In political terms, it determines which filmmakers are worthwhile to be interpellated as politicized subjects and individuals. This has been an ongoing struggle among Chinese independent filmmakers for a number of years. In one of the earliest English-language volumes devoted to this subject, From Underground to Independent, while Yingjin Zhang (2006, 27-28) prefers following the protocol among these filmmakers and Mainland Chinese scholars by calling these works independent films, Paul Pickowicz (2006. 5-10) suggests calling them "underground" films. Pickowicz has in mind the earliest group of independent films made by Chinese filmmakers in the 1990s and early 2000s. including Wu Wenguang's Beijing liulang [Bumming in Beijing, 1990], Zhang Yuan's Beijing zazhong [Beijing Bastards, 1993], Jia Zhangke's Xiaowu (1997), and Cui Zi'en's Choujue dengchang [Enter the Clowns, 2002]. He aptly points out that none of these filmmakers hid themselves from the party-state. Rather, they negotiated with the party-state's highly ambiguous policy, according to which making an independent film was not illegal. Yet, at what point a film was considered by the party-state as overstepping its sociopolitical boundary has always been undefined.

The agenda of the party-state might be unspoken; however, it was by no means nebulous. By the 2000s. documentaries and fiction films that critiqued the negative impact of the market economy or represent the suffering of the migrant workers were generally tolerated. For example, between 2001 and 2015. Zhou Hao, a journalist who used to work for the Guangzhou-based liberal newspaper Nanfang zhoumo [Southern Weekly], made a number of direct-cinema-styled documentaries. Many of these films are montages of raw footages he collected with an observational camera on specific locations. (3) For example, in Chaiguan [Cop Shop, 2010, in two parts], the camera enables the spectators to stay in a police station at the Guangzhou Railway Station around the Chinese New Year period. Since the Guangzhou terminus is a hub for migrant workers (most of them undocumented), the spectators are able to see them struggling with their abject status: as they negotiate for train tickets in the black market (undocumented workers are not allowed to buy legitimate train tickets), get arrested and detained for loitering, sleep on the benches of the police station and get mistreated by the police officers because they are not allowed to be registered in hotels. Even though most spectators would understand that these workers are reduced to bare lives under state-controlled neoliberalism and public surveillance, the film does not make any direct accusation against the party-state. Therefore, the film was tolerated by the government.

Zhou's works, together with other fiction films and documentaries that address socioeconomic issues without directly referring to their political roots, as well as animations made by ethnic-minority directors, were among those selected and screened at the China Independent Film Festival (CIFF) in Nanjing, founded and curated by producer Zhang Xianmin in 2008. (4) This festival was often compared to the Beijing Independent Film Festival (BIFF), founded by artist Li Xianting. BIFF was constantly harassed or shut down by the local police.

For instance, in 2014, guests at BIFF found themselves not being able to check into their hotels. The local police did not allow any screenings with an audience of more than five people to take place. As a result, the festival guests gathered together for casual discussions over dinners and drinks, and many of them were given USB drives that contained that year's film selections. (5) In 2015, the police arrested and detained the festival organizers and confiscated the festival digital archive (Shah 2015). The major trigger of the shutdown was Zhu Rikun's documentary Dang 'an [Dossier, 2014), which is a one-scene-one-take videotaped session of Tibetan writer Tsering Woeser reading the party dossier she obtained secretly, an act comparable to a U.S. citizen obtaining their CIA dossier and reading it publically in order to expose the level of government surveillance penetrated into the daily lives of the ordinary people.

Meanwhile, as Hongwei Bao (2018) argues, the annual event we now call the Beijing Queer Film Festival (BQFF), since its inception by queer filmmaker Cui Zi'en, was also shut down between 2014 and 2015. Historically, BQFF featured a...

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