DV Comes To Rural China

(Southern Weekend)  The Villagers Rule Themselves, The Villagers Take Movies Of Themselves.  By Li Hongyu (李宏宇).  May 11, 2006.

[in translation]

"In the past, when I had free time, I did this."  55-year-old Jia Zitan stretched out his arms in front of him and shuffled the imaginary mahjong tiles.  "How am I going to find the time for that now?"

In September last year, "The Chinese Villager Self-Rule Visual Communication Program" went through this newspaper to look for authors.  Jia Zitan applied and was selected as one of ten villager DV authors.  In November, he went to Beijing to receive three days of quick training in "documentary film-making."  He received one DV (Digital Video) camera, a tripod and ten reels of magnetic tape.

At Yichang village, Beiyuan town, Shimen county, Hunan province, Old Jia was a character already.  Seven or eight years ago, he converted his own farm lot into a tangerine orchard.  By the time the other villagers began to imitate him, he had made a big profit.  By the time that the fruit trees of the others were beginning to yield harvest, Old Jia was buying the products from the local tangerine growers and shipping them to Beijing.  In many things, he is one step ahead of the others.

With a DV camera hanging around his neck, Old Jia talks taller and firmer around the village, proud as a penguin.  He stepped out of his home and he saw that there were nothing but mahjong tables on the street.  "Second uncle, how about a few rounds?"  The villagers enthusiastically invited him to join.  Old Jia kept his right hand behind his back, and then extended his left hand out horizontally to indicate "No" in a contemptuous fashion.

"The Chinese Villager Self-Rule Visual Communication Program" is organized by the independent documentary film maker Wu Wenguang.  It is under the "China-European Union Village Administration Training Program."  The purpose of the program was to fully developed self-rule among Chinese villagers, and it is operated jointly by the Chinese Civil Administration and the European Union representative team in China.  It has been going on for five years, and will end in May this year.

This program included "The Young Directors' Project," "The Villager DV Project" and the "Villager Photographs Project."  A total of 45 Chinese villagers applied to the program.  They only needed to provide some very simple material: first, proof that they are rural villagers; second, written statements about why they want to be in this program.

"Including travel, food and lodging expenses, plus this and that?"  The ten selected villagers came to Beijing with a great deal of suspicion.  Nobody around them believed that there is anything that could be so good.  "Some people have gone there two to three times, and they were always scammed.  One time, the newspaper ad called for agricultural food supplements and he was cheated of money when they got there; another time, there was something similar so he was wary and did not hand over any money, but he still lost his travel expenses.  His family members opposed this trip," said Wu Wenguang.

Of the 10 people, 4 were familiar with DV.  Yi Chujian from Zhejiang was in fact even very familiar, because his occupation was to take wedding videos.

With the equipment that was given to them, the 10 villagers returned to their home villages and started shooting.  Twenty days later, they took their raw materials back to Beijing.  With the assistance of the workers, they each edited a 10-minute short film.  The collection of these short films was the final result of the "Villager DV Project" and it was exhibited publicly at the Grass Field during the May 1st period.

Jia Zitan filmed the property rights dispute about a quarry field in a neighboring village.  The person in charge of the quarry field was the former director of the Luigongzui village committee.  The villagers wanted him to return the quarry field to the people, but the director refused.  So the villagers elected another person as director, and they asked the new director to negotiate.  The dispute between the two sides escalated, and the villagers leaders got the public security bureau to arrest the boss who refused to hand over the rights.  Work stopped at the quarry field.  Old Jia pointed his camera at all the parties involved in the property rights dispute, and interviewed them one by one.

Wu Wenguang divided the program staff into three teams which visited the villager authors at their sites and offered guidance.  When he saw Old Jia's initial raw materials, he said "this is in the same format as the 'Focus Interviews' (note: a news interview program on CCTV) that we are accustomed to seeing."

"When they have a DV in hand, they feel that one option is that they can speak up," said Wu Wenjiang.  "In other words, 'Focus Interview'."

This is what they instinctively wanted to make.  He needed to have extensive discussions with the village authors about whether they want to do exposÚs or documentaries.

"This type of communication is very difficult to do.  What is a documentary film?  When is it not a news exposÚ?"  By trying to find as many common examples, Wu Wenguang explained to Old Jia the practical reality and "professional practice" of television news workers.  For example, he talked about the relative balance between positive and negative reporting, or the "remedial efforts" used by the subject, such as "surrounding, chasing and blocking" at various stages.

Old Jia did not take to this kindly at first: "Why can't you let me shoot it this way?"  His position was very clear -- the quarry field was owned by the village collectively, and it should obviously be returned to the village.

But during the process of filming, something that Old Jia did not anticipate occurred.  The quarry field boss was arrested, but the village collective was in no position to take over immediately.  This meant that a number of villagers who used to be employed are now idle.  After a while, they found it impossible to hang on.  As Wu Wenguang said, "With this chaotic situation, can you tell who was right or wrong?"

The finished short film "The Quarry Field" abandoned all the raw interview materials.  In the beginning, the words appeared on the screen as sub-titles: "The quarry field had been in operation for 12 years.  Due to a rights dispute, work had stopped for 3 months as of November 2005."  A series of shots then showed the silent quarry field.  There are still various opinions in the village, but someone is beginning to complain: "There is a tendency to call the police in to arrest people.  The town government can do that, but the grassroots government cannot.  The villager mayor will be leaving in a few years anyway ..."  At the end of the film, the villagers petitioned together to bring the boss back.  A banquet with several tables of food and wine took place, and then work resumed at the quarry field.

Nong Ke of Dujie village, Dujie town, Longan county, Guangxi province is 60 year old.  When he introduces himself, he always says "Nong as in the word for 'agriculture' and Ke as in the word for 'science.'"  Nong Ke's short film is titled "The Poverty Relief Aid Evaluation Meeting" -- the background is that the village received 10,000 RMB in poverty relief aid, which was intended to be distributed to 10 families to grow pigs, with 1,000 RMB per family.

Everybody wanted this sum of money that came out of nowhere.  In a meeting underneath the bamboo trees by the road, people had all sorts of ideas.  Someone proposed that the money should just be distributed equally among the population; someone else suggested a lottery.  In the end, the latter was rejected: on even distribution, everybody gets a little something but a lottery means that those people who need the aid may not get it.

The final solution was that the villagers can apply to the village committee under the existing definition of poverty.  The list of applicants is then published.  The villagers will then vote to get the ten finalists who will receive the relief aid.

The filming done by Nong Ke was very simple and clean.  A tripod was stationed firmly within the crowd, like a member of the audience.  There were no medium-shots or close-ups.  There was just the full scene.  The camera switched its location a few times.  That was the story.  "In terms of a visual analysis, his identity and conditions determined the method.  He basically had not thought of any other way."

The method of voting by the villagers was to put in a broad bean into the bowl under the name of the family that they are voting for.  When Wu Wenguang looked at the raw material, he immediately brought up the question: "We don't know what they put into the bowls.  You should show us that it was a broad bean, otherwise people might think it was a pebble or a peanut.  He was very ashamed and sorry.  When he came back to Beijing, he took some more shots with a few close-ups of hands putting broad beans into bowls.  By that time, I felt that it was unnecessary."  Wu Wenguang understood that doing a "Focus Interview" was inappropriate, but having any other standards for "documentary films" was just as inappropriate.  "This was how he shot it, and we should respect his method."

"When I was in the army, I heard about the implementation of the village committee organization laws and I thought that I could do something for the village and experience democratic self-rule in a small-scale setting.  That was why I decided not to stay on as an army officer.  When I got back to the village, I found out that reality was more complicated.  The dictatorial and corrupt village officials treated the village land as commercial products to be sold to the villagers for farming and they spent away all the income ..."  Wang Wei of Guanyin Temple Wangjia Village, Caizhou City, Shangdong province wrote on his application form.

Wang Wei is a "rights defender."  When he left the army in 1999, Wang Wei almost became a professional activist in his home village over the issue of land distribution.  "After a few years, I had done petitions and complaints.  In the end, I used the power of the media to appear in newspapers and television and attained the goal of replacing the officials."  Wang Wei laughed when he claimed to be the "black hand behind the curtain" that caused the entire village leadership group to be replaced.

While the village officials have been replaced, nothing much has changed with the situation about village land more than two years later.

"I think that I had gone though the prototypical case of villager self-rule.  My intention was to use video to record what happened.  I will record the village committee meeting, the village representatives' meeting, the villagers' general meeting, including the debates and quarrels, and even the insults and fights ... there should be some exciting things in the process.  It is just that the excitement is a little bit saddening to me."

Wang Wei was not able to shoot the contents that he anticipated.  The reason was simple.  Those meetings were postponed.  During the twenty filming days, nothing happened.

Shao Yuzhen of Shaziying village, Yangzhen zone, Shunyi district, Beijing city had about the same reasons as Wang Wei: "In our village, there is practically no progress.  Many things are not like what you imagine.  I want to use this event to narrate a real situation."

Shao Yuzhen's original topic was "Land lease" but she was unsuccessful for the same reason that there was not enough happening.  She was too bashful to enter the post-production work.  But the program group persuaded her to use the raw materials in her "training" shots to make the film titled "I Film My Village."

But these clips of seemingly plain village life were actually quite interesting and lively.  For example, someone was building a house and she went to film.  The owner was unhappy and came up to her to ask: "What does this mean?"  "It does not mean anything.  I am just doing this for fun!"  "What is so good about filming housing construction?  Who knows if you have something else in mind?"  During this whole time, the camera never stopped and Shao Yuzhen did not hesitate to reply and smartly changed the subject: "Tell us why are you adding a building extension?"  "For my cousin, because his house is about to topple down!"  The owner was now smiling into the camera.

In the final judging, "I Film My Village" received a first-class prize in the "Villager DV Project."

Wang Wei's short film "Land Division" was actually quite formidable.  But in his own words, "it ought to be flushed down the toilet" because "there are a lot of ideas about what is happening around me in real life, but I cannot articulate or express them while I was shooting."

During the judging of the Villagers DV films, Wang Wei could not hold back his inner doubts: "What are the effects and meaning of documentary films for society and my own self?"

This question stumped a judge: "This is too big of a problem.  I'll have to go back and think about it."

Wang Wei had been filming a very impoverished "bachelor" in his village.  The injustice of the land distribution system is most unfair to this type of person.  For other families, there are at least young people working outside.  He spoke to the "bachelor" and watched him make lunch -- a batch of steamed rice buns.  Then he looked at his watch.  It was past 1 pm in the afternoon.  It was time to leave.

"At first, I felt sympathy and pity for him.  In retrospective, I got along with him," said Wang Wei.  "Actually, he and I are the same type of person.  At the time, I did not respect him enough.  I did not even have the patience to watch him eat a meal.  All that stuff about concern was just bullshit."  Wang Wei's current plan is to "firmly record the reality in the village."  Apart from filming the "bachelor", he is now very interested in the memories of the village elders.  "When I hear them talk about the situation in the 1960's, I was shocked.  I ought to preserve those memories."

Shao Yuzhen thinks differently:  "I cannot change the situation of the village.  My source of power lies with the villagers.  They like what I film.  I use the DV camera to record their rehearsals for the spring festivals.  I filmed how I planted the watermelons, and I filmed what my neighbors were doing.  It may come into use some day.  I treat this as a tool to record the progression of my existence."

During the May 1st period, five of the villagers came together at the Grass Field.  Zhou Cengjia from Yueyang city, Hunan province was the most "listless."  When asked about his feelings after completing the film, he said, "I was lost.  I was like a child in the dark.  I did not know whether to head east or west."

Zhou Cengjia was covering the village secretary Wu Aiguo of the neighboring village.  More than ten years ago, this secretary had already been petitioning his superiors about the excessive burden on the peasants and had even been detained twice.  Zhou Cengjia admired this type of person.  "There are too few of these types of people among the rural villagers.  To solve the problems of the rural villages and the peasants, it will have to depend on the thoughts and ideas of the peasants themselves.  It is about education.  It is impractical to count on the outside."

He was disappointed with his own film.  On one hand, he was not too familiar with DV.  On the other hand, the filming period was too short and he did not communicate enough with his subject.  Zhou Cengjia is forty-something-years old and he has never touched a camera before.  So he did not seem to have too much confidence in a new tool such as the DV camera and "documentary films."

"I used to be passionate and over-reacting like Wang Wei.  As I grew older, I became more slick and experienced."  Old Zhou told us about his inner thoughts: "Our society is very complicated, especially the Chinese peasant villagers.  Those people who speak up truthfully for the villages and the villagers do not end up so perfectly.  I am not amongst the crowd of people who have no ideas or thoughts in the villages.  But I do not have the courage to petition like Wu Aiguo or join with others to oppose certain wrong things."

Jia Zitan is another extreme.  After this 55-year-old Hunan villager first came into contact with DV, new ideas came to him continuously.  He really does not have the time to play mahjong anymore.  When he left Beijing, he borrowed Wu Wenguang's documentary "Public Place" and it gave him a lot of inspiration.  On the train to Beijing, Old Jia observed the rural women who were always gathered between the train cars with their children and he was inspired: "I can make a film about them titled 'In between the train cars' or 'The passengers with no seats.'"

In his home village, with his DV camera, Old Jia really felt that "your status has changed.  People think that you are a reporter.  They come to see you for many things."  Some villagers wanted him to take the lead to form a village cooperative and Old Jia wants to try.  This time, he also contacted Chuxiang village, Yanyang county, Dingzhou city, Hebei province about school construction and he is contacting rural experts at the China Renmin University about relevant information.

Old Jia's most praiseworthy idea was the establishment of the "DV Entertainment Room" in rural villages.  "In rural villages, apart from mahjong, the only entertainment is those martial arts or erotic movies.  But the young people have all left for the outside to work, so nobody in the villages actually likes that stuff.  When they see the film that I took, they like it."

The bewildered Zhou Cengjia also agrees with Old Jia's idea.  "Our town has a regular population of 20,000 people.  We don't even have a cinema house, not a single cultural establishment.  If the DV entertainment room has the appropriate content, we can instruct and educate the peasants gradually."

This villager DV movie was completed at the end of last year.  So far, New York University, Yale University, Columbia University and Notre Dame University have exhibited it; it has appeared at the Hong Kong, Singapore and Lyons film festivals.

Zhou Cengjia was not satisfied: "These are upscale audiences; it has not yet reached back into the villages."

In February, the program group judged the villager movies.  Two groups of television program reporters came (CCTV Channel 12's "Legal Vistas" and China Educational TV's "National Televisual DV").  They expressed strong desires to show these films in their programs.

"That was something that I never thought about," said Wu Wenguang.  At first, the villagers' concept was: "Why shoot them if they aren't going to be broadcast?  If you shot a television film, it does not count unless it shows up on television."  "At first, I was trying everything that I could to dissuade them, so that they won't be disappointed in the end.  We wanted to preserve their crude methods and editing.  These do not meet the standards of the television channels; it is also difficult to guarantee that these kinds of contents will be shown."

But those two program groups were quite enthusiastic.  They hoped to pick four or five short films.  Wu Wenguang refused outright: "If you want it, you must take the whole thing.  You can't have one but not the other.  This is the entire package."  The other parties agreed.  Each segment would be paid 1,000 RMB.  Based upon the operating procedures at the television channels, the film will have to be broadcast, archived and recorded before payment is paid.  But Wu Wenguang asked the Educational TV channel for upfront payment.  So Shao Yuzhen received a total of 3,300 RMB altogether, including her first-class prize, and went home happily with that money.

Shortly afterwards, another telephone call came from a television program which wanted to see if there is anything else that can be broadcast.  Jia Zitan was excited: "My raw materials are enough for eight films, but I did not have the time to edit them.  Can the people in the workshop help out to see if there are opportunities?"

Old Jia was immediately criticized by the other four authors: "Are you're being too anxious?  How can you be like this?"

Zhang Huancai from Lantian, Shaanxi province said: "If there were no prize money and no television broadcast, would Old Jia still make the film?"  Old Jia thought that was right, but he asked: "Communism hasn't arrived yet, but shouldn't we still get some income?"

Zhang Huancai then asked the other three people and they all said: "Even if there were no prize money or broadcast, we would have still done it."

"I don't want to talk about this spiritual stuff.  If there were real benefits, I would be happier than you."  Old Wu gave this conclusion: "But there are too many interests to be considered.  Are you heading towards being an outside reporter for a television channel?  If so, then this thing is not fun anymore."

During the May 1st vacation, the five authors had another big thing going on in Beijing and that was to learn to operate the nonlinear editing system.  Over the course of a few days, they made tremendous progress.  As part of The Chinese Villager Self-Rule Visual Communication Program, their mission is said to be accomplished.  But Wu Wenguang and most other authors hoped that the village filming can continue.

"I don't want to overstate or exaggerate this matter in terms of building democracy or setting up a platform for villagers to express their opinions ... in terms of numbers, this is very, very small," said Wu Wenguang.  "But this method -- I see from Nong Ke and Old Jia that there was a certain sense that light was being shone on their lives and they want to continue to film."

Related Link:  Wu Wenguang's Village Video Project  Metanoiac