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Herby Smith discusses Ralph Stanley

Introducing Regional Filmmakers from Yunnan and Sichuan to the Appalshop Media Collective

Persimmon, Summer 2001

The close-up of the lined face of seventy-year-old Xiao Shuming, or the dewy, rosiness of the much younger Qiong Zhou, looked like it could have been straight out of a work by one of China's acclaimed Fifth Generation filmmakers. Yet these Chinese peasants are not actors, trained or otherwise, in a film by, say, Zhang Yimou, but real people whose day-to-day lives and momentous, and not-so-momentous, decisions are portrayed in the nonfiction films of Liang Bibo.

The rich diversity of the lives of ordinary people in distant corners of China has emerged as the subject matter for a new group of documentary filmmakers, like Liang, many of whom are familiar with the works of independent masters of the nonfiction form in the West such as Jean Rouch, Richard Leacock, and Frederick Wiseman. Not only do they bring full circle the preoccupations with the Chinese countryside of Fifth Generation filmmakers like Zhang Yimou, Chen Kaige, and Tian Zhuangzhuang, but they are also distinct from the generation of young independent Chinese filmmakers who work on urban themes in urban milieus. Not often show outside China, their films cast an eye on rural societies in specific regions of the country.

Liang Bibo, who works for the Chengdu Economic Television Station, and his compatriot Liu Xiaojin, from Yunnan Province Television in Kunming, had been invited to visit this country on six-month residences? by New York City's Asian Cultural Council, a foundation that supports cultural exchange in the visual and performing arts between the countries of Asia and the US.  They had both been named Fellows of the Council, and the purpose of their visit was to meet with filmmakers and media professionals in the United States.  At their offices in New York, Ralph Samuelson and Cecily Cook of the ACC introduced me to the two filmmakers since they thought that as the organizer of the Robert Flaherty Film Seminar, I would be interested in their ethnographic, nonfiction film work in southern China.

I was particularly interested to learn that, much like those who began filming for television in the West and in Japan in the 1950s, neither Liang nor Liu had gone to film school. Liang Bibo was born in Sichuan Province in 1963. After studying agriculture at Mianyang Agriculture College and Sichuan University, he worked as an agriculturist before joining the Chengdu Economic Television Station. At the station, he started out making films for news programs, and, since 1995, has made documentaries. Liu Xiaojin, born in Kunming in 1957, studied Chinese literature at Yunnan University. She joined the Yunnan Province Television Station in 1984 as a reporter and started making films on the job. Rather than being limited by their lack of formal film schooling, both Liang and Liu, have used their generalist, and perhaps idiosyncratic, education and careers, as well as their training as television journalists, to great effect in the making of their films. Their backgrounds have given them unmatched access and insight into the lives of their subjects, as well as well-honed reporting skills and an awareness of the nature and power of their art form.

What Liang Bibo and Liu Xiaojin do is ethnographic investigation and filmmaking for television often using folklorists and anthropologists as consultants. Few documentary filmmakers in China work independently in the manner of their Western counterparts. There is no not-for-profit funding or exhibition system, such as the private foundations or public television system in the United States. The majority of documentary filmmakers in China are employed in television. Chengdu Economic Television Station alone has twelve documentary filmmakers on its payroll.

In recent years, a three-tier television system has emerged in China: Central China Television (CCTV) is seen nationwide; each province has a provincial television station, such as the Yunnan Provincial Television Station that Liu Xiaojin works for; and every major city, such as Kunming or Chengdu, has its own station. Since the late 1980s, commercial stations, called Economic Television Station, have emerged in major cities. This is the sort of station that employs Liang Bibo in Chengdu.

The political control of these stations varies-CCTV is directly under the central government in Beijing, the provincial and city stations are under the provincial and city political authorities, and the commercial stations responsible for their own budgets and relatively freer in their programming, as long as they steer clear of what might be construed as political criticism. Ever mindful of the need to avoid any hint of what might be construed as political dangerous statements in their navigation of the carefully tended demarcation between the communist political system and the emerging capitalist economic system in China today, television filmmakers have produced an abundance of documentary films in China.

As I watched videotapes of Liu Xiaojin's Mask and Liang Bibo's Marriage and A Homecoming that I was given in New York, I began to think about introducing these regional ethnographic filmmakers from southern China to the regional filmmakers of Appalshop in the coal-mining heart of Appalachia's "poverty belt." My thoughts became reality in March of this year a couple of months later, when Liu Xiaojin, Liang Bibo, and Liang's wife, Li Ping, joined me on a week-long visit there.


The blue-gray hills and valleys of the Cumberlands are choppy swells below the high mountain ridges of the Appalachians. The season is still wintry; the trees are stark and bare. Here, the coal-rich hills of eastern Kentucky on the far side of one end of Shenandoah Valley in Virginia cradle the town of Whitesburg, population 1200, the home of Appalshop, one of the most remarkable media collectives in the United States.

Appalshop's story began in the 1960s. Bill Richardson, a young Yale graduate from Indiana, slowly made his way southward from town to town in the Appalachians, carrying with him some movie cameras bought as part of the Community Film Workshop Council of America, a program under Johnson's Great Society plan to bring filmmaking skills to underserved communities. Finally coming to roost in Whitesburg, Richardson set up shop, opening up a film school in what had been a little store, and waited. Gradually, curious young people wandered in. One of the first to drop by was Herb E. Smith. He ended up staying, and is still there today. After the Nixon Administration pulled the funding from the program, Richardson and Herb E. (pronounced Herbie) decided to make a go of it on their own. The year was 1969, and Appalshop was born. Of the seven schools established under the Johnson Administration plan, only two remain today, and Appalshop is the only one serving rural America. Reorganized and incorporated as a non-profit media and arts collective, it now has about forty employees housed in a large wooden barn that has been converted by Bill Richards into a three story loft-like space.

Before our trip, I asked Dee Davis, one of the filmmakers from Appalshop, over coffee on one of his visits to Manhattan, if any other media collectives had followed in the footsteps of Appalshop. He named a few. They were familiar to me, but what struck me was that none was quite the same in one important respect: Appalshop is a media collective of filmmakers from Appalachia who make films only in and about their own region. These artists have gone elsewhere to study or have moved around with wandering parents, but they have returned to their communities. The collective is still vibrant and inspiring in its fourth decade; it sponsors annual folk music festivals, its own radio station-with DJs like Electric Bill and Starvin' Marvin-and films produced with its own cameras and in its own editing studios that air on public television stations across the country and in international film festivals to great acclaim. It is run by a group of talented and inspired people. Here, there are no leaders. All decisions are made by consensus. What could be more appropriate than to introduce Liu Xiaojin and Liang Bibo to filmmakers like Elizabeth Barret and her husband Herb E. Smith at Appalshop, I had wondered back in New York City.


We flew from New York to Johnson City, Tennessee, where the nearest airport is located and made the two-hour drive to Whitesburg. One of the first things we did after we arrived was to set up a series of screenings to be held over the coming week? The screenings took place at the 150-seat theater on the ground floor of Appalshop. Herb E. Smith and Elizabeth Barrett; Dee David and his wife, Mimi Pickering; Greg Howard;
Maureen Mulliax; Nick Szuberla, a young filmmaker and recent transplant from Ohio; Michelle Reynolds; and a few others gathered to see the films that Dave Reynolds, Director of Distribution at Appalshop, and I selected. Some were from Appalshop's own productions, and others were by the two Chinese filmmakers.

One of the first films screened, Marriage, written, photographed, and directed by Liang Bibo, follows the intricate rituals involved in entering into this institution as they are practiced in rural Sichuan Province. Providing a thread throughout the film, which was shot in 1997 and 1998, is a matchmaker named Zhang who works assiduously to arrange two marriages in villages on opposite sides of a mountain. The six ritual steps that set up the formal structure of the film-the proposal, the negotiation of the engagement, the all-important obtaining of the birth dates of the parties concerned, the reckoning of the most auspicious dates for the wedding, and finally, the wedding celebration itself-are followed assiduously. Each is accompanied by intricate, extended bargaining, meetings, and role-playing by family members. The brides and grooms have relatively little to do; their futures are arranged by family members after deep consultation. "Everything is involved in the process, except love," says Liang.

What is interesting is that Liang Bibo has selected to film one marriage involving a bride coming to join her husband's family and another involving a groom coming to join his wife's family. In the first marriage, Jian, a fresh-faced, twenty-two-year-old who works the family's rocky fields, is an only son. Qiong, who is to be his bride, is soon to join his family's workforce. In the other marriage, the parents of Yu, a pretty twenty-year-old, expect their son-in-law to come and live with them. Their choice is Zhao, who is twenty-three and desirable because he is a high school graduate. In both cases, the negotiations are the same-perhaps because the same matchmaker is involved-as are the presents exchanging hands: money, wheat, wine, and meat, and a little matter of whether six or four suits of clothing were asked for.

The film is set in mist-shrouded mountains and valleys, and each ritual is accompanied by festivities, firecrackers, the blare of trumpets, and raggedly joyful processions. The demands of the local authorities come in the way, as a road has to be built in the mountains, and the young workers take advantage of their rest time to kid Jian, the bashful groom to be. The film is without narration and follows the story and the
events as they unfolded.


Liang Bibo's own background as an agriculturist helped him get close to the people he was filming. ("How can you teach Chinese peasants what they have been doing for five thousand years?" I ask. "Because I am a scientist!" he declares with a humorous glint in his eye.) The intimacy and trust between the filmmaker and the villagers is evident in the film. The scenes of the first shy flirtations exchanged by Jian and Qiong, the betrothed, are proof of this. As we watch the film, one Appalshop member remarks that although he may never visit that part of China, Liang Bibo has made him feel he knows the villagers. Dave Reynolds wryly remarks that Marriage reminded him of his own recent wedding to Michelle and their dealings with relatives on both sides. "There's a Herb E. shot!" someone said to knowing laughter, upon seeing Liang's expressive close-ups of raindrops.

Liang Bibo's other films were also shot in southwest china. In Pony Express, he follows Li Bin, a postal veteran of over thirty years, on his twice-monthly rounds on horseback in the mountains surrounding the plateau lake of Lugu, home to various minority nationalities like the Moso, the Li, and Tibetans. The film offers a look at not only a messenger service that goes back about two thousand years but also the various local customs encountered along the way. The Buddhist Nun of Emei Mountain is set in Fuhu temple, home to over twenty Buddhist nuns, on this famous mountain in southwestern Sichuan. Winter records the life of two farmers in Qishuping Village over the course of a harsh winter in the regionÕs Minshan mountain range.


The stars are bright on our first night in Whitesburg. Charming little cottages are pale dabs at the bottom of the hill. "They call this poor?" Liang asks with some amusement. A dog barks as we skirt little mushy puddles, making our way down the raw hilly path from Dee and MimiÕs lovely home. "Just like China!" declares Liang. I often hear him say this, whether on the hiking trail or at dinner. China is an ever-present translucence through which he sees the world. It is a familiar experience for all of us fortunate to experience another culture, another landscape.

This comes alive for Liu Xiaojin and Liang Bibo in Whitesburg: what impresses them most is the ease with which they are able to relate not only to Appalshop, but to Dave and Michelle, Herb E. and Elizabeth. It is the connection among these people themselves that makes Appalshop part of a real community. What we're talking about here are not the interest groups that often serve as surrogate communities in our cities, but, instead, of relatives, neighbors, and annoying town elders whom one cannot avoid dealing with Ñ people who have a direct and immediate entitlement to a say in their neighbors' very personal lives. "The deepest relationships," Herb E. concurs, discussing the importance of living in one's community, of his and Elizabeth's decision to bring up their children near their cousins.

Community is a very real thing in Appalshop's films, whether they are about the culture of Appalachia or about the environmental and social issues facing the region - the two main themes of the films produced by the collective. Time and time again, I see names and faces I recognize from their films around Whitesburg. A name on a country road sign, Colm, nudges us intimately when a lawyer with the same name represents mining interests in a film by Herb E. The face of an activist in another film stares back from a framed photo in a country store turned mining museum that we drop into outside neighboring Hazard.


The films we screened offered insights into the role of image-making in the enactment of dominant national and cultural mythologies. The urgency and dynamism of China's recent economic growth and push towards modernization cast an inescapable hue in Bibo and Xiaojin's films. Despite its regional variations and many nationalities, China, partly though its culture and history, and partly because of its national mythology defined by the dominant Han culture, is arguably a single state. Not unlike the United States. Appalshop's films, growing out of a period of questioning in the 1960s, are marked by their insistent telling of smaller stories about smaller traditions in the United States and essentially constitute a critique of the effects of industry and modernization on Appalachian life and culture. In turning their cameras on regional life in China, Liang Bibo and Liu Xiaojin tell stories that add richness to China's picture of itself, but their political stance is not easily identifiable. Liu Xiaojin's Mask takes an intriguing look at the impact of the dominant culture's interest in local cultures; but the villagers and minority cultures, such as the Moso nationality in Liang Bibo's A Homecoming (San Jie Cao) are unabashedly seen as a "mysterious" and "untouched by the progress of civilization achieved by their Han brothers".

A Homecoming, made in 1999, begins with a beautiful close-up of gnarled, lined hands packing tobacco into the bowl of a long stemmed pipe. Off-screen, Xiao Shuming''s seventy-year old voice, still strong and clear, recounts the warring times of 1943, when, as a teenager, she was married off by her parents to La Baocheng, a headman from La Duosha, a remote village on Lugu Lake. It is the story of a remarkable life. Xiao, a high school student from the majority Han nationality, finds herself the headman's concubine among the minority nationality Moso. Not speaking a word of the local language, Xiao joins a tiny matrilineal society in the starkly beautiful mountains of southwest China, 350 miles south of her hometown of Chengdu. As headman, La Baocheng has the prerogative of having both a formal marriage and concubines. But the rest of the Moso practice a form of open marriage, the men being invited by the women to spend the night only to return to their own family and female relatives in the morning to resume their roles as father figures to the latterÕsÕ children. In her large black turban and traditional robe, and even occasionally a workerÕs cap, Xiao cuts a commanding figure of the leader she has become, especially since her husband's death.

As her life story unfolds, with Xiao addressing the camera, Liang intercuts a narrative of her eighteen-year old granddaughter Lechu who is seeking a job in Chengdu. Breaking through the years of learning to live among an alien people whose language she gradually came to speak, it is through her granddaughter that Xiao begins her own journey back to the home she left over fifth years ago. The times have changed, and Lechu, having worked in a hotel in the city in Chengdu, now hungers to leave behind for good the mountains of Lugu Lake for life in the modern city of Chengdu. With a sureness that comes her pride in her Han identity and her distinction as an educated woman who became the headmanÕs most powerful concubine, Xiao meets with the representative of the company visiting the village to recruit employees.

A Homecoming is lovely to look at; Lugu Lake is an area of great natural beauty. And Liang, who wrote, shot, and directed the film, captures the barely still images of the waters of the lake. Unusual camera placements, a dramatic sequence of a destructive storm and the stillness of destruction it leaves in its wake, and sequences depicting the village Buddhist rituals all give the film's images a vitality that lingers long after they disappear from the screen. Again, the intimacy and trust the people in the village feel for the filmmaker comes clearly through. Delicate negotiations, family meetings, Xiao's matriarchal admonitions of her children, the anxieties as Xiao pushes Lechu's parents to borrow the money for her travel testify to the access Liang, an outsider, had to the Moso people in the village.

This inherent distance of the filmmaker had more tragic consequences in an Appalshop film that was screened for Liang and Liu Xiaojin. Elizabeth Barret's acclaimed Stranger with a Camera, made in 2000, turns an investigation into the 1967 killing of Hugh O'Connor, a filmmaker who was in the area during the War on Poverty gathering images for a film and was killed by a local landowner, Hobart Ison, into exploration of media itself. Media exposure and it's the relation to private dignity is a deeply held concern at Appalshop. Although their unmatched trove of footage of Appalachia is a source of good income for the collective - a chilling shot of a strip mining explosion is often humorously referred to as their "money shot," so constant and strong is the demand for it by filmmakers and television stations around the countryÑDave notes they are careful to investigate the uses potential buyers have in mind for the footage they request. Liu Xiaojin, wielding a video camera herself at all times for a film she plans to make upon her return to Kunming, was impressed by Elizabeth's investigation of an event that happened in her childhood, turning the still-strong memories in the community into a questioning of the role of media itself in defining Appalachia's place in the American imagination.


Liu Xiaojin's response is not surprising since the relationship between media and communities and local culture is the engrossing subject of Mask: A Field Report on Masked Performance. This was the one of her films that was screened at Appalshop. The film follows the mounting of a local art form of rural Yunnan province.  Guan Suo Opera, whose earlier name literally meant "to tell a story," features performers who don colorful masks depicting, among others, the Insect God, the God of Magic, the Maiden God, and the Guardian God. The film is set in the village of Xiaotun. Interviews with folklorists and anthropologists are interspersed with preparations for a performance during the New Year's celebration in 1997.  The revival of the form in 1980, after its suppression during the Cultural Revolution, and the recent surge of interest in the cultural diversity of Yunnan have made Xiaotun a favorite destination for ethnographers, filmmakers, and tourists.

Capturing the actual sequence of rituals that lead up to a performance of this opera form, the film acquires a startling aspect as the filmmakers learn of the ways in which the villagers have begun to respond to the increasing number of filmmaking crews descending upon the village. The Buddhist monks who traditionally perform this New Year's festival are no longer around; the family that has organized the village participation in the event for the past dozen generations has turned it over to others in the village. No longer do the villagers stick to their traditional schedule of performing the opera for three years in a row and then taking a rest for the next three. Multiple performances are staged within a year for filmmakers from Beijing, Guangdong, and other cities in China.  The set sequence of rituals is continually altered for the benefit of the cameras, sometimes with hilarious results. The villagers themselves are not unaware of the irony. "Today is a busy day. The country will film you. You will be famous. So will we," a peasant croons to a rooster who, by not pecking at his food, has refused to be reincarnated. He is replaced by a more cooperative bird.

Mask is ostensibly - and indeed starts out asÑa film about this ritual performance tradition, but it soon turns itself inside out to meditate on the ways in which the performers negotiate the terms of their encounters with outside ethnographers. What, then, is really being documented, the filmmaker asks. Still, the film has painted an honest picture of customs as they evolve in the hands of the villagers. Not for them the mummification of tradition, but a wink at the outsider's eternal search, with its ever-nagging suspicion of never getting the real goods, the Holy Grail of the authentic and for cross-cultural understanding.


The very first film we see together is Whoa Mule, a delightful three-minute video of a musician. Herb E. had this idea that music videos should not only be about products from America's vast recording industry but also of traditional American music known as roots music.  The video was immensely popular and was played repeatedly on television stations across the South. But no other music video followed in its wake since it did very little for CD sales. "How many good ideas, worthy traditions fall on rocky ground?" I wonder. Herb E. laughs and commends me on my grasp of Biblical parables. He agrees: many have come and gone; few are missed.

"Will these minority traditions in China survive the race to wealth and modernity?" I ask Bibo. "The stronger ones will, the weaker and smaller will be subsumed," he replies, matter-of-factly. But before that happens, will a Moso filmmaker make a film about his own culture? Will his stories sound like the ones that Appalshop tells? Until then, artists like Bibo and Xiaojin will continue to tell their stories on film and give us an insight into their changing worlds with the art and imagination of their films. Perhaps the filmmakers even told their tales on Appalshop's Mountain Radio WMMT 88.7 FM where they were guests on DJ Electric Bill's talk show later in the week. But I missed it. I wasn't there, for I left early. But I am told that their radio program did go out over the Internet. Maybe, just maybe, someone in Beijing logged on just then.