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Maureen Mullinax videotapes Guo Jing

An Appalachia-Southwest China Filmmakers' Exchange.

Persimmon, Summer 2003
International Documentary, December 2003

In March 2003, as we began screening documentaries by filmmakers from rural Kentucky to audiences in southwest China, American missiles began raining down on Baghdad; Hu Jintao replaced Jiang Zemin as part of the most extensive leadership change since the death of Mao Zedong in 1976; and whispers about the burgeoning SARS epidemic started to circulate. As in a Chinese landscape of inky peaks and swirling mists looming over a speck of a lonely boatman in the gorge below, global events formed the backdrop of the discussions on documentary filmmaking and regional cultures in a globalizing world that we were participating in. It was a sobering reminder of the vast realities of the modest inquiry that had brought ten of us, nine from Appalshop, a media collective in Appalachia, and myself, a film curator from New York, into contact with our counterparts in Yunnan and Sichuan provinces. It was just as well we were intending to talk about globalization and regional culture in a newly connected world.


We were in China for three weeks and formed the American contingent for a project called "Appalshop in China", which included a conference on documentary film, featuring Appalshop's films, in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan Province, and a presentation of these films as part of the Yunnan Multi-Culture Visual Festival in Kunming, the capital of Yunnan Province. The project had its beginnings in an exploration of the role of documentary films in cultural preservation, the focus of two seminars I had organized in Indonesia in 2000. Following those seminars, I was asked to organize media interactions for several Asian Cultural Council fellows visiting the United States, and I decided to introduce two ethnographic filmmakers from China - Bibo Liang from Chengdu and Liu Xiaojin from Kunming - to the collective in Appalachia.

Appalshop, based in Whitesburg, in eastern Kentucky, was established in 1969 under one of President Lyndon B. Johnson's Great Society programs to bring filmmaking to underserved communities in the United States. Over the course of more than thirty years, Appalshop emerged as one of the most vital and energetic American arts institutions.† Its distinctive approach is having people from the region take into their own hands the documentation, representation, interpretation, and preservation of Appalachian life and society through film, and also theater, radio and the Internet.

Since Sichuan is home to thirteen of the fifty-five minorities of China, and Yunnan to no less than twenty-six, the ethnic minorities and the diversity of their home provinces are the subject of Bibo Liang's and Liu Xiaojin's films. With their sensitivity to local minority cultures, their geographical remove from the centers of power in China, and histories of mining and environmental degradation in the mountain regions of their provinces, the Chinese filmmakers had much to talk about with their Appalachian hosts when they visited Whitesburg in the spring of 2001. Their interaction with the filmmakers from Appalshop (which I wrote about in the Summer 2001 issue of Persimmon) turned out to be an unlikely but eye-opening meeting of minds. It led me to think further on media exchange forums on issues of documentation and interpretation, not only to preserve traditional and local cultures, but also to find new ways for filmmakers to interact with a rapidly globalizing world.


When Bibo Liang and Liu Xiaojin returned to their respective hometowns, they took up my suggestion of inviting the filmmakers they had met in Kentucky to China. With encouragement from the Asian Cultural Council and support from the Institute of International Education, they organized the conference and presentations in Chengdu and Kunming. Though similar in intent, the events in the two cities could not have been more different. The Chengdu-Appalshop Documentary Conference, which opened on March 13, under the aegis of CETV (Chengdu Economic Television, the city's commercial television channel, where Bibo Liang is a producer), the Sichuan Cultural Association, and the Sichuan TV Artists Association, was attended by about eighty television professionals from Chengdu and other cities in Sichuan Province, including Chongqing, Deyan, and Ya’an, as well as about fifteen students from Sichuan University. All of the screenings at the conference were of Appalshop films, with the exception of Bibo Liang's latest documentary, Old Photos (2002), an arresting portrait of an American photographer who worked in Sichuan in the early part of the twentieth century. The participants, young, articulate and mostly male, did not hesitate to make comments and question the American visitors.

The Appalshop presentations that followed in Kunming, which Liu Xiaojin organized, with the help of her friend and our interpreter and interlocutor, Jeff Crosby, a local American resident, included screenings and discussions at Yunnan University, as well as at the first annual Yunnan Multi-Culture Visual Festival.† Paid for in full by private money - with in-kind support by Yunnan University, the Yunnan Provincial Museum, the Yunnan Arts Institute, and Yunnan Nationalities University - the festival was organized and staffed completely by volunteers. Ninety-three Chinese documentaries were screened, most of them independent; fewer than ten were productions from TV stations. Filmmakers from all over China, including Beijing, Shanghai, and Hong Kong, attended, and there were participants from England and Thailand, as well. In addition, in Kunming, the Yunnan Provincial Television Station screened for us some of their current productions, including a very funny and sharply-observed film, as yet without an English title, by Caowei, a producer at the station, about traditional and local Party leaders tussling over who should be charge of the revival of their harvest festival, and Liu Xiaojin's Chronicle of the Minority Institute, a work-in-progress about the passionate quest of one man to preserve the minority cultures of the province.


The thinking behind both the Chinese filmmakers‚ visit to Appalshop and the Appalshop filmmakers‚ visit to China was that there is a need for international exchange between regions, not nations, that have certain cultural affinities and concerns. "Appalshop in China" was conceived of less as a U.S.-China filmmakers' exchange than as an Appalachia-southwest China regional exchange. In effect, it was an experiment in, and exploration of, a new link, a re-mapping of culture so to speak. It was therefore gratifying that filmmakers in southwest China responded with enthusiasm to the notion that we had come directly to Chengdu and Kunming, deliberately steering clear of Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong.

What distinguished this project was not merely that these provincial cities were seldom stops for international exchanges, which usually lead off in Beijing. By establishing a direct connection from Appalachia to southwest China, it sought to provide a forum for the urgent issues regarding the future of regional cultures. Many of these issues center on the pressures felt in both areas to assimilate within their respective nations, as well as international pressures to become a part of a global network. These connections spotlight a new focus and forum for discussion, resulting in an interaction between regional cultures whose identities are often submerged and obscured by the larger national identities.† And if a region’s cultural identity is a result of a negotiation of how it sees itself and how it is seen by others, would not new interactions with cultures it does not traditionally have connections with enrich and empower that region’s sense of identity?

This re-mapping of culture, the thinking went, was enabled by the very nature, growth, and expansion of media and communications technologies, which had given outlying regions like Appalachia and Yunnan the power and tools of media making that had once been the preserve of traditional centers of media production such as New York or Los Angeles, Beijing or Shanghai. In as much as the increasing global interdependencies are a result of advances in media and communications, "Appalshop in China" was intended to bring together media makers from regions that are primarily consumers of national and global media. As a professor of communications at Sichuan University, Mao Lifeng - we called him Chairman Mao, since he was also chairman of Chengdu's Movie Critics Organization - pointed out, exchanges between regions away from the traditional centers that force one to look at the details of one's life could not but have a salutary effect on the documentary filmmaker and his art.


Two Chinese documentaries I saw during the trip gave me an idea of the context in which documentary filmmakers in China are working. A recent mainstream Chinese documentary on the Dai minority, which I caught the last half of on CCTV-9 late one night in my hotel room in Chengdu, was depressingly representative. With its authoritative voice explaining how the Dai lived among the trees, intoning over visuals of happy children wearing makeup and hardworking tribesmen in colorful and obviously brand-new head scarves, it reminded me of documentaries made elsewhere in Asia.

The second was The Oroquen, a ravishing ethnographic film made in 1963 by Yang Guanghai, the seventy-one-year-old pioneer of Chinese ethnographic film, screened at the Kunming festival.† The ideological perspective was clear and direct, with roots in the traditional ethnocentrism and historical attitudes of China’s Han majority, seen through a Marxist lens: the Oroquen, the nomadic tribesmen who were the subject of the film, were happily making the Marxian progression from tribal social organization to a settled agricultural society under communism. Produced by the Beijing Science Education Movie Factory, the film was an example of the first generation of ethnographic films produced in the People’s Republic of China. It was during this period, which began in 1956 and ended with the onset of the Cultural Revolution in 1966, that sixteen investigative teams gathered information about the way of life of each of the recognized minority groups in China. Yang, himself a member of the Bai minority and steeped in Han culture, joined China's military academy in 1950 and made over thirty films on different minorities, including the Naxi, the Dai, and the Miao.

The questions flowed easily at the screenings in Chengdu. They provided a picture not only of the state of documentary films in China, and clearly stemmed from the concerns and issues faced by Chinese artists.† Much of what the participants, who were industry professionals, wanted to know about related to documentary filmmaking and production in the United States; many of their questions were about budgeting and funding.† Dave Reynolds explained how he draws up marketing strategies and oversees the distribution of Appalshop films.† But, as would be expected from such professionals, some of their questions were also fine critiques, such as those posed to Tom Hansell.† After the screening of Coal Bucket Outlaw, his film about a couple who go in and out of the coal-trucking business, some participants wanted to know why, for instance, the film mentions the hard, dangerous work hauling coal entails, without showing any footage of road accidents.† Or why the seasons in the background remain unchanging in a film that took two years to make.

We got a starkly different picture of documentary production in China from two filmmakers from Deyan Television Station at an informal conversation in Chengdu with Appalshop's Mimi Pickering after the screening of Hazel Dickens: Its Hard to Tell the Singer from the Song, her film about the famous exponent of old-time blue-grass country music. They explained that filmmakers at Chinese television stations are on salary and have no budget limitations if they can justify stories of contemporary social interest--whether they are about the environment, culture, or economic agricultural practices--and get them approved by the station. Their films are twenty minutes in length, and take about three months to complete, from proposal to airing. It made for a fascinating exchange as Pickering's hour-long film, edited down from thirty hours of footage, was shot over the ten years it took to raise funds for and complete the project.

An informal roundtable, organized by Guo Jing, the director of the Kunming festival, of ten Chinese filmmakers and three Appalshop filmmakers, gave direct insights into the somewhat different problems faced by independent filmmakers like Liu Xiaojin, who have to find their own funding for their films. There are no private foundations or private funding agencies in China for independent film production. (As the producers from Deyan TV had pointed out during our teahouse conversation in Chengdu, there is no inheritance tax in China, and those who have managed to accumulate wealth in China’s recent economic boom have no incentive to give away any money.) The more established independent filmmakers receive funding from regional television stations that air their works. Occasionally films like The Secret of My Success (2002), and No. 16 Barkhor South Street (1997), both by the Beijing filmmaker Duan Jinchuan, are shown in summer slots on the country's main network, CCTV. Foreign television such as NHK from Japan and BBC-2 and BBC-4, which have sales agents to help develop the greater China market, offer another source of financing for the better-known independent filmmakers.

Even independent films that regional TV stations finance often run into problems if they diverge significantly from the direction of politically approved "reform." Liu Xiaojin's Mask (2000) was produced by Yunnan TV, which has yet to air it because the station wants to cut the film down to the standard twenty minutes from its current two hours but lacks the funds to do so, and perhaps also because the theme of the impact of recent political and economic changes on traditional regional opera is politically sensitive.

One might venture to think that the independent artist is no longer at odds with the Chinese Communist Party. The current political doctrine of the Three Represents (announced by Jiang Zemin in 2001 to make the Party seem more inclusive to all elements of society) has essentially replaced the traditional Marxist concept of class struggle with one-party rule.† With the Party in control politically to ensure stability, China is more open and free to pursue wealth and capitalist growth, throwing filmmakers into a new and complex situation. Television stations receive visits from Party officials every month, to ensure that filmmakers know the lines not to cross.† As Mimi Pickering observed, the situation is not that dissimilar from market-imposed restrictions on certain subjects in the United States.†

As for me, I could not help but think of the powerful political forces back home that seem intent on turning the United States into a one-party capitalist society like China.† This possibility of the United States going the way of China - the dogma since the Nixon administration of an engaged capitalist China inevitably turning democratic going the way of the deterministic Marxist one of the withering of the State - struck me as grimly ironic and fraught with repercussions for regional cultures. Appalshop’s filmmakers would face not only the market pressures Pickering spoke of, but also added political pressures like those felt by their Chinese counterparts.† If globalization grows within the framework of increasingly monolithic political structures, regional alliances across international borders may increase in importance as lifelines for regional diversity and local cultures.


It was apparent that the filmmakers from Appalshop, located in a town with a population of 1,200, did not really have anything technical to teach the producers from a major television station in China's fourth-largest city, population 11 million. But what they brought to the television producers in Chengdu was not only a different picture of America - one that is rarely exported to other countries via the media machines of Hollywood and Madison Avenue - but also a different method of looking at one's own culture, and a different way of telling a story.

Elizabeth Barret's Stranger with a Camera (2000), a documentary about how a filmmaker from Canada was shot to death by an Appalachian farmer, impressed viewers with its insight into American poverty and issues of representation.† One of the film's main themes is who is empowered to make images of whom.† Some who wondered how the film even got made saw how Appalshop chooses, and is able, to be independent and to exercise the right to free expression. But more than that, as Barret added, the collective receives federal and public funding, through agencies like the National Endowment for the Arts, indicating that, through public broadcasting, American television has room for this kind of critique: provocative and controversial to some, but essentially not threatening to the government.

One prominent feature of the Appalshop films that drew attention in Chengdu - the absence of voice-over narration - was viewed as disturbing by some of the Chinese participants because to them it indicated a lack of authority. Realizing that the Chinese filmmakers had no frame of reference to the American documentary in general, Appalshop filmmakers took pains to explain that even in the United States, their non-narrated interviews and footage style, although far from uncommon in independent documentaries, were unusual in most mainstream documentaries.

Many of the Chengdu participants commented that they had never seen filmmakers appear as an actor in their own works - Tom Hansell appears in Coal Bucket Outlaw, and Elizabeth Barret, in Stranger with a Camera. Barret's explanation of her appearance in the film was revealing of a larger philosophical approach: she saw herself as a guide to and an interpreter of what she was learning about the media through the event she was exploring on film. Therefore she felt she needed to start the film by explaining who she was. Like many filmmakers in the United States, she took the approach of featuring herself in a film in the first-person narrative, employing what is known as a self-reflexive filmmaking style that reveals who is doing the constructing of the film.

Such a self-reflexive approach might have made one of the Chinese films featured in the festival in Kunming more accessible. Herdsmen, Chen Jianjun's gorgeous film, is a big-budget film produced by CCTV and Xinjiang Telecom. Reminiscent of some of the work by the American filmmaker Robert Gardner, the film follows a Kazak family of the nomad Turkic culture in the Uighur Autonomous Region of China. With its detailed observation of the family's daily life, (some of it staged), over the course of the dramatically changing seasons, the film is a rare ethnographic portrayal of a vanishing way of life. Despite its somewhat simplistic subtitles, its avoidance of the ubiquitous voice-over was refreshing, but I felt that the absence of an overt filmmaker's point of view was not entirely compensated for by the formal beauty of the film. Part of the difficulty lay with our lack of contextualizing knowledge of contemporary attitudes in China toward regional and local culture, toward questions of cultural identity, assimilation, and acculturation. A purely observational approach when making a film about the Other is understandable political strategy in China. Yet, given historical Han attitudes toward minorities in China and rapid globalization, Herdsmen left me uncertain about the film's perspective on endangered cultures.

A symposium at Sichuan University on the topic "Modern American Media of Film and Television and Culture," organized by the university's art department and the Movie and Broadcast Research Institute, was attended by about thirty students.† There, Appalshop's Herb E. Smith observed, after the screening of Whoa! Mule (1989), his groundbreaking music video featuring the banjo player/farmer Lee Sexton, and his more recent The Ralph Stanley Story, that Appalshop was still a laboratory of learning, offering no answers and no solutions.† The style of its films, bewildering to many who first encounter them, has been never to follow the spotlight, because the spotlight moves on quickly in America; the films are straightforward and therefore do not go out of style. There are no voice-overs and not voice of authority, but rather a multiplicity of voices; and, Smith added, if ever there was a trick it was to have no trick but to keep it simple.

At the festival in Kunming, we had an opportunity to see what is perhaps the closest counterpart to the Appalshop philosophy in China in the works of the five filmmakers, three women and two men, who formed the Beijing-based collective called I and Thou. The filmmakers, who have been friends for over ten years, share ideas, work on each other's films, and often share household chores and living arrangements, as well. They were the most open and sympathetic of any of the Chinese filmmakers we encountered to sensitive national issues such as Tibet, and spoke of the pressures and harassment they felt when, every now and then, the Beijing police dropped by their editing rooms for unscheduled inspections. Ji Dan’s Gongbu’s Happy Life (1999), her film about the life of a Tibetan villager, displayed a sensitivity and understanding that could only have come from the three years she spent living in remote Tibetan villages. Sha Qing’s Wellness (2002), one of the most affecting and accomplished films in the entire festival, is a heartrending, closely observed portrait of a young farmer who fights for the life his young son, who is afflicted with cerebral palsy. Another member of I and Thou, Feng Ya, screened Dreams of the Yangtze River (2002), a promising work in progress about the inhabitants of two villages which were to be submerged upon completion of the Three Gorges Dam.

So it did not come as a surprise that Ji Dan and her friends from this collective admired Greg Howard's Justice Delayed, a consciousness-raising film for and about sanitation workers in Lexington, Kentucky, asserting that there was a need in China for such media activism.† Surprisingly, after the screenings of Howard's Justice Delayed or of the excerpt from Racing for Higher Ground: Youth Activism in the Mountains, one of the film clips Maureen Mullinax selected for her presentation on the films produced by Appalachian youth at Appalshop, there was little discussion about labor and union-organizing among the working class.† After all, one might have expected more in a country with a communist history over the last half a century. Interestingly, of the five clips Mullinax selected, Searching for an Appalachian Accent provoked the most comment. Perhaps this charmer of a film about the ways of speaking in Appalachia, the pressure to drop one's accent, and how to be proud of who you are, struck a chord among the Sichuanese, who like many others in China, are singled out for their dialect.

There was general recognition among the professional filmmakers in Sichuan and Yunnan of the importance that Appalshop places demystifying the filmmaking process in order to connect with young people and enable them to explore filmmaking as a way to become creative and learn about their own communities. At the festival in Kunming, we encountered a similar project of empowerment and community. The Azara Visual Workshop (azara meaning holy pilgrim in Tibetan), composed of Guo Jing and his team of community researchers, has undertaken a fascinating experiment called Participatory Visual Education (2000-2002).†† For this project, Azara gave video cameras to Tibetan villagers in western Yunnan, and asked them to make short films about their own lives. Part research project, part an attempt at providing the villages with self-education in their own local culture--glaringly absent in the uniform textbooks of China's formal education system -- Azara has produced four short films, the most trenchant of them, Travelers, being a deft skewering by villagers who turn the camera back upon a team of Big-City television journalists from CCTV who have come to make a film about the Shangri-La Festival in their village.


It was an unusual dialogue that took place between the filmmakers from Appalachia and the filmmakers of southwest China. Barret perhaps spoke for all of Appalshop when she said that they were lucky not only to see that their media transcended distance and language, but also to have the opportunity to see their own work in a different context, which allowed for new perspectives, as they viewed their work with a fresh set of eyes.†

Kunming, despite being perched a mile high in the mountains, has balmy subtropical weather, and a charming bohemian, artistic flair. As China's southernmost major city, it seems to exude an openness and diversity, as evidenced, for example, by its recent exploration of its cultural affinities with Southeast Asia.† In Chengdu, no one raised his hand when Herb E. Smith asked the audience at Sichuan University if anyone was from the mountains.† At the Kunming festival, on the other hand, one of the organizers was an anthropologist from the Naxi minority, and the video projectionist was a Tibetan.† In contrast to laid-back Kunming, Chengdu is bustling; it alternates with Shanghai every other year as host to China's television festival and market.† The 2000-year-old city seems to be sprouting right before one’s very eyes. Full-sized palm trees made of neon grace city streets leading to a stunning new shopping center in full-blown traditional style that I thought I heard one of our interpreters humorously call the Chinatown of China. Walls are erected around entire blocks of traditional houses, their tile roofs in disrepair, waiting to be pulled down and replaced by another Great Mall of China or a skyscraper like the other neon-outlined towers that light up the cityscape after sundown.

The old lifestyle does not go unmourned. Over jasmine tea at a spanking-new Chengdu teahouse built in ersatz traditional style, with fashion glossies at the door and cages of black mynah birds suspended from the ceiling, one Sichuanese filmmaker ruminated that he does not yet feel at home in the new China.† He said that his encounter with the filmmakers from Appalshop had brought to mind his grandmother, who, while marveling at the brand-new road in front of her house, still missed the old broken-down street she had lived with for so many years.†

L. SOMI ROY was project director of "Appalshop in China."† He is a film and media curator based in Brooklyn, New York.