China: The use of Citizens Documentary in Chinese Civil Rights Movements

2010-08-19 - florence

(Editor note: This article is written by Tengbiao, a human rights lawyer in Beijing. The original Chinese article can be found in the writer's own blog. )

Village officials sold village land without disclosing records and accounting details, resulting in vigorous campaigns among the villagers. With the help from the lawyers, journalists, and scholars, villagers go against and denounce the officials. In 2005, the Taishi incident in Panyu, Guangdong, became one of the famous cases of the Chinese Civil Rights Movement. Ai Xiaoming’s documentary, "Taishi" recorded the event. Lawyers were beaten, villagers were arrested, and the whole village was enveloped in an atmosphere of terror. The last scene of the documentary showed filmmaker being beaten in containment by a group of unidentified gangs. In horror, with her car door broken, she called for help. The producer then added the following subtitle: "During the shooting process, I found that many agencies have video cameras, I think the villagers should have a video camera of their own.”

Along with China's development into an economic society, issues on human rights violation from the repressive political system have increasingly aroused a feeling of resentment and resistance among the people. Post-totalitarian political system can no longer meet people's growing awareness of rights and their quest for freedom and democracy. The phenomenon can be seen as one of the principal contradictions in today’s Chinese society. Under this context, the Chinese Civil Rights Movement came into being. The internet has not only significantly increased the speed and widespread penetration for civil movements, but also changed their nature, from text to photographs, from images to videos, from traditional media to citizen journalists, from one-way flow of information to interaction. This process meets with the development pattern for communications and of social movements, while Documentary plays a highly visible role in the Chinese Citizen Campaigns.

I have been involved in some civil rights cases as a human rights lawyer, which left me with a very strong feeling, that is, China has no independent judiciary system, nor does it has an independent media. Therefore, the only hope lies on a few means, including the use of unofficial media to spread the truth, and to resorting to public opinion and moral strength. Obviously, the intuitive nature of Documentary, with images and characters, is most straightforward for people to understand, sympathize, and to achieve powerful impact. Documentary can sometimes amplify the voices of those involved, develop the progress of the event itself, and even become the most critical turning point of a public event.

One kind of Documentary is the direct record of a particular case or event, such as Ai Weiwei's work, "Mom Ti Hua". It recorded all the experiences Ai Weiwei, as a court witnesses, encountered in Chengdu right before the Tan Zuoren trial. The release of "Mom Ti Hua” aroused a large number of views and spreads on the network, making it an enormous contribution to the attention and mobilization for the Tan Zuoren case. Even after introducing the documentary, "civil investigation" which talked about Tan Zuoren and other volunteers’ investigation of the Sichuan earthquake, Professor Ai Xiaoming moved on to launch the “Why Are the Flowers So Red", which recorded Ai Weiwei's investigation work after the earthquake and the making of “Mom Ti Hua”.

The Yang Jia case that happened before the Olympics had caused a great shock to the people, especially among Internet users in China. The impact was no less than the Sun Zhigang case in 2003. "An unsocial person" revealed all the truth of the Yang Jia case that was unknown to the outside world. Yang Jia case to Ai Weiwei was just like the Taishi Village case to Ai Xiaoming: both contributed to a certain change in two important public intellectuals one from the south and the other from the north. They both make use of their own actions and documentary works to become prominent figures in the Chinese Civil Rights Movement.

Ai Weiwei's "Good Life" is the story of Feng zhenghu’s difficult experience of fighting for the right to go home. Feng Zhenghu waited for 92 days in the Narita Airport in Japan before he could go home, making him a legendary figure of the Civil Rights Movement. Visitors from Shanghai went to rescue, weaving flags to support, twitter users showed concern and gave long-term support. Finally, Feng Zhenghu could return home. The incident greatly encouraged the strength among the citizens in their difficult struggles for civil rights. In 2006 and 2007, Professor Ai Xiaoming took great risk to complete two documentaries, the "Central Chronicle" and the "Loving care”. They captured the suffering villagers with HIV in Henan and Hebei Province and their struggles in the hard process of appealing their cases. Ai Xiaoming said, "Every time I film I will eventually fall into direct conflict with the local government." The local government named her as the "reactionary professor" and forbid villagers from interviewed by her. In addition, her work, "The train bound for home" illustrates the story of migrant workers returning home from Guangdong for the Spring Festival, while "the NPC legislation" focuses on the lives of local based activists. These works have also documented the formation and effort of civil society organizations at grassroots level, while the works are themselves part of this effort.

Independent film maker, Ho Yang's "Hanging photo door” talks about how human rights lawyers, Tang ji Tian and Liu Wei were suspended by the Beijing Bureau of Justice for their licenses. His another documentary, "Emergency shelter” narrates the persecution of human rights lawyer Ni Yulan. During the process for helping those evicted from home, Ni was beaten to cripple, followed by falsely accusation of "Crime of Interference" for assaulting police officer. She was sentenced for 2 years. Her house was demolished in an act of retaliatory when she was released, forcing her to stay on street and set up tent in the "emergency shelter" corner of the XinHuang Temple Park. Facing the camera, she calmly told her suffering of brutal abuses and tortures over the years. Although, in Documentary's approach, too much narrative and too little scene change will affect visual appearance, the story of Ni itself is powerful enough to make up for the deficiency. The case of Ni Yulan was reported some years ago but did not cause too much attention until the release of Ho Yang's documentary. The documentary has taken the case to transmit through the internet, twitter, weibo, where thousands of people forwarded the story, making it a common concern among the public. The guard, Xiao Wei, and the others that involved in the prosecution of Ni Yulan were then strongly condemned by netizens. Many people also sent donations and goods to the "emergency shelter" to show support for Ni. During the "616" Dragon Boat Festival, netizens organized a Summer night party to show solidarity in supporting Ni Yulan. Police then detained Ni to the police station. The netizens set up tents outside the police station to stage protest. On June 27, the "Southern People Weekly" reported the case of Ni Yulan and the protest of the ‘crowd’ outside the police station. The report further encouraged the situation of the case of Ni Yulan. Undoubtedly, Documentary has played a crucial role in all the civil actions around this event.

Another type of Documentary is the direct involvement and recording in civil actions. One example is the vigorous civil actions during the "Fujian three users case". In June/July 2009, due to uploading relevant videos of the "Yan Xiaoling case" on the internet, Fan Yanqiong, Yu Jing Yu, and Wu Huaying were accused of Libel. They were then detent, charged and convicted. The incident caused continuous concerns and strong protests among the netizens. There were several spectator operations before and after the trial, sentencing and the imprisonment. Every time, people used hand-held DV, mobile phones, cameras or professional video cameras to record. Together, they simultaneously transmitted the sound and images to twitter, microblogging and other social networking sites. Some of them combined materials online and offline to produce documentaries later on, so that whether the detail of the site condition, or the causes and effects of the case, were fully presented to the public. The documentary, "Let the citizens and justice shine brighter than the sun" recorded the situation before the court case on “3•19”. The large numbers of crowds speculating, their enthusiasm and orderly organization on the judgment-day on "4 • 16" was itself worthy to write about. The “Fujian three users case” was different from the Waste Incineration field incident in Panyu, or the Xiamen PX case. The protests among netizens in the “Fujian three users case” were not directly related to their own interests. Rather, it was about their shared and apparent political demands for freedom of speech. There are different versions of the "4 • 16" documentary spreading on the net, including a fragrance version, a revised version, and the Xiao-fan version. While Ho Yang’s full footage version of the case is still in the process of production.

The Fragrance version production of "Civic action: Zhao Lianhai’s case outside the court" recorded civil protests in front of the Tai Hing court when Zhao Lianhai, a parent of the stone baby, was on trial. While in Beijing, Xu Zhiyong, Teng Biao and many others initiated the Citizens Concern group against violent removal. They mainly made use of DV to directly record scenes of sudden violent demolition. The camera not only has served on behalf of citizens rights in previous civil actions to rescue the people who were sent to “Black Prison” or those who were prosecuted during petition, it also represents a certain right and power to speak. The Beijing Office’s setting up of “Black Prison” and their acts of illegal detention of people petitioning are under fear of exposure. In the Dingzhou massacre in Hebei, the Shanwei massacre in Fujian, and other incidents of violence in the tens of thousands of demolitions, or the tens of thousands of mass protests, Civil Documentary served as evidence for the victims, it is also a means to spread the truth to the public.

After the most vulgar Nail House event in Chongqing in 2007, major websites such as Sina, Six rooms, Tudou, Youku and other video sites all created a ‘Nail House’ video column on their web. Citizen journalists uploaded live video daily, tens of millions of internet users watched, spread, and joined discussion. It became a classical case of civic movements in China. Then came the documentary, “We do not want GDP, we are to survive”. It was broadcast on youtube and other video sites after the Xiamen PX incident and became a prominent example of “Chinese online video activism". Zhou Shuguang, North Wind, and others who stood out in these events were among prominent Chinese citizen journalists. The video works, “Wuxi Floods” and “What shall I take to save you, Taihu Lake” reflect water pollution problem in TaiHu Lake, while “Voice of the Nu River" records protests in the Nujiang xiao xiaba village. They are all examples of the recording and promotion of citizen movements in the environmental protection arena.

Civic movement documentary will be rapidly developed in time. On one hand, Rights defending movements are in full swing, giving rise to the awakening of civil liberties and the rule of law among the people, and rapid increase in their resistant spirit. Civil NGOs grow stronger and take active roles under the current difficult condition of the rule of law. International community also increasingly shows concern on civil rights movements in China and how their rise influences China’s political transition. On the other hand, the rapid development and popularized of visual electronic media, DV, computer editing, broadband networks, mobile internet, blog, weibo rapidly spread the concepts of "visual rights", "image rights", "media activism", "people media", and “self media”. All these concepts will soon become widespread attention. The rise of the New recording movement initiated in the 1990s is now no longer records of the personal or objective presentation of community experience, but rather more emphasis on the civil spirit and participatory consciousness among the people, and at the same time displaying in every action the realistic power of visual images.

Memory and forgetting is a major theme in Chinese Citizens Documentary. Speaking of the Chinese Documentary Movement, one must talk about Hu Jie. He began independent documentary production in 1995, introducing "Yuanmingyuan artists" and “Mountains” which reflects lives of the workers in small coal mines. "In Search of Lin Zhao's Soul" in 2004 was a milestone work in the history of China's independent documentary. Hu Jie became one of the most important pioneer and enlightenment in the promotion of civil images campaign. In 2005, Lu Xuesong, classes of a female teacher of Jilin College of the Arts were suspended by the school because she took students to watch documentary, "In Search of Lin Zhao's Soul". The incident made Hu Jie, Lin Zhao, as well as their documentaries received extensive attention among the civil society. After that, Hu Jie launched "I Am Gone," which is about the story of a headmistress, Bianzhong Yun being killed by the Red Guards in Beijing during the Cultural Revolution. Another documentary, "My mother Wang Peiying" narrates a story about a mother of seven children who was brutally denounced and resulted in death penalty after speaking out against lies. All of Hu Jie's documentaries are almost produced with a purpose to rescue ‘history’. The topics they touch upon, whether they are about the anti-rightist movement or the Cultural Revolution, or the more recent historical events, or digging out the truth, they are all integral parts of the Civil Rights Movement.

After the earthquake, the government issued a ban on the media, making use of every means to threaten and block civil investigators from accessing information, the ruins of some school buildings were guarded, photograph and shooting were prohibited. Parents were warned, petitioners were arrested or sentenced. Owing to his investigation into the matter, Tan Zuoren was sentenced to 5 years with the accusation of "Inciting subversion of state power". Among the arrested or sentenced included Huang Qi, Liu Shaokun, Zhang Wenling, Pan Jianlin and others (Pan Jianlin is the producer of the Sichuan earthquake documentary, "Who killed our children"). Under this context, the work of Ai Xiaoming, "Our Baby" came out as one firm and angry protest. She recorded the sorrow and the struggle of ordinary people and questioned the praises and tributes under the official’s great narrative.

Ai Weiwei’s seismic investigation was a major chapter in the civil actions after 2008. "4851" and "Read" are hardly considered as documentaries, but they should be mentioned here. The 87 minutes long "4851" has no plot, no portrait, and no scene. It’s only a long list of names of the students who were killed during the quake with background music. "Read" is a combined audio, with the participation of ordinary citizens, each of them read a name of the students who died in the earthquake. That was a typical case of using civil memory against the forgetting policy. In face of real death, in face of an unclassified piece of work, people have to reflect on their attitude towards their own suffering, the humanity and our institution. If more people have voluntarily keep and share collective memory, then the lies and forgetting can no longer rage people's spiritual life. If the resistance for rights of citizens is to rebuild civil society and political structure, then the fight against forgetting is to reconstruct a spiritual homeland shared by our nationals and a recognized self-identity shared in solidarity.

Another important figure of Chinese citizen journalists is Tiger Temple. His 24-hour blog is well known among the people, in addition to launching the "Refugee Assistance Scheme" and regularly publishing videos of the life and suffering of those displaced persons on the blog, he has also actively participated in a wide range of civil actions in recent years. Although most of his video work is not strictly documentary, the immediacy, grassroots-ness, and persistency among them have gradually created great impact. "Efforts to civil society" is a recent documentary series by Tiger Temple. In addition, Zhao Liang’s "Petition", Wang Li Bo’s "Burial" which talks about the Great Tangshan Earthquake, Chen Jun’s "A good death is better than to live" which touches the topic of AIDS etc. should be considered exploration art works to retain civil memory.

The internet has an imperative impact on the Chinese Citizens Movement, and it is the same vital to Documentary. Ai Weiwei has once said in a forum, "Turn on the camera and start shooting, all else will follow." Facing an increasing number of citizens image workers and civil action participants, the government is running short of ways to block and intercept. Apart from using private mails, as gifts, or copying and broadcasting underground, the main mode of transmission relies on the Internet. One type is the use of online video viewing such as Youtube, Tudou, Ku6, including publishing on personal video blog. Another type is the use of network disk drive such as eMule, BT, Meter man, U.115 and others to sow seeds. A continuous struggle between citizen communication and government blockade will inevitably begin. An era of documentary by civilians, and a boom for recording citizen movements will eventually come, so as a China with freedom and truth which will surely be coming soon.

"If there is no visual expression and memory, our understanding on history and community will fall conceptualize, and therefore easy to forget. Without emotional challenge, lack of empathy for pain, our values can easily be replaced by other concepts." Ai Xiaoming’s words have certainly recognized the advantages of video as a language. People like Ai Xiaoming and Ai Weiwei, who participate in practical direct actions, have become models of public intellectuals. Mr. Michnik said, in his recent visit to Beijing for a ‘Followers’ discussion, "In an authoritarian system, a poet is not merely a poet, a philosopher is more than a philosopher." For those documentary producers who have shown concerns and participated in the citizens campaigns, they never put themselves only as visual artists. Of course, documentary makers need to have certain ability to consciously reflect on their role as speakers, on their own power to speak, on objectiveness in media discourse, and on ethics and responsibility. Consider the current situation of China, a place with limited press freedom and creative freedom, a place where universal human rights is being abused and a place where independent spirit of critique among intellectuals is hardly seen. What could be more commendable than to dig out the truth, refusing to forget, or to care for the weak and to criticize the authoritarian system? Certainly, they are values that should be highly cherished.

Documentary as a struggling tool for participating in social movements can be dated back to 1960s. From France, Canada, the United States, to South America, the Middle East, and even Taiwan, Hong Kong and other places, a lot of documentary works have played positive role in social movements. And what’s happening in the Chinese Civil Documentary Movement will enrich the history of documentary. They will also certainly enhance the experience of civil movements and political transition. The real charm of documentary lies on its quality of making time and space close, and connecting isolated worlds. Information monopoly is designed to benefit those in power, while Citizens Documentary can eliminate the cover-ups in certain extent. Only a few documentaries can already make the dictatorship pay a huge price. One can imagine that with the expansion of the Civic Documentary campaign, covering up truth will be a futile and obsolete attempt. Till then, there should be a significant change in the mode of power operation.