Tuesday, December 16, 2008

So what ARE you doing in China?

I get asked this question a lot, so I figured I may as well start a series here to talk about my research and work in Beijing. So, technically I'm still a UM student, who is here on a research fellowship for the completion of my thesis. Once I'm done here, I will be done with my program. As part of my research, I'm basically interning for China's first and arguably most well-known* independent documentary director Wu Wenguang. His breakout film was an independent documentary called "Bumming in Beijing," or <<流浪北京>>。(*When I say well-known, I mean in international academic and independent art circles, not in China. In everyday China, he's about as famous as...well, me. Which is not much.)

Basically, he came to Ann Arbor about a year ago to screen some of his films, and that's how I was offered the opportunity to come intern at his independent arts space, Caochangdi Workstation (CCD). I do a lot of translation work for them, mostly film subtitles for their Villager Documentary Project, and in return, I get to hang around and use their archives, and basically get to know how things work so that I can write my Masters thesis about this space and the Villager Project.

Some of you already know this, but the Villager Documentary Project is Wu's latest and biggest project, and it basically features four villagers who were given digital video cameras three years ago, and told to film their villages (the project actually began with 10 villagers, but most of them have fallen off the map). Each of these villagers has now completed one short film and two feature length documentaries, and are on their way to producing a third. Each year, they gather footage of their village life on their DV cams, and then come to Beijing to edit their films at CCD. You can already guess what issues might arise from a project like this: everything from fascination about the footage they capture, to questions about the quality of their films, and even deeper to what an opportunity like this might do for their roles in society. More on this later.

I know this is all very complicated. Don't worry, no pop quizzes anytime soon. Anyway, I'll update about my work little by little, but that's the general introduction to what I'm doing here.

On a more recent note, I just spent the weekend in Shenzhen for a contemporary arts festival that invited CCD to screen documentaries and perform at the OCAT Art Museum and Contemporary Art Terminal. Shenzhen is one of China's special economic zones, and pretty much any of you blog readers probably has a much closer relationship to the city than you realize: unless you're an avid American Apparel shopper, your underwear, shoes, bags, Apple computers, you name it, were probably all produced there. Between Olympics policies and the financial crisis, many of Shenzhen's factories are closing down, leaving throngs of Chinese migrant workers unemployed.

Meanwhile, it appears the city is trying to build a hip, yuppie indie art culture into its industrial infrastructure. The bourgie "Overseas Chinese Town" (OCT for short) is now overrun with posh hotels, art museums, lofts, and of course the obligatory Starbucks. Throw in some amazingly cheap Southern Chinese cuisine (crab and garlic noodles, anyone?), not to mention some gaudy theme parks--you know, for irony's sake--and you have the hipster traveler's dream come true.

We spent two full days and one extra night screening and discussing the villagers' films, as well as a film by Wu himself, and another three films by young documentary filmmakers also supported by CCD. It's been hard for me sometimes, because at this point in the Villager Project, we're beginning to see the growing tension between the villagers' rural identities and their newfound posts as documentary directors. What must it feel like to be wrenched from your familiar (if difficult) life, and plopped into the already complicated Chinese independent art scene, drooled over by international artists and academics, and made to feel like somehow Change is in your hands? Who are they, Obama?

So, seeing as how this is my Masters thesis, I'm still processing through the myriad tumbling thoughts in my head, and I'll spare you the mess in there. This can get the ball rolling, and the next time I start spewing about this stuff, you'll at least know the basics.

For now, I will leave you with a couple pictures.

Here's Wu himself treating us to McDonald's. It was pretty sweet to document China's premier independent documentary filmmaker patronizing this familiar global establishment. Muahaha:
From Beijing Dou

And here are a couple of the villagers, starting with Wang Wei, from Shandong Province:
From Beijing Dou

and my favorite, Shao Yuzhen, who lives in Shunyi, near Beijing:
From Beijing Dou

She's invited us to her home to visit sometime during the Spring Festival vacation. Will definitely post about that!

Anyway, just some brief comments about how I spend my time here. More to come in the "What ARE we doing in China" series. Maybe Josh will tell you all about his dream to start a massage parlor slash Chinese school.


Florence said...

when you said villagers... for some reason.. the image of an aboriginal chinese tribal member came to mind haha. I know... so ignorant hehe.

J.Dou said...

ZOMG, you posted my business idea! Now we're in trouble. I just know someone will beat me to it...

Abnormality said...

better a massage parlor slash Chinese school, and not the other way around.