From the Center to the Periphery:
Chinese Documentary’s Visual Conjectures

By Paola Voci

Modern Chinese Literature and Culture, vol. 16, no. 1 (Spring 2004), pp. 65-113

In discussing their work, Chinese documentarians often use the word zhenshi (authentic, true) rather than xianshi (the word generally used to refer to real/realistic). How does zhenshi fit in the equation between reality and film representation in Chinese documentary? This essay argues that socialist and post-socialist documentary mostly strives to achieve realism (xianshizhuyi) by teaching and explaining reality through scripted shots and verbalized images, while often claiming an all-encompassing objectivity. On the other hand, authenticity (zhenshi) is defined by its emphasis on a visual mode of representation that shows the viewed objects while also exposing the viewing subjects (the documentarians themselves) and, implicitly, the camera’s limiting perspective.

In a search for a more visual approach to documentary, the essay takes the series Tian’anmen as a departing point. The series embodies a new way of making documentary in China: commentaries are finally silenced and images are allowed non-verbalized spaces. This series ideally generated the foundation for the work of “the new documentary film movement,” by initiating the twofold shift from words to images, from an organized center to a disjointed periphery, from public history to private stories, from static long shots to panning medium shots (often with hand-held camera), from loud close-ups of people speaking or delivering speeches to silent close-ups of people’s houses, belongings, body parts. Whether independently produced or negotiated within state television’s limitations, an increasingly noticeable number of documentarians have chosen to use visual conjectures, i.e. display a non-verbalized, visual, and subjective version of reality.

In the analysis, the essay does not simply take the verbal as a quality inherent to words (dialogues or monologues, voice-over, or in-between titles) and the visual as a quality inherent to images (shot setting and framing, editing, etc.). In filmmaking both words and images can be used either verbally (i.e., in order to say something) or visually (i.e., to show something).