MCLC: Wu Wenguang Memory Project

Denton, Kirk denton.2 at
Fri Nov 30 09:01:01 EST 2012

From: Jonathan Landreth <jslandreth at>
Subject: Wu Wengguang Memory Project

I'd like to share with readers the following story just published on
ChinaFIle, a new online magazine from the Center on U.S. China Relations
at the Asia Society in New York.



Source: ChinaFile (11/27/12):

Remember to Tell the Truth
Young Chinese Filmmakers Return to the Countryside to Exhume a Buried Past

Several generations of a Shandong province village standing around a
monument to the victims of the famine that hit China from 1958-1961.
Filmmaker and former villager Zou Xueping is wearing eyeglasses and
standing just to the right of the monument.

The recording of memory brings history to life and creates a legacy of its
own. In 2010, documentary filmmaker Wu Wenguang launched the Memory
Project to try to shine a light on the long-shrouded memories of one of
modern China’s most traumatic episodes—the famine of 1958-1961.

For the past two years, working from a base in an arts district in
suburban Beijing, Wu has dispatched young filmmakers back to their rural
hometowns to collect the oral histories of famine survivors. But the
project is not only about recovering history. “Children in the city forget
about life in the village,” says Wu, whose project is designed to forge
inter-generational connections between young filmmakers and a painful
national history too often glossed over by official accounts.

For the young documentarians involved, almost all of whom attended college
and now live in cities worlds away from their family villages, returning
home to interview elderly villagers is more than an exercise in historical
research—it’s a struggle to reconcile the official history taught in
China’s schools with each family’s experience of what really happened.
It’s a stutter-step toward understanding a nation’s evolution.

By incubating films that record a tragic chapter of China’s political
past, the Memory Project also makes a significant contribution to a new
phase in China’s cinematic evolution. During Mao Zedong’s Great Leap
Forward (1958-1961) and the subsequent Cultural Revolution (1966-1976),
Chinese filmmaking was highly restricted and used largely as a means to
deliver state propaganda. With the advent of political reforms announced
in 1978, China’s film culture began a rapid evolution. Filmmaking morphed
from an instrument of the state into a medium that spawned a diverse
industry, giving rise to the careers of everybody from the well-known
“fifth generation” directors Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige, to filmmakers
operating in a wholly independent sphere. Prominent within this
independent landscape is the New Documentary Movement, of which Wu is a
key member.

Wu, widely considered the godfather of modern Chinese independent
documentary film, is a director and educator long preoccupied with how
Chinese youth get by in an atmosphere of constant change. In 1990, his
debut film, Bumming in Beijing: The Last Dreamers
<>, Wu portrayed
with unprecedented candor the attitudes of young Chinese in the wake of a
failed push for democracy in Tiananmen Square in 1989.

Assistants from Zou’s village who aided the filmmaker in interviewing
elderly survivors of the famine and raising funds for a memorial to
commemorate those who starved to death from 1958-1961.

The Memory Project extends the youthful exploration of Wu’s own early
films to a new generation. Now in his late fifties, he continues to engage
China’s youth by placing cameras directly into the hands of filmmakers in
their late twenties, who are too young to remember the upheaval of 1989.
Wu attempts to reconnect young Memory Project filmmakers with history, and
also pushes for transparent and creative storytelling in Chinese
documentary film.

In 2010, Wu’s small army of amateurs returned for the first time to their
hometowns to collect accounts of a time when the widespread food shortage
and starvation that accompanied the Great Leap Forward caused the
premature deaths of between 15 million and 40 million people (official
numbers fall at the low end of that range).

In an attempt to bring firsthand accounts of this horror to the world, Wu
and a few of his student filmmakers screened their films at the 6th Reel
China Film Biennale <> at New York University in
October. It was the Memory Project’s second visit to New York, but the
first with the directors present, introducing their work and interacting
with audiences throughout the United States.

In 2011, when Wu alone presented the films at NYU for the first time,
director Zhang Mengqi’s first film, Self-Portrait with Three Women, turned
heads. This year at NYU, Zhang was proud to introduce in person her
sophomore effort, Self-Portrait at 47 Km. “This room recognizes me, even
though I don’t recognize the room,” Zhang, 25, said with a smile.

For Zhang and her fellow directors, Luo Bing (Luo Village: Pitiless Earth
and Sky) and Zou Xueping (Children’s Village), traveling half the globe to
present their films to a live audience has been but one part of their
ongoing effort to coax the world into a better understanding of what China
has been through to get where it is today.

In producing her two previous films, The Hungry Village and The Satiated
Village, Zou Xueping, 27, returned to the place she was raised in east
China’s Shandong province, drawing out her grandparents’ and her elderly
neighbors’ stories of suffering and endurance in a time when some people
ate tree bark to survive.

Even as Zou has connected with the stories of the past, her own filmmaking
journey has been fraught with obstacles. Facing initial reluctance from
suspicious villagers and her own parents’ misgivings only strengthened
Zou’s resolve to use her camera as a tool to engage with the village. “If
anything in my identity has changed in the past few years, it’s that my
identity has gradually become more and more wrapped up the village,” she
said. “The old people and I have slowly grown to understand one another. I
now have a totally different understanding of Chinese history and where I
come from.”

In a China where youth flock to big cities in droves seeking jobs and
excitement, rural villages become virtual ghost towns of an ebbing elderly
population. But the Memory Project forces the inter-generational
engagement that once was a cornerstone of village life but today is often
reduced to brief annual visits home during Chinese New Year.

“Most people my age, with the exception of my [Memory Project] peers, are
just concerned with other things like making money,” said Zou. In her
third film,Children’s Village, Zou gathers a group of kids to assist in
the collection of their village elders’ memories. On screen, she and the
children wander dusty streets seeking tales of plight and strength and
raising funds for a monument to those who starved to death. From the
get-go, Wu and other New Documentary Movement filmmakers used inexpensive
digital cameras to capture stories from the fringes of Chinese society
either ignored or suppressed by the mainstream. In going against the
grain, lines began and continue to blur. Determined to use film as a means
to improve village life, Zou embodies her mentor Wu’s early pronouncement:
“It’s often hard to differentiate between our two selves, the filmmakers
and the social workers.”

Director Luo Bing, 26, is similarly conflicted. His second film, Luo
Village: Pitiless Earth and Sky, picks up where his debut, Luo Village:
Ren Dingqi and Me, left off. Both chronicle his attempts to unearth and
publish his elderly neighbor’s famine memoir.

In a discussion at NYU, Luo addressed the tension between his objectives
as a director and personal involvement in village life, his commitment to
documentary film sometimes clashing with his stake in the village that
shares his family name. A particularly arresting scene in the second film
shows a village house in flames. Luo’s camera calmly records the blaze
from a nearby field. “That fire made me realize my place in the village,”
Luo said “I made the decision to film the fire, rather than to help. I’m
still just an onlooker.”

Because its films focus on the tragedies of the past—rather than on
prickly contemporary issues—The Memory Project thus far largely has been
spared official censure by government agencies typically prone to clamp
down on content deemed embarrassing to the ruling Chinese Communist Party.
But the climate for documentary film in China remains tenuous
avy-hand-of-beijing.html?pagewanted=all> and any widespread distribution
of Memory Project films in China is unlikely.

Even for those whose involved in the films, concerns often arise. Many are
still unaccustomed to documentary not used as propaganda. Some say the
films reflect poorly on China’s villages and the CCP. Others express
wariness of the directors’ own politics. “Best not to air anyone’s dirty
linens in public,” cautions one member of Luo Village, staring into Luo’s

Some of the elderly subjects struggle to hear and speak. Some have died
since the directors first found them in 2010. But the Memory Project lives
on. Even as it records stories that are fading, the project’s films are
capturing lives still unfolding. Zou, who has plans to return to her
village a fourth time, camera in hand, says,“I feel like I’m just

Wu has inspired his proteges to reconcile their own histories with their
place in society and the possibility of filmmaking as a career. Zhang’s
emotional series of Self-Portraits question her own identity. The first,
an intimate investigation of the women in her family told through archival
footage, interviews, and dance performance, contrasts starkly with the
follow-up, Self Portrait at 47 Km, a frustrated personal history. Zhang’s
process tells us that true social documentary relies on confronting both
the political and the personal. She plans to go back to the oddly-named
village of 47 Km to keep shooting, to capture the next chapter, the next

“With your first film, it’s fascinating. It’s like falling in love,” said
Zhang Zhen, associate professor of Cinema Studies at NYU and co-curator of
Reel China since 2001 with NYU Center for Religious and Media Studies
Professor Angela Zito. “But by the time you’re making your second or third
film, it’s like a marriage,” Zhang continued. “You’re committed. All you
can do is keep on going.”

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