China Conversations

Wu Wenguang: Capturing China on Film6 min read

A documentary filmmaker speaks with Jonathan Chatwin


Ed: This is the latest and last (for now) in Jonathan Chatwin’s China Conversations interviews. Read the archive here.
Wu Wenguang is an independent filmmaker, known internationally as one of the founders of the Chinese documentary movement. Born in Yunnan in 1956, his breakthrough film was Bumming in Beijing: The Last Dreamers, which offered an intimate portrait of a group of struggling artists in late 1980s Beijing. His other films include 1966: My Time in the Red Guards (1993) and Jiang Hu: On the Road (1999). In 2010, Wu founded the Memory Project to encourage the preservation of personal stories of China’s history; since then, hundreds of film makers have returned to their towns and villages as part of the project to interview elders who lived through the Great Leap Forward (1958-1962) and other traumatic events from the country’s recent past. 


When did you decide that you wanted to be a documentary filmmaker?

I actually hadn’t made a decision to be a documentary filmmaker before I made my first film. In truth, I had no idea about documentary film at the end of 1980s. In China at that time, nobody really talked about or watched documentaries. I just wanted to make something different to the propaganda on Chinese TV stations. I found some artists who, like me, were young freelancers in Beijing – without a regular job, a regular income or a stable space for living, but who were always talking about their ambitions and dreams. I started to film those artists in August 1988, and a year and a half later, my film Bumming in Beijing came out.

In 1991, I started to understand more about documentary filmmaking when I spent time living outside of China, and went to the Yamagata International Documentary Festival with Bumming in Beijing. I said to myself: “Okay, this is what I want to be doing.”

Which other filmmakers inspired you in your approach to documentary film? Bumming in Beijing is known as a radical departure from Chinese documentaries that had come before it.

There were two filmmakers who really inspired me in the early days of my filmmaking: the Japanese director Shinsuke Ogawa, and the American Frederick Wiseman. I got to know Ogawa in 1991: he invited me to his studio before I went to the Yamagata film festival, to see his films and talk. He was an activist with power and passion for a kind of revolutionary documentary movement. I was inspired by that, particularly by the idea that to be filmmaker you should not just be thinking about your own name, but about how to change people and society. When I worked for the Villager Documentary Project in 2005 and the Folk Memory Project in 2010, this thinking inspired me.

With Frederick Wiseman, I got to know him during my second visit to Yamagata film festival in 1993, when I had finished my second film 1966: My Time in the Red Guards. I watched Wiseman’s film Zoo and saw it as the model for my film creation in the future. In 1997, I received a scholarship from Asian Culture Council (ACC) to base myself in New York for three months. Wiseman invited me to his studio in Boston, to stay his house for a week, and watch his work for film editing. His film work is very personal, unlike normal film production. He keeps himself in his studio to edit: no meetings, no talking, fast food for lunch in the studio and a simple dinner at home. After dinner, he takes a walk and goes to bed. I learnt how to become a filmmaker as a writer, not just a busy producer. Wiseman inspired in me how to be a creator with enough freedom.

In Bumming in Beijing, you present the stories of idealistic young artists trying to achieve their dreams in late 1980s Beijing. Does the world you show in that film, and the aspirations of those you filmed, now seem very distant?

Yes, it does seem far away after 30 years. It seemed at the time that change would come at the end of 80s – but nobody knew what kind of change was actually coming. I met some young Chinese students during my visits to UK universities in the last two weeks, and they told me they love the artists in the film. I asked why, and they said because they had an idealism and passion which is rarely seen in Chinese young people now. Young people in China now are more pragmatic and realistic.

I probably agree with them: having taught filmmaking in China for 15 years, I know a bit about the students today. It’s difficult to find someone who is willing to be crazy for their art. In truth, my generation has also been changed. It is not just ordinary people who are different, but also the so-called “avant-garde artists.”

How did you come up with the idea for the Memory Project, and could you explain what its aims are?

Before the Memory Project started in 2010, I was experiencing a serious problem in my film work. I couldn’t find the energy for it, and I lost my motivation. Some young filmmakers who had just graduated from college came to me with the same creative problem, and asked me how to find an interesting subject. I felt all of us were facing the question: why make films?

In the meantime, in our studio, Caochangdi Workstation, we discussed the history of China after 1949, and events such as the Great Famine (1959-1961). We found that both our generations didn’t know it very well, but we were hungry for those memories. So everyone went back to their own home village, interviewed the elders about the Great Famine, and found subjects that fitted with their own creativity during the process. That was beginning.

Among the participants were people aged above 60, those with experience in making documentaries, theatre and other arts-related individuals, as well as university students. The project had a snowball effect, with an increasing number of participants joining in, creating a large volume of records and village interviews for the archives. 

Can you tell us more about Caochangdi Workstation?

Caochangdi Workstation is an independent artist space I founded in Beijing in 2005. By the summer of 2010, we had 21 people participating in the Memory Project there. And up until 2018, we have had 216 participants going back to their villages for interviews, with more 1480 interviewees coming from 22 provinces and 323 villages. Interview topics included the Great Leap Forward, Land Reform and the Cultural Revolution, among other historical periods, and 56 films have been made by 20 filmmakers.

Why is it important to record the stories that you document in the Memory Project?

The project required participants to interview elders to preserve the memories of the past, which means they were contributing to their own village history. It also meant that the participants could get to know more of the past of their village and its people, and this could inspire them to come up with a film concept of their own. There is no end point for the project.

When you are asking about sensitive topics, do participants sometimes feel wary of talking too openly? How do you overcome interviewee’s reluctance to talk openly?  

It depends on the filmmaker and the people they are interviewing in their village. For example, in talking about the Great Famine, many people feel very bad about what happened, but they would criticize the local government, not the central government in Beijing – and of course not Mao Zedong himself. ∎

Recommended viewing:
The Man (Hu Xinyu)
Self-Portrait: Sphinx in 47 KM (Zhang Mengqi)
I Want to Be a People’s Representative (Jia Zhitan)
My Village (Shao Yuzhen)
Remember, My Village (Zhang Huancai)
Dumb Men (Hu Tao)

Jonathan Chatwin

Jonathan Chatwin’s travelogue Long Peace Street: A Walk in Modern China will be published in summer 2019. He holds a PhD in English Literature, and is author of Anywhere Out of the World, a literary biography of the traveller and writer Bruce Chatwin (a distant relation).