14 décembre 2011

Doc filmmakers vs. Doc critics (CIFF)

Shamans · Animals

A response to the Film Symposium "Ethics and Documentary Cinema" (31st October 2011) held at the China Independent Film Festival Documentary (Nanjin)
Signed by several documentary filmmakers who participated and also who did not participate in the festival
  1. Demand that film critics buy their own DVDs (Xue Jianqiang)
    Reject how film critics have become the definers and arbiters of the morals and ethics of documentary film. Rather than simply passing judgement on documentary ethics, film critics should foster a film critique based on artistic intuition that, rooted in intrinsic film language itself, inquires into ethics.
    Reject a film critical perspective that is remote from common people, one that abuses a concept like “the lower strata of society.” Do you like this concept because you feel that you are in a position of superiority?
    Can an intellectual-style round table discussion have any possible constructive nature?
  2. Reject the way intellectuals use conventional concepts and actions to turn fresh and lively documentary experience into something uninteresting. (Cong Feng)
  3. If we see cinema as a private garden, is the critic the owner of the garden or only the gardener? (Zhang Chacha)
  4. The rigid theorizing of intellectuals turns the flow of discussion into something oppressive and boring. (Gui Shuzhong)
  5. For the past few years, it seems that we’ve abandoned discussing film language. It’s more fun discussing the ethics of social differentiation. (Jin Jie)
  6. Shoot films like an animal.
    Criticize (films) like an animal.
    Animals of a different species. (Qiu Jiongjiong)
  7. Critics cannot dictate history.
    Critics should learn from filmmakers, and not pretend to be their mentors.
    Artists teach themselves in the course of shooting their films; they establish their own ethical principles.(Cong Feng)
  8. Making documentary cinema reproduces the feeling of making love. The climaxes can’t be judged by the critics.(Song Chuan)
  9. Respect the diversity of and multiple approaches to creative artistic research.
  10. We’re not trying to start a revolution. We’re trying to shake people awake (while we get drunk).(Ji Dan)
  11. Revolutions are caused by arrogance, nothing more.(Ji Dan)
  12. Fortunately documentary filmmakers pay no heed to unreliable theory.(Gui Shuzhong)
  13. Theory is inflexible.
    Are fresh and lively. (Gui Shuzhong)
  14. Filmmakers speak through their works
    Viewers ponder what’s on the screen
    Here come the critics, squawking and quacking a language of their own. (Jin Jie, Zhang Chacha)
  15. If theorists are the ones who can speak, and critics are the ones who can write, then the real thinkers are precisely those who neither speak nor write. (Bai Budan)
  16. When ethics are at issue, law is the criterion. (Feng Yu)
  17. Where is the moral introspection of certain critics and scholars? Enough with leaders’ speeches, already. (Cong Feng)
  18. Theory is related to reality. Theory also must keep up with the times. If critics stray from the works of art themselves while discussing theory, then their discussion will become like fog in the wind, vapid and uninteresting. (Gui Shuzhong)
  19. [missing]
  20. Talk too much about theory, and you sound pretentious. Overemphasize theory and you sound authoritarian. Life is not a two-sided coin: you have no right to force it to be either one way or the other. Of course, you can use theory to impress the kids. The motivation for documentary comes from a shame of one’s own ignorance. There’s no place for any talk of an avant garde or of theory. (Hu Xinyu)
  21. At present, the critics tend to a kind of literary writing style. Documentary films are treated as literature, as works of art. The critics seem to think they alone have the right to define a rational discursive interpretation of society. But this is in fact an act of cultural despotism, an act that is neither rational with respect to social reality nor with respect to art. Because of this, the rational discourse of the critics is a kind of observation at one remove. (Mao Chenyu)
  22. So-called theory is all for self-gratification. Independent film should not be restricted to the society’s lowest classes telling stories about each other. It should be diverse and multiple.
    Uninteresting, boring, useless.
    When you say you’re aligned with the lowest levels of society, you are in fact looking with disdain and contempt at the low from on high.
    Please use the word “intellectual” correctly and carefully. And please don’t use that word at this kind of independent film festival. It is not a term of praise, but rather a pretext to occupy a position high above the ordinary people. Is it really so hard to be modest and put yourself in someone else’s position? (Wang Shu)
  23. If possible, watch more movies. If you ever have the opportunity, then try to shoot a film. If you’ve never shot a gun yourself, how can you teach someone else to shoot? (Gui Shuzhong, Cong Feng)
  24. Yesterday’s forum took place at the Nanjing University’s News and Media Institute. Is it the job of our professors and scholars to teach students how make false statements sound like true ones? If those who teach students to lie boast that they are intellectuals, can there still be any filmmakers willing to label themselves “intellectuals?” (Beifang Lao =web alias)
Translated by Shelly Kraicer. Co-translator: Isabella Ho. With thanks to Yang Yishu, J.P. Sniadecki, Zhang Xianmin, and Cong Feng (cinemascope; 25 Nov 2011)

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Some comments :

This is very sad actually to see that the new generation of Chinese indie filmmakers could not MEET eye-to-eye with the Chinese film scholars... it's like if an important rendez-vous of History was missed. I don't know which side was the most self-indulgent, which one was wrong... but surely, given the difficult state of cinema in China, being dominated by Hollywood blockbusters on one side, and by State-approved conformity on the other side, there must have been a strategic move to support the independent scene (critically acclaimed around the world), regardless for any shortcomings, in a country where artistic freedom has been repressed for so long! If filmmakers come to your table to discuss their artistic creation, the basic curtsy would be to LISTEN to them, and to walk half-way through to a neutral middle ground. For the sake of cinema!

I would usually take the defense of the Film Criticism profession, against the anti-intellectual sentiment that denies critics the right to scrutinize, with complete independence and no pressure, the production of art. Because it is easy to blame critics when they don't like your film, and reject film criticism altogether just because you're in denial about the shortcomings of your own work... That's not how it works. We have to accept and protect the existence of Criticism, no matter what, in times of praise like in times of harsh judgement. This said, critics ought to be held to the highest standards of evaluation as well! Too many reviewers pass judgements they aren't qualified to emit in the first place. This is why individual reviewers should be held accountable for the sustainability of the whole profession. And in this case, even though I'm not very familiar with the Chinese indie scene, I tend to agree with the plaintifs (for the most part). But some details need to be clarified...

  1. I agree. But this is a thorny subject.
    Free access to ALL production for critics is the only guarantee for an independent opinion. Charging critics to watch films put them in a position to reconsider whether certain film is WORTH paying BEFORE they even got to see it, thus establishing an a priori rating based on assumptions (not to mention segregating the number of possible reviews a critic can publish based on how many DVDs they can afford). One way to circumvent this issue, is to charge the media company employing the critics (they surely can afford to buy the DVDs).
    The reason I agree, even though it is against the fundamental liberty of criticism, is because the situation has changed with the digital age, especially for the smallest niches of art cinema. There are more people than ever reviewing films in the world, while the gap between the hegemony of blockbusters and the slim niche of artfilms widens. And, considering that the main demographic interested in artfilms today are active cinephiles who happen to be also festival-goers and film reviewers... not charging the critics community amputates a sizeable chunk of expected revenue from their potential audience! This is one reason why the artfilm niche shrunks... most people who would watch these films, have already seen advance screenings, festival screenings or DVD screeners.
  2. I've seen a couple of Chinese indie documentaries, and they haven't been as masterful as Wang Bing's West of Track or Jia Zhangke's Dong. They pride themselves in being amateurs and don't care about formalist correctness or political correctness. So it is very hard to compare them to "academic documentaries". But this is where the critic should use fairness and understand where this particular production comes from. Sometimes a new film form emerges from the destruction of certain established standards and conventions (1920's Avant Garde, Surrealism, German Expressionism, Film Noir, Soviet Montage, Cinéma Vérité, Direct Cinema, New American Cinema (1970's NYC experimental scene), New Hollywood...) When they arose they were dismissed for looking "rough", "failed", "imperfect", "unfinished", "amateurish"... but the test of time proved otherwise. So critics need a long term perspective and bet on the future potentials. Maybe they shouldn't be judged on the form, but on the content, the slice of life (and the era) they are witness of, the experience. It's hard to convince the critical establishment that celebrates the photo-realist formalism of the XIXth century to welcome the arrival of a new "unprofessional" style such as Impressionism... but in this case, the establishment was wrong.
  3. Good image to keep critics in their place and remind them to be humble in front of ART. Too often critics believe they have a say in deciding what the future of art should look like, while they are merely there to attest the current production, and make sure to not miss anything. The future of the art form itself is for artists to give it a go (and sometimes fail too).
  4. Here I cannot support the use of polarizing, anti-intellectual and subjective clashes such as "rigid", "oppressive" and "boring". You already lost the argument there. That's what criticism appears to people being criticized unfavorably... but criticism is judgmental, conceptual, intellectual, theoretician and "arrogant", by definition, because it implies the authority to value the work of someone else. Criticism is not evil, there are only faulty film writers. Demand highest rigor from people who practice criticism, yes. But don't direct your anger and frustration toward the critical institution itself. Film Criticism is there to help artists, not to battle against them.
  5. I don't know the background of this controversy around the question of "social ethics" that seems to be the main issue against this group of documentarists. 
  6. Probably the language barrier doesn't translate the full innuendo of this analogy. There is animality in the artist indeed. But critics should never think of themselves as equal to the artist in this domain. I get the point that critics are asked to put themselves in the artist's shoes to understand the condition of an "animal-creator", and produce a more organic, tolerant, adaptable, empathetic judgement. Yes, definitely. But the critic doesn't have the privilege, prerogative, excuse to resort to animality. 
  7. Exactly. See my comment #2 and 3. 
  8. Agreed. Funny way to put it, but that's the spirit, as far as passing moral judgement on how other people make love, or I would rather say how other people choose their significant other. Being in love is an inter-personal affair, with idiosyncratic taste and expectations. Nobody can judge what is somebody else's object of election, desire, life partner. But that doesn't mean the critic is forbidden to judge at all. The critic has no say in WHAT the artist wants to do, but it's the critics job to investigate where the artist is coming from and what (s)he is trying to achieve, and judge the results given the process.
  9. Definitely.
Then there are unfair comments against criticism and against the liberty for critics to do their job, which I cannot condone. Call the "critical establishment" incompetent, antiquated, outdated, out of touch with reality, tell them they are missing the point, that they focus on the wrong aspects if you think that the NEW Chinese cinema needs a NEW generation of critics updated to the new paradigm. But don't reject criticism altogether, or the right for a scholar to judge your work. It's not the critical principles that are faulty, but the individual persons who misuse them. It is possible, even for scholars, to be wrong. It happens regularly throughout Art History. In this, I agree with the point #18, 21, 22, 24 of their manifesto.

I feel bad that the current vital scene of Chinese digital cinema cannot walk hand-in-hand with the current generation of critics and scholars... their (respective) loss, but so be it. The art scene may strive in the margin of the establishment, no worries. The Academe will catch up later (hopefully sooner than later), because what matters above all is the artist community producing art TODAY! Every art lover would agree. We are glad that artists in the past stubbornly pursued their researches and experiments all the while being mocked, caricatured, dismissed and repressed by scholars, critics and society of their times, often to the point of never profiting of the value their art reached in today's market, dying poor and neglected. Art survives all hardship, and that's the beauty of the selfless faith of artists in their persistent inspiration. That's why we should admire and respect the dedication of artists.

(23) I understand the frustration of filmmakers being misjudged by "critics" who never tried to make a film in their life, and don't understand the amount of efforts and commitments it involves, while they click a number of stars on their computer to evaluate a film after sitting on their ass for 90 minutes. The fact is there are lazy reviewers out there, who think of their job as a factory job, rating the most films per day as possible to show off to their peers, to publish-or-perish...
However, Cinema cannot be judged only by people who make films... it would be a self-serving, corporatist enclosure patting itself on the back, or rivaling with eachothers for personal interests. The purpose of art criticism is to offer an independent point of view. The point I agree with is that critics are REQUIRED to know about the filmmaking technique, almost as well as a filmmaker, to be able to evaluate and maybe to be more understanding of the efforts put into a given shot before dismissing it.


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