Voice, Liveness, Digital Video: The Talking Head in Contemporary Independent Chinese Documentary

Luke Robinson, Voice, Liveness, Digital Video: The Talking Head in Contemporary Independent Chinese Documentary? Positions: East Asia Cultures Critique, Volume 22, Number 2, Spring 2014, p. 489-515 |

This article addresses the use of the human voice in contemporary Chinese independent documentary in relation to xianchang. Broadly analogous to the Anglophone concept of “liveness,” xianchang is a shooting practice that interrogates questions of immediacy (being “on the scene”) and mediated distance (the reflexive consideration of such a practice). It is critical to any genealogy of independent documentary in the People’s Republic of China. In turn, sound practice, and particularly direct sound, is critical to xianchang. Analyzing the use of talking heads in early independent documentary, this article argues that they were not simply a relic of the televisual zhuantipian aesthetic but also the focus for a particular form of xianchang: liveness as presence and as testimony. In particular, following Erving Goffman, it suggests that critical moments of “flooding out” in Bumming in Beijing and I Graduated! serve both to construct the documentary subject as an “internal witness” to the events of 1989 and also—by suggesting the uncontrolled and contingent nature of filming “in the present”—to validate this act of witnessing as unofficial, and therefore truthful. While this form of liveness lives on in activist documentary by directors such as Ai Xiaoming, Hu Jie, Zhao Liang, and Cui Zi’en, other directors have used the talking head in ways that highlight its mediated side. Using Shu Haolun’s Nostalgia and Wang Bing’s Fengming: A Chinese Memoir as examples, the article explores how these films present the talking head as a product of technical intervention by the director, or as a response of the documentary subject to the act of film-making. This does not mean that liveness has ceased to be important; rather, that it is understood to be a quality produced from the encounter of director and subject “on the scene” of filmmaking (mediated distance), rather than as existing independently of such an encounter (immediacy). The article connects this increasingly catholic use of the talking head to the emergence of digital video. This has not only facilitated more experimental approaches to documentary—as reflected in Nostalgia—but also encouraged consideration of the self-mediating capacity of the documentary subject. This question is addressed directly in Fengming: A Chinese Memoir. The use of the human voice in these two films thus demonstrates an awareness of documentary production dynamics that is not inherent to digital video as a medium but has been stimulated by its impact on the Chinese independent documentary scene.

On Prjoect Muse (Restricted access)


Jacqueline Nivard

Jacqueline Nivard, Centre d'études sur la Chine moderne et contemporaine

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