China: Alternative Realities
One of the most salient features of the shift in Chinese documentary filmmaking is the democratisation of the way contemporary reality is depicted on screen. “Before, history only had one version—by the Chinese Communist Party,” asserts Ou Ning. “Now with digital technology history has different versions.”
This trend is graphically illustrated by Meishi Street (2006), Ou Ning’s feature-length documentary depicting the plight of Beijing residents forcibly relocated from Dazhalan, an area just south of Tiananmen Square, in the lead-up to the 2008 Olympics. What begins as an observational work takes a fascinating turn when Ou Ning hands his camera to Zhang Jinli, an eccentric and outspoken restaurateur whose home and business are slated for demolition. From that point, Meishi Street becomes, in part, a film about the way digital technology is empowering ordinary Chinese citizens.
“After just one month I found he was not only shooting, but also narrating his story like a journalist,” recalls Ou Ning. “The most exciting thing for him was an occasion when he hung banners on the roof of his house. The police came to take down the banners…but when he put the camera on them they were very afraid…That made Zhang Jinli realise the camera is a weapon.”