Just as China’s renowned “Sixth Generation” of filmmakers have adopted an intimate and more raw approach than their predecessors, so have documakers Solveig Klassen and Kathrina Scheneider-Roos approached these young cinema firebrands with the personal touch in “My Camera Doesn’t Lie.” Klassen (from Germany) and Schneider-Roos (from Austria) avoid the slightest tint of being tourists in a strange land, getting a large community of filmmakers, critics and scholars to openly talk about work still generally frowned upon by China’s officialdom. Ideally positioned as a fest companion item alongside Sixth Generation titles, docu can also stand alone as a marketable vid specialty item.
“My Camera” allows Western viewers the first in-depth glimpse at such major voices as Jia Zhangke (“Xiao Wu,” “Platform,” “Unknown Pleasures”), Wang Chao (“Orphan of Anyang”), Wang Xiaoshuai (“Beijing Bicycle”), Zhang Yuan (“East Palace, West Palace”), Wang Quan’an (“Lunar Eclipse’) and Li Yu (“Fish and Elephant”).
These upstarts, most between ages 30 and 35, live in the kind of cramped and spare conditions that their relatively spoiled Yank indie counterparts would find intolerable. Liu Hao jokes about how sunlight doesn’t make its way into his quarters until noon, and says he lives close to the poor in order to feed his ideas.
It may startle his fans that a world-famous director like Jia, credited with opening up the new wave of independent mainland production with “Xiao Wu,” is seen accidentally locked out of his tiny apartment, waiting for his roommate to return so he can get inside. Moreover, Jia rightly takes no special credit for himself — others such as Zhang and Wang Xiaoshuai were equally crucial in the early years — and admits that he grew up never considering a filmmaking career.
Still, “My Camera” has a curious tendency to show clips only from the filmmakers’ first work (“Xiao Wu,” for instance, is incorporated, but nothing from Jia’s extraordinary subsequent films). And as wide-ranging as docu’s coverage is, it fails to include such gifted and important underground cineastes as Hu Ze, whose “Beijing Suburb” is probably the most radical and startling of all Sixth Generation pics.
Critic Cheng Quingsong, who proves quite observant, notes that while the Fifth Generation resorted to legends and history for much of its filmmaking material, the new group “talks about their lives.” Indeed, watching the artists in “My Camera” one sees no line of separation between their personal existences and what they film.
Helmer Emily Tang and Zhang — one of the first openly gay Chinese filmmakers — note that the Tiananmen Square tragedy proved a crucible for their peers (many of whom were Beijing Film Acad grads in the late ’80s and early ’90s), both pushing them away from overt politics but toward deeply personal forms of expression that ended up being subversive in an entirely new context for mainland Chinese culture.
Film scholar Dai Jinhua speaks most directly about censorship problems, noting that the censor boards’ directives are unpredictable and reflect “the personalities of a few bureaucrats.” Cheng chides Zhang for “becoming corrupted” because he has willingly submitted his films to the censors, something many in the Sixth Generation have refused to do.
Still, Klassen and Schneider-Roos are able to capture the freer side of Chinese film culture, such as their coverage of the first gay fest, held at Beijing U. The desire among Chinese youth for limitless expression and the hunger for making new kinds of cinema is palpable in this deeply encouraging film.
Digital vid quality is standard, but helps pic’s intimate mood. Sound, though, is in need of remixing.