This conversation, originally conducted in Chinese, explores the role of films, movie theaters, screens, streaming platforms, and documentary filmmaking in China during the initial wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. Zhang Zhen and Jiang Jiehong—professors at Tisch School of the Arts, New York University, and Birmingham City University, UK, respectively—discuss the human rights movement prompted by state-sanctioned racist violence, feminist interventions in filmmaking practices, documentation of the pandemic in China, and tensions between state discourse and minjian (unofficial, unaffiliated, grassroots, and among-the-people) narratives.

Three months into Washington State’s “Stay Home—Stay Healthy” order in March 2020, when the United States underwent a critical moment of confronting systemic racism amid the deadly pandemic outbreak, I drove past an empty parking area of a size equivalent to almost fifteen soccer fields. Looking at the desolate lot, I thought, “Wouldn’t it be nice if we could put up a drive-in cinema with one of those inflatable outdoor projector screens?”

Screens, along with the face masks that are now an essential accessory and the plastic shields freshly installed in stores, have become one of the most frequently encountered surfaces in the pandemic world. The coronavirus outbreak has granted the virtual space of screens the capacity to replace the physical places—classrooms, offices, clinics, shops, restaurants, libraries, museums, cinemas, et cetera—that we previously experienced on a regular basis. The global pandemic redefines collective experience with the ubiquitous screens of computers and mobile phones. By connecting users with video communications software and online streaming services, these screens reshape the binary of content receivers versus creators.

Our collective experience feels split. On the one hand, we are just two screens away from seemingly anyone and everyone, overcoming vast geographical and temporal differences in the virtual world while staying safe from coronavirus infection in the physical world. On the other, we increasingly feel disconnected, with our digital avatars stuck on screens and our physical bodies “sheltered in place” in total isolation. The intensified sense of simultaneous fullness and fragmentation and the ever more ambiguous boundaries between screen worlds and those outside of them spark rumination on how different modes of video streaming and viewing rework the politics of image making and consumption.

China, one of the first countries to implement a wide-scale lockdown in response to COVID-19, has witnessed prolific documentary footage about pandemic life. Filmmakers and artists entered COVID-19 hot spots, making documentary films and screening visual diaries on streaming platforms. Meanwhile, smartphone users shot and circulated spontaneous footage on their personal social media channels. The country’s pandemic circumstances unveiled a media landscape in which independent and documentary filmmaking gained unprecedented momentum even as mainstream film production was suspended and movie theaters closed. Not only did individual minjian (unofficial, unaffiliated, grassroots, and among-the-people) documentation transform into a collective portrait of the pandemic experience as seen in the open call of Yusheng yiri (official English title One More Day, forthcoming and currently under censorship review), but new works by women filmmakers and artists, such as Tan Tan’s Wuhan fengcheng riji (official English title A Diary under Wuhan Lockdown, 2020) and Yang Lina’s Chunchao (official English title Spring Tide, 2019), have experienced successful online receptions while inspiring discussions about gender and feminist film and art making in China.1

The unexpected wave of image and video documentation spawned by coronavirus conditions, and the omnipresence of cell phones as both recording devices and screening surfaces, pave the way for reenvisioning the tensions between minjian filmmaking and official discourse in China. The conversation that follows between Zhang Zhen, associate professor and director of the Asian Film and Media Initiative at Tisch School of the Arts, New York University, and Jiang Jiehong, professor and director of the Centre for Chinese Visual Arts at Birmingham City University, UK, dwells on filmmaking in Wuhan, a primary site of the initial coronavirus outbreak, and the opportunities enabled by online streaming platforms. Their discussion provides insights into not only the complex dynamics of filmmaking in China, but also, perhaps more intriguingly, cinema’s bittersweet silver lining to the coronavirus pandemic.

The following is primarily adapted and translated from a recorded conversation that took place online on July 18, 2020, at the seventh session of the Center for Chinese Visual Arts COVID-19 Research Seminar Series, “The World, Two Meters Away.” It also includes content beyond the live event, specifically Zhang’s additional comments and footnotes, images provided by the artists, and my follow-up discussions with Zhang over email and video chat about the more recent online releases of documentary works by Chinese independent artists and filmmakers.

Zhang Zhen:

As a country, the United States has gone through a complicated and severe pandemic outbreak. Both the city and the state of New York, where I reside, have been hot spots for the coronavirus since late February and early March [2020]. Fortunately, the leadership of the state governor along with public cooperation and support have curbed the spread of the pandemic bit by bit. New York recently entered phases 3 and 4 of reopening, allowing outdoor dining at restaurants and in-store retail shopping with masks or face covering requirements. Despite the hand sanitizers that can still be seen everywhere, we are slowly returning to a quasi-normal state of living. However, the COVID-19 surge in previously less affected regions, such as states in the South and Southwest, now poses growing concerns, with record-breaking numbers of new cases every day. This geographical shift is alarming, considering how state borders cannot be cut off completely regardless of the legal and governmental autonomy of each state. And for the same reason, it remains very challenging to contain the spread of the virus both within New York and nationwide, which makes it difficult for schools to reopen in the coming fall.

Jiang Jiehong:

We have been doing remote teaching and learning for a few months as well, and it remains uncertain if schools will reopen in September. We have witnessed different forms of cultural conflicts that emerged at the peak of the global pandemic, which affected overseas ethnic Chinese and university students from China on personal levels, often in unpleasant ways. For example, Asian students wearing masks during the early period of the pandemic were confronted with opposing cultural opinions expressed through body language or a glimpse of a passersby. These cultural differences and conflicts have been resolved gradually by the growing number of people wearing face coverings. Have there been similar experiences in the United States?

ZZ:

The United States is an immigrant society consisting of multiple racial and ethnic communities. Therefore, issues of race and ethnicity have always been heatedly debated. Since the early outbreak of COVID-19, people like President Trump have been shirking their responsibilities and making excessive, irresponsible accusations against China—the first country to take the strongest hit of the pandemic. These ignorant actions caused a flaring up of already problematic racial issues. Racist behaviors, from sidelong glances to physical assaults, against not only ethnic Chinese but also other Asian Americans who were born and raised in the United States, have occurred repeatedly in public spaces—subways, restaurants, on the streets. I personally have experienced weird looks at the supermarket.

In the past two months, pushback on racism against Asians and Asian Americans has come together with the series of human rights movements against racism more broadly in the wake of George Floyd’s killing. A large number of Asian Americans, who used to be relatively indifferent or even hold prejudiced views toward the legacy of the country’s slavery past or the African and African American communities, began to participate in this recent wave of the civil rights movement, especially after encountering racist discrimination themselves during the pandemic. However, unfortunately, some Asian and Asian American communities, often those who are more privileged and who identify with white supremacy and with Trump, blindly join the opposite end.

These hot topics concerning racism all have gone viral and gotten significant momentum on social media. While these issues do not seem to have immediate connections to movies, a step back to look at the history of US film and visual culture reveals that issues of identity have been a recurring theme in the past hundred-plus years. In this sense, it is great to see people revisit these topics and bring them back into the agenda. This wake-up call is certainly going to be disturbing for many, as it provokes painful feelings and challenges boundaries, bottom lines, morality, and awareness of political history, not to mention one’s empathy, compassion, and sense of justice. It is especially crucial to confront and explore these issues as humanity seeks a renewed form of community amid the pandemic.

JJH:

The pandemic certainly has been a wake-up call for people in the field of art and cultural studies as well, as it enables a new perspective on how different cultures handle problems in distinct ways. Through the lens of film studies, what has the pandemic brought us? In other words, what is the role of movies and video recording in this present moment?

ZZ:

Video recording was a common practice well before the pandemic. Given the ubiquitous presence of cell phones and other portable recording devices, video documentation is simply an obvious thing to carry out, either consciously or not (fig. 1). However, the pandemic is still with us; it is still in the present tense. Therefore, except for those short video clips, visual diaries, and the relatively nonprofessional on-site recordings available online at the moment, it might still take a while for more professional productions to arrive on public platforms. Many are still stuck in preproduction, especially since film shooting in places such as the United States has been halted due to COVID-19, so it will likely take a few years for a feature-length narrative film about the pandemic to be completed. Location shooting for documentary films presents even more challenges and is more time-consuming unless someone is already present on the site or the affected area is close by, in your neighborhood or in your family.

In China, some documentary works have been screened not in the cinema, but on streaming media platforms. COVID-19 has boosted these streaming platforms and presented them with a valuable opportunity, as they can continue to operate and survive as long as there is content to be streamed. Fan Jian’s documentary film Beiyiwang de chuntian (official English title The Lost Spring, 2020), shot in Wuhan when the city took the hardest hit of the pandemic, was recently made available on streaming platforms such as iQIYI and Tencent. Many narrative films unrelated to the pandemic also premiered on these online platforms, trying to take advantage of the situation of everyone staying at home and in-theater premieres being impossible. It was particularly interesting that some art films by emerging filmmakers that normally would have had a lot of trouble getting wide theatrical release came out during this time. Chunchao, the second feature narrative film in the “women’s trilogy” by Yang Lina, who is known for her independent documentaries previously, premiered on iQIYI on May 17 [2020] with advance reservation (fig. 2).2 The online release went viral on social media, and the various online panels featuring filmmakers and critics and conversations with audiences were highly popular, serving not only as a promotion campaign but also as a public forum for discussing gender, family, state relations, and feminist filmmaking.

Figure 1.

Huanhuan’s neighbor snaps footage of the world outside his apartment during the pandemic lockdown in Wuhan, China, in Beiyiwang de chuntian (official English title The Lost Spring, dir. Fan Jian), 2020. Image courtesy the filmmaker.

Figure 1.

Huanhuan’s neighbor snaps footage of the world outside his apartment during the pandemic lockdown in Wuhan, China, in Beiyiwang de chuntian (official English title The Lost Spring, dir. Fan Jian), 2020. Image courtesy the filmmaker.

Figure 2.

Posters for Chunchao (official English title Spring Tide, dir. Yang Lina), 2019. Courtesy the filmmaker.

Figure 2.

Posters for Chunchao (official English title Spring Tide, dir. Yang Lina), 2019. Courtesy the filmmaker.

JJH:

As you said, professional filmmaking requires a more complete production process to achieve its professional look. The amateur mode, its more intriguing counterpart, has become more accessible because everyone now has mobile phones with ever more powerful functions for spontaneously shooting anytime and anywhere. We can edit and publish the footage with just a few taps on the screen.

In the pandemic, when every single one of us is in the primary scene, there is an endless volume of footage being disseminated and replayed on the various platforms. How do we make sense of filmmaking now that seemingly everyone is involved in film production, sharing, and consumption? Captured as recorded footage, the reality now unfolds in multiplicity through those various digital tools and platforms. Reality is encompassed by those moving images as if a person is being wrapped in layers of tape. In the process of wrapping or even after the fact, while the shape of the body remains visible, the reality presented to us has become repeated, multiplied, if not exceeded or distorted.

ZZ:

Your metaphor of reality as wrapping is very vivid. It reminds me of classical film theories about the ontology of cinema, specifically André Bazin’s theory of the photographic image. For Bazin, the photographic image is a process of mummification, just like the ancient Egyptian practice of embalming the deceased pharaohs to keep them from decaying. Reality is like a time that has passed by, a corpse being wrapped in layers and unearthed a thousand years later without any sign of decay. But the digital age has redefined, if not overthrown, this concept. The practice of artistic “embalming” used to be a selective mode of production—the exclusive domain of the individual artist, photographer, cinematographer, or filmmaker. These select few were like the priests of art, comprehending and conveying the world for the rest of us. Now everyone has the tools to complete this task, to wrap reality, either to leave it behind or to preserve it for future reflection.

Fan’s Beiyiwang de chuntian is an inspiring example. The small team entered Wuhan like heroes in harm’s way, and went into the communities, the streets, the families, and even the hospital to closely explore the “hot spots” of the pandemic (fig. 3). Just like you mentioned, the pandemic is omnipresent, affecting every second of our lives even when we sit in front of our computers. It has become a global norm at the moment. And of course, without signs of illness or the presence of a doctor, it is hard to determine whether we are on the front lines or not.

Daxiang Jilu, a Shanghai-based media company focused on documentary and small-budget art films, which produced Fan’s 2016 documentary film Yaoyaohuanghuang de renjian (official English title Still Tomorrow) about the woman poet Yu Xiuhua, launched a project that attempted to turn everyone into filmmakers to capture the primary scenes of the hot spots, the “truer” reality, an understanding that remains debatable indeed in places like Wuhan [that have been condemned as the first and hardest hit]. They announced an open call on various streaming and social media platforms, asking people to submit raw or edited footage of places around them on February 9 [2020] using their own cell phones or recording devices. This collection of footage has been edited into a feature film of collective authorship titled Yusheng yiri.

I was WeChatting with the production team the other day, wondering why the film was not available yet, since the premiere was originally scheduled for March [2020]. I was told that the film has been completed, but is still under censorship review by China’s State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television in order to get the dragon seal of approval for theatrical and public release. This project is especially compelling, as it invited everyone to participate in the practice of what you termed reality wrapping, which might result in a lot of repetition that would likely be edited away by the mastermind, the main producer, behind the final work. In this case, it is Qin Xiaoyu, a director and poet, who made a documentary film about Chinese workers’ poetry a few years ago. The censorship process brings forward a very interesting but also odd phenomenon: How can we link together amateur cinema, professional production, and spontaneous personal modes of filmmaking? The encounter of these various modes will likely develop a path of experimentation, a compromise of some sort, or a mediation among these different creative approaches and contexts and the tensions they create.

Figure 3.

Empty highways and streets in Wuhan, China, during the citywide pandemic lockdown in March 2020 in Beiyiwang de chuntian (official English title The Lost Spring, dir. Fan Jian), 2020. Image courtesy the filmmaker.

Figure 3.

Empty highways and streets in Wuhan, China, during the citywide pandemic lockdown in March 2020 in Beiyiwang de chuntian (official English title The Lost Spring, dir. Fan Jian), 2020. Image courtesy the filmmaker.

JJH:

In the context of China, another way to look at this binarism between professional versus amateur modes of filmmaking is official narrative versus minjian documentation. I think they are both very important. The former presents the official interpretation of COVID-19, along with reassuring media coverage of the pandemic control to encourage people to face the challenge positively. Minjian documentation tells the stories of the people, the families, the neighborhoods—lived experiences taking place in the hospital, like the footage in Beiyiwang de chuntian. A continuous negotiation between the two is needed for a more truthful understanding of the coronavirus in China.

ZZ:

I would argue that it is impossible to separate minjian production from its so-called official counterpart. Yusheng yiri expresses the tensions, even the linkages, between official and nonofficial narratives. In the end, these two modes of narrative are divided mostly by the mechanisms of censorship. Censorship in China is particularly complicated and often very strict, if not cruel, imposing significant challenges to film producers who seek to bring their works to public platforms or screen them in movie theaters. Filmmakers almost always must make compromises to get the dragon seal of approval. We have seen many official narratives about the pandemic as TV dramas, documentary films, and feature film productions, which will soon become consumable media products, gesturing toward a more stirring and positive understanding of the coronavirus pandemic. While there might be stories of the people interwoven into these official narratives, they are likely to be encouraging people to move on, to triumph over darkness with hope.

Emerging from this mode of narrative promoted by the state is a sense that the pandemic chapter has come to an end with the National Day of Mourning for COVID-19 on April 4. In other words, it is time to enter a new chapter and restore the economy at full speed, to resume business as usual, including reopening film theaters. It is time to move on. Blockbuster movies about pandemic control will no doubt come out in just another year or two, if not sooner. So it is particularly precious to let the general public enter the debate and feed back into, or even challenge, the official, monotonous discourse. Both of us undertake research to understand how artists work through their creation and their thinking, and through which our writing creates historiographies, confronts history, and refuses oblivion. Just like the old saying, “Never forget about the pain once the wound heals,” it is crucial to revisit, confront, and reexamine the past instead of trying to paper over it. I believe this is the most critical responsibility of artistic and literary creation.

JJH:

Speaking of humanistic creation, many writers have been keeping track of daily life in the pandemic in the form of diaries. Visual diaries—a mode of image documentation more convenient than the handwritten kind and unimaginable if the pandemic took place forty years ago—has also begun to emerge from the recent phenomenon of minjian recording enabled by the handy tools available to everyone today. Of course, recorded footage never captures objective truth—there is no such thing in filmmaking, whether minjian or official. Even the most intentionally realistic documentary film is a product of subjective choices: camera angles, framing, editing, et cetera. So how do we make sense of recorded footage? If we see the truth as an island, then all of the footage becomes different paths to the island. They all are linked to the truth-island, but they are never the truth itself. So when we view, perceive, and interpret footage, it is as if we were traversing these paths, unceasingly trying to reach the truth.

ZZ:

I like your metaphor. I used to write poetry, so I often think in visual or figurative terms. If reality is an island, I would picture it as an iceberg, or floating in some way. Underneath the water, it has invisible parts that are constantly changing along with the tides. Instead of remaining at a static set of coordinates, it shifts even as we try to observe and comprehend it. This kind of metaphor allows us to think about spectators viewing images on their cell phone screens or the big screen in theaters. When and how does the moving image resonate with viewers and accordingly affect their judgment about the work in front of their eyes, beyond official censorship measures? What makes the audience feel themselves as more real, more affected? It is always through the interaction and the resonance between subject and object that we seek to understand what kind of work is meaningful.

I was very touched by some of the scenes in Fan’s Beiyiwang de chuntian. While Fan’s camera focuses on three average families, all of these plotlines are connected by a low-level woman cadre, likely a Party member, on the front line (fig. 4). So, even in a film like this, there still exists a balancing aspect, which is identifiable to the mainstream discourse as the cadre dedicates herself deeply to pandemic control and sacrifices her quality time with her child to instead volunteer to support other families in need.3 The story is full of human emotions, but it also conforms to an artistic framework that fits with the more assuring narrative we have talked about (fig. 5). Fan told me that there are a lot of people shooting films about the pandemic at the moment. In the meantime, he is also working on editing a more personalized, experimental project that expands on his other feelings and thoughts in the context of the pandemic. A work like this will approach the island or iceberg in a different way. Additionally, he is codirecting and coediting another project about a street vendor. Compared to those big productions that involve multiple plotlines, a film with a smaller scope like this will present an even more focused, more personalized, and extensively subjective interpretation of reality.

Figure 4.

Volunteers Chen Qi (foreground) and a colleague make their rounds inspecting and visiting neighborhood households into the late hours in Beiyiwang de chuntian (official English title The Lost Spring, dir. Fan Jian), 2020. Image courtesy the filmmaker.

Figure 4.

Volunteers Chen Qi (foreground) and a colleague make their rounds inspecting and visiting neighborhood households into the late hours in Beiyiwang de chuntian (official English title The Lost Spring, dir. Fan Jian), 2020. Image courtesy the filmmaker.

Figure 5.

A large sign reading “Mooring (Anchor) Prohibited” appears on-screen—shot from behind, so it appears in reverse—as Huanhuan, whose father was hospitalized after being diagnosed with COVID-19, tells the film crew, “We have to move on. Our life cannot just pause here.” Beiyiwang de chuntian (official English title The Lost Spring, dir. Fan Jian), 2020. Image courtesy the filmmaker.

Figure 5.

A large sign reading “Mooring (Anchor) Prohibited” appears on-screen—shot from behind, so it appears in reverse—as Huanhuan, whose father was hospitalized after being diagnosed with COVID-19, tells the film crew, “We have to move on. Our life cannot just pause here.” Beiyiwang de chuntian (official English title The Lost Spring, dir. Fan Jian), 2020. Image courtesy the filmmaker.

JJH:

Fan’s cinematographic language is very mature, and I was particularly impressed by one of the shots near the end, in which a face mask is being air-dried under the hazy sunshine. It flutters in the air like a flag, but without a clear sense of either victory or surrender (fig. 6). His choice of these three different narrative angles is intriguing as well. In China or anyplace affected by the pandemic, the reality we experience cannot be understood as a polyhedron with a fixed number of surfaces that awaits our investigation. It can probably be seen as a taihu stone [a piece of limestone in which water has created holes] that presents countless surfaces, all irregular, and cannot be described via just a handful of examples, not to mention how all the different surfaces overlap and interweave.

Figure 6.

A face mask air-dries in the hazy sunshine in Beiyiwang de chuntian (official English title The Lost Spring, dir. Fan Jian), 2020. Image courtesy the filmmaker.

Figure 6.

A face mask air-dries in the hazy sunshine in Beiyiwang de chuntian (official English title The Lost Spring, dir. Fan Jian), 2020. Image courtesy the filmmaker.

ZZ:

The taihu stone metaphor is one worth pondering. I will certainly share it with Fan. Here is a counterexample: Cong Feng’s fifteen-minute experimental short, Guanyu duanshijiannei de moujige ren de jingguo (official English title On the Passage of a Few Persons through a Rather Brief Unity of Time, 2020). It took me a few reads to remember this tongue-twisting title. Compared to Fan’s relatively conventional documentary approach in Beiyiwang de chuntian, Cong’s short is a more conceptual project, which might speak to the other contemporary artworks of your research. Cong is a veteran and has made a significant number of projects, all of which are considered minjian or underground filmmaking rather than designed for television or public platforms such as Tencent. In this sense, the intention, reception, and dissemination of his works all exist in a relatively independent zone. This short is a crystallization of some of his thoughts evoked by the pandemic. It is very personal and certainly not intended as an epic documentation of an era that echoes with hundreds, thousands, or even billions of people. I revisited it recently and found his approach very intriguing. While dealing with the pandemic, this work is entirely made of found and existing film footage, without any surveying or on-site shooting of the front line.4 It is not one of those self-documenting videos made by individuals or artists as we have seen on platforms such as Weibo or WeChat, either.

For example, Tan Tan, a woman artist quarantined in Wuhan, documented the entire sixty-six days of the lockdown by taking daily snapshots of the hospital across the river from her window and editing them to an extensive photography series titled Wuhan fengcheng riji. Like a diary, Tan’s photo documentation, with a time-lapse effect added through the mode of slideshow, captures how time passed in the city of Wuhan during the lockdown and how the seasonal scenes changed along with it (fig. 7).5 Another example that has struck so many viewers so profoundly is a video taken by a young woman from Wuhan who finally left her place for the first time on the national mourning day on April 4 [2020], after the citywide quarantine. She recorded herself rushing out of her building, through the gate of the neighborhood, to a street named Jiefang Road (Liberation Road), which was especially fitting for this particular moment. Her panting and weeping were intermittently mixed with her muttering. Many people, including myself in the United States, have seen this video clip on WeChat and are deeply and emotionally touched by her self-documentation, which could arguably be the most remarkable long take from Wuhan during the pandemic outbreak. As soon as she reached the street, the siren wailed and everyone stopped for a moment of silence. Cong saw this clip as well and was profoundly struck by it, so he utilized its audio track in his work. In some ways, Cong’s approach makes his project sound art.

Cong told me that he also included footage of the moon and clouds he took in 2008: “The footage captured a small moment, a small piece of history that elapsed in front of our eyes. Months after the outbreak in Wuhan, people seem to return slowly to the life before the pandemic, so I wanted to make something in memory of that passage of the pandemic. I wanted to portray that elapsed historical moment and the passing of those thousands and even ten thousands of people, just like what the title, Guanyu duanshijiannei de moujige ren de jingguo, encapsulates” (fig. 8). Adopting the soundtrack of Chinese “scar cinema,” specifically Yang Yanjin's Xiaojie (Narrow Street, 1981), Cong aims to remind everyone not to simply move on without introspection.6 When I watched the short for the first time a few weeks ago, the montage of the visual images and the soundtrack, the implication of the loss of sight, and the use of the black screen, together gave the impression that we viewers were lost in history, blinded by eye masks.

Figure 7.

Central South Hospital of Wuhan University, captured on day one (January 23, 2020) of the Wuhan lockdown in Tan Tan’s photography series Wuhan fengcheng riji (official English title A Diary under Wuhan Lockdown), 2020. Image courtesy the artist.

Figure 7.

Central South Hospital of Wuhan University, captured on day one (January 23, 2020) of the Wuhan lockdown in Tan Tan’s photography series Wuhan fengcheng riji (official English title A Diary under Wuhan Lockdown), 2020. Image courtesy the artist.

Figure 8.

Stills from Guanyu duanshijiannei de moujige ren de jingguo (official English title On the Passage of a Few Persons through a Rather Brief Unity of Time, dir. Cong Feng), 2020. Image courtesy the filmmaker.

Figure 8.

Stills from Guanyu duanshijiannei de moujige ren de jingguo (official English title On the Passage of a Few Persons through a Rather Brief Unity of Time, dir. Cong Feng), 2020. Image courtesy the filmmaker.

JJH:

If I encountered a project like this when curating an exhibition, I would definitely suggest creating an installation with an old-fashioned radio to broadcast the film’s audio track, such as the dialogue excerpts from Walter Defends Sarajevo (1972), directed by Hajrudin Krvavac, and of course the evocative sound of the woman weeping you just mentioned. Cong’s visual is very neutral—a cloudy sky with a turbid sun, partly hidden and partly seen—without having an expressive dialogue with the audio. This audio-visual relationship likely carries the lived experience of the artist himself, which also offers us a new way to think about cinema’s role in the current moment of the pandemic. As an artistic strategy, this kind of video work fits particularly well with the modes of presentation and distribution of social media platforms.

Thinking back to the time of open-air cinema in my childhood, when everyone sat on the back of the truck to watch Li Ang and Li Jun's Shanshan de hongxing (official English title Sparkling Red Star, 1974), as a six-year-old kid I always wanted to peek behind the gigantic cloth screen. I was introduced to the lifestyle of watching movies in movie houses of various sizes when I went to Shanghai, where movie theaters have become the most private public space for romantic dates. In recent years, movie theaters continue to upgrade their AV equipment to offer an immersive experience with massive screens and surround sound. All the movie theaters are of course closed down due to the pandemic, and this has paved the way for the revival of outdoor cinema, such as drive-in cinema, which is now very popular at the moment. The passion for movie theaters never fades away. And the burgeoning media platforms have become must-haves meanwhile. It seems the era of post-cinema has arrived sooner than we expected.

ZZ:

The concept of post-cinema could mean post-celluloid-film or post-movie-theater, and in many ways, these phenomena began in the last century and have always been intertwined. When we in China were still living behind the iron curtain of the Cold War, and before we had the opportunity to encounter a wider variety of movies and television shows, the arrival of television sets had a strong impact on many Western countries and in some sense initiated the era of post-cinema. In addition to theaters, living rooms became spaces for moving-image reception. When we entered the age of the internet in the 1980s and 1990s, followed by the advent of digital production and consumption, the notion of post-cinema became an even more urgent phenomenon. For cinephiles, the experience of going to the movies and the passion for big-screen projection, both indoor and outdoor, create a sense of intimate belonging in public space. It is more than a mode of socialization. The leisure consumption of movies offers modern people spiritual joy and modes of identity formation. When you sit with a group of people, you share the same interest in the same movie. Going to the movies is more than simply watching moving images on a screen. It creates a sense of modernity and civic consciousness, a possibility for alternative subject formation, an opportunity to meet a like-minded friend, all of which ensure the continuation of cinema, even if television, VHS, and media for small-screen consumption continue to challenge the history and experience of watching movies on the big screen.

The elimination of Kodak celluloid caused a huge rupture—many traditional photography studios that had failed to keep up with the shift to digital shut down—and led to the digital revolution of the movie theater. As during the invention of sound film and its subsequent arrival at mainstream movie theaters in the 1920s and 1930s, all the filmmakers and projectionists who used to work with silent film had to adapt to the technical revolution and bring the audience an amplified sensory experience, from having a live piano or narrator at the screening to talkies, with actors and actresses addressing the audience directly, and of course sound effects. Cinema continues to evolve and rebirth itself thanks to all the different technological upgrades and expansions. The same goes for movie theaters where sound, smell, or even water spraying technologies were added to film screenings to bring viewers a more enhanced and immersive cinematic experience. The outbreak of COVID-19 put a stop to that, but while it may feel like the post-cinema era has literally arrived, this pause does not necessarily mean that the age of big cinema houses is over. Once the pandemic has ended, everyone still hopes to return to the streets, the parks, the shops, and eventually the more enclosed, hence relatively riskier, space of the movie theaters.

Movie culture is a ritualistic social behavior. While the habit of watching movies with your like-minded friends has been interrupted, it continues to exist in our bodily memory and remains something that we yearn for, which is why tickets for the drive-in theaters are selling out. I’d say the image itself may matter less for people during the pandemic than the pleasure of movie watching in groups. What our bodies and our societies remember is the shared collective experience of going to the movies. The pandemic gave us a moment of revelation.

Of course movies are not entirely necessary. We can live without cinema as long as we have things to eat, drink, and sleep on—we can live like cave dwellers—but cave dwellers also painted in the cave just like we set up home theaters in our houses. Once we get out of the cave, we crave fresh air but also the possibility to communicate and hang out as a collective. The Shanghai International Film Festival also plans to officially open to the public by the end of July [2020], albeit in a limited manner due to capacity restrictions and social distancing protocols. All of those moments of socialization that take place pre- and post-screening also make up the culture of moviegoing. Rather than simply a mode of entertainment, they are organic parts of everyday life that are key to a civil society.

JJH:

In terms of functionality, a family theater can be equipped with high-end AV equipment, achieving almost what professional cinema houses offer in terms of sensory experience. Going to a movie theater is for me like going to a temple to pay tribute. In the cinema, the movie images on-screen dominate us, dictating every moment blatantly and unapologetically, whereas in our private home theaters, we have control over the images. We get to pause the movie for a cup of tea or a phone call. So what makes those outdoor screenings of old movies like The Lion King (1994) sell out? It could be the collective experience that we long for, as you just described. But I’m also thinking of the so-called common text—a list of readings shared among everyone. Just as reading the same book provides a shared topic for intellectual conversation, watching the same movie brings a mutual subject to the dinner table. In a sense, book clubs, movie theaters, museums, pubs, and wine clubs all offer not only a public space for people to hang out, but more meaningfully, a shared context for ongoing communication and resonance.

ZZ:

I completely agree. I am likewise eager to return to the experience of going to the movies. We might think missing a trip to the theater simply means missing a premiere or a screening, but what we’re really missing is an opportunity for conversation about how we understand, interpret, or even share the film text beyond the images, all of which are in some ways more important than the image itself. It is also worth mentioning again that the pandemic has offered new spaces for many independent films and smaller productions, for instance by emerging filmmakers, women filmmakers, queer filmmakers. Those smaller or more independent films that seldom make it to the big movie theater’s lineup finally have a chance to circulate, as people are all staying at home and shifting their attention to smaller screens. All of these offer new possibilities and spaces for public conversation.

Notes

Ellen Chang would like to thank Zhang Zhen, Jennifer M. Bean, and Jiang Jiehong for their generative insights and suggestions across multiple drafts of this work. She would also like to thank Lauren Walden and Sun Wen at the Birmingham City University, UK, for providing recording and transcripts of the online seminar “The World, Two Meters Away.”

1.

All Chinese names appear according to Chinese convention, with family name preceding given name.

2.

On Yang’s previous works, including documentaries and her first feature film, which was never publicly shown in China due to its subject matter, see Zhang Zhen, “From Sidewalk Realism to Spectral Romance: Yang Lina’s Beijing and Beyond,” in Visual Arts, Representations and Interventions in Contemporary China: Urbanized Interface, ed. Minna Valjakka and Meiqin Wang (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2018), 35–59.

3.

Codirected by Fan Jian and Cheng Chunlin and premiered on Tencent on September 9, 2020, Kongkongdangdang de jietou daochu doushi fangxiang (official English title All Ways Rider) also straddles, politically, both the official and minjian.

4.

For a full key to sources for all the footage in Guanyu duanshijiannei de moujige ren de jingguo see Cong Feng, “Cong yitiaojie dao lingyitiaojie: duanshijiannei mouxieren jingguo de shibage changjing” [From one street to another: The eighteen scenes passed by a few persons in a rather brief unity of time], Pinfafilms blog, September 30, 2020, https://mp.weixin.qq.com/s/uL13zGQdQwOQV2Tj-S3_aA.

5.

For the journey behind Tan’s two-and-a half-month photo documentation through her parents’ apartment and the universal chord it sparked, see Tan Tan, “Misplaced Self in the Misplaced City,” Misplaced Women? Art Project by Tanja Ostojić, April 5, 2020, https://misplacedwomen.wordpress.com/2020/04/05/misplaced-self-in-the-misplaced-city/; “Tan Tan in Wuhan: An Inside Look at a ‘Misplaced City,’” interview with Kurt Snoekx, BRUZZ, May 21, 2020, https://www.bruzz.be/en/culture/art-books/tan-tan-wuhan-inside-look-misplaced-city-2020-05-21.

6.

“Scar cinema” is a genre that emerged after the ending of the Cultural Revolution (1966–76) in China that grappled with the massive societal trauma through the employment of intimate narratives, often centered on one individual or family.