East Asian Film and Media Studies 151. Documenting China on Film

course poster for east asian film and media studies 151

Photo of professor Jie Li a Chinese woman
Prof. Jie Li

What defines a film as “documentary”? How do documentary films inform, persuade, provoke, or move us?  Of whom, by whom, and for whom are documentaries made?  Can documentary also be “propaganda” or “art”?  What rhetorical devices and aesthetic strategies do documentaries use to construct visions of reality and proclaim them as authentic, credible and authoritative?  What might documentary films—as opposed to written text—teach us about modern Chinese history and contemporary society?  Above all, how would you go about making a documentary film, in China or elsewhere?

 In this course, we will examine documentary films made in or about China from the early 20th century to the present day, through the lenses of both Chinese and foreign filmmakers.  We will interrogate the visual “evidence” that camera images can offer, look into their production and reception histories, as well as discuss the ethics, aesthetics, and politics of documentation, representation, and exhibition.  Weekly topics are roughly grouped into three parts: (1) “Witnessing History” (2) “Social Reportage” and (3) “Art, Experimentation, and Fiction.”  The first part will cover the cinematic history and memory of World War II, the Cultural Revolution, and the 1989 Tiananmen protests.  The second part will explore documentary engagements with contemporary issues ranging from social inequality, migrant labor, forced demolitions, and environmental degradation.  The third part will consider the art of observation, the potentials of experimentation, and the porous boundaries between documentary and fiction.  Viewings of documentary films will be complemented by theoretical and contextual readings, as well as short assignments to engage critically and creatively with the films we watch.  The final project for the course will be to make a documentary film in a small group. 

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