The Memory Project Uncovers Forgotten Histories, Prompts New Film Styles

Chinese filmmakers are on campus this week discussing their work

An image from
An image from "A True Believer"

Visiting Chinese artists will continue screening and discussing several of their films this week as part of a two-year residency and archiving project.

Documentary filmmaker Wu Wenguang and three of his students -- Zhang Mengqi, Liu Xiaolei, and Zhang Ping --  are visiting as part of The Memory Project, which was launched in 2010 by Wenguang and funded by Duke University’s East Asian Librarians Grant.

The project began as an initiative to collect oral histories of survivors of China’s Great Famine of 1958-1961, when tens of millions of Chinese citizens died, but has expanded to include three experimental documentary films from Wu Wenguang’s students, as well as one from the teacher himself.  These works – titled Reading Hunger, A True Believer, No Land, and Investigating My Father – showcase the filmmakers’ personal experiences with family and history in today’s rapidly changing China.

Considered one of the founding figures of Chinese independent documentary film, Wu challenged himself and his students to rethink portrayals of China’s history. Information about China’s historical events continues to be largely controlled by the government. The nation’s official history, as presented in textbooks and mainstream news sources, focuses on narratives from famous figures and stays in line with the Communist Party’s ideology.

In response, the Memory Project filmmakers capture stories from the perspectives of ordinary civilians to generate a more nuanced understanding of China’s history.

 “I’ve realized that the memories of ordinary citizens, while they tend to be the strangest and most overlooked, are also the most profound,” Wu said in an interview for Cinemaround, a webzine for Chinese film culture.

The filmmakers returned to their rural ancestral hometowns to collect stories from their relatives and other villagers. For example, Reading Hunger, which premiered at Duke last week, is the product of the filmmakers’ interviews with elderly villagers who have survived China’s Great Famine. These interviewees have never before been asked to recount their personal experiences of eating tree bark or wild plants to quell their hunger.

Last week, visiting student filmmaker Liu Xiaolei premiered A True Believer, which follows his five-year journey with Falcon, an anti-pickpocketing organization, as well as his relationship with a Uighur boy who unexpectedly enters his life.

The film is narrated by Liu himself, who demonstrates an attraction to heroism, first through his involvement in violent justice against pickpockets, and then through his selfless compassion toward a homeless abused child. He fails in both endeavors: Falcon’s brutal beatings of desperate pickpockets proves too evil for Liu to handle, and the young boy ends up in juvenile detention despite Liu’s best efforts to be a father figure to him. 

As someone who often feels powerless in China, Liu feels empowered by the impact that documentary film has on audiences.

“The biggest effect making this documentary had on me was that I learned to deal with myself more, instead of trying to find controversial, attention-grabbing content,” he says in a Q&A following the premiere of his film.

Another Memory Project filmmaker, Zhang Mengqi, views documentary film as a bridge that allows groups of people to communicate with each other. She feels a sense of responsibility to capture personal stories and transmit information, especially to audiences abroad.

“This is not just China’s history,” she said, during a visit to a Chinese 435 class, about the Memory Project, “It’s human history too.”

Other events include:

On Tuesday Oct. 25 at 7 p.m. in the Griffith Film Theater, Zhang Ping will preview her film, No Land, which follows her father’s life journey.

On Thursday, Oct. 27, at 3:30 p.m. in Perkins Library 217, all four filmmakers will discuss their work in a panel discussion.

On Friday, Oct. 28 at 7 p.m. in White Lecture Hall, Wu will screen Investigating My Father, which documents his father’s role as an ex-Kuomingtang Air Force pilot, and Wu’s own experience of following Communist Party orders to farm in the countryside for four years.

For more information on the upcoming events, see the Asian/Pacific Studies website.