You rarely watch someone’s home movies these days. Before, well it took time to organise, you had to hook the camera up to the back of the TV with a SCART lead, remember where you left the SCART lead, go out and buy a SCART lead, and then get back before your friend Joxer has started into the duty-free Ouzo. What I’m saying is that it’s harder for anyone to care when you put your videos directly onto Facebook.
However, not every home movie is a drunken holiday in Magaluf. Newsreels, amateur recordings; these capture an often fleeting snap shot of life that is too often overlooked. Around China with a Movie Camera: a Journey from Beijing to Shanghai (2016) attempts to take long forgotten footage of a pre-revolutionary China.
The film doesn’t follow a narrative in a chronological order, jumping around the timeline with each new segment. No, its narrative is built upon the landscape of China itself; from post Qing dynasty Beijing to the opium smokers of 1902’s Kunming and the clash of New & Old China in the portside streets of Guangzhou we watch a story that sets out to be a historical document of sweeping beautiful vistas and charged city life. Assembled from footage taken by English and French visitors, missionaries, holiday makers, we are treated to a glimpse of a lost world as the old Imperial ways of China are replaced with a more European-esque world.
And I think this is where the problem lies.
BFI have brilliantly created a historical document but are their sources valid? The images of fishing with cormorants on the Imperial Canal; the Stilted City of Chungking; the tribal people of Yannan who train with Qin crossbows; historical footage of a China that most have never or will ever see.
But the other footage feels staged and crooked. Not that it’s been faked but that it has been selectively shot by Europeans to show the idea that China is becoming modern by embracing the Western ideas. Are we getting a selective footage, Orientalism in monochrome, which shows so little of this era of political turmoil and social upheaval that tore down the Qing rule? It was the time of the Boxer Rebellion, Warlord Era, the time of the Long March and Second Sino-Japanese War were millions died.
It isn’t wholly ignored; footage of soldiers entering the city before the Massacre of Shanghai is in there but that’s all. Beijing footage shows the city in some form of timelocked between 1910 and 1925; the soldiers recorded by Auguste François don’t seem to know how to hold a gun and you can almost hear the Laurel and Hardy music in the background of the opium smokers.
And maybe that’s the point.
Around China gives us a glimpse of this forgotten era. It also gives us a glimpse into the minds of those that came to film it. Orientalism home movies that also tells us of the clash of civilisations; were everything that is Chinese is seen as old and backward, everything Western as modern and safe. Traditional Chinese ways of life are recorded to suit a stereotypical idea of China held by the West at this time. I’m not accusing those that filmed it of consciously harbouring such views, just that even the best intentioned film can focus on the stereotype rather than the people.
The DVD extras include Modern China (1910) which focuses on the everyday life of Beijing’s people before the Xinhai Revolution a year later. Its inclusion, while nice, is completely pointless as much of the footage used forms the first part of Around China with a Movie Camera. However Homework and Street Scenes in China (1907) provide a brief and important glimpse at China’s people, footage that is just as important as any used in the film which makes you wonder why they didn’t bloody include any of it in the many feature.
A special note has to be given to Ruth Chan’s score which combines the sounds of Chinese classical music with a contemporary Western sound to bring the feel of the time across and dramatism to the scenes of city life and rural tranquillity.
At its heart, Around China with a Movie Camera is in one part a historical document of China during this period and in another a commentary on the social attitudes of those behind the camera.
Or maybe I’m reading way too much into it and it’s just your family home movie you’ve finally got to play on the telly.
Prd: James Blackford
Music: Ruth Chan
Runtime: 68 minutes
Around China with a Movie Camera is available on DVD from the 18th July
On Thursday 21 July at 19:00 Around China with a Movie Camera will be screened in NFT3 with a live score performed by Ruth Chan. Tickets are on sale now at www.bfi.org.uk/southbank