How Yukong Moved the Mountains
Filming the cultural revolution

by Thomas Waugh

From Jump Cut, no. 12/13, 1976, pp. 3-6.
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1976, 2004

The glimpses of China we have had on U.S. screens over the last few years have been scattered and tantalizingly superficial. Of those films made by the Chinese themselves, only the occasional documentary offers any useful insight into the shape of their revolution-in-progress. The feature films are usually based on ballet and operatic modes too deeply rooted in Chinese tradition to serve as much more than exotica to audiences on this side of the world. The Western documentarists who have visited China have brought us back fascinating films, to be sure. But the films remain unhappily distant from their subject, never succeeding in probing more deeply than the impressionism of any short term traveler’s notebook.

Among such recent China films are Antonioni’s CHINA, Shirley MacLaine’s THE OTHER HALF OF THE SKY, Marcel Carriere’s GLIMPSES OF CHINA (from the National Film Board of Canada), and Don McWilliams’ IMPRESSIONS OF CHINA, a short compilation of slides and super-8 footage taken by a group of Canadian high school students. Of these, Maclaine’s and McWilliams’ films seem to have come off the best because of their simplicity and unpretentiousness, their acceptance of their own limited focus. Unlike the larger, more ambitious films of Antonioni and Carriere, they refuse to make any sweeping assessment of a culture and a society of which they have necessarily received only random surface impressions. Instead, they have concentrated on the personal dimensions of interaction between travelers and hosts.

The Chinese themselves say that those who come to China for the shortest time write the longest books. This may have been true up to this point, but now such wisdom has been challenged by a very long film indeed, in fact twelve films, by two filmmakers who have spent a very long time in China. In fact, a whole new era in China films has now been opened up by the appearance of COMMENT YUKONG DEPLAÇA LES MONTAGNES (HOW YUKONG MOVED THE MOUNTAINS), a long, intensive study of the Cultural Revolution by Joris Ivens and Marceline Loridan. YUKONG has not yet made it to this side of the Atlantic, but in Paris, where it opened last March, it has created quite a stir.

Joris Ivens’ name is no doubt familiar to North American audiences because of his seminal contribution to the U.S. documentary during the late thirties and early forties. His three most famous works of that period are SPANISH EARTH (1937), about the Spanish Civil War, and THE FOUR HUNDRED MILLION (1938), based on Chinese resistance to Japanese aggression, both landmarks in the antifascist activism of the U.S. Left during those years, and THE POWER AND THE LAND (1940), a rural electrification agitprop film set on an Ohio farm, the most classical and aesthetically controlled of the films of the New Deal.

Many students of film history will also be familiar with Ivens’ work before he came to the United States from his native Holland. His name was an important one in the international avant-garde of the late silent period: THE BRIDGE (1928) has proven to be one of the most durable of the experimental films of the epoch; and RAIN (1929), a study of Amsterdam during an afternoon shower, is the most lyrical of the “city films.” But in the early thirties several trips to the Soviet Union occasioned an abrupt shift in his filmic interests. And he thereafter made some of the finest militant films of the period, including BORINAGE (1933) and THE NEW EARTH (1934).

Only the most exceptional of documentary buffs, however, will have been able to keep in touch with Ivens’ career since he left the U.S. in 1944, never to return until this day. After his support of the Indonesian republican cause against the colonialist forces of his own country in 1945-46 (an advocacy resulting in the astonishingly prescient Third World consciousness of INDONESIA CALLING in 1946), the U.S. joined the Dutch in considering him anathema, despite the selfless service he had rendered the Allied cause during the war.

After the Indonesian adventure, Ivens returned to Europe and became a kind of roving cineaste laureate for the other side in the Cold War. For the next ten years he made films and teaching in the young socialist republics of Eastern Europe. Among the films made during those years, he is remembered chiefly for the mammoth compilation film, SONG OF THE RIVERS (1954), whose contributors included Bertold Brecht, Harris Eisler, Dimitri Shostakovitch. Vladimir Pozner, and Paul Robeson. (Robeson, denied a passport by the U.S. State Department, had to record the film’s title songs without musical accompaniment in his brother’s Harlem parsonage and send the tapes by mail to Berlin for the mix. The film was of course never shown in the U.S.. Robeson had to make a trip to Montreal for a union screening there of the finished product.)

Generously praised by Jay Leyda in Films Beget Films, SONG OF THE RIVERS is virtually unknown here, although it was distributed in 28 languages and was seen around the globe by 250 million spectators (half a billion according to another account). Commissioned by the Soviet-sponsored World Federation of Trade Unions, the film linked workers from around the world, by means of editorial finesse, in a common struggle against oppression, using six of the world’s major rivers as a unifying theme. Today it still looks good, infused with a typical Ivensian lyrical detail and epic grandeur, as well as once more a remarkably prophetic solidarity with the Third World. Predictably, when the Museum of Modern Art mounted a halfhearted Ivens retrospective in 1966, they conveniently omitted this whole period, in fact jumping from 1937 to 1957 and omitting the sixteen films he made in those years.

Although Ivens has said that the documentary can only achieve its fullest potential under socialism, in 1957 he moved to Paris, his home base ever since. There he made LA SEINE A RENCONTRÉ PARIS (THE SEINE COMES TO PARIS) that same year, based on an idea of Georges Sadoul and a commentary by Jacques Prevert, the only film of his since the war to have reached a significant audience in the United States. As a film, it has the distinction of being that Ivens work which is admired most by those critics who see Ivens as an artist who wasted his potential by going political (RAIN is the other favorite of this crowd). Whether SEINE is non-political is another question. (Who else but Evens could have spotted real live workers among the artists, strolling lovers and Balmain mannequins on the banks of the Seine in the 50s?) Whatever, it undeniably holds up well among the other French essay films of the decade (e.g., those by Resnais, Marker, and Franju). It’s a powerful document, brimming with the warmth and certitude of Ivens’ socialist humanism and Parisian sunshine. LA SEINE was the first of a whole series of similar lyrical essays he turned out over the next eight years, which took the Flying Dutchman, as he was often called, to very corner of the globe. His visits included China, Chile, Sicily, Holland, and Cuba—where he taught in the fledgling national film institute and made two jubilant films depicting Cuban life in the tense days before the Bay of Pigs.

In 1965, outraged by the escalation of the Vietnamese war and greatly disturbed by the lack of Soviet aid to the freedom fighters, Ivens proceeded to intervene in yet another liberation struggle. Over the next five years, he made two features and three shorts in Indochina, most in collaboration with Marceline Loridan, who by this time was his fulltime partner. (Loridan is also familiar to documentary buffs as the woman in Jean Rouch’s CHRONIQUE D'UN ÉTÉ who wanders around Paris with a Nagra in her handbag and a cameraman in tow, meditating aloud on her memories of her wartime deportation and internment in Nazi concentration camps.) The best known here of Ivens’ work in Indochina is probably his contribution to LOIN DU VIETNAM, the Nouvelle Vague’s collective contribution to the antiwar movement (“zero as art,” according to Andrew Sarris). Ivens’ admiring footage of Hanoi’s civil defense prompted Sarris to single him out in a tirade for his “romanticization” of the peasants whom the B-52’s were trying to bomb back into the Stone Age. (1)

The best film from this period is Ivens’ epic treatment of peasant defense in the heavily bombed part of North Vietnam just north of the DMZ, THE SEVENTEENTH PARALLEL (1967). A feature film shot the following year in Laos, THE PEOPLE AND ITS GUNS, although distributed in the United States by Impact Films, has had very little exposure here, much less than it deserves. Its experimentation with a kind of Brechtian didacticism (over seventy intertitles!) compares well with the wave of similar films from post-1968 France which are seen more often here, namely those of Godard and Gorin’s Vertov group.

Throughout Ivens’ entire career, it has been a customary, no doubt instinctual, reflex for him to pause after a cycle of films on liberation struggles and turn to the subject of economic and social struggles in a new peacetime setting. So it was inevitable that Ivens, the anti-imperialist combatant in Southeast Asia, would shift gears and sooner or later show up in China as Ivens, the poet of socialist construction.

Ivens and Loridan’s partnership was almost a decade old in 1971 when the pair visited Peking. When Ivens’ old friend Chou En-Lai half seriously asked the 73-year-old militant why Ivens hadn't brought his camera with him, the leader had good reason to. Ivens had visited China twice before with his camera, as we have seen. He went once in 1938 during the war against Japan when his film THE FOUR HUNDRED MILLION endeavored to enlist world support for the Chinese resistance. He went again during the Great Leap Forward in 1958 when, as a teacher at the documentary studio in Peking, he supervised two films. One of these, released in Europe as LETTERS FROM CHINA, is a stunning experiment in color and documentary lyricism, incorporating many of the color techniques of ancient Chinese painting. It is virtually an anomaly in Chinese film history.

In any case, Ivens and Loridan began to think seriously when Chou suggested a new China film. They gradually abandoned the few film ideas they were considering in Europe at the time, including a version of Erasmus’ IN PRAISE OF FOLLY (surely the most ambitious adaptation idea since Eisenstein’s CAPITAL), and they moved to China in late 1972.

Their topic was to be the Cultural Revolution. Although the Chinese offered valuable technical and personnel support, the film was not to be a coproduction. Financing was to be entirely the responsibility of the filmmakers. Evens and Loridan themselves produced the film with an advance from the French Centre National de Cinématographic and with additional personal loans.

Although their original conception called for a three- or four-hour work, they gradually decided that such an approach could only result in the generalized, superficial result which they wanted to avoid. Their projected three month stay was first stretched to five months and finally to eighteen to allow for the extended, leisurely immersion within Chinese society which could permit the kind of intimate, authoritative perspective they wanted. Over the next year and a half, Ivens and Loridan proceeded leisurely, in a manner more reminiscent of Flaherty than of the customary urgency which had resulted in almost fifty Ivens films since 1928. They set up camp for lengthy periods in a wide range of different locations. They spent four months in a Shanghai generator factory, two months in an experimental pharmacy in the same city, one month in a military barracks near Nanking, and similar stretches in a Shantung fishing village, a petroleum field in the remote Taking area, and a number of Peking educational institutions.

The only major gap in their itinerary was the peasant milieu. That was no small omission, it is true, in a society that is still largely agricultural. But this gap is partly compensated for by close attention to the rapport with agricultural communities which was a feature of all the groups they observed. A thorough exploration of the agrarian application of the Cultural Revolution, they decided, would have demanded a full year of exposure to the seasonal cycle, etc.. And in any case, the film’s Western audience was expected to be largely urban and able to identify more closely with the problematics examined by the filmmakers in urban settings. For the filmmakers were hardly interested in a travelogue which would have no application to the lives of their audience.

On returning to France in mid-1974, the pair set about editing the 150 hours of synchronized rushes which they had accumulated. Eighteen months later they had realized eleven hours and fifty minutes of finished film: twelve films in all, four features, four medium-length films, and four shorts. This prodigious collection of documents was subdivided into four programs of digestible length which opened simultaneously in four Left Bank arthouses in early March and settled in for a long run, basking in almost unanimous critical acclaim.

The working title of the film had been THE SECOND LONG MARCH, but the release title finally chosen had an appeal with considerably more mystery about it. HOW YUKONG MOVED THE MOUNTAINS is the title of an old Chinese fable which appears in the writings of Chairman Mao:

'We are told that once upon a time there was an old man called Yukong ... He decided to carry away, with the help of his sons, two great mountains which blocked the access to his house, by means of a pick. Another old man ... burst out laughing and said to them: ‘You will never be able to move those mountains all by yourself.’

Yukong answered him, ‘When I die, there will be my sons ... In this way the generations will come after each without end ... With each blow of the pick, they will get that much smaller ... Why then won't we be able to flatten them?’

Heaven was moved by this and sent down to earth two celestial genies who carried away the mountains on their backs. Our heaven is none ether than the masses of the Chinese people.”(2)

Ivens’ and Loridan’s answer to our curiosity about China contains the same devastating logic that is in Yukong’s response to his questioner and the same infectious confidence that is at the root of Mao’s revision of its moral.

The new China films are particularly important for those of us whose engagement on the cultural front as film scholars has been animated by that kind of idealism which draws us to film for two reasons. We see in film its potential as an instrument of social change. And we see its ability to reflect the vitality and resistance of ordinary people. This is especially so where film serves as people’s means of expression when they are in the process of developing a revolutionary awareness or are caught in the flux of revolutionary change. As Walter Benjamin put it, it is a question of “modern man’s legitimate claim to being reproduced.”(3)

From such a perspective, the last fifteen years or so have been an era of disappointed promise. If the new technology of cinema verite at first suggested special possibilities in this direction, it ultimately failed to focus consistently on potentially radical topics or to be exploited systematically for radical ends. Little known currents of a politically motivated cinema verite in Canada and France, and better known but isolated and sporadic movements of similar orientation in the U.S. and Latin America were never seriously built up into a continuous tradition with a wide base, a genuinely radical content, or a significant impact.

With YUKONG, we finally have a film which represents that convergence of technical potential and revolutionary subject matter which has been so long in coming. YUKONG provides a brilliantly detailed reflection of a people involved in the process of radical change. Also it is a reflection conveyed in a technology and a style finely tuned to capture the dynamism and intricacy of the revolutionary process, in terms of both the images and the voices of the people carrying it forward.

The Cultural Revolution is by no means presented as a fait accompli. Rather than fall into that trap into which Soviet socialist realism plummeted headfirst after its initial moment of inspiration in the mid-thirties, Ivens and Loridan and the Chinese themselves present their revolution as a constantly ongoing process in the lives of flesh-and-blood individuals. It is a process constantly in need of self criticism and renewal, and one transforming not only political and economic structures but personal ones as well. Ivens and Loridan have not written an exhaustive book of the methods and effects of the Revolution. What they have done instead is taken the time and energy to really observe and listen to Chinese people taking control over their own lives. And the filmmakers have done this with an amazing degree of intimacy, the sense of which they have succeeded in passing on to us.

The finest compliment that has been paid the film in the French press is that of Louis Marcorelles, the high priest of cinema verite (4) in France, who has referred to Ivens’ and Loridan’s achievement as “cinematic maoism.”(5) And the term is apt, with all of its connotations of a populist-based inspiration and authority and a self renewing dynamic rooted in that popular base. Cinema-direct previously “let the people speak,” to use Marceline Loridan’s expression for the goal of the China films,(6) with many important successes to its credit. But when the resources of cinema-direct were finally applied to a society which itself “lets the people speak,” the result is staggering.

In technical terms Ivens and Loridan have let the people speak in a variety of ways. Often the camera confronts a subject head-on, usually in close up. The subject talks directly to the camera in response to provocatively worded questions thrown out from behind the lens by Loridan. The subjects respond with a candor and spontaneity that easily matches the finest achievements of cinema-direct in the West over the past fifteen years. And they do so in a way that effectively challenges whatever myths of Chinese reserve or Red Guard cant an audience might hold before seeing such a film. Loridan gradually learned the language over the period of her stay, that is, the Peking dialect. That she and Ivens should have achieved such intimacy with their subjects despite the language barrier is all the more amazing.

In any case, Loridan’s talent for putting her subjects at ease has been amply demonstrated before, in those films made with Ivens about post-independence Algeria and about Indochina. (Could anyone who has seen THE SEVENTEENTH PARALLEL forget the nine-year old Pham Cong? Duc’s loquacious charm as he told the cameraperson of his adventures tracking down U.S. helipads in the jungle and how he might be afraid if he met a tiger but never of an American?) In China, two fulltime interpreters functioned as an integrated part of the crew. But the refreshing naturalness of the discourse in the film ultimately comes from the dedication of the filmmakers and the openness and humility with which they were able to relate to their subjects and receive the trust of those filmed.

More often the camera and recorder simply sit in on an ongoing event which always continues with remarkable spontaneity in spite of their presence. Ivens and Loridan’s success in so unobtrusively witnessing an ongoing criticism session among the staff of a pharmacy, for example, derives from their applying a principle well known to practitioners of cinema-direct in the West from Jean Rouch to Alan King, Michel Brault, and Frederick Wiseman. That is, cinema-direct relies on the patient and gradual immersion of the crew within an environment, which allows the slow building up of mutual confidence with the people to be filmed. Admittedly an aficionado of cinema-direct could justifiably approach this film with apprehension. After all, for the last fifty years Ivens has obstinately insisted on the documentarist’s right to “reconstruct” the event to be filmed. He asserted that the look and feeling of authenticity are more important than actual authenticity. What is more, in their less inspired moments his films occasionally reveal a trace of the socialist realist penchant for static, declamatory mise en scene, assimilated no doubt from Ivens’ constant exchange with that camp over the years. As late as 1967 he had been scolded by Marcorelles for falling back into the classical cinema in THE SEVENTEENTH PARALLEL because of that film’s intercutting of sound and visual explosions with anti-aircraft firing to signify on-target hits.(7) But such apprehension is unnecessary. Ivens has gradually perfected his mastery of cinema-direct, begun during the Indochina period, wherever budgets and bombing lulls permitted. There is not a trace of pretense, self-consciousness, or crypto mise en scene in this work.(8)

As we have seen, a principal visual co-efficient of the film’s extraordinary intimacy with its subjects is the close up. Indeed, the succession of long contemplative close ups of the Chinese people is itself a source of genuine fascination. But there is a categorical distinction to be made between this technique as used by Ivens and Loridan and that used by Antonioni in his China film. Antonioni’s filn is also in many respects a physiognomical treatise or as he says in the film’s burdensome narration, “a survey of faces.” There are worlds of difference between Ivens and Loridan’s open trusting portraits, based on the mutual trust of filmmaker and subject, and the close-up telephoto zooms which Antonioni inflicts, for example, on reticent subjects in a remote village who have never seen a Westerner. Antonioni also has close ups taken in a market with a hidden camera(9) filming shoppers among the vegetable and poultry stalls. In principle, these shots are hardly different from the close-up zooms of the chickens and hogs which also compose the sequence.

And of course there is also a qualitative difference between silent faces captured by a camera and close ups of subjects in dialogue with the filmmakers behind the camera. In the one case, the artist seems to impose him/herself upon the subjects; they become mystified, exoticized, colonialized, if you will. In the latter case, the artists have subjected themselves to the people filmed in a kind of cinematic democracy. Here the people have had control over their images through the exercise of their capacity for self-expression. The central principle of Ivens and Loridan’s film is that in order to get close to people one must listen as well as observe. The filmmakers have extended the maoist emphasis on people’s control of their own lives and social situation to the realm of the image.

Antonioni in his film repeatedly violated the right of the subject (in progressive filmmaking, at least) to control his or her own image. He seems perversely to have insisted on filming whatever his hosts requested him not to. For example, some of the things he was asked not to film and did included the following: a gunboat in Shanghai Harbor, a free-enterprise peasant market on a rural road, even a burial caught in telephoto when his hosts suggested that the filming of a burial would offend the Chinese sense of privacy. As he and Ivens/Loridan have demonstrated, it is easy to shoot film in China. But it is far more difficult and a far greater achievement to receive and honor the people’s trust. For Ivens and Loridan, their first responsibility was to their subjects, and Antonioni would have done well to be so motivated.

Ivens and Loridan’s success in letting the people speak is particularly praiseworthy, for traditional cultural barriers to self-expression have always operated in Chinese society, against which not only the filmmaker but also the revolutionary has had to struggle.

The other visual co-efficient of Ivens and Loridan’s “cinematic maoism” is the sequence shot. A cinematic approach based on long takes and a spontaneous, mobile camera is completely foreign to the Chinese tradition. Yet Li Tse-Hsiang wielded the camera (an Eclair 16) with flexibility and sensitive control throughout the film. It is hard to believe that Ivens and Loridan trained him in this technique since it is so accomplished.

It would hardly seem necessary for Ivens and Loridan to have chosen the sequence shot as a means of guaranteeing the integrity of their subject matter. But the graceful long takes with which Li has circled about an event and moved dexterously from one participant to another do have that happy effect. The long takes confirm the sense of authenticity and spontaneity which is already richly connoted by other visual and behavioral cues. Political cinema confronts the skepticism of some Western audiences who have long had reservations about the staginess of traditional socialist realism. In addition, many audiences are totally dominated by those hostile attitudes inherent in liberalism towards agitational art in any form.

If such attitudes need to be countered, then the brilliant use of sequence shots in this film will certainly provide the solid phenomenological evidence necessary to do so. More important, the sequence shot preserves a sense of the pace and the structure of the political discourse which is so much a part of the Cultural Revolution. There is a perpetual self questioning and self awareness which impels that revolution forward at its roots. The sequence shot is also the structural embodiment of the artist’s commitment to the event. That is, the artist demonstrates self effacement before the natural shape of an event instead of imposing his or her own ideologically determined shape upon it.

It would of course be absurd to make exaggerated claims for the abstract virtues of the synchronous close up and the sequence shot. Cinema-direct like any other art form is shaped inevitably by the artist’s selectivity and subjectivity. But here a real dialectic is in effect. Ivens and Loridan have found a cinematic form which has minimized their own subjectivity. To be sure, the film retains whatever elements of personal structuring are demanded by the dynamics of their interaction with their Western audience. This form is especially open to and dependent on the subjectivity of the people being filmed and respects the integrity of the events before the camera, which are transmitted to us as free of the filmmakers’ subjective mediation as perhaps possible. The Chinese people are speaking to us more directly than they ever have before.(10)

Regretfully this cinematic maoism has not yet entered the cinematic lexicon of the Chinese themselves. As Ivens is eager to explain, drawing from that profound intercultural respect which comes from his forty years of Marxist practice in exile, there are too many superstructural interventions in the area of film form for us to demand this of the Chinese at present:

The Chinese cinema is different from ours. It is more contemplative, more static. The camera doesn't take part in the action, the camera records, it observes it. According to ancient Chinese philosophy, man, standing between heaven and earth, looks at the ten thousand things of the universe. The result is that the camera doesn't move. For a cameraperson, to understand that he or she can move with the camera, it’s quite an upheaval. And most often, when this is undertaken, a Chinese camera person falls into the opposite extreme and moves it too much. It is necessary to explain to him or her the role and the function of each camera movement. Another important point is that in the Chinese cinema, in general, there are fewer close ups than in ours. That’s also tied to a cultural tradition. In the body of their visual art, you don't see portraits brought up close to people, except in the Buddhist tradition. It was necessary for me then to explain the role I was giving to the close up, why compact framings were useful. That took a long time, because in China you have to have the patience to convince people. It is not a question of persuading them with arguments on the basis of authority, as you can often do elsewhere. That also is the Cultural Revolution ... (11)

... In China, you know, man (sic) is not the centre of the universe, like in the West. Look at Chinese paintings: man is represented there as very small, his relationship with the world is thus of another sort.” (12)

Li Tse-Hsiang’s achievement, when regarded in these terms, takes on a different aspect. Ivens and Loridan chose this talented man by screening a great number of Chinese films upon their arrival and deciding upon one where the camera style showed the promise of the flexibility they wanted. One wonders how the cultural cross-fertilization set off by this cooperative undertaking will affect the future course of the Chinese documentary. It would not be the first time that Ivens’ roving camera had had a stimulating effect on the cinematic practice of another society in this way.

There is only room in this short article to look at a few specific instances of the general observations which have been made thus far.

Of the films I have seen, THE PHARMACY is the most fully achieved. The inspiration to film such an establishment came quite spontaneously. Although the filmmakers tended towards the ideal of dealing with some kind of commercial setting in Shanghai, they felt that any of the large department stores would have resulted in too diffuse a film. When Ivens became ill during their visit to Shanghai it happened that the workers in a small neighborhood pharmacy took a special interest in his care and recovery. Ivens and Loridan developed a special friendship wits them. Impressed with the workers’ experimentation with a program of community outreach beyond the usual merchandising notion of pharmacy, Ivens and Loridan decided to make a film on it. They spent the next two months constantly at the store and in the neighborhood following the staff in the course of their duties.

During the film we see the interaction between the pharmacists and the local community, as they provide all sorts of clinical consultation and care as well as drugs (free if dispensed from a prescription). They even engage in on-the-spot acupuncture for a variety of minor ailments. We also witness endless meetings among the staff themselves as they conduct evaluations of their work and their own personal roles. (With Antonioni, the content of those one or two such meetings which he presents is not relayed directly or literally to the audience but either summarized in voice-over narration or omitted altogether).

The members of the pharmacy staff each become live and identifiable characters. One young man gets impatient and nervous with clients whom he considers “idiots.” He conducts perpetual self criticism of this failure without ever offering the audience any convincing hope that he will improve. A young woman had once wanted to be a doctor but after the Cultural Revolution decided that service to the people was more important. An elderly clerk is ultimately revealed to have been the former owner of the pharmacy and is now an employee of his one-time enterprise. This last character is charmingly candid before the camera and jokingly admits to non-revolutionary feelings, namely an unquenchable taste for profit. But his admission is contradicted by the evidence of his rapport with his fellow employees and his conscientious work behind the counter.

Here again we can make a telling comparison with Antonioni’s treatment of a similar subject. Ivens and Loridan treat the role of acupuncture as part of the pharmacy’s clinical practice almost matter of factly. They emphasize the socio-political and personal relations among the characters, whom we know on other terms than as agents of acupuncture. We also see the totality of the pharmacy’s social role, of which acupuncture is only a small part. Antonioni, on the other hand, chose to observe the use of acupuncture techniques in major surgery (a childbirth) as conducted by gowned functionaries to whom we are scarcely introduced. In general that scene’s observation seems detached from any systematic view of Chinese socio-medical practice. Antonioni’s interest in the scene is twofold. It’s in the exotic significance of the needles and the “human” drama of the woman giving birth, specific and concrete to be sure, but abstract in its divorce from any societal context. In THE PHARMACY the acupunctural ministrations of the young pharmacists have a political as well as a dramatic and visual meaning.

In contrast, the filmmakers deliberately decided to focus another of the feature films on a generator factory. Ivens and Loridan could film any topic they wished, except a nuclear installation. They even would nave been permitted to go to Tibet had not Ivens’ asthma prevented it. In any case, even with a collection of twelve films to be made, the initial choice of individual areas of concentration had profound political and aesthetic implications. The pharmacy which the team focused on in Shanghai was admittedly a model one. It was a sort of pilot project experimenting with the idea of extended community service. If the team had dwelt exclusively on such experiments, and they were certainly dazzled by the diversity and the scale of experimentation of this kind, the resulting films would have had a certain utopian relevance without reflecting the exact reality of contemporary China. Accordingly, they decided to find a factory suitable for filming. They made a firm commitment to focus on an ordinary, typical work situation to balance the utopian aspect of films such as those on the pharmacy:

We visited fourteen other factories, tractor factories, watch factories, pilot factories, exemplary for their management, for their relations between cadres and workers. for their role in the Cultural Revolution. But we wanted at any price to film something average. It would not have been interesting to film the watch factory which gave rise to the most important dazibao movement (wall posters). We would have described a perfect democratic situation, at a given moment, and would not have touched at the heart of the difficulties. Whereas with choosing an average factory, that involved hoping that something would happen. ... In any case, if we had filmed in the watch factory, with these people working on microscopic pieces, that would have been less spectacular. You have to create a strong visual impression as well.”(13)

It was their good fortune and ours that something did indeed happen in the generator factory which the team filmed. Another dazibao movement took place during their four-month stay, during which event they could even work alongside their subjects. In this film, we witness a spontaneous movement of criticism by workers against the management. The protest is expressed first in the huge, strikingly cinematic banners which have long dominated the Western media’s visual impressions of Chinese politics. The workers directed criticisms against administrators who always stay in their office, against favoritism seen in such matters as the distribution of cinema tickets, and against general ineptitude in the running of the factory. Eventually we sit in on workers’ meetings, their study sessions on Engels and the general problem of revisionism, meetings with the bosses, and joint efforts to arrive at a new anti-hierarchical and non-bureaucratic organization of the factory in revolutionary committees. We hear the voices of the workers as they design their dazibaos.

...You should draw it like this ... The truck is stuck in sand in the desert and its wheels are turning round and round ... You car hear the noise of the motor but the truck is not moving ... That’s how we should represent the management ...”

The film gives an overwhelming sense of being present at a particularly important moment of history.(14)

One of the shorts from the larger cycle, STORY OF THE BALL, covers a single incident which Ivens and Loridan happened upon quite by accident during the course of a routine visit to a high school. The film has an entirely different sort of dramatic interest than in those films with a larger scope. As the filmmakers arrived in the schoolyard, they noticed a sense of excitement in the air. Students and teachers hastened to give the filmmakers their own versions of a student-teacher dispute which had just taken place. A woman teacher had rung a bell signifying the start of class, and a teenaged boy, engrossed in his play, had kicked a ball in her direction which had struck her in the face. She then confiscated the ball. When the crew arrived, a meeting of the class had just been called to discuss the affair, and the filmmakers were invited to record the session. After an initial recap of the incident by playground bystanders, the camera proceeds inside. The rest of the film follows the analysis by teachers and students of what happened. At first both sides are evasive, self righteous, and accusatory. The boy provides alibis for his behavior and freely charges the teacher with not respecting his ideas, and the teacher remains adamant.

This remarkably spontaneous discussion moves through various stages, each freely commented upon by those present. The girl students sometimes side with the teacher and sometimes with the boy and his allies. The meeting finally arrives at a moment of reconciliation which is curiously ritualistic but affecting and authentic all the same. The teacher finally admits to having underestimated the boy’s political consciousness in confiscating the ball. The boy admits to having tried to avoid loss of face in constructing his excuses. An awkward handshake and exchange of grins conduces the episode. This eleven-minute film provides a thoroughly absorbing vignette of a revolution in progress.

One of the most significant aspects of the Cultural Revolution for many Western viewers of the film will be the specifically feminist dimension of that Revolution. It has long been a commonplace of the “China film” to point out how Chinese women used to have their feet bound. Neither Antonioni nor Ivens and Loridan depart from this tradition, but again a comparison points out important differences. Once more there is a qualitative distinction. Antonioni uses a gratuitous and crude close up of the feet of a nameless old woman passing by. In a far different manner, Ivens and Loridan’s reference to the old custom comes almost incidentally from a character whom we have come to know naturally, as a person, with the framework of the film rather than as an exotic specimen of chinoserie.

No doubt, it is partly Loridan’s influence that the film’s response to feminist problems is such a progressive one. Certainly since Ivens’ association with Loridan, he has perceptibly modulated his perspective on women. For instance, in his iconic repertory, woman-mother is now given secondary emphasis in relation to woman-soldier and woman-worker. (To be fair, Ivens has always been more sensitive than most of his contemporaries to the importance of women’s labor and the drudgery involved in housework. He presents the farmwife in THE POWER AND THE LAND as an equal partner in the Ohio dairy farm with such fairness that we can almost forgive him for the beatific smile which he has her bestow upon her husband as the husband eats his roast beef in the film’s electrically-powered climax.) History, as well as Loridan, has also played a role in Ivens’ shift in emphasis. The role of women in the Spanish Civil War, for example, hardly compares to that in the Indochinese struggles in which, according to Ivens’ and Loridan’s filmic testimony, the women’s heroism and perseverance were crucial to the final military (and economic) victory.

Of the twelve YUKONG films, two are wholly directed to feminist issues. A WOMAN, A FAMILY studies the working and home life of a woman welder and union official from Peking. THE FISHING VILLAGE is about a collective of young women in Shantung province who have undertaken the group livelihood of high-seas fishing. In addition to these two films, there is in general throughout the twelve hours a rigorous commitment on the part of the filmmakers to balance the role of women in the ongoing revolution to that of the men, even and especially where a certain form of the sexual division of labor still exists. This is true, for example, in the oil fields. There, the manual work and most of the engineering jobs seem to be assigned to men. As usual, this work is often more cinematic than that of the women. In this and other such cases, there is special attention to the feminist issue in the film’s monitoring of political discussion among workers, and especially among women workers. The women in the oil fields say, for instance, that formerly their husbands never talked of anything serious with them, but that now they discuss economics and politics. Formerly their husbands’ permission was necessary in their allotment of the family income, but now there is no such hierarchization of family responsibility. The women hoeing vegetables in the shadow of the derricks reject the possible status implications of such a division of labor. They take pride instead in their contribution to the oil project and claim equal importance in their roles with the men.

Elsewhere, an animated discussion by women sewing-machine workers of Marxist theory and economic policy is interrupted by one of the film’s rare interpretative voice-over interventions. This voice over updates Lenin’s famous remark that revolution consists in a woman kitchen-worker participating in the state, with the corollary that revolution must also mean seamstresses talking of philosophy. At one point, the anti-Confucius campaign which intrigued Western correspondents a few years ago is given a feminist slant when Confucius is referred to as the “woman-eater” and is quoted as saying,

A door opening on a courtyard is not a real door. A woman is not a real human being.”

The film does not whitewash the situation of women in China. this is something that feminists in the West who have serious reservations about the Chinese achievement in this area will be glad to hear (not to mention those who choked on the word “seamstress” in the previous paragraph). Although there seem to be women on the research and administrative bodies of the oil project, as we have already seen, the film does not hide the residual existence of what seems to be an unnecessarily rigid sexual division of labor. Even more, the implication of the twelve films seen as a whole is that the liberation struggle of women has advanced much further in the vocational area than on the home front. During a weekend visit to the young woman pharmacist’s home in THE PHARMACY, the husband is carefully shown doing his duty at the washboard, but he is also clearly disgruntled at being filmed doing so.

Kao Chou Lan, whose professional duties as welder and union official are the focus of A WOMAN, A FAMILY, seems clearly more outspoken in the exercise of her job than in relation to her husband, whom she sees only on the weekend. Moreover, the film, and by extension Chinese feminist discourse in general, is unhappily reticent in its probing of the areas of sexual mores and family structures. (However, it is to the Chinese credit that the openness of the discussion of birth control carried on in public in the crowded pharmacy puts our society to shame.) Kao’s discussion of her decision not to expand her family and the revelation of a number of situations in which husband and wife live apart seem the only tentative probes of alternatives to the traditional heterosexual-familial framework which is otherwise taken for granted.(15)

But this open admission of the miles still to go adds enormously to the film’s credibility. The feminist achievement in China is not seen as an Amazon utopia, whose veracity we would have to doubt. But it is shown as a slow, constant process involving everyone, men and women, in a process of analysis and critique like the larger Cultural Revolution itself. And it is this process revealed in all its dynamism and promise which makes the film so encouraging. Significantly the best feminist films in Western society have relied, like Ivens and Loridan, on various incarnations of cinema-direct in their endeavor to capture the process of perpetual analysis, consciousness raising, and ideological offensive which are the preliminary requisites and continuing support for the feminist struggle.

Certainly U.S. radical filmmakers, not only those with a specific feminist orientation, will have much to learn from YUKONG when it finally becomes available in this country. Those who have already experimented in the same direction as Ivens and Loridan will probably receive a much needed reinforcement. As to when U.S. audiences will see it, there is still no word on negotiations with U.S. distributors. Possibly ultimately public television will bring YUKONG to its American audience. Until that happens the foregoing assortment of critical responses, tentative, perhaps random, and admittedly euphoric, can only be seen as a provisional assessment of these films’ importance.


1. Andrew Sarris, “The New York Film Festival,” Village Voice, October 12, 1967. Reprinted in Confessions of a Cultist (New York, 1971).

2. Mao Tse-Tung. Oeuvres Completes, vol. 3, p. 290. My translation from the French.

3. Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Illuminations (New York, 1969), p. 232.

4. Or cinema-direct, as the French more precisely call that form of cinema verite prevalent in France and elsewhere which places more emphasis on the auditory, or more precisely, the vocal component of the medium than is customary in the U.S., at least in its traditional form. I will rely on this terminology from this point on.

5. Louis Marcorelles, “Pélérinage et voyage de deux cinéastes occidentaux en Chine.” Le Monde, 11 March 1976, p. 16.

6. That is, “donner la parole au peuple,” which more literally means “giving speech to the people.” Marceline Loridan, interviewed by Waugh in Paris, February 1976.

7. Louis Marcorelles, “Sans peur et sans reproches,” Cahiers du cinéma, No. 200-201 (April-March 1938), p. 122.

8. I have seen only about four hours of YUKONG, and I hope I can be forgiven for this and other similar instances of rather reckless extrapolation.

9. To be fair, one of YUKONG’s twelve parts, IMPRESSIONS OF A CITY, a medium-length study of Shanghai, does suggest the travelogue vein of the Antonioni film, and as such contains hidden-camera material taken from a truck in the streets of the city. The problem is of course the tendency of Chinese crowds to stare at foreigners, especially filmmakers, in public places. However, Ivens’ use of a hidden camera is more of the exception than the rule in YUKONG, entering into only one out of twelve films, whereas it characterizes Antonioni’s (in my opinion) voyeuristic approach in general.

10. Ivens and Loridan chose to transcend the traditional linguistic limits of cinema-direct not by subtitles but by that form of dubbed translation in a voice over the original language soundtrack, somewhat lowered in volume, which is much more common in Europe than here. It is to the filmmakers’ credit that the dubbing is done very smoothly and sensitively. Says Ivens in an interview in Le Nouvel observateur, 8 March 1976,

I believe that the option—subtitling or dubbing—is one of the fundamental choices: you have to give a film to be read or to be seen.”

11. An unpublished interview with Ivens and Loridan by Jean-Marie Doublet and Jean-Pierre Sergent, distributed by Capi-Film, Paris. My translation.

12. “Rencontre avec Joris Ivens et Marceline Loridan,” Le Monde, 11 March 1976, p. 17.

13. Ibid.

14. I am indebted to Maria-Antonietta Macciocchi for this and one or two other impressions of parts of YUKONG which I have not seen; “Chaque fois que passe la politique,” Le Monde, 11 March 1976, p. 16.

15. Ibid.


ABOUT PETROLEUM (81 minutes) A survey of the oil fields at Taking, crucial in the development of China’s self-sufficiency in terms of energy resources, with emphasis on the community of workers, men and women, that has sprung up about the project.

THE PHARMACY (74 minutes) An experimental Shanghai pharmacy and the efforts of its staff to reach out into its community with a higher level of service and constantly to evaluate their role and performance.

A WOMAN, A FAMILY (101 minutes) The working and family life of Kao Chou Lan, welder and union official. A film on her everyday life, the locomotive factory where she works and her views on marriage, love, education, and women’s liberation.

THE GENERATOR FACTORY (120 minutes) A factory employing 8000 workers near Shanghai. A criticism movement directed against the administration. The concept of a factory as a social and political institution as well as an economic one. The factory as an open place, not walled in, where families of workers are part of a living and working community.

THE FISHING VILLAGE (95 minutes) The village of Da Yu Dao, where a collective of young women have become sailors and fishers. Everyday life in the village and the application there of the Cultural Revolution.

A BARRACKS (54 minutes) A view of army life where officers eat with the men, soldiers help peasants with agriculture, soldiers’ wives and officers work alongside the soldiers in neighboring factories, and the military helps the civilian community in road upkeep, cultural activity, and militia training.

STORY OF THE BALL (11 minutes) A playground confrontation between teacher and student which reveals the working of the Cultural Revolution in microcosm.

PROFESSOR TSIEN (12 minutes) A university teacher who had been the favorite target of the Red Guard during the Cultural Revolution tells his story.

A PERFORMANCE AT PEKING OPERA (30 minutes) The training of opera performers in acrobatics and dance and a performance of a new work.

TRAINING AT THE PEKING CIRCUS (14 minutes) More training of performers and another performance, of acrobatics this time.

CRAFTSMEN (13 minutes) The transmission of traditional arts from the old generation to the young.

IMPRESSIONS OF A CITY (55 minutes) Shanghai.