When the term ‘Revolutionary Cinema’ really meant something

Walker Art Center film curator Sheryl Mousley recalls what she had to do when she travelled to China in 2001hoping to see some of the underground social issue documentary films she’d heard were being made at the time.

She made some contacts and was told “This is totally illegal to show these films in China. But if you show up at this bar at noon, anybody who MIGHT want to show you something MIGHT be there.”

Mousley says she was there at noon, and found a VCR set up. Over the next few hours, a stream of people turned up to show her their films. She brought some of the tapes back and screened them at the Walker.

Her interest in Chinese film has resulted in the latest Walker Film event “The People’s Republic of Cinema” which celebrates the 60 years of movie-making in mainland China since the Revolution in 1949.

Mousley says she hopes the event will offer a chance for people to learn a little more about China through the stories it has told about itself.

“The very first one, made in 1949 tells us of the coming revolution,” she says of ‘Crows and Sparrows.’ The early films capture the stylized look of socialist realism. Later films from the Cultural Revolution have a starker appearance.

“Then the reaction to that by the next generation of making films, but still working within the government system, making films that were classic rural films of still challenging the system, but in a revolutionary way,” Mousley says. “And then the next generation comes along and it’s urban and gritty and making films about what they are seeing now.”

The images are remarkably recognizable, but Mousley says that’s perhaps not surprising when we think of how much of US history has come to be thought of in terms of cinematic scenes.

“Going back to the Civil War, we would probably show ‘Gone with the Wind’ and it would be that great image of Tara, and then we would show ‘Bonnie and Clyde’ in the thirties. We have all these iconic images of our own history through the cinema as well and so that is what we know.”

Some of the films in “The People’s Republic of China” are well known here, but some have never been screened in the US before. In fact some of them haven’t been shown much even in China.

“So we are seeing a China that not even Chinese people always see,” says Mousley. “So it’s a very interesting mix of information.”

She says repeat attendees will be able to follow the evolution of Chinese cinema. She saw it herself. When she went back to China just four years later in 2005 to do an artist-in-residence program and she asked to see some work in advance. She was expecting trouble again, but that time round the film makers told her they would just post them to her web site.

The People’s Republic of Cinema runs through November 23rd in association with the University of Minnesota. Some of the films will screen at the Walker and others at the Bell Auditorium at the U.

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