Portrait Wu Wenguang (吴文光)

Wu Wenguang
Wu Wenguang | Photo: © Ricky Wong

Wu Wenguang, born in 1956 in the southwestern province of Yunnan, is an independent filmmaker and writer and the most influential proponent of China’s New Documentary Movement. In 1974, after graduating from high school, Wu was sent to the countryside where he spent the last few years of the Cultural Revolution. From 1978 to 1982, he studied literature at Yunnan University, after which he became a journalist for Kunming television (1985–88). His documentary works include Bumming in Beijing —The Last Dreamers (流浪北京——最后的梦想者, 1990), its follow-up, At Home in the World (四海为家, 1995) and 1966, My Time in the Red Guards (1966, 我的红卫兵时代, 1993). In 1994, Wu co-founded the Living Dance Studio (生活舞蹈) with his partner, dancer and choreographer Wen Hui. Based in his workspace in Beijing Caochangdi (草场地), he in 2005 launched the documentary series The Folk Memory Project (民间记忆计划).

As a documentary filmmaker, why did you decide to get into Tanztheater (“dance theatre”)?

Actually, my involvement with File Zero (零档案), which was my first acting role, was by accident. But because of that project, I was able to attend several theatre festivals, such as SpielArt. For a long time afterwards, I could hardly catch my breath. How could works like these exist? Okay, so this is what theatre is. That feeling of passion and desire to throw myself into it – that’s where it all began. You discover that within theatre, there is no such thing as “professional” or “unprofessional,” “accurate” or “inaccurate.” What exists is rather the realm of possibility – you can imagine, experiment, with no boundaries whatsoever, with all sorts of emotions and ideas, all of them placed on stage. What it examines, then, is a sort of creativity, which is the imagination. Imagination is a comprehensive condensing of reality, or the eruption of something like a nucleus from a point of focus. Documentary films are a particularly solid thing, but the theatre is something that allows you to fabricate, to play, to expand with no limits, as long as you can think of it. Yet all of the material it expands to still comes from reality.

To me, 1995 was the beginning of Living Dance . At the time, the Guangdong Modern Dance Company (广东现代舞团) was interested in having a small, internal performance, so my wife Wenhui (文慧) said she wanted to create a piece. During the process, she talked to me about it, and I said that what she had made, what she had danced was entirely self-indulgent, affected. I just unleashed a barrage of criticism, saying that art at this level was extremely tedious. She listened quietly, and when I finished, she said, “Well, you can go on stage and say what you just said.” After that, the two of us began collaborating. We named our show Living Together/Toilet (同居——马桶), went out and got a toilet, found a place to rehearse, and really, just wrote our lives into it. During the Guangzhou performance, we used live footage, with cameras strapped to ourselves.

Now we’ve combined theatre with documentary filmmaking – it’s really two mediums. Every medium has its own limitations, so it’s much better when you combine them. And you can add in some other things – it’s a matter of using a variety of materials in one’s artistic language.

You’ve once said that we live in “an age of forgetting.” What purpose does memory serve? Does memory necessarily involve some element of suffering?

It’s as if art just calmly stands by, observing and reflecting, and the works that result are a sort of feedback towards our social reality. But in the reality and the culture of China, to me this doesn’t seem to be enough. How do you face such a chaotic, cyclical reality, in which everything changes in the instant? You have no idea what tomorrow looks like, what the future looks like, or yesterday, or the past. And when you create a work to undertake all of it, it always falls a bit short. And this thing called art, when you get down to it, it’s too frail, it can be smashed into pieces, or punctured, or be made into something transient and fleeting, something that’s peddled in the marketplace. To me, art is a sort of attitude that I possess towards society, and I’m searching for my position in it all.

I think one big difference in The Folk Memory Project is that we’ve stepped into the realm of social practice. Through the theatre, the making of documentary films, these young people are actually – through a collective collaboration – nurturing within themselves a civic consciousness. They’re returning to their own villages, engaging in social practice, and then when they come back to the city, they carry with them an invisible yet large capacity for creativity.

But there is also a sort of suffering that comes from the loss of memory. Sure, you can also make the argument that memory can create suffering; after all, you’re asking someone to revisit a painful past. But we didn’t have time to worry about all that. And actually, the large majority of the elderly people we interviewed shared their stories very willingly. People in old age have only the past within their sense of time, and no future. The farther in the past that events are, the more clearly they can remember them. But what they ate yesterday, who they saw the day before that, they don’t remember. I can’t peek into their brains to see the memories stored in there.

What has left the strongest, most indelible impression on you during your time in Germany?

Probably the German people. I’ve come to Germany for theatre festivals, film festivals, although my most direct interaction is through the theatre, but what left the strongest impression on me were some of the theatre technicians. In all of the German theatres, one almost never hears “nee” or that something can’t be done. They’re conscientious, attentive, and extremely precise in their work. When we were putting on Memory II: Hunger, we went to Muffatwerk. We decided on the spot to extend a prop by about one meter. Their staff said yes, they could do it. They found a board – none were in the right size – so they took a saw to it. It was really a huge hassle. This one man was sawing by himself, and after he finished, he took a file and smoothed out the edge before painting it because he was worried that someone might scrape themselves on the roughness of the sawed edge. This truly is how it is in Germany, the theatres in Berlin, in Essen, Munich, Hamburg’s Kampnagel, and even all the way to Austria – they’re all like this. And so the theatre becomes more than just a theatre, but also a place where one can observe German society – it contains art and craftsmanship and production. Every time I interact with an art festival coordinator, from the beginning talks about the show to the final signing of the contract, everything is methodical and organized. I believe we must continuously learn from this.