In June of 2016, the Columbia University Global Center in Beijing hosted “The Seen and Unseen: New Directions of Documentary Cinema.” Co-sponsored by the Weatherhead East Asian Institute, the week of events ranged from music to film to visual art, featuring conversations between distinguished filmmakers, critics, and scholars.
The week kicked off with a musical performance of the guqin by Wu Na and Hong Qing, followed by two days of documentary screenings and discussions moderated by Columbia University School of the Arts Professor Richard Pena. The documentaries screened during these opening days came from all corners of the globe and, as Professor Pena emphasized in his remarks, offered new ways of thinking about the role of sensuous experience in ethnographic filmmaking. These initial screenings led to weekend packed with talks, films, and interviews. These events were kicked off by the opening of artist Yang Hongwei’s new exhibition, Pixel Analysis. A Professor at the China Central Academy of Fine Arts, Yang Hongwei presented a series of new works offering meditations on modular technologies of representation. In the words of the curator, Professor Lydia Liu, Yang’s works challenge viewers to reflect on the “materiality of medium and its potential for modularity.” In addition to serving as an opening salvo for a weekend of reflections on what is “seen and unseen” in documentary, Yang’s experiments also provided a visual backdrop for the venue through the following days (it should be noted that Professor Yang’s exhibition will continue to be displayed at Columbia’s Global Center in Beijing through August 2016).
Over the course of the weekend, Columbia faculty members moderated three panels that assembled major Chinese filmmakers, academics, and critics for lively discussion about issues relevant to contemporary Chinese cinema. Professor Pena’s interview with filmmaker Jia Zhangke, for example, explored recent challenges for independent Chinese cinema. While contemporary Chinese documentary was given special emphasis, the presentations never lost sight of global concerns. Friday evening’s opening, for example, finished with a screening of the recent Syrian documentary Our Terrible Country (Mohammad Ali Atassi & Ziad Homsi, 2015). In her introductory comments, Professor Lydia Liu drew conceptual and historical links between the problems explored in this work, the current conflict in Syria, and China’s own postcolonial legacy. The weekend was also notable for bridging disciplinary and institutional divides, bringing a diverse range of practitioners and academics into conversation. In a panel on documentary and politics moderated by Columbia University Assistant Professor Ying Qian, for instance, we heard exchanges between the photography critic Bao Kun, China Independent Film Festival curator Zhang Xianmin, and noted critics Wang Xiaolu and Li Tuo (the latter also a Research Scholar at Columbia University).
The above description hardly begins to catalogue the full list of distinguished guests and stimulating contributions made over the course of these events. Suffice it to say, it was an embarrassment of riches that, by virtue of its rigorous interdisciplinarity, pushed beyond documentary to think through the broader political and philosophical stakes of mediating the seen and unseen.