Meishi Street as an
under-directed documentary

by Ziru Chen

Ou Ning’s Meishi Street (2006) is a documentary that depicts the governmental demolition of Meishi Street, which occurred before the opening of the Beijing Olympics. Meishi Street was a traditional residential area in the city centre of Beijing, inhabited by middle to lower-class residents. Ten minutes into the film, director Ou Ning and his crew hand over the camera to one of the three residents interviewed, Zhang Jinli, who then continues to use this camera for the rest of the film. The ending credits of the film raises questions about its directorship. After the mention of “Original video by Zhang Jinli,” there is a shot showing “Additional Camera Work: Huang Weikai, Ou Ning, Cao Fei,” followed by another shot indicating “Editors: Ou Ning, Cao Fei.” These credits leave us wondering who holds the ultimate directorial role in the film.

In what follows, I argue that Meishi Street lacks a director. The mere contribution of digital footage by Zhang Jinli does not suffice to establish him as the director, and Ou Ning's concealment of his relationship with the subject dissociates him from the role of a documentary director who actively engages and probes. It should be noted that a significant factor contributing to this absence of clear directorial authority is the socio-semiotic connection between prevalent amateur filming practices and the utilization of digital cameras. This connection alludes to the cultural and social meanings associated with the act of recording with DV cameras, challenging traditional perceptions of the director's function in filmmaking. 

Conventionally, the director is perceived as the singular authority and creative driving force behind the camera. They are responsible for deciding what to capture, how to frame it, and the overall narrative approach. This hierarchical relationship between the director and the subjects establishes the director as the primary source of meaning and control over the film's storytelling. However, with the emergence of digital cameras and the growing prevalence of amateur recording practices, there is a widely held perception (though not necessarily reflecting actual practice) that ordinary individuals can simply pick up a digital camera and engage in recording. As a result, the boundary between the roles of the director and the subjects being filmed has become increasingly blurred. This shift challenges the conventional notion of the director as the exclusive author and interpreter of the film's content.

By handing over the camera to Zhang Jinli, the film appears to embrace the concept of autonomous amateur filmmaking and implies a shared directorial role. However, in its effort to blur the boundary between professionalism and amateurism, the film seemingly replaces the specific "amateur" with the more general "amateurish,"[1] [open notes in new window] which diminishes Zhang Jinli's potential directorial authority rather than validating the authenticity of amateur filmmaking. Ou Ning, benefiting from a singular narrative structure that chronicles the progression of events, overlooks the need to account for the diverse perspectives he has woven together. This omission of context during the editing process diminishes the immediate sense of being present on the scene, ultimately reducing the unfolding events to a somewhat flattened spectacle. By allowing the raw footage to serve as evidence without adequate contextualization, Ou Ning falls short of fully assuming the role of a documentary director. Meishi Street thus emerges as an under-edited and under-directed documentary.

Among the many documentaries produced since the 1990s that focus on the demolition of older neighbourhoods in China, Meishi Street is arguably the most widely recognised and extensively analysed.[2] Zhang Jinli’s photo even graced the cover of an academic monograph on independent Chinese documentaries. While Meishi Street includes typical scenes of demolition, such as residents’ confrontations with the police, as do other documentaries on the same subject, it distinguishes itself with its unique approach. The filmmaker not only acknowledges that the filmmaking process itself has affected the outcome of the residents’ negotiations, as shown when Zhang Jinli holds the camera to record his conversations with the officials, but also explicitly aims for social engagement by giving the camera to Zhang Jinli. Ou Ning is optimistic about the positive effects of his intervention in empowering citizens to protect their rights. His objective is to provide citizens with the camera and exclude officials from participating in the documentary (22).

Meishi Street serves as a paradigmatic example of what I refer to as participatory empowerment documentaries in contemporary China. The term “participatory” is used here in a similar sense as participatory art. Just as viewers play a crucial role in completing participatory artwork through their physical presence or actions, the subjects of participatory empowerment documentaries are empowered to transition from being in front of the camera to behind it, assuming the role of the cinematographer. 

This emphasis on subject participation sets the participatory empowerment documentary apart and encompasses the meaning of the “participatory mode of documentary” as defined by Bill Nichols (22). In other words, the participatory empowerment documentary goes beyond the cinema verité style of the “participatory mode of documentary,” where the director interacts with the subjects rather than distantly observing. While both involve director participation, the participatory empowerment documentary specifically emphasizes subject participation. In Meishi Street, the subject’s active involvement in the filmmaking process and the director’s intervention in the actual events converge when Ou Ning hands the camera over to Zhang Jinli. This act conveys a message of empowerment, positioning Zhang Jinli as the undeniable protagonist of the film, both physically and through his off-screen voice. Meanwhile, Ou Ning and his team operate behind the scenes, primarily in the editing room, devoid of any visible presence or voice.

Another notable example of participatory empowerment documentaries in China is Wu Wenguang’s Village Documentary Project (2005-2013). This project selected ten villagers from different provinces nationwide to undergo filmmaking training in Beijing, with the task of filming village elections within their respective homes from 2005 to 2006. The villagers then returned to Beijing to participate in editing workshops from 2006 to 2008, resulting in a collection of 11 short films. The first film introduces the selected villagers’ stories, while the remaining films are crafted by the villagers themselves. Wu Wenguang’s The Folk Memory Project (2010-) is another noteworthy endeavour where specific villagers serve as interviewers, conducting interviews with various others, particularly on the topic of the Great Feminine. 

While the singular participatory empowerment documentaries may incorporate collage techniques, they diverge from what Zhang Zhen refers to as “collage style” documentaries, which integrate archival and found footage from communities as the film’s subjects. Disorder (2009), directed by Huang Weikai, one of the cinematographers of Meishi Street, exemplifies this style (342). 

Two more recent examples of participatory empowerment documentaries are Guo Jing’s Story of Mountaineering (2019), featuring shots filmed by several Tibetan villagers, and Yifan Li’s We Were Smart (2019). In We Were Smart, the director actively solicited over 900 videos from young factory workers showcasing shamate styles. These videos, formatted for vertical mobile screens, were incorporated into the final film, with most lacking proper attribution, except for a few that were heavily edited by the workers.

Reviews of Meishi Street often consider it as an empowerment documentary that features a socially disadvantaged and disenfranchised dingzihu—a “nailed-in resident” who is reluctant to compromise with the demolition project—as the film’s documentarian. This potential for empowerment is generally viewed positively by critics. For instance, Jihoon Kim has argued that the film successfully empowers the subaltern, “whose subjective viewpoint and position are clearly inscribed in the footage after he is given the camera” (191). Similarly, Dan Edwards has suggested that Zhang Jinli, as an exhibitionist and unofficial minjian character whose disposition aligns with the amateur video culture, questions the state’s homogenizing modernization program (128. Zhang Jinli’s significant contribution to the film after he is given the camera is made clear by his presence in front of or behind the camera (126). Carol Mei Barker also points out that the film’s lack of voiceover narration, comments, or dialogue in the first ten minutes (before the camera is handed over) presents a “visual reality” that emancipates the image from ideological narratives (10).

Some critics have expressed caution in their criticism. Luke Robinson and Zhang Zhen (327) both have pointed out that Ou Ning did not properly differentiate Zhang Jinli’s footage from his own in the editing process. Chris Berry and Lisa Rofel have suggested that the film’s observational style of filming implies that it was a “shared enterprise,” which raises questions about Ou Ning’s stance on the demolition—whether he supports Zhang Jinli or remains neutral (146). While these critics contested either Ou Ning’s position on the demolition or the fact that he alone holds the copyright for the film, my focus is on the aesthetic effects of this co-authorship. I argue that the ambiguity of authorship is necessary for Ou Ning to achieve the aesthetic effect of encountering a “perfect citizen” on the street. 

As Yiman Wang noted, unofficial Chinese DV documentaries often prioritize honesty verging on cruelty over activism (24). Therefore, we should not automatically assume that Meishi Street’s unofficial status implies activism. Criticizing the lack of clarity about Ou Ning’s position on demolition may not be a strong argument, as focusing on marginalized people does not necessarily grant activism. It is worth emphasising that even highlighting the contradiction between Ou Ning’s statements about wanting to make an activist film and his actual lack of overt activism in the film is insufficient for seeing what the film achieves. 

A more productive approach is to examine the film itself rather than focusing on the director’s intentions or statements. The documentary should not be viewed merely as a reflection of the director’s stance on an external social reality. Instead, the documentary functions as an assemblage involving the director, editor, crew members, various subjects, the audience, and inanimate objects. This tangled network operates throughout the production, exhibition, and distribution processes, deeply intertwined with the social reality that the documentary portrays. Contradictions may arise between the materially inscribed audio-visual aspects of the film and its linguistic elements, such as intertitles, title cards, dialogues, and statements about the film. These contradictions suggest a dynamic relationship between the documentarian and the subjects, wherein the documentarian usually seeks to impart linguistic meanings to the material and social reality in which they are a part. Such contradictions can arise in any documentary, regardless of whether activism is present or not.

The shot indicating that the camera has been handed over comes ten minutes into the film, marking a change of cinematographer. Zhang Jinli’s amateur shots and Ou Ning’s professional ones seem to interweave with each other, however, throughout the film. The editing does not differentiate them by signposts such as voiceovers or subtitles. Furthermore, the first ten minutes of the film adopt an observational style to record pedestrians on Meishi Street. Throughout the rest of the film, street views constantly appear at the beginning of a narrative segment, sometimes shot from the rooftop and sometimes across Zhang Jinli’s restaurant. The former visual material is more likely to belong to Zhang Jinli, as he often hangs protest banners there. However, it appears that Ou Ning also followed Zhang Jinli to the rooftop, as seen in a shot where the camera zooms in when Zhang Jinli jumps to the brim of the rooftop to hang a mannequin wrapped in banners. It becomes difficult to determine to whose perspective these various master shots belong.

Consider the park scene immediately following the title card, where it is indicated that Zhang Jinli is using the camera given to him by Ou Ning for the first time. In the initial shot, we observe a woman striking a pose for the camera, raising her left leg above her head. The off-screen voice of Zhang Jinli, stating, "I'll film a close-up of you,” along with his shadow cast on the ground, strongly suggests that he is the one operating the camera. In the subsequent shot, Zhang Jinli effortlessly climbs a tree. The camera is not positioned for automatic recording; rather, it diligently tracks Zhang Jinli's movements from the ground to the tree. Identifying the camera operator for this specific shot poses a challenge. It could potentially be Ou Ning and his filmmaking team, the woman featured in the preceding shot, or another individual familiar with Zhang Jinli. It becomes ambiguous how much of the entire film stems from Zhang Jinli's perspective and how much is shaped by Ou Ning's influence. This ambiguity arises from Ou Ning's omission of certain contextual information during the editing process, rather than from Zhang Jinli's active assertion of directorial control over the footage.

Zhang Jinli's initial amateurish approach to the camera serves to underscore the authentic nature of grassroots filmmaking. However, this uncalculated authenticity can gradually lapse into a calculated naiveté as he gains more professional expertise. When Zhang first takes control of the camera, the audience can easily distinguish his amateur shots from Ou Ning's professional ones. This distinction is evident through Zhang's off-screen voice, exclaiming how he plans to operate the camera with phrases like "Give it a close-up!" The shaky camera work and disordered mise-en-scène also contribute to this differentiation. As Zhang Jinli becomes more adept at filmmaking, it becomes increasingly challenging for the audience to discern who is operating the camera: Zhang Jinli, Ou Ning and his crew, or a collaborative effort between them. 

The film's concluding shot illustrates this ambiguity of authorship on an aesthetic level. Zhang Jinli is seen in tears in front of his nearly demolished house, indicating that he is not the one holding the camera but rather Ou Ning or one of his crew members. Nevertheless, the camera's unsteady movements, including a loss of focus when zooming in for a close-up of Zhang Jinli's face, suggest diminishing professionalism on the part of Ou Ning and his team, while Zhang Jinli's skills seem to improve. In this scene, the presence of multiple digital camera operators, both on-screen and off-screen, blurs the lines between professional documentary production, amateur filmmaking experimentation, official archival preservation, and grassroots activist protest. The editing does not provide clear distinctions among these various uses of the digital camera, whether through distinct aesthetic characteristics or their positions within the narrative sequence.