The Story of Chi Xiaoning and His Smuggled Camera
This is a story about underground film-making, radical art, and censorship. In 1979, Chi Xiaoning created his Film of Star Group Activities of 1979. It is the only known video documenting the radical activities of the Stars Group, an avant-garde group of artists from China who championed individuality and freedom of expression. The only copy of the footage is in the M+ Collections.
Below, film-maker Andy Cohen, whose 2020 film Beijing Spring showcases portions of the footage, tells the story behind Chi Xiaoning’s daring film-making during a period that was still subject to severe censorship in favour of official propaganda art. Beijing Spring will be showcased as part of an upcoming M+ Screenings programme.
Before the 1980s, documentary films in China were mostly propaganda made to serve the ideological purposes of the Communist Party. Views critical of the party were prohibited. Only one official voice could be heard: that of the government. Film-makers obeyed Mao Zedong’s dictum that artists’ works should reflect the lives of the masses—the workers, peasants, and soldiers—for whom they were made. These films, scripted and staged using ‘model people’ instead of ordinary subjects, were crafted in a dogmatic, formulaic style that put a positive spin on government policies.
By 1979, however, the political tide in the People’s Republic had turned and the scent of reform began to fill the air, heralding what would become known as the Beijing Spring. Mao Zedong had died a few years earlier, and the nation had begun to reawaken after thirty years of oppression that had claimed more than fifty million lives. Deng Xiaoping, the new ‘paramount leader’, experimented with not only economic reforms but also loosening restrictions on freedom of speech. He even tolerated the open postings of government criticisms in one easily monitored locale in central Beijing—a long brick wall running along Xidan Street just west of Tiananmen Square that came to be known as Democracy Wall.
Originally intended for workers and peasants to post the grievances they’d suffered during the Cultural Revolution, the wall was quickly overtaken by artists and activists, who seized the opportunity to post their radical works in such a prominent place. These artworks and writings not only exposed the suffering the country had been through but also focused on the present plights of ordinary people, emphasising that every individual is unique, equal, and imbued with the right to openly express thoughts and emotions without being crushed or silenced.
A young Beijing film-maker named Chi Xiaoning used this moment to shoot an unofficial documentary about the Democracy Wall movement in a style different from its predecessors. Chi chose to focus his film on the daring activities of one specific group that had arisen from the underground magazine Today: a band of artists who called themselves the Stars Group (Xingxing). Explaining the imagery behind the choice of the name, the group’s co-founder Ma Desheng said, ‘When I was growing up there was only one star in the sky: the red sun, Mao Zedong. Many stars mean many people. Every individual is a star.’
In order to realise his vision, Chi needed to overcome one major obstacle: finding a camera and film stock, both of which were unavailable to the average person. Luckily for Chi, his faithful friend Ren Shulin was among the precious few who not only knew how to operate a camera but actually had access to one.
In May 1979, Ren was assigned to work at the Institute of Coal and Carbon Science. His job was to film official documentaries about safety in coal mines. ‘To smuggle one or two boxes of film out of my service was easy. To get more? That took some time. And to get the movie camera out—that racked my brains’, Ren later stated. In the end, Ren succeeded and the two began filming on 27 September, the first day that the Stars Group hung an unofficial exhibition on the perimeter fence outside of Beijing’s China Art Gallery (now known as the National Art Museum of China). Simultaneously, an official propaganda art show was being held inside the space.
Adding to this paradox was the name of the film Ren had smuggled out: Every Generation Is Red (Dai Dai Hong). Ren’s knowledge and courage enabled him to play the crucial role of camera assistant, steadily unloading and reloading the reels under the cover of trees at the eastern wall of the gallery. By keeping the film stock safe from the crowds, avoiding the scrutiny of undercover police, and feeding him reels, Ren enabled Chi to continuously film the Stars exhibition on the fence.
The camera Ren smuggled out was a hand-wound Gansu’s Light model (Gan Guang). This made Chi’s already difficult task all the more so, as he aimed to capture real events unfolding in real time. A fully wound camera could shoot for only thirty seconds, and an entire box of film produced only three minutes of footage. This time constraint, coupled with having to avoid the police, tested Chi’s improvisational style.
Chi climbed the back of the fence to capture the impressions of onlookers as they stared at the artworks with shock and awe. Chi’s method, like the Stars artists’, focused on ordinary people such as factory workers, teachers with students, and the elderly. He recorded their genuine emotions and free expressions typically hidden beneath the outer masks that had become the default after years of toeing the party line.
The fact the Stars artists also employed original, modernist styles and content, utilising free forms and abstraction, added a meta-artistic layer to the undertaking. Chi shot an avant-garde film about avant-garde artists during a time when the act of filming was also considered an act of protest. This was art for art’s sake, produced about and with the aim of freedom of expression. Chi’s lens revealed faces viewing never-before-seen artworks that challenged the aesthetic conventions of the party, and that depicted the naked female body in twisted modern forms. The first day was a success for both the Stars artists and the greater artistic principle.
Early the next morning, Chi and Ren were back at the fence, locked, loaded, and ready to film, when the police suddenly arrived to take down the Stars Group exhibit. As the police closed in, Chi wound his way through the crowds, in and out of the chaos ‘like a wartime journalist in a battlefield’, as Ren later described it. After tearing the art off the fence, the police surrounded Chi and Ren. They had no chance to escape. The police confiscated the camera from Chi. From Ren, they took the camera bag containing the used and unused film stock.
‘I was very nervous’, Ren recounted. ‘If the camera was confiscated, I’d be fired from my job at the institute. But Xiaoning was calm, arguing with the other side.’ After being kept in a windowless room inside the museum for hours, the film and the camera were abruptly and inexplicably returned to Chi and Ren. For some reason, the authorities’ mood was sympathetic to the artists that day.
The Stars Group artists, on the other hand, were angry their show had been terminated and their artworks confiscated. Together with other political activists, they planned a protest rally and march. Everyone knew this could mean jail time for the ringleaders.
The Stars rally was an enormous provocation to the Communist leaders—it was reported on and documented by foreign media at the time—and it was planned for 1 October: National Day and the thirtieth anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic. The big parade had been cancelled in light of Mao’s death in 1976; now, in its stead, the Stars and their supporters took it upon themselves to march from Democracy Wall to the Municipal Building. Chi planned to film it but told Ren not to assist him. If caught, there was no sense in both of them going to jail, as he would need Ren to develop the reels and edit the film.
Chi stood atop Democracy Wall, filming as the rally began. When the group headed for the Municipal Building, Chi and his camera weaved in and out. He went inside factories and shot from windows to capture workers’ perspectives; he zoomed in on passengers’ reactions as they peered from the windows of passing buses; he filmed the crowds of protestors marching along rainy streets, zooming in on their puddle-pounding feet.
While the crowds marched on, Ren waited anxiously all day for news of his friend. This was an era before cell phones and pagers. It was inevitable that, with a 16mm camera in hand, filming in highly visible locations, Chi once again attracted the omnipresent authorities’ attention. When asked how Chi had saved his film, Stars Group artist and friend Wang Keping recounted that Chi had told him he’d exposed the part that had not yet been filmed, tricking the police into thinking it was useless. Beyond showcasing his enormous talent, what makes Chi’s footage even more spectacular and immediate is the constant risk of arrest he faced while filming.
In stark contrast to his main action footage of the protest march, Chi also shot B-roll focusing on scenes by the lake in the park of the Old Summer Palace. In its deceptively quiet manner, however, the B-roll is just as avant-garde. From the weather conditions it is evident that he filmed on two different occasions. On the first day, the water was calm, as were the demeanours of the subjects—rowing on the lake, playing guitars or mah-jong, strolling along tree-lined trails, and picnicking. This idleness was diametrically opposed to the ‘heroic’ actions of the ‘model people’ in official documentaries. The calmness of the lake mirrors the first quiet day of the exhibit.
On the second day of B-roll, the wind was flapping the red flags on the bridge and bending the branches of trees, reflecting the chaos of the protest march. Chi’s use of contrasting weather filmed at the park echoes the inner emotions of his subjects as well as the political events surrounding them. The B-roll shows close-ups of everyday objects with an anthropomorphic introspection: the empty rowboats lined up like cadres, crates of empty soda bottles (Coca-Cola had just entered China in December 1978), goldfish swimming in a vendor’s water-filled plastic bag—all shots considered unsuitable for documentaries at the time.
When asked why the style of this footage can now be considered groundbreaking, Ren replied, ‘Documentary films in China were almost all propaganda, not the expression of the author himself. We were conscious of this, so our film, from idea to structure to visual language, was different from documentaries of that time.’
Despite its significance, almost no one knew about this unfinished film until recently. In total, it comprises forty-seven minutes of raw footage, out of sequence, that was hidden from the authorities for the past thirty-five years. Fearing for the safety of his friends and his family, Chi hid the salvaged footage in a confidant’s home, swearing him to secrecy.
After Chi’s untimely death in 2007, no one knew the whereabouts of the footage, not even Ren, as it had been kept underground, passed from friend to friend. The footage was eventually recovered and the only copy now resides in the M+ Collections.
Film of Star Group Activities of 1979 by Chi Xiaoning and Ren Shulin reflects on and documents the social, cultural, and political changes that took place during the Beijing Spring. This treasure trove will be mined for years to come by film-makers, historians, and art historians alike. This pivotal moment in China’s history, which gave birth to its democracy movement, could not have been possible without the powerful combination of art and activism that coalesced at Democracy Wall. And because of the courageous feats of one documentarian and his assistant cameraman, history will forever have the visual accounts of those exciting times.
Video at top of post: Clip of the Stars Group protest march from Chi Xiaoning’s footage. Chi Xiaoning, Film of Star Group Activities of 1979 (excerpt), 1979. Single-channel 16mm film transferred to digital video (black and white, silent). M+, Hong Kong. Museum purchase and gift of The Stars Art Foundation Limited, 2017. © M+, Hong Kong.
Andrew 'Andy' Cohen is an independent filmmaker and journalist whose work is dedicated to effecting social change and protecting human rights. He has produced, directed, or written several award-winning documentaries, such as Dealers among Dealers (1996), Killing Kasztner (2008), Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry (2012), The World Before Her (2012), Hooligan Sparrow (2016), Human Flow (2017), Ximei (2019), and Beijing Spring (2020). These have been shown at the FIFDH Geneva, Venice Film Festival, Telluride, Tribeca, Traverse City, Toronto International Film Festival, Berlin Film Festival, and the Sundance Film Festival, among others, and broadcast on PBS, BBC, UK Ch4, ARTE, Netflix, and Amazon.
Cohen also directed and wrote a nine-part series of short films on China’s leading contemporary artists in collaboration with Art Asia Pacific for which he is a contributing editor. The following feature length documentaries are currently in post-production: Send Us Your Brother (2021), Talking Tacheles (2021), The Village Gate (2022), and Title Shot (2022).