Alternative Archivists: On Jill Li’s “Lost Course”

August 19, 2021   •   By Xueli Wang

Featured image: Courtesy of the dGenerate Collection at Icarus Films


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“WE ARE NOT revolt, we support the Communist Party,” reads a flyer early on in Jill Li’s documentary Lost Course (2019). Written in English and Chinese by protesters in Wukan, the flyer is addressed to journalists who have flocked to the southern Chinese fishing village to witness their remarkably successful movement toward democratic governance. The villagers’ message asks the media to avoid the word “uprising” and to give “positive reports.” It’s a multilayered gesture — on the one hand, the message ensures the movement’s viability within the country’s one-party system; on the other, it asserts Wukan’s irreducible particularity against generic media narratives about dissent in China. As Li’s film traces the now-famous Wukan movement from its euphoric early victories to its later stagnation and repression, a rare vision emerges amid the tumult: a rural Chinese community in its multifaceted fullness, steadfastly setting the terms of its own representation.


Lost Course begins in 2011, when villagers organized mass protests against the illegal sale of communal land to private developers. This led to the expulsion of local officials, the introduction of open elections and the extraordinary, albeit short-lived result: a democratically elected village government headed by former protest leaders. If the protesters were wary of journalists, they came to trust Li, inviting her one-woman crew into their lives for the next six years. Li’s filmmaking, in turn, can be characterized by a rigorous refusal to speak for her subjects. Over Zoom in April, Li told me in Mandarin: “I think the villagers felt safe in front of me because I had no preconceived notions of them.”


This empathetic openness animates the film’s durational, verité style. Li, who began covering Wukan as a video journalist from Hong Kong, soon turned to documentary filmmaking as the more fitting medium for her project. Her subsequent years-long immersion among the villagers enabled her to go beyond the unfolding political action to capture precious in-between moments — family dinners, solitary musings, emotional outpourings at karaoke — contributing to what earlier independent filmmakers have called an “alternative archive” of contemporary China.


One such moment comes at the opening and closing of the film: tracking shots traverse misty waters in the wee hours, accompanied by the steady rumble of a motor. These shots, taken aboard the fishing boat of an elderly protester who would eventually be sentenced to three years in prison, show his dim silhouette steering — charting the “lost course” of the Wukan movement. The rest of the film unfolds in two parts. Part one is structured by a series of key events: the “9.21 incident” in September 2011, when villagers stormed local government offices; a general strike that shut down all schools and industries; the arrest of four activists, with one dying in police custody. The action culminates, remarkably, in the authorities’ capitulation to villagers’ demands: the release of detained activists, the initiation of new village elections, and the appointment of de facto protest leader Lin (Lin Zuluan) as the new party branch secretary.


In the handheld shots of mass demonstrations, street interviews, and election proceedings that compose this first half of the film, Li is careful to foreground the role of villagers as media-savvy creators, adept at the delicate art of protest in China. Many wave the national flag as they march, and chants of “Down with corrupt officials!” are interspersed with slogans such as “Long live Party Central,” confirming their allegiance to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Before addressing villagers at a rally, Lin, a CCP member since 1965, answers a foreign journalist’s question about the source of his beliefs with: “Because we have the leadership of the Communist Party and our national policies.” Still, beneath the sloganeering, distrust of the government was common among villagers. In one particularly tense scene, an angry crowd surrounds an unmarked car carrying a high-level government representative, threatening violence. Later, when provincial authorities invite Lin to a closed-door meeting, villagers concerned for his safety gather outside under the guise of giving “a big welcome” to the government visitors.


In addition to strategically wielding pro-CCP symbols and rhetoric, the Wukan protesters in Li’s film also deftly navigate a complex local media ecosystem. Older villagers, some illiterate, rely on analog and in-person communication, while younger ones are active on digital platforms. Organizers therefore use a porous blend of analog and digital media, with secret notes, anonymous pamphlets, and village-wide calls to action over loudspeakers and gongs supplementing online social media accounts. For example, the activist Hong (Zhuang Liehong) got his start by penning a letter to the people of Wukan under the moniker “Patriot No. 1,” printed on flyers he then personally scattered all over the village. Shortly after, he watched his QQ (a Chinese instant messaging platform) account blow up. “I couldn’t add contacts fast enough. Too many friend requests,” he recounts with glee seven years later, after escaping to the US as a political refugee.


The protesters’ media savviness also comes through in their archival consciousness — something that dovetails with Li’s own commitments as a filmmaker. Early on, villagers hang up self-made banners, displaying blown-up documents and photographs that serve as evidence of police abuse and government corruption. These banners momentarily reclaim public space from the official messaging that usually occupies China’s street and building surfaces. (One such message, appearing in a later scene, reads: “Building a harmonious countryside.”) Li, by committing the villagers’ oral narration of the banners to film, renders their ephemeral testimony more permanent. The villagers themselves look to the camera as an archival tool as well. In a later scene, Xing (Zhang Jianxing), the youngest of the protest leaders, meets Li’s camera with his own. “It’s brand new,” he says, grinning. Hong adds from nearby: “We bought this camera to more perfectly record the entire process.”


Such an archival impulse recalls the beginnings of independent documentary in 1990s China, when filmmakers armed with newly available DV cameras, began salvaging spaces, objects, and communities that would otherwise leave no trace in official history. Like Li and the Wukan villagers, early independent documentaries such as Wu Wenguang’s 1966, My Time in the Red Guards (1993) were particularly interested in preserving oral history — history within living memory, history that was indelibly felt but rarely ever recorded — gradually building what the artist-filmmaker duo Ou Ning and Cao Fei would come to call an “alternative archive.”


The term “alternative,” according to film scholars Chris Berry and Lisa Rofel, is more nuanced and ambiguous than categories like “oppositional,” “underground,” or “resistance.” As such, it best describes the cultural climate of post-1989 China, when artists, filmmakers, and writers sought to address topics and perspectives neglected by both the state and the market, while still managing to coexist with, rather than directly oppose, those hegemonic forces. In Lost Course, Li and the villagers seem to share a common desire for an “alternative archive” of Wukan. The collaborative nature of their archiving becomes explicit when Li incorporates villagers’ own footage into various parts of her film — often at pivotal points — enacting a sharing of authorship with her subjects reminiscent of Ou Ning’s 2006 documentary Meishi Street.


This sharing of authorship speaks to Li’s intense awareness of the pitfalls of documentary filmmaking, particularly in representations of the subaltern. After completing a 100-minute cut of Lost Course in 2016, Li found herself dissatisfied: “I felt that something was wrong but could not articulate the precise reason.” She therefore started from scratch, looking at all the footage again from point zero, before recognizing the problem. “I projected my outsider perspective onto them,” she told me. “I saw them doing something difficult, and in my heart wanted them to achieve their goal. This made me subconsciously filter out all the moments that were anticlimactic or uneventful. […] With this filter, I tended to make heroes more like heroes, and villains more like villains.”


To uncover what she called her subjects’ “true colors,” Li proceeded to edit out moments that show them at their emotional extremes — an anti-sensationalist approach that runs counter to most representations of protest and dissent. “Because I filmed a lot of material, I often captured the same person saying similar things in different situations,” she said. “So I would take out the words said in moments of extreme terror or excitement, and preserve the version spoken that is closest to their original meaning.” The effect of this additional three-year editing process comes through poignantly in part two, filmed over the course of nearly five years.


The film’s second half begins after the Wukan protesters emerge victorious in the new election, winning all seven seats on the Village Committee. From this point on, the movement migrates to the dissatisfying realm of administrative procedure, and its former leaders — especially Lin — face increasing pressure and suspicion from both the authorities above and the people below. The focus of Li’s filmmaking also shifts here, to concentrate more on individual figures in domestic interiors, capturing not only the villagers’ continued struggle for self-governance, but also the social bonds, private yearnings, and affective intimacies that nourish them and make their struggle worthwhile.


Part two lingers over scenes that aren’t explicitly political or conflictual. We see Hong, having quit the Village Committee in 2012, share a quiet dinner with his aging parents — a quotidian scene that takes on emotional weight later, when Hong escapes abroad, leaving his family and hometown behind. The film also follows Xing as he practices guitar and goofs around with friends, taking time away from the protest movement. Lin too is shown in his private moments at home. As the protests’ elder statesman, he cannot extricate personal life from politics, but, alone with Li’s camera, his public persona dissipates. “I’ve brought this on myself,” he confesses quietly in one scene, referring to the heavy surveillance he now lives under. “I could have had a good life. But I’m ensnared in all this. I don’t recognize myself anymore.”


The Wukan movement eventually unravels, due in large part to repression from above. By June 2016, Lin and other elected protest leaders have one by one been arrested on alleged bribery charges, and three months later, a nighttime police ambush and mass arrests end a second round of protests by villagers. The penultimate sequence of Li’s film shows Hong safe but homesick in New York. Shortly after the 2016 presidential election, he goes to Trump Tower to raise awareness about Wukan, posing at the entrance with a banner in hand. But few pay attention. It’s a desolate scene, a jarring contrast from the lively gatherings in Wukan at the beginning of the film. Seen from abroad, away from the rhythms and textures of the living archive, Wukan is no longer a tangible place, only an idea.


Lost Course ends with a scene of Xing attending a music festival in Shenzhen, having moved away from Wukan in 2016. Earlier in the film, he admits: “I’d rather be a musician, not a politician. I don’t like politics but I have no choice.” Yet Li’s documentary, with its sustained attention to the intricate interdependence between protest and representation, dissent and authorship, suggests that the choice between art and politics is far from binary.


If, as Jacques Rancière contends in “Ten Theses on Politics,” the essence of politics is “not the confrontation between interests or opinions,” but rather “an intervention upon the visible and the sayable,” then art and politics can be understood to exist along the same continuum. Though the fight for land rights and self-governance in Wukan does not succeed, Lost Course uses cinema to illuminate the fruits of another, subtler struggle: the struggle by villagers to emerge as creative subjects and alternative archivists, capable, as Rancière put it, of making “visible that which had no reason to be seen.”


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Xueli Wang is a writer from New York City. She is currently a PhD Candidate in Film and Media Studies and History of Art at Yale.