‘The Revolution They Remember’ highlights voices of China’s Cultural Revolution


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“The Revolution They Remember,” a documentary about the Chinese Cultural Revolution, premiered Thursday night.

By Sona Sharma, Staff Writer

While Thursday night’s premiere of “The Revolution They Remember” showcased a complete, comprehensive documentary, the neatly packaged presentation was actually the product of two years of work led by many groups determined to bring to life the individual stories of the Cultural Revolution.

The almost two-hour documentary, shown over Zoom Thursday and to be released on DVD and online at an unspecified date, is a project of the University Library System’s East Asian Library. It covers the subject of China’s Cultural Revolution, a decade-long movement to promote the Chinese Communist Party that led to millions of deaths and the destruction of Chinese traditionalist culture. 

The film features dozens of interviews with Chinese citizens who lived through that time, exploring their struggles with the violent student-led Red Guards and the relocation of educated youth from the cities to work in the countryside, as well as the impact of the Cultural Revolution on China today. 

The documentary is divided into a timeline of different events, with interviews from the two projects making up the bulk of the film. Narration and animations of maps provide relevant context, and scholarly interviews discussing the legacy of the Cultural Revolution conclude the documentary. 

The making of “The Revolution They Remember” began in 2015, when Haihui Zhang, head of the East Asian Library, initiated the CR/10 Project. With the 50th anniversary of the Chinese Cultural Revolution coming up in 2016, Zhang said she wanted to find a way to preserve the memories and impressions of millions of ordinary Chinese citizens impacted by the movement. 

The CR/10 Project featured recordings of conversations between Chinese individuals willing to share their personal experiences of living during that time, beginning with Zhang’s own network of acquaintances and then approaching those recommended to her by previous interviewees. Kun Qian, associate professor of the department of East Asian languages and literatures, said interviews for the project lasted just 10 minutes.

“The 10 [in CR/10] stands for 10 years and 10 minutes,” Qian said. “The interviewer would start by telling the interviewee, ‘I give you 10 minutes. What would you say about your experience during the Cultural Revolution?’ so people shared their most memorable impressions and memories about it.”

The project, which is still ongoing, soon amassed dozens of interviews with Chinese citizens from a variety of different backgrounds. With this, Zhang said she had the idea to use the interviews to produce a documentary preserving the memories of those who had lived during the Cultural Revolution. 

The film became a project of the University Library System, which brought on Qian and Edward Gunn, a former professor of Asian studies at Cornell University, as assistant director and director respectively. Through the support of the Henry Luce Foundation and the Asian Studies Center at Pitt, work began on the production of a documentary based on the CR/10 Project.

With so much material to work with, the team had difficulty in determining the structure of the documentary, according to Karl Nykwest, editor of the production. He said the team faced challenges in determining which interviews should be selected for the documentary. 

“The library has put together such a massive collection of interviews and whittling all of these experiences down into a movie that’s an hour and a half long and while also still following the arc of the Cultural Revolution was very difficult,” Nykwest said.

According to Gunn, the team decided that the best way to convey the information was through straightforward historical chronology, beginning with the start of the Cultural Revolution in 1966 and progressing through the Revolution’s 10-year period.

“For the interviews, we were seeing who was saying anything that fit into this series of events and modifying the structure as we went along to highlight interviews that we had,” Gunn said.

Qian also said she wanted to make sure a diverse group of perspectives appeared in the film, and chose interviews that highlighted those perspectives.

“We wanted to tell stories that would represent the whole picture, with people everywhere in China different age groups, different locations, different backgrounds,” Qian said.

But according to Gunn, the production team ran into many challenges regarding copyright, consent and licensing laws. For the interviews, many of the people who had consented to be interviewed for the original project did not want their interview to be used in the film, and some people who initially agreed to be a part of the film retracted this consent halfway through. 

Gunn said for those who agreed to voice only interviews, the team needed to find visuals to accompany the audio, and that proved to be a challenge due to strict licensing laws and the difficulty in obtaining video supplier information in China.

“On the one hand we were constantly shifting the script as we sorted through who was giving consent and for what,” Gunn said. “On the other, this meant that we had a lot more visuals to supply, which was an additional challenge as each and every image, every second of film footage, everything needed to be licensed by a supplier.”

A solution to the many challenges regarding collecting interviews and establishing the direction of the film presented itself when the ULS got in contact with Dartmouth Library, who had been conducting interviews for a similar project. 

According to Zhang, the Henry Luce Foundation connected the two institutes. Dartmouth Library, which had been running its own interview project on the Down to the Countryside Movement during the Cultural Revolution, collaborated with the ULS and the production team to allow for use of its interviews.

According to Gunn, the addition of the videos from the Down to the Countryside Movement project helped to organize the structure of the film better.

“Dartmouth’s interviews were strictly about the down to the countryside movement and the relocation of urban youth,” Gunn said. “Pitt had a number of interviews on that topic as well, so that becomes a major subject in the second half of the documentary.”

While the film shown during Thursday’s premiere reflected the two years’ worth of work put into the project, the final product deviated slightly from the creators’ initial intentions. The original direction of the film was solely to capture the memories and experiences that Chinese citizens had during the Cultural Revolution, but Gunn said he in particular found himself changing the structure to accommodate the perspectives of those interviewed.

“At the beginning, our goal was to just construct a coherent discussion of the Cultural Revolution and show the very different memories that people had of it,” Gunn said. “And then it was that I began to discover that people were giving off strong judgements of the time period, not just their memories. And so, in the end, we made room for that.”

At the end of the film, the interviews began to take on more of a reflective nature, as interviewees began to draw their own conclusions about how the events of the Cultural Revolution should be remembered in the future. 

The concluding segment of the film consisted of interviews conducted with scholars of sociology and Chinese history from across the globe, who deliberated over how the experiences of those in the Cultural Revolution would impact the social and political culture of today’s China.

While the film addressed the intimate experiences of Chinese citizens during the Cultural Revolution, in China, this subject remains highly controversial. Most mentions of the Cultural Revolution are banned from school textbooks, and, despite this traumatic time period occurring only 50 years ago, many Chinese youth only have limited knowledge of it.

Qian said for those working on the film, the documentary could not only serve as a way to preserve the memories of the older generation but could also be used as primary reference material for those who wish to learn about the Revolution and its impacts.

“We say the preservation of history is the placeholder of memory, but it also is a way to show memory’s multiplicity, since, in creating this project, we are also making history,” Qian said. “I want the audience to learn about this event and I want them to think about why it happened. And in what kind of situation or condition an event like this can happen again.”