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Keywords:

  • China;
  • dramatic writing;
  • ethnographic film;
  • porcelain;
  • storytelling;
  • workers

Abstract

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. On Ethnographic Film
  5. Why Film?
  6. Narrative Voice
  7. Character, Conflict, and Plot
  8. Character, Conflict, and Plot in Jingdezhen
  9. Premise
  10. Epilogue
  11. Acknowledgments
  12. References
  13. Biography

In this essay, I argue that a successful ethnographic film, like a good story, responds both to its film subjects and to its audience's expectations. I discuss why I made a film about Jingdezhen's porcelain workers (as opposed to a text) and the relationships, goals, ideas, and constraints that influenced the final film. I contextualize my process in a broader discussion of documentary and ethnographic filmmaking, looking at representation in documentary, sensory anthropology, and the conventions of Western dramatic writing.


Introduction

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. On Ethnographic Film
  5. Why Film?
  6. Narrative Voice
  7. Character, Conflict, and Plot
  8. Character, Conflict, and Plot in Jingdezhen
  9. Premise
  10. Epilogue
  11. Acknowledgments
  12. References
  13. Biography

On my initial visit to Jingdezhen in the summer of 2003, four of the first five people that I met were laid-off porcelain workers. The first was the taxi driver who took me from the bus station to a downtown hotel. Jingdezhen is small, so the trip only took ten minutes. That was long enough for him to explain that he was a laid-off worker (xiagang gongren) from a state-run porcelain factory, and he drove an illegal taxi because he couldn't afford the cost of registering his vehicle. The driver dropped me off in the courtyard of the Liangyou Hotel, and a man emerged from a glassed-in space at the front and asked if I needed a tour guide. I said that I had come to the city to study porcelain workers, and he offered to take me to see several factories. He knew all about Jingdezhen's porcelain industry, he boasted, because he had worked in a porcelain factory for more than 20 years, until the factory had gone bankrupt and he was laid off.

I walked inside, registered, and made my way upstairs. Two women were cleaning rooms on the floor where I was staying, and I said hello as I passed. Over the next two years and three visits to Jingdezhen, I grew to know both women well. One was Gong Meihua, who describes being laid off from a state-enterprise porcelain factory at the opening of my film Broken Pots Broken Dreams.1 I deposited my belongings in my room and left the hotel to find something to eat. I walked past clothing and porcelain stores, and saw a steamed bun seller next to a shop that sold overglaze enamels for decorating porcelain. A woman sat in front, knitting a sweater while she waited for customers. I asked her about herself while I ate. She said that she was a laid-off worker who used to gild porcelain in a state factory.

I wanted to write about Jingdezhen's ceramists because, despite the fame of the city's wares, no one else had focused on the people who made this desired commodity. Reams had been published about Jingdezhen's porcelain, and for centuries literati, spies, and visitors had written about ceramic production methods. More recently, artist and scholar Lili Fang (2000, 2003) had used oral history methods and archival research to write a description of the industry during the Republican period and a survey of where it was in the late 20th century. Her writings were primarily historical, and inaccessible to most Americans or Europeans because they were in Chinese. I planned to use traditional ethnographic methods—long-term residence, observation of and participation in porcelain production and ceramists’ other activities, formal interviews and informal conversations—to learn about the city's ceramists.

I knew very little about contemporary porcelain workers when I arrived in Jingdezhen. I had no idea how the industry was organized or what it had been like before the market reforms. I did not know what local ceramists cared about. During the first hour of my first day on my first visit, residents showed me that China's market reforms, which caused the collapse of state and collective porcelain factories and the privatization of production, had dramatically affected their lives.

Jingdezhen's state and collective porcelain enterprises closed their doors and laid off workers in the late 1990s, after the central government told the banks to stop issuing loans to state and collecive enterprises (for more detail, see Gillette in press). Industry workers, who believed they had lifelong employment, experienced joblessness, insecurity, and anxiety instead. Many felt a profound sense of betrayal, especially those who were mid or late career when the factories folded. Most of contemporary Jingdezhen's private ceramists worked long hours to provide for themselves and their families, making “enough to eat” (fen fan chi), but never realizing their dreams of middle-class security or wealth. Porcelain workers’ experiences of China's market transition moved and troubled me. I made Broken Pots Broken Dreams because I wanted other Americans to be moved and troubled by what happened to them too.2

In this essay, I explore the relationships, goals, ideas, and constraints that shaped Broken Pots Broken Dreams. I decided to use documentary to “make a case about,” as American film scholar Bill Nichols describes one mode of representation in documentary (Nichols 1991). The case I wanted to argue was that neoliberal capitalism did not produce better outcomes than socialism for many porcelain workers. In Jingdezhen, the privatization and marketization of porcelain production meant that tens of thousands of workers lost good jobs that included comprehensive health, medical, retirement, and social benefits. Neoliberal capitalism meant short-term temporary work, petty entrepreneurship in a competitive environment, or permanent unemployment. But how could I make this case to Americans, who considered capitalism to be the pinnacle of economic development and socialism to be a dirty word?

Here I argue that effectively making a case about requires paying attention not only to the people you are representing, but also to the audience who will watch your representation. I felt the best way to make a case about Jingdezhen's porcelain workers to an American audience was to draw on the principles of dramatic writing that inform Western conventions of storytelling in text and performance. This meant thinking about my field experiences in terms of character, conflict, plot, and premise.

On Ethnographic Film

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. On Ethnographic Film
  5. Why Film?
  6. Narrative Voice
  7. Character, Conflict, and Plot
  8. Character, Conflict, and Plot in Jingdezhen
  9. Premise
  10. Epilogue
  11. Acknowledgments
  12. References
  13. Biography

I follow Maurice Bloch and Christian Churchill in viewing ethnography as a psychic experience (Bloch 1998; Churchill 2005). Churchill describes ethnography as a process of empathetically entering the psychic space of other human beings, seeing the world from their point of view as far as possible, and translating their actions to others who have not undergone this transformation (Churchill 2005:5; see also Malinowski 1984[1922]:25). While Bloch is less concerned with empathy, he, too, emphasizes that the ethnographer undergoes a psychic transformation during which she develops new cognitive categories and neural pathways based on learning how the people she studies see and interact with the world (Bloch 1998). Ethnographic immersion allows the researcher to build intuitions about the social and cultural world into which she has placed herself, giving her an understanding of “how her informants think.”

When it comes to ethnographic film, the question (for me, at least) becomes how to communicate empathetic and intuitive understandings from field research to others who have not had that experience. What strategies work best to reach audiences and encourage them to care about, and even identify with, what the ethnographer hopes to share? Australian filmmaker Dennis O'Rourke gave one answer. O'Rourke is widely recognized by anthropologists as an “ethnographic filmmaker” and is perhaps best known for Cannibal Tours (1988), in which he documents European tourists’ encounters with people they identify as “the primitive” (e.g., Hermer 2009; Lutkehaus 1989; see also Chio this volume). O'Rourke characterized his filmmaking as “telling a story in factual form” (Lutkehaus 1989:433–434). His description indicates that he saw ethnographic and documentary cinema as tied to both reality (or “facts”) and fiction (or “story”). Ethnographic film is about people who are out there, things they do, and things that happen to them. But like all films (and ethnographies), ethnographic films are created (“made up,” fictio) and in dialogue with other stories, fiction and non-fiction. Ethnographic representations, whether written or produced in film, require imaginative work on the part of the author, who fashions her experiences and knowledge into a coherent whole (e.g., Geertz 1988; Marcus 1989; see also Narayan 1999). O'Rourke's description suggests that he thought telling a story was the primary task of the ethnographic filmmaker. Of course, what makes a good story is culturally determined (see, e.g., Bohannon 1966; MacDougall 1998:140–149). The challenge for the storytelling ethnographic filmmaker is to use facts from her field research to tell a good story for her audience.

In an important essay on documentary film, film scholar and critic Bill Nichols identifies three meanings of the word representation: to “draw a picture of,” to “speak for,” and to “make a case about” (1991:111–112). Representing in Nichols’s sense requires the ethnographer to be mindful of both her subject matter and her audience. She has to be true to her informants and the circumstances of their lives as she understands them in order to “draw a picture of.” She needs to communicate what is meaningful to her informants in order to “speak for.” She has to enable her audience to see, sense, and feel the reality of her informants’ experience in order to “make a case about.” Not all ethnographic films succeed in representing in all three ways that Nichols identifies. For example, films made in an observational style (e.g., David MacDougall's Doon School Chronicles [2000 ], Lina Fruzetti's Seed and Earth [1994 ]) are remarkably effective at “drawing a picture of,” revealing a rich array of local practices for the audience's contemplation. They may or may not “speak for,” depending on whether the filmmaker's focus is one that locals find significant and worth communicating about. They rarely “make a case about” beyond claiming “this is so, isn't it?” that Nichols identifies as the minimal premise of all documentary films (Nichols 1991). An observational film may or may not build a sense of emotional identification between audience and film subjects, which can affect how successfully a film “makes a case about.”

In Broken Pots Broken Dreams, I privileged making a case about over drawing a picture of or speaking for. I draw a picture of only insofar as the picture makes sense for my story. This meant cutting many wonderful shots of porcelain production and other activities (such as morning kite flying) because they strayed too far from my narrative. It also meant using archival images and footage, including some Mao-era footage of work units that was not taken in Jingdezhen, because they helped me tell my story and make my case (Figure 1). I don't speak for Jingdezhen ceramists, or at least not all of them. When I showed Broken Pots Broken Dreams to film participants and other locals, reactions were mixed. Some felt that I had captured something essential about Jingdezhen and laid-off workers’ experiences. Others thought that I had excluded too many other aspects of porcelain production, or that I made the town look too backwards. Rather, in Broken Pots Broken Dreams, I focused my efforts on “making a case about” workers under capitalism and socialism. To do that, I used Western principles of dramatic writing, in particular characters, conflict, plot, and premise, because I aimed my film at an American audience (cf. Hinegardner 2009). In other words, I tried to show characters that the audience could empathize with, the “trouble” that those characters confronted, and the emotional and situational changes that resulted from their experiences (see Burroway 2011; Egri 2008[1946]; Narayan 2007). My goal was explicitly argumentative, and my premise drove most of my decisions as a filmmaker (see Nichols 1991).

figure

Figure 1. Beijing Clinic 1958: Gillette used this shot of a Beijing work unit's medical clinic to give a sense of what a medical clinic in a Jingdezhen porcelain factory was like.

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Why Film?

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. On Ethnographic Film
  5. Why Film?
  6. Narrative Voice
  7. Character, Conflict, and Plot
  8. Character, Conflict, and Plot in Jingdezhen
  9. Premise
  10. Epilogue
  11. Acknowledgments
  12. References
  13. Biography

I chose to work in film because the medium is “enchanted,” as Bill Nichols and Angela Zito put it (see Nichols 2010; Zito this volume). I was drawn by film's capacity to make you feel as if you are someone else, some place else, and some time else (see Nichols 2010:5–8). I wanted to make use of the “electric charge” that Zito discusses, the slightly surprised, intense, and joyful relationship that she identifies as enchantment (Zito this volume). Film makes possible a sensory, embodied, and emotional engagement in viewers that is much harder to achieve with text. As ethnographic filmmaker David MacDougall writes, film is especially suited to conveying lived experience (MacDougall 1998:61–92). The work and skills needed to make a pot, from throwing to trimming to carving to decorating, are understood through the senses as well as the intellect. The anxieties of unemployment and underemployment, the harshness of poverty, the urgent need to care for children, the boredom of repetitive labor, and long hours all take on a felt dimension through the sensory qualities of audio and moving visual images, and the capacity of film to promote identification between film subjects and audiences.

An important part of film's enchantment is its association with pleasure. Americans like the ways that films entertain, inspire, provoke, and educate. Americans usually watch movies by choice, during their leisure time, with someone else. Because we tend to view films with people we know, films are conducive to conversation (see also Nichols 2010). In my classes, students are more animated when they talk about films than when they talk about texts. They see reading a text as work and watching a film as fun. My experiences as a teacher influenced the length of Broken Pots Broken Dreams: I wanted to make a short so that students would have enough time to watch and discuss the film in a single class period.

Narrative Voice

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. On Ethnographic Film
  5. Why Film?
  6. Narrative Voice
  7. Character, Conflict, and Plot
  8. Character, Conflict, and Plot in Jingdezhen
  9. Premise
  10. Epilogue
  11. Acknowledgments
  12. References
  13. Biography

I intended Broken Pots Broken Dreams to provide an alternative narrative about contemporary China (see also Chio, Zito this volume). Recent American accounts of China are dominated by the story of “China's economic miracle,” as China's economic growth is described in Newsweek, the Economist, the Guardian, the New York Times, and many other sources. “China's economic miracle” typically takes two forms in American media: a narrative that China's growth is a threat to American world supremacy (thus requiring protectionist measures from Congress and a president who “gets tough”) and a narrative that China's economic growth is dependent on slave labor by dispossessed and despairing migrant workers (e.g., Jean-Yves Cauchard's [2007] Made in China). While both narratives have a basis in reality, neither captures the experiences of the Chinese citizens with whom I worked in Jingdezhen (or Xi'an, for that matter).3 In addition, both narratives distance the People's Republic of China from Americans, portraying China as a frightening, immoral, and uncompassionate place (the narratives that Americans hear and tell themselves about Tibet perform a similar operation). In Broken Pots Broken Dreams, I tried to show a Chinese reality that Americans could relate to. I used voice-over to suggest the relationship between the transformation of China's working class, their loss of security and increased anxieties under capitalism, and American workers in the neoliberal U.S. economy. I wanted Americans to look for similarities between themselves and Chinese citizens, and to feel a strong sense of connection with Jingdezhen workers undergoing the experience of diminishing job security and decreasing benefits.

Voice-overs have fallen out of fashion in ethnographic films (see MacDougall 1998:93–122). Critics argue that voice-overs signal omniscience and impute too much authority to filmmakers (e.g., Hermer 2009; MacDougall 1998:106). In film and in text, anthropologists have moved toward foregrounding the voices of their informants through direct presentation of their testimony. Some ethnographic filmmakers have moved away from providing any narrative or textual guidance at all (e.g., Fruzetti's Seed and Earth [1994 ]; Sniadecki's Chaiqian [2008 ]). Having said this, recent films like Up the Yangtze (Chang 2007), which is narrated by an unseen filmmaker, suggest that voice-overs may be making a comeback (see also Bored in Heaven [Dean and Dean 2011 ] and Dahua's Wedding [Harrell et al. 2008 ]). Like Yung Chang, a number of contemporary filmmakers use voice-overs in an essay style, detailing their personal involvement in the film they are making (e.g., Stanley Nelson's A Place of Our Own [2004 ], Jamie Johnson's Born Rich [2003 ]). I chose not to use an essay style because I wanted to focus on the ceramists and avoid audience identification with me. Following a suggestion by filmmaker and author Margie Strosser, I tried to create a “universal” account of Jingdezhen's laid-off workers. My voice-over suggests that Jingdezhen is a place dominated by a single industry that underwent a major structural reorganization, which had profound consequences for workers. While Americans have never experienced a planned economy or government guarantees of cradle-to-grave support, the story of Jingdezhen's industrial workers bears a resemblance to the stories that workers in Detroit's auto industry or Pittsburgh's steel mines might tell. I ask the audience to imagine themselves in a situation that, I suggest, could have happened to them.

Character, Conflict, and Plot

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. On Ethnographic Film
  5. Why Film?
  6. Narrative Voice
  7. Character, Conflict, and Plot
  8. Character, Conflict, and Plot in Jingdezhen
  9. Premise
  10. Epilogue
  11. Acknowledgments
  12. References
  13. Biography

It took months to figure out how to organize my footage into Broken Pots Broken Dreams. Initially, I thought that I would arrange workers’ testimony according to the porcelain production sequence. Each stage of making a pot would be accompanied by a ceramist's meditations on his or her work experiences. Those who had participated in both the planned and the market economies would compare them, voicing their criticisms of the market reforms. Those who began their working careers in a market economy would talk about making a living in private ceramics production, including the long hours they put in and the tedium of endlessly repeating a single task.

This approach clarified how a pot was produced for the uninitiated, but it did not build an emotional relationship between viewers and workers. The advanced division of labor in Jingdezhen's porcelain production meant that there were lots of ceramists on camera. In the United States, artists who make porcelain tend to do most aspects of production themselves. For example, ceramist Claire Shenk Rodgers in Philadelphia throws and hand-builds her own pots, makes her own glazes, glazes and decorates her own wares, and fires them herself. In Jingdezhen, the same process requires the input of six people. Porcelain workers specialize. For example, a woman who paints underglaze blue decoration will only decorate in underglaze materials. She will not perform any other aspect of production. She will specialize in a time period, painting either Yuan, Ming, or Qing reproductions, or contemporary art. She will be known for her ability to reproduce a particular form, such as dragons or landscapes or birds and flowers. If I wanted to show each stage of porcelain production, I had to show a lot of workers. The result was too many faces and no opportunity for an audience to develop a relationship with any of the ceramists, particularly not during a 26-minute documentary short.

This approach also was not a story. Ceramics production has a beginning, middle, and end, but the process lacks dramatic tension. Focusing on production lends itself to looking at skill, not thinking about the wants, needs, and experiences of the producers. A viewer might admire a potter's technical abilities without feeling any emotional attachment to him. In addition, organizing my footage around production did not direct attention toward Jingdezhen's history. The market crisis of the state and collective enterprises—easily the most socially significant event in Jingdezhen since the Cultural Revolution—would be disguised rather than highlighted. I wanted Jingdezhen's dramatic historical transformations of the 20th century to be front and center for viewers.

Scholars and writers (including anthropologists) who explain what makes a good story for an American audience focus on character, conflict, and plot. First and foremost, a good story has characters whom the audience gets to know. As playwright Lajos Egri writes, “character is the most interesting phenomenon anywhere. Every character represents a world of his own, and the more you know of this person, the more interested you become” (Egri 2008[1946]:113; see also Burroway 2011:73; Narayan 2007:133–136). According to creative writer Janet Burroway, getting to know a character means learning “significant details” about her (Burroway 2011). Anthropologist Kirin Narayan identifies a number of significant details that build characters in fiction and are usefully adapted to ethnography: physical peculiarities, habitual mannerisms, opinions, behaviors, and all manner of moral dilemmas (Narayan 2007:135). In fiction, details create a sense of intimacy between the audience and the character. In ethnography, they also reveal who a person is (e.g., Narayan 2007:136).

Second, a good story has a conflict. Something is at stake: a character wants something and is having trouble getting it (Egri 2008[1946]:139, 140–146; Burroway 2011:250–251). Or, as Kirin Narayan puts it, a good story has central characters who yearn for something, and something stands in their way (Narayan 2007:134). Egri writes, “we are interested in witnessing the things happening to those who are forced to reveal their true characters under the stress of conflict” (Egri 2008[1946]:214). Conflict or trouble is interesting for its own sake and because it reveals character. Even observational filmmakers find that conflicts are moments “when people let their masks slip and literally ‘give themselves away' ” (MacDougall 1998:146).

Third, a good story has a plot: a causal sequence of events and actions that result in fundamental changes to the situation or characters (Burroway 2011:118–119, 248, 260–263). Events in a good story unfold for a reason, not randomly; as E. M. Forester writes, causality is the essence of plot (quoted in Burroway 2011:263). Unlike a scholarly article, in a story, events and actions are revealed rather than summarized up front (Narayan 2007:141). The audience wants to know what happens next, and they want to understand what happens in terms of cause and effect. A good story entails transformations: as Narayan puts it, “the kinds of transformations that an ethnographer experiences, witnesses in others, or comprehends intellectually” (Narayan 2007:132; see also Burroway 2011:247–265). According to Burroway, “the easiest way to check the plot of your story is to ask, ‘does my character change from opening to end? Do I give the sense that his or her life will never be quite the same again?' ” A good story ends up with the characters in a new place, literally or emotionally.

Not all anthropologists want to turn their fieldwork into a story, although readers might be surprised to read Narayan's lists of those who have (Narayan 1999, 2007). Not all ethnographic filmmakers choose to tell stories either. My intention is not to suggest that they (we) should. I do argue, though, that if we want to be effective at making a case in ethnography and ethnographic film (“representing reality,” to use Nichols’s title), we should think about our audience as much as our subject matter. If we choose to represent reality to an American audience in the cinema or at the television, then it behooves us to think about and respond to their expectations for film and television, as well as whatever ideas they may have about the topic presented. Our track record is poor in this regard, as research on ethnographic film reception has shown (Martinez 1992; Moggan 2005). I thought the principles of Western storytelling would help me make a case in Broken Pots Broken Dreams. Of course, that decision had consequences.

Character, Conflict, and Plot in Jingdezhen

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. On Ethnographic Film
  5. Why Film?
  6. Narrative Voice
  7. Character, Conflict, and Plot
  8. Character, Conflict, and Plot in Jingdezhen
  9. Premise
  10. Epilogue
  11. Acknowledgments
  12. References
  13. Biography

In December 2008, I traveled to Jingdezhen to talk to ceramists about participating in a film. I approached eight people whom I knew well. One was not enthusiastic, so she did not take part. Everyone else was willing, but I excluded three people. One I decided not to film because he was experiencing extreme personal hardship. He was very welcoming to me, and eager to participate, but he was also very explicit about blaming the government for his family's economic difficulties. From one perspective, he would have been a great character for a film because he was so angry, spoke so freely, and faced so much trouble. I worried, however, that filming him might bring his family more trouble. I made my film for an American audience, but once a film is completed, its circulation is outside the control of the filmmaker, as are the meanings that audiences attribute to it (see Sniadecki this volume). Excluding him seemed safer. I left out the other two simply because I ran out of time. Both were overglaze painters, as is Jiang Huaqing, who appears in Broken Pots Broken Dreams. When I realized that I would not be able to film as much as I had originally intended, I decided to use Jiang Huaqing as my sole overglaze painter and to let Gong Meihua's story represent those two individuals’ experiences of the layoffs.

Gong Meihua became the main character of Broken Pots Broken Dreams because of the closeness of our relationship, the deep impact that the layoffs had on her family, and the ways in which her story resonated with the stories of other laid-off porcelain workers. Gong Meihua and I have known each other for more than ten years, and I spend a lot of time with her and her family when I visit Jingdezhen. My previous fieldwork meant that I was very familiar with what had happened to her when the Guangming Porcelain Factory abruptly shut its doors in 1998 (Figure 2).

figure

Figure 2. My name is Gong Meihua: Gong Meihua became the main character of Broken Pots Broken Dreams because she and the filmmaker had a close relationship over many years.

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Building Gong Meihua as a main character required selecting testimony and images that conveyed a sense of her personality and experiences. I knew a lot about Gong Meihua before my two students and I showed up at her house with a camera.4 During our interviews, I asked her questions to elicit memories that she had spoken of before. The details of her experiences were important to establishing her as a specific and real person. If viewers knew that Gong Meihua met her husband at a dance organized by the porcelain factory, and that she sang in the factory's choir, they might understand why she missed her work unit so much. If viewers knew that Gong Meihua had an infant when she was laid off and that her entire family had lost their jobs on the same day, they would have a stronger sense of the scope of the crisis. Visual images of Gong Meihua racking pool balls at the gambling parlor and customers playing mahjong conveyed how seedy her new line of work is and gave a sense of why she disliked it. Footage of Gong Meihua cooking and eating with her family as she talks about not being able to celebrate Lunar New Year (China's biggest holiday) reveals her disappointment and longing for a different way of life.

Broken Pots Broken Dreams has a classic dramatic structure: a character who wants something, has trouble getting it, and changes as a result of the conflicts she faces (see Burroway 2011; Egri 2008[1946]; Narayan 2007). The plot I developed focused on these elements in relation to the porcelain industry. I simplified what actually happened, particularly since I was making a short (but see also Chio this volume). For example, after the Guangming Factory closed, Gong Meihua initially did piece work as a porcelain decorator, with her employment dependent on the size and requirements of the order that a private entrepreneur was filling. After doing this for a time, she managed to find work as a maid in a state-enterprise hotel. In fact, when I first met Gong Meihua, she was working as a hotel maid. Gong Meihua took the hotel job because it offered her some security, but her low wages (and perhaps also the low status of this work) ultimately led her husband to argue that she should quit and run a gambling parlor. I left this part of her story out, as I thought her detour through hotel work complicated the plot and required more explanation than I wanted to give.

As a child, Gong Meihua enjoyed the high status that came from her father's job at a state-enterprise porcelain factory. She followed in his footsteps not because state-enterprise porcelain factory work was the best remunerated employment (although 20 years earlier, it had been), but because it guaranteed lifelong income and benefits. While Gong Meihua has many desires in life, I focused on her wish for security when building her as a film character. Job security is certainly something she wants badly, but she also wants her daughter to go to college, her father to get his retirement pension, and her husband to smoke less. I left many of Gong Meihua's wishes in the background in order to focus her character and story around her very real desire for security.

Broken Pots Broken Dreams gets dramatic tension from the trouble that Gong Meihua and other workers confront, and what they do in the face of their trouble. The trouble is the government's decision to privatize the porcelain industry, which in fact happened much more slowly than it did in some other sectors of the economy. Some would argue that provincial and central government officials believed that Jingdezhen's porcelain factories could privatize successfully (see Gillette in press). The reality proved otherwise: privatization meant allowing the state and collective sector to fold as well as reneging on promises to workers. The resolution for Gong Meihua and other laid-off workers (or at least some of them) was going into private enterprise. Gong Meihua changes from a low-paid but protected and carefree worker, with set hours and guaranteed holidays, to an anxious and dissatisfied private gambling hall proprietor who must work every single day. Her transition from security to precariousness is a shift that anthropologists have described in many neoliberal contexts (e.g., Buyandelgeriyn 2007; Prentice 2008, 2012; see also Muehlebach 2013).

Feng Shangsong is the historian of Broken Pots Broken Dreams. He could chronicle the history of Jingdezhen's porcelain industry and review its circumstances because of his age and work history. I wanted Feng to be the voice of authority in the film, rather than using voice-over to provide an authoritative history. Even so, I wanted audiences to care about Feng as a person and character. I tried to build a relationship between him and the audience by including specific details about his life, such as his childhood memory of the “hard year” that he suffered in 1944 at the age of 14 (Figure 3). I asked him to talk concretely about how he worked to improve the porcelain industry after 1949 through wage reform and the eradication of child labor. I wanted to show his personal involvement in Jingdezhen's economic transformation, as a way of showing how this history mattered and a way of helping audiences connect with him. Feng's testimony demonstrates how, for Communist activists, the market reforms were not only a reversal, but also the breaking of a commitment.

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Figure 3. Feng when I got up to pee: Gillette wanted to build empathy between Feng Shangsong, her historical narrator, and her audience, so she included some of his personal stories.

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The remaining participants, Jiang Huaqing, Yang Yajun, and Li Xiaoming, are secondary characters, what Kirin Narayan, following E. M. Forester, calls “flat” characters (Narayan 2007:135–136). “Flat” characters dramatize a single idea or quality, while “round” characters are more complex. Good stories usually have both kinds of characters. Jiang Huaqing, Yang Yajun, and Li Xiaoming each relate some important information about Jingdezhen's porcelain production. Yang Yajun clarifies its long history, Li Xiaoming describes how the industry attracts migrants from the countryside, and Jiang Huaqing discusses the low returns that contemporary producers get on their labor investment. All three illustrate the work of porcelain production. They complement Gong Meihua's and Feng Shangsong's “roundness.”

I wanted Broken Pots Broken Dreams to pique the viewer's curiosity (see Narayan 2007:141). The film begins with a “what if” narrative and then segues into Gong Meihua, who lived a version of the universal story in the voice-over narration. In a sense, her tale is an answer to the “what if” of my narration, but an incomplete one. We don't initially know what happened to her after she had to go out and look for a job. I wanted viewers to travel with Gong Meihua, to feel what her experience was like by learning about her history, why she liked the industry, what it meant to her personally. I wanted audiences to feel her sense of hopelessness when she and her family lost their jobs. I saved the “answer” to the crisis, the information that Gong Meihua was running a gambling parlor, and the general description of what happened to industry workers, for the end. The plot moves through workers’ experiences to a resolution and a general summary of Jingdezhen's circumstances by Feng Shangsong.

Premise

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. On Ethnographic Film
  5. Why Film?
  6. Narrative Voice
  7. Character, Conflict, and Plot
  8. Character, Conflict, and Plot in Jingdezhen
  9. Premise
  10. Epilogue
  11. Acknowledgments
  12. References
  13. Biography

While many ethnographic filmmakers would agree that a film “is a way of pointing out something to oneself and to others” (MacDougall 1998:29; see also Nichols 1991), Lajos Egri (2008[1946]:19–52), in his book The Art of Dramatic Writing, goes further and argues that the author of drama must have a premise. A premise is a proposition that leads to a conclusion and the purpose of your story (19). Egri gives several examples: the premise of Romeo and Juliet is great love defies death, the premise of Macbeth is ruthless ambition leads to its own destruction, the premise of Tartuffe is he who digs a pit for others falls into it himself (21–22, 43). For a dramatic author, Egri writes, the premise dictates the direction of your story. He states, “The premise is a tyrant who permits you to go only one way—the way of absolute proof” (130).

The idea that an ethnographic film should have a premise that dictates the direction of the narrative may seem a challenging position for an anthropologist to take. Certainly, many anthropologists have argued over whether ethnographers should have political or moral purposes (e.g., Bourgois 1990; D'Andrade 1995; Scheper-Hughes 1995). In my view, the premise of an ethnographic film derives from the task of representation as Nichols describes it: drawing a picture of, speaking for, and making a case about. As an ethnographer, your premise must reflect your field research (drawing a picture of and speaking for) and your audience (making a case about). Your purpose must be to tell a particular story about your field site to an audience who needs to hear it.

In a recent article, Sabra Thorner (2007) describes what she calls a “new dimension of ethnographic media” in two feature films, Rabbit Proof Fence and Whale Rider. These films, she writes, are “profoundly local, yet widely resonant” (137). Some of their success comes from the ways that the films speak to contemporary political and social concerns. For example, Rabbit Proof Fence is a story of three young girls escaping the native schooling program that removed Aboriginal children from their homes as part of a nationwide campaign to “breed out the color” and “civilize” Aborigines (141). The girls’ 1,500-mile journey to return home dramatizes an issue that Australians were debating and scrutinizing in the wake of government reports about stolen children and a movement to persuade the government to issue an official apology to Aboriginal peoples. In other words, Thorner suggests that a story that works is a story that speaks to concerns already on the audience's mind.

My ethnographic encounters with former workers, and my intended audience, led me to the purpose of Broken Pots Broken Dreams: to cast doubt on whether neoliberal capitalism produces the best economic situation for everyone and suggest that socialism, conversely, has its benefits for workers. When I first thought about making a film in 2006 and 2007, I hoped to show my students, born under Reagan and Bush, that capitalism is not human nature. I wanted my father, born in 1929, who had witnessed Fordist and neoliberal variants of capitalism and heard a lot of negative propaganda about socialism, to see that the planned economy had a positive dimension for workers. More broadly, I hoped to speak to those Americans who, even before the 2008 financial crisis, were concerned about the negative impact of the U.S. government's neoliberal policies since the 1980s (as seen in Michael Moore's Roger and Me [1989 ]). Since then, the failure of American financial institutions, a U.S. government bailout that benefited corporations more than workers, widespread home foreclosures, declining property values, and high unemployment have caused many people to wonder about our economic system and some to take to the streets in protest.

My desire to have a premise resulted in some uncomfortable decisions: the premise was indeed a “tyrant.” Perhaps anthropologists have become obsessed with critiquing neoliberal capitalism; if so, I share Andrea Muehlebach's (2013) optimism about what this preoccupation signifies for the discipline. I have already described excluding information about Gong Meihua's work history and briefly mentioned my decision to use period footage from other parts of China to give a sense of what Jingdezhen's work units were like under the planned economy. I left out most of Yang Yajun's, Jiang Huaqing's, and Li Xiaoming's stories, even though they are all interesting and reveal other aspects of what it means to work in Jingdezhen's porcelain industry (see Gillette 2010, 2012 for more information). But the most difficult decision that I made was to leave in Feng Shangsong's summary as the conclusion of Broken Pots Broken Dreams after he asked me to remove it.

I took Feng and the other participants copies of the film when I visited Jingdezhen during the summer of 2010. Feng never watched the whole film; he only wanted to see the parts where he was featured. After he viewed these portions, he asked me to remove his final narrative. Nothing that Feng says at the end of the film is particularly controversial or critical; you can find similar remarks in Chinese newspapers (Figure 4). But Feng wanted to make sure that nothing he said or did had the slightest possibility of causing any negative impact for his children (all of whom are government officials), so he asked me to remove his concluding commentary. Of course, Feng had signed a release allowing me to use this footage when I filmed him, but that did little to ease my decision. Ultimately, I felt that I needed his commentary; that I couldn't remove it without remaking the entire film; that he was not judging the film because he had never watched it in its entirety; and that the film was very unlikely indeed to cause him or his family difficulties, particularly since I planned not to release it or show it in China. Sometimes I have thought that the story, argument, and premise justify my decision to leave Feng's comments in (see also the discussion of anthropological ethics in Bourgois 1990). Sometimes I think that I've done the wrong thing. I am sure such sentiments are familiar to many ethnographers.

figure

Figure 4. Gap between rich and poor is enormous: Gillette chose not to remove Feng's final narration from the film, despite Feng's second thoughts.

Download figure to PowerPoint

Thus, as Egri describes, my premise set the parameters for what to include and exclude. To use Bill Nichols’s language, I decided to make a case about some positive dimensions of the planned economy for workers and some negative aspects of the market reforms. Broken Pots Broken Dreams was not going to be the place where people sung the praises of China's economic miracle or lamented the depopulation of the Chinese countryside. Those and other stories can be and are told elsewhere. Instead, Broken Pots Broken Dreams speaks to the experiences of Jingdezhen's state and collective enterprise workers in China's newly neoliberal economy and Americans’ ongoing concerns about economic restructuring in the wake of the 2008 market collapse.

Epilogue

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. On Ethnographic Film
  5. Why Film?
  6. Narrative Voice
  7. Character, Conflict, and Plot
  8. Character, Conflict, and Plot in Jingdezhen
  9. Premise
  10. Epilogue
  11. Acknowledgments
  12. References
  13. Biography

In February 2012, I hosted the “Forbidden No More” film festival at Haverford, where all of the films discussed in this volume were screened. Students in my Anthropology of China class were required to attend and keep film journals where they wrote their responses to the films.5 There were many journal entries for Broken Pots Broken Dreams that gladdened my heart. For example, one student wrote, “I was shocked to see the effects of the market economy on families in Jingdezhen—that woman who had to leave her daughter alone while she worked at the billiards and mahjong place, hearing her reminisce about the ‘good old days’ at the porcelain factory really broke my heart.” Another wrote, “Communism did have its positive side and benefits for part of China.” Still another student said, “At least for a time, the nationalization of the porcelain industry was a very successful endeavor.” Pondered another, “Mao perhaps hurt cities like Jingdezhen, because of their isolation from the global economy.” Still another student wrote, “I could really relate to the people in the film and what it was like to lose your job—they just want to make money and support their families, it was easy to feel connected to them.”

Other responses left me feeling ambivalent, or indicated problems with the film. For example, one student stated, “I could relate to the film as an Asian and as an American. The mentality of ‘work now, play later’ was one I grew up learning from my parents.” I am not quite sure what to make of this comment. On the one hand, I am always happy to learn that audience members connected to the people in the film; on the other hand, perhaps I unintentionally reinforced some stereotypes. Another student commented, “I immediately associated the porcelain worker's plight with that of the artisan whose craft was taken over by mass production.” This remark suggests a serious shortcoming in the film. Jingdezhen has had mass production for well over six hundred years, and only recently has the city seen something that resembles an artisanal tradition. An anthropologist who is familiar with my research made a related comment when he watched Broken Pots Broken Dreams for the first time. He asked where my description of the contemporary market in antique replicas was (see Gillette 2010). The film didn't suggest what the relationship was between the end of state and collective enterprise and the rise of a private market in copies and counterfeits. Finally, another student wrote, “The central message of this film is glorifying the Communist past and criticizing the more capitalist present.” I don't like to think about Broken Pots Broken Dreams in these terms, but I can understand where this response comes from. I heard related remarks when I screened the film at the University of Southern California in April 2010. There, some members of the audience were upset that I had portrayed the Maoist period as positively as I had. Surely, I should have talked about the damage done by the constant political struggles of that period, they suggested.

So what is the take-away from these experiences? I do think that the principles of dramatic writing helped make Broken Pots Broken Dreams into a film that some American viewers can identify with. However, there is no fail-safe method for understanding and speaking to your audience when you make a case. Here, the act of making a case entailed leaving out some material that some audience members found important or needed to hear about. Perhaps when it comes to ethnographic representations, we should adopt as our motto the American schoolchildren's maxim: “try, try again.”

Acknowledgments

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. On Ethnographic Film
  5. Why Film?
  6. Narrative Voice
  7. Character, Conflict, and Plot
  8. Character, Conflict, and Plot in Jingdezhen
  9. Premise
  10. Epilogue
  11. Acknowledgments
  12. References
  13. Biography

Many people contributed to the making of this article and to Broken Pots Broken Dreams. I first presented a version of this article at the University of Southern California's symposium “Cultural Dimensions of Visual Ethnography: U.S. and China Dialogues.” I subsequently presented a version at the University of Vermont at the invitation of Jeanne Shea. I thank participants at both events for their helpful comments. The filmmaker-ethnographers who took part in “Forbidden No More” played a critical role in moving this article toward a final version; I thank Tami Blumenfield, Jenny Chio, Ken Dean, Ben Gertsen, Stevan Harrell, J.P. Sniadecki, Tik-sang Liu, and Angela Zito for their wonderful work for and after this event. I am very grateful to the external reviewers and editors of Visual Anthropology Review for their useful suggestions and critiques. Funding for this research came from the American Council of Learned Societies, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Smithsonian Institution, and Haverford College. I thank the EURIAS Fellowship and Swedish Collegium for Advanced Study for their support, which made possible the final work on this article.

Notes
  1. 1

    The other woman was a recent migrant from the village of Yaoli.

  2. 2

    Prior to making Broken Pots Broken Dreams, I wrote an article about porcelain copying and counterfeiting in Jingdezhen (Gillette 2010). Since then, I have continued to write about Jingdezhen's contemporary porcelain entrepreneurs (Gillette 2012) and explored the historical experiences of ceramists in the late imperial period and 20th century (Gillette 2014, in press). My most recent trip to Jingdezhen was in 2010.

  3. 3

    I have done extensive field research in an urban Muslim neighborhood in Xi'an, in northwest China. The bulk of this research took place between 1993 and 2000, although I still visit the Xi'an Muslim district regularly.

  4. 4

    Diana Tung (Bryn Mawr College 2010) and Patrick Lozada (Haverford College 2011) joined me in Jingdezhen, and we filmed Broken Pots Broken Dreams together. Each of us took turns filming, doing sound, and attending to lighting. For more information about our trip, see http://www.haverford.edu/news/stories/15951/51.

  5. 5

    Students subsequently gave me written permission to use their film journals for scholarly publication. I thank the students for their willingness to participate in what, for me and I hope for them, has been a very rewarding project.

References

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  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. On Ethnographic Film
  5. Why Film?
  6. Narrative Voice
  7. Character, Conflict, and Plot
  8. Character, Conflict, and Plot in Jingdezhen
  9. Premise
  10. Epilogue
  11. Acknowledgments
  12. References
  13. Biography
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Biography

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. On Ethnographic Film
  5. Why Film?
  6. Narrative Voice
  7. Character, Conflict, and Plot
  8. Character, Conflict, and Plot in Jingdezhen
  9. Premise
  10. Epilogue
  11. Acknowledgments
  12. References
  13. Biography
  • Maris Gillette is an anthropologist and filmmaker currently living in Uppsala, Sweden. She has written several articles about the porcelain industry in Jingdezhen, China. Broken Pots Broken Dreams, about Jingdezhen's ceramic workers, is her first solo documentary. Gillette has worked on a number of digital video community history projects in Philadelphia, including Precious Places and Muslim Voices of Philadelphia. She is writing a book about Jingdezhen's porcelain production from 1004, when its wares first caught the attention of the imperial court, through centuries of government sponsorship, to the present moment of private enterprise. She has also written extensively about Hui Muslims in Xi'an. Gillette is a professor of anthropology at Haverford College and European Institutes for Advanced Study (EURIAS) Fellow at the Swedish Collegium for Advanced Study.