The Lives of China’s Hidden Workers, Through Their Own Camera Lens
Documentary filmmaker Sun Hong, 37, has always been interested in finding commonalities in the everyday lives of vastly different groups of people. The subjects of her work have ranged from residents in the central city of Wuhan at the beginning of the pandemic to elite students at the prestigious Tsinghua University, where she is currently studying for her Ph.D. in filmmaking.
Now, the director’s most ambitious film to date is being shown in movie theaters around the country for the first time. Released nationwide on Jan. 13, “This Is Life” features 887 short videos taken from short-video platform Kuaishou, showing the everyday lives of 509 ordinary people through the lens of their own mobile phone cameras.
The documentary, marketed as the world’s first film made from short videos shot on mobile phones, is divided into five chapters named after the common Chinese description of life’s basic necessities: clothing, food, shelter, and transportation, with an additional final chapter of “home.”
The documentary does not have a screenwriter, let alone a narrator. Instead, it is narrated by the people Sun calls the documentary’s “co-directors,” from truck drivers and construction workers to fishermen and rice farmers — typical users of Kuaishou, which is more popular in China’s smaller cities and countryside than rival platform Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok.
The documentary received rave reviews from critics when it was completed in 2020, winning “Best Innovative Documentary Film” at the China Academy Awards of Documentary Film that year. At its premiere at the Pingyao International Film Festival the same year, renowned director and festival founder Jia Zhangke said the documentary deserved to be “written into film history.”
However, the documentary has elicited a more mixed reaction since its public release. With a score of 6.8 out of 10, “This Is Life” is the worst rated among Sun’s seven films on leading review site Douban. Some have called the documentary an advertisement for Kuaishou, while others have questioned whether it should even be called a film.
In a phone interview, Sun spoke with Sixth Tone about the making of “This Is Life,” her reasons for doing so, and the criticism it has received. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Sixth Tone: Why did you want to make this documentary?
Sun: When we started making this documentary in 2018, short videos were not as popular as they are now. It was a time when everyone was quickly transitioning from long videos to short videos. Because it was the early stages of a new era, significant changes were happening in everyone’s lives. This also affected the way we filmmakers make our documentaries.
While professional documentary filmmakers have certain skills, they can never change the fact that they are documenting subjects’ lives as outsiders. But when people document their own lives, the content they produce is a form of self-expression, perhaps even expression for its own sake. The reality depicted is completely different from the reality depicted in traditional documentaries: it is a reality that includes subjectivity.
Given the abundance of short videos to work with, with all the unique truths within them, we decided to make a documentary that pays tribute to this technology. I have always felt that as a documentary filmmaker, you must adapt to the technological changes of your time.
Sixth Tone: Given the nature of the documentary, with its focus on short videos filmed on mobile phones, what is the reasoning behind having it screened in movie theaters?
Sun: The documentary was made to be screened in movie theaters from the very beginning. While some mainstream documentaries do feature ordinary people, they are often limited to a passive role of “being seen.” What’s remarkable about this film is that it was created by 509 ordinary people, people who are usually unnoticed or overlooked in the real world, who make themselves seen on a big screen.
Many people tell me they don’t have time to go to the movie theater, and ask me to send them the film so they can watch it on their phone. It’s sad because they miss out on feeling the impact of 509 ordinary lives on a big screen in front of them. When the short videos are projected onto a large screen, they gain new life, allowing viewers to witness 509 ordinary people filming their own “epic.”
Sixth Tone: Why did you choose to take short videos from Kuaishou instead of the more popular Douyin?
Sun: The reason is that users on Kuaishou have certain characteristics: they tend to live in county towns or third and fourth-tier cities. And while the people in these places make up the majority in terms of sheer numbers, they are actually a minority group in terms of the attention they get.
Kuaishou users have also retained the quality of using the platform to record their own lives, whereas on Douyin, the content is more entertainment-focused. While Douyin videos might be more aesthetically pleasing, Kuaishou videos’ raw and unpolished nature are more authentic. We felt that Kuaishou’s community of users aligned more with our intentions for making this film.
Sixth Tone: How did you choose which clips and characters to include in the documentary? Were you able to judge their authenticity?
Sun: The process of selecting the clips was a continuous one throughout the making of the film. We got our Tsinghua University film school classmates to help go through more than 50,000 short videos on Kuaishou, which helped us decide a basic structure for the film, then we picked out the videos that best fit this structure. We knew we wanted to feature clips filmed by workers on the front lines of production in China because they are not a “mainstream” group and lack representation in the media.
Regarding authenticity, the core standard was to select videos from users who were only documenting their own lives. We didn’t seek out influencers with many followers. In fact, there are only a few influencers among the 509 characters, many of whom only have a few dozen followers. What they do have are good habits of documenting their lives.
We also included some creative and humorous videos and used them to introduce the different chapters because they are an authentic part of the short video ecosystem, and to help adjust the overall rhythm of the documentary.
During the selection process, we actually felt somewhat ashamed because we realized that these workers’ lives, as seen through our own eyes, were alien to us; we realized we had never experienced their lifestyles.
For them, documenting their lives through short videos is actually a way to socialize. Take the truck drivers for example, I often wondered why they filmed so many videos. The reason is that they are the loneliest among all the workers.
Sixth Tone: What are the major challenges in creating a documentary from vertical short videos filmed by ordinary people?
Sun: The vertical aspect of the short videos was a huge challenge, but it also provides a more immersive experience for viewers. To format vertical videos for a horizontal screen, we used a splicing method to stitch them together.
During this process, we realized that we seemed to be exploring a new audiovisual language. Traditionally, film montages occur from one shot to the next. But using our method, a montage could be formed within a single shot, using five videos to portray five spatial dimensions and incorporating five voices.
In doing so, we tried to establish relationships based on similarities or differences. For instance, a scene in the documentary has a video showing a group of ducks running forward and another clip showing people commuting to work. The reason was that I felt the ducks symbolized people who are constantly forced in life to keep moving forward.
Another challenge was that short videos often have their own background music, and obviously you can’t have all this music included in the documentary. So we had to remove the original sound then recreate the sounds we wanted to keep, which was a labor-intensive task.
Sixth Tone: What about the content itself? It must have been challenging to create a narrative or some sort of coherence using these fragmented short videos.
Sun: When we decided to make this documentary, we knew its narrative style would have to be different. Traditional narrative films usually contain a clear plot, with the audience following along with the protagonist as things happen, there is suspense, and eventually some sort of resolution.
This documentary could not do this because it cannot provide a complete portrait of a single person or show what is behind any single moment in the short videos. But what it can offer viewers is a portrait of a group of people and a “panoramic” narrative. Despite differences between the individuals, they still have some shared traits, such as a positive attitude towards life.
Sixth Tone: What do you think about the divided reaction to the documentary, with some saying that it is not a film but just a series of short videos?
Sun: I believe that film is an inclusive medium with constantly changing boundaries. The essence of film, as I understand it, is a kind of representation of life; it has a part that replicates reality and a part that transcends it. Any images that have these elements are a type of film.
Some people have questioned the lack of “authorship” in the documentary. As a matter of fact, whether in terms of its sound, music, or its internal narrative logic, the making of this documentary was not any easier than a normal documentary. I am reminded of the praise given to us by Jia Zhangke, who said that these short videos would have been lost to history had it not been for an author to present them to the world.
In fact, when we first set out to make this documentary, it was originally going to explore the changes and impacts brought about by short videos in our society. It would have been a safer and more familiar way to do it, focusing on changes in the lives of a few short video users. However, we abandoned that path because we felt that the short videos presented in the documentary’s current form are more meaningful, more valuable, and more in need of being seen by people.
Sixth Tone: If you had to summarize the purpose of the documentary, what would it be?
Sun: We hope the documentary takes viewers from a sense of familiarity, to then unfamiliarity, and finally, intimacy. We want people to understand better those anonymous people providing the basic necessities in their lives, and realize that everyone is related; everyone is mutually dependent.
Editor: Vincent Chow.
(Header image: Screenshots from “This is Life.” From Douban)