Between Fiction and Documentary: The “Documentary-ness” of Still Life (Jia Zhangke, 2006)


Concerning Jia Zhangke’s pursuit of an ingenuous cinematic language, Jia’s particular documentary-inflected realism, most evident in his use of nonprofessional actors as an instrument for the interweaving of documentary and staged footage, ambitiously joins the discourse of documentary film with his parallel projects—the documentary film, Dong (2006), and the fiction film, Still Life (2006). Triggered by the controversial Three Gorges Dam project, the performance and roles of Han and Zhou become ambivalent as they provide a channel for Jia’s cinematic manipulation of actuality, and consequently open up various approaches of crossing the boundary between historical beings and fictional characters. Han’s role, oscillating between the two oppositions, becomes the vehicle for applying the sense of “documentary-ness” to the staged footage of Still Life, and re-establishing the “documentary-ness” of Dong’s documentary footage reinterpreted in Still Life. Zhou’s portrayal of Xiaomage in Still Life, extensively combined with Dong’s documentary footage, eventually transforms Xiaomage into a historical being. Considering how their performance disturb the boundary separating documentary film from fiction film, this paper will engage with Dai Vaughan’s examination of the ambiguity of documentary, Chris Berry’s notion of “in the now (and then)” temporality, and Jaimie Baron’s concept of the “archive effect.” Through their contemplation upon the filmmaker-text-viewer relationship, this paper, therefore, attempts to re-think how the performance of nonprofessional actors within both the documentary and staged footage disturbs and manipulates the conventional filmmaker-text-viewer relationship in documentary, and how that relationship might function to constitute Still Life as an expanded documentary work.

Author Information
Ellen Y. Chang, New York University, USA

Paper Information
Conference: ACAH2015
Stream: Humanities - Media

This paper is part of the ACAH2015 Conference Proceedings (View)
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Posted by James Alexander Gordon