Chinese whispers

Xiaolu Guo on the voices of a changing country

This year's Doc/Fest in Sheffield, which I caught the tail end of at the weekend, had a great selection of films on show. Of note were Men of the City, Marc Isaac's surprisingly tender portrait of workers in the City of London, and Erik Grandini's Videocracy, which unpicks the poisonous links between celebrity culture and political power in Berlusconi's Italy. There were also arts docs covering, variously, Brian Eno and the making of Tarkovsky's Stalker.

For me, though, the real star was Once Upon a Time Proletarian, by the Chinese novelist and director Xiaolu Guo. It consists of interviews with 12 people drawn from across Chinese society: from an ageing peasant who longs for the days of Mao, to frustrated small-town teenagers, to rich Beijing businessmen. Filmed in spare moments during the shooting of Guo's forthcoming fiction film, She, a Chinese (which I wrote about here), it has a wonderful spontaneity that captures a fleeting moment in China's history.

Below, taken from the Q+A session that followed the screening -- and abridged by me -- Guo explains what her film has to say about modern China.

I wanted to make a group portrait presenting the different social classes in China that have arisen over the last 20 years. China used to be a very simple society: before communism it was made up of peasants or slaves and the emperor system. From the 1950s onwards the whole country changed, but it was still a simple social structure: soldiers, workers and peasants.

Now China is in this period of radical change, where people are losing their identities, losing faith in both traditional and socialist values. There's a new middle class, millionaires, even billionaires. People who used to have a peasant identity, who spent their lives planting rice, now have to work in factories making computer parts.

[The film] shows a kind of collective melancholy. This whole country has lost its old values, and we were never a religious country, so now everyone has to force themselves to be civilised.

I don't trust objective narrative. For me, the truth is subjective and emotional. I don't want to know people's life stories, all I want to know is that moment when they look at the camera. It's very powerful but it's over so quickly.

Daniel Trilling is the Editor of New Humanist magazine. He was formerly an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

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How did Don’t Tell the Bride lose its spark?

Falling out of the love with reality TV’s wedding planning hit.

Steph, 23, from Nottinghamshire, is standing in a drizzly field wearing a wedding dress. Her betrothed, Billy, is running around in a tweed flat cap trying to make some pigs walk in “a continuous parade”. A man from Guinness World Records is watching with a clipboard, shaking his head. Bridesmaids gaze sorrowfully into the middle distance, each in a damp pig onesie.

Thus ends the second wedding in E4’s new series of Don’t Tell the Bride – and the programme’s integrity with it.

When the classic programme, which follows grooms attempting to plan their wedding (punchline: human males doing some organising), began a decade ago on BBC Three, it had the raw spark of unpredictability. For eight years, the show did nothing fancy with the format, and stuck with pretty ordinary couples who had few eccentric aspirations for their wedding day.

This usually resulted in run-of-the-mill, mildly disappointing weddings where the worst thing that happened would be a reception at the nearest motorway pub, or an ill-fitting New Look low heel.

It sounds dull, but anyone who has religiously watched it knows that the more low-key weddings expose what is truly intriguing about this programme: the unconditional commitment – or doomed nature – of a relationship. As one of the show’s superfans told the Radio Times a couple of years ago:

“It’s perfect, and not in an ironic or post-ironic or snarky way. The format has the solemn weight of a ceremony . . . Don’t Tell the Bride is not about ruined weddings, it’s about hope. Every wedding is a demonstration of how our ambitions curve away from our abilities. It’s a show about striving to deserve love and how that’s rarely enough.”

It also meant that when there were bombshells, they were stand-out episodes. High drama like Series 4’s notorious Las Vegas wedding almost resulting in a no-show bride. Or heart-warming surprises like the geezer Luke in Series 3 playing Fifa and guzzling a tinny on his wedding morning, who incongruously pulls off a stonking wedding day (complete with special permission from the Catholic Church).

For its eight years on BBC Three, a few wildcard weddings were thrown into the mix of each series. Then the show had a brief affair with BBC One, a flirt with Sky, and is now on its tenth year, 13th series and in a brand new relationship – with the more outrageous E4.

During its journey from BBC Three, the show has been losing its way. Tedious relationship preamble has been used to beef up each episode. Some of the grooms are cruel rather than clueless, or seem more pathetic and vulnerable than naïve. And wackier weddings have become the norm.

The programme has now fully split from its understated roots. Since it kicked off at the end of July, every wedding has been a publicity stunt. The pig farm nuptials are sandwiched between a Costa del Sol-based parasail monstrosity and an Eighties Neighbours-themed ceremony, for example. All facilitated by producers clearly handing the groom and best men karaoke booth-style props (sombreros! Inflatable guitars! Wigs!) to soup up the living room planning process.

Such hamminess doesn’t give us the same fly-on-the-wall flavour of a relationship as the older episodes. But maybe this level of artifice is appropriate. As one groom revealed to enraged fans in The Sun this week, the ceremonies filmed are not actually legally binding. “It makes a bit of a mockery of the process that the bride and groom go through this huge ordeal for a ceremony which isn’t even legal,” he said. Perhaps we should’ve predicted it would all eventually end in divorce – from reality.

Don’t Tell the Bride is on E4 at 9pm

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.