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Experimental Filmmaker Sam Miers Explores a Lesser Seen Yunnan

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If you have a mental picture of China’s southwestern Yunnan province — which borders Vietnam, Laos, and Myanmar, and is home to 25 of the country’s 56 officially recognized ethnic minorities — it probably cleaves pretty closely to the description of the place found in most tourist brochures: pristine natural landscapes and idyllic “old towns” like the UNESCO-certified Lijiang. It’s less likely to include pyrotechnic bordertown techno jams or helicopters buzzing over minority-culture theme parks, but they’re there, too, and this uneven picture forms the subject of Australian gonzo filmmaker and musician Sam Miers’ recent documentary, don’t look at me that much.

Miers, who comes from the small, southern Australian town of Bateman’s Bay, doesn’t exactly call it a documentary. He prefers the term “emotional geography,” speaking of a desire to focus on “how human emotions in Yunnan province relate to and effect the environment around them,” and emphasizing the term emodiversity as the core driver of his practice.

Originally drawn to China on a tour with his band School Girl Report, Miers ended up spending several years living and working in Beijing. Intrigued by the music he’d hear at restaurants in the capital, as well as a general interest in borderland cultural flux, he also spent months of 2016 traveling around Yunnan, charting his way by seeking traditional minority festivals across the province by day and dipping into whatever form of club culture he could find by night. He filmed the whole thing on an iPhone bought in Yunnan’s capital, Kunming: “what people are already using in everyday life to film themselves and each other.”

The result is a lo-fi, freewheeling film that presents Yunnan at the level of everyday, lived and mundane culture, a reality as likely to revolve around deeply and locally rooted minority traditions as American techno or televised military parades. Speaking more broadly, it’s a rare document of a transitional moment for much of rural China, where processes of globalization and technological upgrade can take irregular, unique forms — a landscape Miers was eager to capture.

Watch the film here, and read on below for a deep dive into the thinking behind it:

RADII: Can you give a bit of personal background first? How did you first become interested in China? What is your experience living and traveling in China?

Sam Miers: Growing up in Bateman’s Bay, Australia I had fleeting encounters with China every day. There were good and bad Chinese restaurants in every town, most things were made in China, and many of  the students at university were Chinese. There weren’t any Chinese history lessons at school, but I heard odd bits of news on TV about how poor, freedomless and polluted China was.

At the start of the decade I heard whispers about Sydney record label Tenzenmen releasing some underground Chinese music and helping some Australian bands to tour there. Around the same time the newspapers began telling me that I should be worried about the rise of China as a dangerous world superpower, and how it was going to take over Australia. I was naturally curious, as I always want to try to understand what’s shaping things. And for me, visiting a place with my art always provokes a deeper experience of that place. It usually means I get to interact with the people behind my favorite art in that place, and hear a few secrets.

Sam’s band School Girl Report jams with a Kazakh band at now-closed Beijing club XP

Because of the “low downs” we’d had on China, we were nervous for a few reasons to tour there. We were kind of scared that they wouldn’t even let us into the country with our music gear, and were worried we were going to have undercover police following us everywhere. In the end, yeah, the air was polluted, but the police didn’t even look at us, the food was incredible, and we felt safer than on a night out in Bateman’s Bay.

We played in Beijing, Shanghai, Xi’an, Wuhan, Guangzhou and Hong Kong. I remember this noise festival we played in Shanghai. One of the [members of Shanghai-based noise band] AIDS Leader was creating harsh noise through a Didgeridoo, and Junky’s Torturing Nurse did a performance where a girl was pouring black liquid down her throat and spitting it at an emotionless nurse sitting in the corner of the room. Xiao Hong & Xiao Xiao Hong in Beijing and Lee Howie’s Your Boyfriend Sucks in Guangzhou were probably our favorites bands we played with, both with incredible juxtapositions between noise and pop. A secret show Lee Howie organized for us in a rehearsal space was our best show of the tour. It was in a tiny space, which his label [Qiii Snacks] is famous for (their first show was in a bathroom), but the twenty people who were crammed in there were hyped in ways we hadn’t felt in Australia.

Related:

Guangzhou’s Qiii Snacks Records is Capturing the Sound of Southeastern China

We decided to move to China after this tour, as the scene felt really inspired and supportive. We knew we could set up a good life here for ourselves too: working part time, learning Chinese, recording all the time, playing shows and DJing. Sadly not long after we moved to Beijing the best experimental venue, XP, shut down. We became more focused on the deconstructed club shows at venues like Dada, but still attended the odd experimental shows Zhu Wenbo was organizing under different bridges in [Beijing’s] Chaoyang [district].

Experimental musician Zhu Wenbo performs under a public overpass in Beijing

I remember when we first met you’d dubbed a documentary you made about Australian underground music with Chinese subtitles — why were you motivated to do this? What feedback did you get screening this around China, and touring with your old band School Girl Report at the time?

I was really excited about the music scene in Australia at that time. I felt bands like Bum Creek and Fabulous Diamonds had developed languages that had something to offer people outside Australia. And when I organize any show I want to create as rounded of an experience as I can. School Girl Report and [tour-mates] xNOBBQx were shaped by our surroundings in Australia, so I decided to bring our surroundings with us for people to have a fuller experience of us.

I think particularly the core Beijing experimental community really appreciated a deeper exposure to that world, as they had already been curiously flirting with the edges of it online. The curiosity and support of this Beijing community is what made me realize it was possible to live in China. I was really drawn to [the scene’s] uncompromising energy to create a space for musicians to grow.

Do you see any parallels between underground music or culture in Australia & China?

The experimental music and club scene in Australia and China I feel are influenced by similar music, but their delivery is certainly different. Chinese artists have to overcome different societal expectations to be in that space. There is a unique kind of conviction when Wang Ziheng has a yelling fit at the end of his saxophone set under a Chaoyang bridge.

Freedom is often dumbed down to meaning one thing, but it exists in a multitude of ways. China has many alternative freedoms not present in Australia and vice versa. In China you can move from place to place at any time of the day/night with anything in your hands and mouth. The constant controlling of when and where I could move and put something into my body really frustrated me when I came back to Australia.

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A great pleasure for me was being able to take a nap in the club in Beijing, something you will get kicked out for in Australia. You might be able to call out the government all day in Australia, but all the red tape and lines that you can’t cross with certain things at particular hours really restricts your flow. All these regulations and red tape mostly don’t exist in China, so even though you can’t badmouth the government, you feel freer on a street level. That said though, who do you become when you are forced to let someone brick up your shop front or build a city on your village, and how does that affect your flow? The heaviest form of control I felt in China though was from the many parents choosing the life path of their children. Pan Daijing told me one night that she chose to study art at university, but when she arrived for her first day she realized her father had changed her degree to economics, which she studied for the next four years. I suppose this is a common story.

Something very different from Australia is people’s lack of embarrassment in China’s public spaces. No one seems to be afraid to move their body in their own way in front of others. Whether through dancing, musicing, exercising or martial arting in squares all through the day. Also, the nerve of everyone to sing in front of each other no matter how imperfect their voice is. Singing in front of other people is probably what I’m most scared of. This kind of uninhibited personal expression in public is so healthy, and something I learnt a lot from.

don’t look at me that much film poster

What motivated you to make don’t look at me that much? Where did you travel during its filming?

We don’t hear much about Yunnan in Australia, but almost all of the representations you get of Yunnan in China are of an untouched paradise, with colorful, happy people dancing together in the hills. My film is a reaction to these types of touristic advertisements — though it is crucial for me to include these representations in my representation, as they are part of the picture.

How things are advertised become a big part of the story of any culture. Advertisements are largely reductions of our experiences, and in turn limit our capacity to understand ourselves. I’m particularly interested in how these advertisements shape ethnic minority culture and the impact it has on health. Strangely enough, there are places in Yunnan where these shallow advertisements seem to accurately reflect the province. For example, the State-run Nationalities Village in Kunming: a suburb-sized theme park where most of Yunnan’s ethnic minorities have their own block to showcase the “primitive exoticness” of their culture. They tend farm animals, sell “antiques,” and dance in traditional outfits to lofty music composed by the government. Meanwhile, rich Han tourists swing by on golf buggies or observe from helicopters above.

A couple on vacation in Yunnan

In many other parts of Yunnan, too, these primitive paradisiacal representations created by the government have been appropriated by ethnic minorities to commodify their own culture. However, I believe that these emotionally shallow representations are damaging to people’s health, as they only encourage people to express one side of themselves. They also damage the type of interactions possible between ethnic minorities and the Han majority. I saw things like Han tourists with big cameras at the Mute God Festival directing and pushing Yizu people into a photogenic position mid-performance. This was also an important scenario for me capture for the film.

Something that has gone largely under the radar is the Minority Classification Project (Minzu Shibie), executed between the 1950s and 1980s. The government sent in anthropologists to examine how “backward” each minority was, and to design specific programs to “modernize” them, in the process eliminating features that obstructed socialist reform. This was a crucial project for China’s nation-building and assimilation ideals. It is only recently that the government has begun to encourage and invest in the life of minority traditions, for many reasons surrounding economic benefits and cultural tourism. China’s ethnic minorities are in the process of relearning and reinventing their cultures after many years of being pushed underground by Minzu Shibie. To capture this process of relearning and reinventing is a core concept of my film.

Related:

Constructing Ethnicity in Xishuangbanna

I wasn’t going to Yunnan looking for an authentic experience — that word doesn’t mean anything anyway. The goal for me was to show how the past is continually interacting with the present, along with how cosmopolitan and emotionally diverse Yunnan is. One of the most filmic moments for me was seeing a group of old women in extravagant traditional dress square dancing to a techno song with a Wu Tang sample. Filming heartbreaking dramatic soap operas on TV coming through the screen from Shanghai was also hot. It is important for me to show that what plays on the TV and computer is a part of the culture, and that when an American song plays in Yunnan, it is part of what is going on there too.

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Over my six months in Yunnan I travelled to the edge of Tibet, Burma, Thailand, Vietnam and Sichuan. Yunnan is bigger than Germany, and diverse in every sense of the word. I was usually going to wherever there was a minority festival on. I’d be filming at a festival in the day and at the club at night — both were just as important for me to capture. The traditional Wazu music I recorded in Lincang was some of the craziest and most exciting atonal experimental music I’ve ever heard. The visual and lighting setups in the club that night, in the same small town, were more advanced than anything in Australia, or even what I’ve seen in Beijing. That night there were mostly female DJs, dancers coming out in Spider-Man costumes, a Chinese Charlie Chaplin performance between sets, and fireworks going off whenever someone ordered ten bottles of champagne, delivered by lit-up waiters marching in unison to the table.

At the club in Lincang, a Yunnan city near the border with Myanmar

Being white and male also made it much easier to get wherever I wanted to film. There are certain free passes to be had as a foreigner in China in terms of the jobs and respect you receive. This privilege creates a deep responsibility to contribute something useful. But what I think is useful might not be what someone else thinks is useful. While there have been many nightmares surrounding anthropology in the past (it’s still not without its faults), there have undeniably been huge steps made through applied anthropology and applied ethnomusicology to work with communities in creating sustainable solutions to problems. Songs and data recorded by ethnomusicologists have led to many successful land rights claims for indigenous people in Brazil, Australia and Indonesia to name a few.

What about Yunnan in particular interests you? Music? Dance? Minority culture?

I chose to go to Yunnan because I felt it would have the most obvious clash between “old” and “new” China. But there were so many intriguing people and unexpected things I came across on the trip: everything surrounding the Mosuozu, who are one of the last matriarchal societies in the world; a competition in Wenshan where unclothed men test who can climb the fastest upside-down up a huge pole; and old Dulongzu ladies in Nujiang Valley who tattooed most of their faces to show they had become women during puberty.

Nujiang Valley was maybe my favorite place. That one valley holds around half of China’s endangered species, and a quarter of the country’s flora and fauna. It’s incredible the amount of things co-existing there. There is a Fairy Festival in this valley which commemorates the woman who built the first rope bridge across the river. A local ruler chose her to be his wife, but she refused. To escape his advances, she fled into a cave and turned herself into a stone. The festival is in a 1,000-person town called Bingzhongluo. In 24 hours here I watched Tibetan monks play dungchen in a cave (while checking their mobile phones in between breaths), ate at a Muslim restaurant, attended a Christian mass in a church, saw traditional Nuzu and Lisuzu (both largely animists) perform on the festival stage, danced in a night club playing American techno, and watched a group of girls from different minorities dance to a Hindu song in elaborate Indian dresses they had made themselves.

Dulongzu woman in Nujiang Valley

The other thing that I love about Yunnan is all the herbs and vegetables unique to the region. Most of the restaurants have their produce visible in a fridge out the front of the restaurant, so you can see how fresh the food is before you decide where to eat. I was so lucky with all the wild flowers and mushrooms I got to try in different corners of the province. I heard so many stories about people being cured of all sorts of cancers by different wild herbs there, too. The value still placed on herbal medicine in Chinese culture impresses me so much.

Obviously this isn’t a straightforward “documentary” or archival project. Where do you draw the line between documentarian and artist? What information or vibe do you hope the viewer gets out of watching it?

Traveling to places and creating a mix of sounds I record there is something I’ve been doing for the last ten years. My process began in an almost archival way, simply putting songs I record in an order next to each other. However, in order to evoke experience for the listener I was gradually drawn to feeding some of the sounds into each other. Connecting and overlapping sounds is required for me to begin to feel the relationship between things in a space. I never pitch-shift or adjust the tempo of any sound, as I feel like I’d be changing its story. This disables most of the beat matching and harmonizing possibilities. There are only a few unique ways that various sounds want to work together to unlock inner stories of a space. I had to sit down with sounds for hours, showing them that I cared about them and letting them decide where they want to sit to reveal themselves and their surroundings.

Over the last twenty years there has been a big move amongst performance-orientated scholars to dismantle the taboo against the subjective in order to open the floodgates of experience. Now many visual anthropologists/ethnographic filmmakers are using montage in an effort to uncover the unconscious or invisible elements of their chosen subject. However, the liminal sound language that Elysia Crampton has developed, with the help of Burial and James Ferraro, is yet to be put to use in anthropological circles or in the treatment of video. This vital language has however made its way into many SoundCloud dens, giving sound artists from Brazil to Greece the tools to create transparent, emodiverse collages of their multifaceted realities.

Listening to Elysia for years and learning the ways she has widened the scope of sensitivity played a huge part in enabling me to create the experience I have. In don’t look at me that much, one scene is held together by a xylophone version of Adele’s “Someone Like You” that I recorded in a supermarket, while different a cappella singers from different parts of Yunnan sing through different movements of the song. Sometimes you will hear their voices before you see their image and sometimes their voices will carry on for minutes after their image is introduced. Different instruments also subtly pop in and out, visually and sonically. Other field recordings not seen on screen made their way into this montage too, like a helicopter from the nationalities park, cars on a highway, and kids playing basketball. All of these sounds and videos continually build on each other to create a dreamlike sequence.

I believe that we will see more audiovisual montages playing with this language in the future, getting ever-closer to suspending viewers into the subject of the film. Promoting empathetic reactions from people can help break down stereotypes and dehumanizing tendencies.

Fairy festival in Wenshan, a city in Yunnan near the Vietnamese border

What are you working on now? Any plans to do more film or music work that factors in your experiences with China?

My fiancé and I have been making a film on Kurdistan for a year now in Syria, Turkey, Iran and Iraq. This film is much more based around the kind of storytelling that occurs through dialogue and interviews, still combined with haphazard interactions with the more undercurrent and often subtler stories told through nature, radio music, performances, religious activities, and street encounters. Every song and story will be translated this time. It’s a nightmare at the moment, organizing translators of all the different Kurdish dialects, Arabic, Aramaic, Turkish, and Persian to English.

In China, [Beijing DJ and promoter] Puzzy Stack is putting out a compilation in the next few weeks that features a collage track I made for don’t look at me that much. Sacrifices from Club Sync (the label who released my film) is mastering the release. [Editor’s note: check back on RADII later this month to learn more about this release, forthcoming from Beijing label S!LK.] I will be teaming up with Club Sync again to put together Sacrifice’s Chinese tour. Along with waterhouse, they are the best DJ in the world at the moment.

Anything you wanna add?

Thanks to Keegan Costley for the hundreds of hours of sound restoration he did for the film, bringing many songs back from the dead. And Rest in Peace to my dad, with whose will money I was able to make the film.

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Josh Feola
Josh Feola is a Shanghai-based writer and musician, and RADII's Culture Editor. His coverage of Chinese music and art has appeared in The Wire, Dazed, Artsy, LEAP, Tiny Mix Tapes, and more. He's been active in China's underground music scene since 2010 via his booking platform pangbianr.com, and is a former member of Beijing bands Chui Wan, SUBS, and Vagus Nerve.

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