Review: The Oroqen

The making of “The Oroqen”

Cai Jiaqi

In the 1950s, Chinese society experienced a series of socialist movements. During this period of great social transformation, the Chinese leadership initiated a survey of the social history of minority peoples throughout China. The aim was to document traditional and contemporary social attitudes of each minority taking a materialist view of the history of social development, and to use the results as a point of reference for scientific research and when formulating policies for the minority peoples. In 1957, this large-scale field survey for the first time used film as a documentary method. This opened up a long road of exploration of visual anthropology in China. This is the background behind the making of “The Oroqen.”

Due to the high cognitive and research value, a large part of the first set of ethnographic films made in China in the 1950s and 1960s reflected the parts of traditional society that at that time already had disappeared or been discarded. Ethnologists and documentary film makers cooperated using “restorative” or “reconstructive” methods in their filmmaking. The Oroqen is one of the better among these films. I believe this to be directly related to the fact that the group’s researchers gathered a fair amount of data during their seven consecutive years of studying the Oroqen (1956-1963).

The director of the The Oroqen, Mr. Yang Guanghai, (of the Bai people in Dali, Yunnan Province) has worked at the Beijing Scientific and Educational Film Studio. This was his fourth film after he began making ethnological documentaries in 1957. In the summer of 1962, he and the rest of the research team wrote the script together, on location in the Oroqen Autonomous Banner. In other words, they went to the area where the hunters lived to observe and experience their way of life before creating the storyboard and the first draft of the narrative. They then proceeded to consider every aspect of the film and to make concrete arrangements. Early the following year, Guanghai led the film team to the area to start filming. The entire film is concerned with the Oroqens’ hunting activities through each of the four seasons. The filming began during winter in the banner’s Chaoyang area. In May and June, the team moved on to Simuke for filming during spring and summer. In early July, the camera crew was divided into two teams. Guanghai and his team returned to Chaoyang to shoot complementary scenes, while I travelled up the Heilongjiang River to Hunting Village No. 18 in Huma County (today’s Hema County) together with the photographer Yang Junxiong (of the Miao people, from Hunan province). Once there, we filmed the making of birch-bark boats and other summer activities. We finished filming in the field and returned to Beijing by the end of that month.

In those days, filming equipment wasn’t very advanced. We had two film cameras, one Soviet-made and one West German Arriflex II C. The film was black and white Agfa 35 mm, from the Soviet Union and from East Germany. We used tripods and metal tracks for the pan shots. Due to a lack of ligthing equipment, one side of the tent had to be lifted when filming in the cot (a tent made of wooden poles and covered with animal hides or tree bark), and that side would also help reflect further light. Nor did we have any sound synchronization equipment, but only a sound technician and a music editor. Using foreign portable tape recorders, they recorded some Oroqen songs, tribal meetings and shaman dances, which were then edited into the film. All other sound effects were added during post production.

Although some changes became necessary while filming in the field, filming basically adhered to the storyboard. This guaranteed that the script was logically consistent, and that film wasn’t wasted due to impulsive shots. Of all the suggestions during the editing process, the director’s carried the most weight. During the post production editing process, an average of one scene out of every three shots was selected, giving a shooting ratio of 3:1.

In 1963, there were only about 2,400 Oroqen left. In the mid-17th century, they gradually moved, following their prey to the Greater and Lesser Xing’an Mountains in Inner Mongolia and Heilongjiang. There they dispersed further along the rivers according to tribal or ethinc organization. During the first half of the last century, they still remained in the final stages of primitive society, the hunting commune, or what the Oroqen call the “wulileng.” The Oroqen language is an Altaic, or Manchu-Tungusic, language. They practice shamanism, and worship nature, ancestors and a multitude of totem spirits. Social life and culture are heavily characterized by the life of a hunting people.

The greatest change we discovered in the early 1960s was that the Oroqen’s tribal and ethnic organization had disintegrated, and that knowledge of this organization only remained among a few of the older people. The past nomadic paternal family had already given way to a land based society, and, in particular, hunters had stopped their roaming ten years earlier. Everyone had settled down and many hunting villages and roads had been built in the Xing’an Mountain forests. We did see, however, that the hunters in some of the villages were not too used to living in the government-built rows of connected, wooden houses. Many of them missed living in their cot during hunting and often built one in front of their house. We also discovered that no fundamental changes had taken place in the way they hunted or in most of their clothing and utensils. This provided a good foundation for restorative filming.

In early March that year, I went to the capital of the Autonomous Banner, Alihe, after having received an assignment to participate in the making of the film. I was to assist in its production as a representative of the Institute of Ethnology in the Philosophy and Social Sciences Department at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, and to collect the hunters’ utensils and send them to Beijing using the expense money given to me by the institute. In addition, I also had to find the time for further surveys on behalf of the institute.

Restorative filming in The Oroqen focused mainly on traditional hunting activities. The hunting of leopard, black bear and squirrel during the winter season documented in the film was shot following the hunters into their actual hunting grounds in the mountains. I had many discussions with Guanghai regarding the fact that the Oroqen spent most of their time hunting red deer. They had accumulated very particular ways and experience of hunting deer due to its high economic value. I believed that it would be a big shortcoming if the film did not contain any actual deer hunting. But there are many difficulties attached to filming the hunting of deer. Red deer are very alert, and will run away at the slightest noise or movement. We didn’t have any telephoto or zoom lenses, but only a standard lens, which made this kind of shooting very difficult. We thought of buying a red deer from the local deer farm for the filming, but couldn’t pay the high price and had to abandon that idea. In the end, we made up for this by filming deer inside the deer farm, avoiding fencing and other structures. We then added images of the hunters shooting as part of the editing process.

There is a lot of restorative filming in the film — bows and arrows, spears, and skis are all old utensils. The manufacturing of birch-bark and leather utensils and the processing of metal utensils; gathering, fishing, and moving the wulileng in summer and autumn; weddings and funerals; the exchange of objects with other tribes within the “Anda” system; settling down and farming in Heilongjiang Province; ethnic group meetings and shaman dances — all these scenes were the results of restorative filming for which necessary arrangements had to be made. Each time we were to shoot a new scene, we had to first explain it several times to the participants and listen to their suggestions, in particular to the suggestions of the older participants, while also stressing that they should follow their normal behaviour. We felt that as long as we managed to clearly explain the main theme of a scene, and as long as they accepted it, we should let the hunters behave the way they wanted, without our interfering or making any specific demands.

The hunters and grassroots level cadres who participated in the making of “The Oroqen” fully understood the significance and value of making it — making and keeping a documented record of the Oroqens’ hunting life to show the younger generations the hardships endured by the older generations. We were moved by the way they constantly provided enthusiastic and competent support and made the shooting progress smoothly. I understand that the film has been shown locally several times to enthusiastic audiences, with the hunters so excited at seeing their own lives and images that they didn’t want to leave, but requested that the film be played over and over again. When I returned to the area in the 1980s, local Oroqen cadres called the film their “ancestral film.” 40 years on, all the old people in the film and some of the young have already left this world. I remember them, and to this day often see their shadows moving before my eyes.

(With the permission of Mr. Cai Jiaqi, this extract has been taken from his unpublished work, “Restorative and Reconstructive Documentaries — Memories of the Making of The Oroqen “