20111127-zhao liang degen 2.jpg
Zhao Liang
Evan Osnos wrote in the New Yorker, "There is new generation of film makers that use low-cost digital equipment to make films on controversial subjects and never bother to get government permission for their work that are considered at the vanguard of producing challenging films, The films are show overseas and in little publicized events in China like the YunFest film festival in Yunnan. Among these films are Zhao Laing’s “Crime and Punishment”, about rough interrogations at a remote police station, and Zhao Daying’s “Ghost Town”, which records the poverty in a remote mountain town far from the economic boom. [Source: The New Yorker ]

The audiences for these films in China are so small they are not really bothered with by authorities. But that is not always the case. “I’m Gone”, about a schoolteacher beaten to death by Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution, was scheduled to be screened at the Yunfest, which was postponed at the last minute because of the film. The maker of the film, Hue Jie, told The New Yorker that state security agents have visited him but he continues to be allowed to make films. “I’m Gone” was shown when the YunFest was later held in another Yunnan city.

According to the New York Times, "Few national cinemas are as vibrant as that of contemporary China. Similarly, there are few places in the world today where art and media practice share such an important role in addressing national memory and societal issues. For these and other reasons, some of the most important work being made in China today is made by independent artists, with techniques that challenge the conventions and boundaries of both documentary and fiction film."

Chinese independent films tend to focus on aspects of day-to-day life in China. They are usually low budget and often feature slow pacing, long takes and primitive editing, making some difficult to enjoy.Describing what have become cliches in independent Chinese films Shelly Kraicer wrote in “Long-haired village boys, out of school, drifting aimlessly... grainy, dusty, brown-grey village-scapes... populated by said drifters being filmed” using “3 minute, 10 minute, even 20 minute-long takes” taken “from at least 50 meters from the subject” For close ups are---little DV cams, with the proviso that, held close to the subjects, they be shaken as vigorously as possible. The dialogue...threadbare... [Lots of] prostitutes.” [Source:Shelly Kraicer,]

The indie director Jian Yi said, “Independent documentaries do not reach a wide audience. A lot of the times, independent filmmakers could only show their works to one another. It is a closed and limited circle of people. “

Good Websites and Sources: dGenerate Films dGenerate Films is a New York-based distribution company that collects post-Sixth Generation independent Chinese cinema. The site Chinese Films features news, film release dates, cast and crew details and plot outlines. There are also links to Chinese studios and the websites of film-makers, as well as independent English language reviews of movies. Chinese Movie Database ; Internet Movie Database ; Shelly Kraicer’s Chinese Cinema site ; Modern Chinese Literature and Culture (MCLC) Resource List ; iFilm Connections---Asia and Pacific ; Love Asia Film ; Journal of Chinese Cinemas ; Wikipedia article on Chinese Cinema Wikipedia ; Senses of Cinema ; Film in China (Chinese Government site) ; Directory of Interent Sources ; Chinese, Japanese, and Korean CDs and DVDs at Yes Asia and Zoom Movie ; Wikipedia List of Chinese Filmmakers Wikipedia ; Chen Kaige at They Shoot Pictures Don’t They ; Expert on Chinese film: Stanley Rosen, a professor at the University of Southern California. One of his books is “Speaking in Images: Interviews With Contemporary Chinese Filmmakers”. New Book on the New Chinese Documentary Movement: “For the Republic Record” edited by Chris Berry, Lu Xinyu, and Lisa Rofel.


Rise of Independent Film in China

While Hollywood blockbusters and state-funded historical epics continue to dominate China box office, a vibrant independent film scene is quietly growing. Lacking distribution channels that lead to wide audiences, these films...are finding a home at the few independent cinemas that exist here and at film festivals dedicated to independent and documentary filmmaking at home and abroad. [Source: Mitch Moxley, IPS, August 27, 2010]

“Although these kinds of films aren’t allowed to be screened at most theaters, independent film is developing well in China,” Cui Weiping, a film professor at the Beijing Film Academy, told IPS. “You can find people talking about them at university lectures, in art salons, etcetera. Independent film is an influential part of China film industry.” [Ibid]

“The growing number of big-budget films playing in China multiplexes is not necessarily a bad thing for independent cinema in the country,” said Wu Jing, an independent cinema in Beijing. “As the audience for big-budget films grows, an interest in independent films will emerge accordingly,” Wu told IPS. “Cinema is growing very fast in China,” she said. “As the audience grows, they become eager to find other things to see.” [Ibid]

The weakened international film market, meanwhile, gives little incentive for Chinese directors to make controversial films that skirt the censors in order to appeal to an international audience, Wu said. For some filmmakers, however, China is the land of opportunity. Qiao Li, 24, was born in Jinan, Shandong province, raised in Melbourne, Australia, and in 2006 moved to Beijing, where he co-wrote and co-directed a feature film called “Ring Roads” and has maintained a constant stream of work since then. He says the low cost of entry and the freedom he has as an independent director working outside the mainstream Chinese film industry have given him opportunities that do not exist in Australia. [Ibid]

“The reason I decided to work in China were the many, many opportunities available to a filmmaker here,” Qiao told IPS. “China to me seemed like a land of potential and where there didn’t seem to be many rules and for me, that was all I needed to know to make my mind up to be based here. The overall industry here is thriving and it free enough to let me do my thing and still be able to pay the rent, and that something I would have had a hard time doing back home.” [Ibid]

As a group they give a new and truer meaning to the phrase “independent film.” In a country where all movies must obtain official approval to be exhibited commercially, independent Chinese directors are forced to operate in a peculiar gray zone. “You have to have an awful lot of energy and passion to make films with no funding and no prospect of having them seen in public in your home country except under the radar and off the grid,” said Sally Berger, the curator of the Metropolitan Museum of Art film festival. Told the New York Times. “These are sophisticated, experimental filmmakers with a strong aesthetic sense, making films filled with a sense of urgency and change, even though they know they have a better chance of having their work seen abroad than at home.” [Source: Larry Rohter New York Times, February 18, 2011]

Larry Rohter New York Times, “Few, if any, of the Chinese independent films that have begun appearing over the last decade or so are overtly political or dare to challenge the authority of the Communist Party directly. But their focus on issues like poverty, pollution, injustices, rapid urbanization and the individual’s struggle for autonomy gives many of them a subversive, questioning quality that alarms those in power and closes off the channels of official support and money.”

“You can see that these independent film directors do have ideological concerns, that they have a social mission they need to accomplish with their films, speaking out or standing up for the underprivileged or marginal and exposing corruption,” Hsiu-Chuang Deppman, author of “Adapted for the Screen: The Cultural Politics of Modern Chinese Fiction and Film”---and a professor at Oberlin College, told the New York Times. “That social mission gives them the drive and the passion to be bold and experimental and fearless.”

“Though the bulk of independent films produced in China are described as documentaries, some of them... do not follow the conventions of the form as practiced in the West. Instead they mix in experimental technique, sometimes eschewing narrative altogether.” “The borders between documentary, fictional and experimental films are very blurred for me,” said Huang Weikai, 38, who trained as a landscape painter before turning to cinema.

Documentary Films from China

Ben Tsiang, CEO of Taiwanese production company CNEX, told the Taiwan News: "It’s hard for Chinese-language documentaries to penetrate the global market due to the language barrier and Chinese filmmakers’ unfamiliarity with the rules of an international pitching session,” he said and suggested that the CCDF could function as a platform for these films to tap into international markets. [Source: Yali Chen, Taiwan News, December 29 2010]

“Chinese independent nonfiction filmmakers lack funds and channels of broadcasting and distribution,” Yali Chen wrote in the Taiwan News. “Only directors from the mainstream television stations controlled by the Chinese government could obtain funds, said Zong Bo, a Beijing-based editor for Phoenix Weekly based in Hong Kong. In some cases, films directed by Zhang Yiqing, Hubei TV Station, and Liu Xiangchen, Xinjiang TV Station, are allowed to run on television. [Ibid]

Over the past three years, documentary festivals in Shanghai, Sichuan, Yunnan, Guangzhou, Nanjing and Beijng have been booming, Chang Chao-wei said, adding that China Central Television (CCTV) is slated to launch a documentary channel on January 1, 2011."It still seems impossible for independent films to run on the mainstream CCTV, but local television stations may follow suit to launch nonfiction film channels. We will wait and see what happens next,” Chang said.

The CCTV invests 300 million RMB per year in acquiring and producing documentaries. This measure may attract many low-budget filmmakers to join the mainstream media but crowd out independent documentary filmmaking---an underground revolution pushing China into openness and transparency.

History of New Chinese Documentary Films

Mitch Moxley wrote: “Independent cinema in China emerged in the 1980s, when underground films were made outside of state funding. Some were screened at international film festivals. In the 1990s, national control of distribution was opened up, allowing filmmakers to cooperate with private businesses to see their films distributed. Notable films representative of this period, according to Beijing Film Academy Cui, include Wu Wenguang 1990 documentary “Bumming in Beijing”, considered one of China first independent documentaries, and Zhang Yuan 1993 film “Beijing Bastards”, one of China first independently produced films.” [Source: Mitch Moxley, IPS, August 27, 2010]

Ying Qian said, “I think that new documentary did start within the system in the 1980's. The models at that time, in the 1980's, came from a number of sources. A lot of them were from outside of China. In 1980, there was collaboration between Japanese television crews and Chinese television crews. They went on to make landscape documentaries about the Silk Road, the Yangtze River, and the Yellow River. Through these collaborations, Chinese documentary TV producers were able to see how the Japanese producers worked. Development of documentary film also grew from re-watching past films. For example, Michelangelo Antonioni’s Chung Kuo was made in 1972, and was banned and criticized. There was a mass campaign against this film in China. Nevertheless, re-watching this film provided a lot of inspiration for documentary filmmakers in the 1980's.

When independent Chinese documentary cinema developed in the early “90's, there wasn’t a recognizable standard for what was considered a “good” documentary. Film festivals became a crucial standard-setter. The Hong Kong film festival screened Wu Wenguang’s first film Bumming in Beijing, and theYamagata Documentary Film Festival in Japan bestowed awards upon it. This gave lots of impetus to documentary making in the 1990s. Suddenly this genre was considered equally promising as feature films, which were also getting prizes in international film festivals at the time. Wu Wengguang also brought back from Yamagata works by Ogawa Shinsuke and Frederic Wiseman. They subsequently became prototypes for documentary film in China.

New Chinese Documentary Films

Shelly Kraicer of dGenerate Films wrote: New documentaries is where heart and soul of Chinese indie filmmaking lives today. There is what one could call a mainstream school of Chinese “realistic” documentaries---let’s call them ultra-realistic docs---that dominates today, both in film festivals in China and overseas, and that preoccupies the academic, theoretical, critical discussion that has flourished around Chinese documentary filmmaking. [Source:Shelly Kraicer, dGenerate Films]

Briefly, this school is derived from direct cinema, under the aegis of the cinemas of Frederick Wiseman and Ogawa Shinsuke. These filmmakers strive for a seemingly transparent, so-called direct representation of “truth” and “reality”, unmediated by authorial (i.e subjective) intervention. Their inspiration can be historical, archival or ethnographic, with filmmakers immersing themselves for months or even years in the lives of their subjects, then emerging with often very long documentaries that transform their experiences into cinema with minimal ‘subjective’ distortions. Issues of ethics then emerge: the relative positions of the filmmaker and subject (are filmmakers intellectuals looking down on grassroots subjects from a position of ‘superiority’; issues of consent and (mutual, explicit, endorsed) exploitation; the ethics of representation of the other; and the rights of audiences, directors, subjects, and so-called experts to challenge all these things.

A refreshingly different school, recently activated in Chinese indie doc circles takes documentaries as strictly personal, autobiographical, even prima facie solipsistic texts, and films and edits accordingly, highlighting the presence of the filmmaker and the interaction between what’s in front of and who’s behind the camera. This obviates a host of problems outlined above, but introduces its own very different issues of aesthetic criteria, social relevance, and moral obligation.

La Frances Hui wrote in ChinaFile: Chinese documentaries have gained global attention in the past decade or so, thanks partly to the creative originality of young filmmakers and partly to a rapidly changing China that fascinates viewers from around the world. Wang Bing’s nine-hour epic West of the Tracks (2003), which chronicles the decline of state-owned industries in the city of Shenyang, garnered multiple international awards. Hu Jie’s Searching for Lin Zhao’s Soul (2004), which details the gruesome experience of one young woman speaking out against Mao Zedong, led to its director’s becoming the subject of two chapters in Philip P. Pan’s acclaimed book, Out of Mao’s Shadow: The Struggle for the Soul of a New China. Zhao Dayong’s Ghost Town (2009), about ethnic minorities in a small town in Yunnan province, received a major premiere at the New York Film Festival. More and more viewers rely on these documentaries to gain access to a real China, which is often obscured by the fanfare surrounding the country’s growing economic stature. [Source: La Frances Hui, China File,, 2012]

These documentaries are independently produced films made outside of official channels. In the P.R.C., filmmakers must submit their work to the censors for approval before it can be commercially exhibited. Making films outside of the official framework means that filmmakers not only cannot tap into mainstream financing but also cannot screen their works in commercial theaters at home. Exhibition of these films is currently confined to universities, small film clubs, and festivals with limited spectatorship. There is, however, a demand for such works, as is evident in the availability of pirated copies in the underground market. [Ibid]

Despite the obstacles, filmmakers are determined to express themselves and observe their world through the camera lens. With China’s economy growing at breakneck speed, many documentary filmmakers feel an urgency to record the unfolding realities and the clash between the old and the new. They also tackle sensitive subjects that constantly test the boundaries of their “underground” freedom, revealing social injustice and chaos while giving voice to those who live on the fringes of society. [Ibid]

Chinese independent documentaries emerged around 1990. Some of the early works include Wu Wenguang’s Bumming in Beijing: The Last Dreamers (1990), a film about struggling artists in Beijing; Duan Jinchuan and Zhang Yuan’s The Square (1994), which documents mundane daily activities in Tiananmen Square, just a few years after the crushing of the student movement of 1989; and Jiang Yue’s The Other Bank (1995), about the production of a theater performance. Rejecting the top-down, authoritative tone dominant in state-approved newsreels and propaganda, independent documentarians have adopted strategies to present the world they observe from the bottom up, often paying attention to society’s underclass using vérité techniques such as handheld camera and long uninterrupted takes. The stripped-down aesthetic captures the immediacy and authenticity of what is in front of the camera with minimal interference. [Ibid]

More than twenty years since the beginning of this revolution, independent documentary filmmaking is still evolving. Few early practitioners received formal training in filmmaking; some were associated with the television industry and had access to equipment. The proliferation of economical digital technology in the late 1990s allowed many more aspiring documentarians to join the ranks. Today, young people often seek to hone their skills at major films schools. They now have the means and education to reflect on their approaches to making documentaries. Increasingly, filmmakers are also widening their subject choices by moving beyond their immediate environments. Although there are still many challenges at home, this trend of documentary filmmaking is unstoppable, and will continue to go hand in hand with the rise of China. [Ibid]

Books and Articles: “New Chinese Documentary Film Movement: For the Public Record” edited by Chris Berry, Lu Xinyu, and Lisa Rofel (Hong Kong University Press, 2010); “Bulldozers, Bibles, and Very Sharp Knives: “The Chinese Independent Documentary Scene” by Abé Mark Nornes, Film Quarterly, 63: 1, Fall 2009; “From Underground to Independent: Alternative Film Culture in Contemporary China” edited by Paul G. Pickowicz and Zhang Yingjin (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2006); and ‘styles, Subjects, and Special Points of View: A Study of Contemporary Chinese Independent Documentary,” by Zhang, Yingjin, New Cinemas, Vol. 2, No. 2, 2004]

Jia Zhangke and Chinese Documentary Films

Duke professor Guo-Juin Hong told dGenerate films, “To begin, we can see that as a mode of representation, documentary emphasizes reality. So, its relationship to realism is inevitable. One can argue that Jia Zhangke’s films borrow from documentary or certain kinds of neo-realist aesthetics. How do we separate that? I do see your point in that the idea of the visual and aural apparatus and its engagement with “reality” vis-a vis “fiction” is a murky distinction. That’s why I think it’s very important to think about documentary only as a mode of representation, not as a certain kind of fact or statement. To see the stylistic influence on each other, between narrative and documentary film, is a very insightful way to engage. On the other end of the spectrum, can we say the films of Jia Zhangke are really so undecidedly fiction or documentary or is it aesthetically both? I think the question really is because of the availability of technology and all sorts of exposures and accesses we need to pay a lot more attention to the individual filmmakers’ intentions, especially in terms of documentary because it does allow a little bit more individual freedom.

On whether Jia Zhangke has become that prototype for new narrative and documentary filmmakers, Ying Qian said, I would also say it’s a prototype for independent fiction cinema. You see a lot of new filmmakers making fiction in a very similar way to Jia Zhangke. But you know Jia Zhangke’s recent documentaries, for example I Wish I Knew and 24 City, are mostly interview-based, but we don’t see a rush to imitate that in the documentary community.

In fact, I would say Jia Zhangke in his early years learned a lot from documentary filmmakers. In Jia Zhangke’s Xiao Wu / Pickpocket, TV crews from the county’s television station were shown to make interviews with people on the streets. A similar setup was in a documentary film entitled The Square, made in 1993 byZhang Yuan and Duan Jingchuan. InThe Square, the documentary lens showed a television crew from the CCTV orchestrating interviews at the Tiananmen Square. The documentary camera of Zhang and Duan was filming the “documentary camera” of the CCTV, exposing the apparatus of official media in a comic way. Jia Zhangke most likely had seen this film as the film community in the 1990s was quite tightly knit, and Zhang Yuan is a fellow Sixth Generationer. In that case, Jia Zhangke was actually influenced by early to mid 1990's documentary. dGF: Chinese filmmakers are usually quite deeply embedded in the communities they are documenting. Do you think there are any ethical implications that arise from this relationship in terms of how subjects are portrayed and images are presented?

Chinese Documentary Film Makers

Yian Qian said: “Most documentary filmmakers grew up in China. They go overseas for film festivals, but it’s not very clear to me that they would be so culturally fluent as to correctly anticipate what a foreign audience would be interested in. However, I do believe they are deeply influenced by film festivals. Filmmakers who want to get into film festivals will find films are selected by film festivals as exemplary works.

On the close relationship between the filmmakers and their subjects, Qian said, “Embedment in a community and friendship with one’s film subjects are obviously very good things for documentary filmmaking. The filmmaker Feng Yan, for example, has filmed a peasant woman from the Three Gorges region for many years, and from her film Bing’ai one can find, in the film frame, this deep inter-personal relationship. In the end, documentary film doesn’t document some pure reality; it documents how realities are understood and manifest in an inter-subjective space created by the filmmaker and the subjects. Being embedded in the community in most cases allows a higher level of inter-subjectivity in the works. However, it doesn’t mean that filmmakers would not abuse trusting subjects. Subjects might be too embarrassed to say no to a friend’s camera in circumstances when they actually don’t like to be filmed. Filmmakers might know the subjects so well that they can ‘stage’ emotional scenes for them. One of the papers presented by Qi Wang, an assistant professor at Georgia Tech, concerns films where visible violence erupts in the frame. In some films, the filmmaker artificially creates an environment where people will get upset and violence will break out.

When asked about the influences China’s unique political and social environment on documentary films, Ying said, “Documentary cameras are deeply attracted to change. In an environment that changes so swiftly and in such a massive scale daily, filmmakers are constantly stimulated to observe, grasp, and film. Rapid social transformation explains the vitality of documentary cinema in the past two decades. In terms of policing and censorship, it’s not easy to know to what extent the state has hindered filmmakers’ work. Some filmmakers who made very controversial films are allowed to continue working, which means there is some room in the society for independent expression. This room, of course, didn’t come as a gift from the state. It has come through continuous efforts by filmmakers to push the boundaries.

It’s very easy in China to turn conservative and say that films about certain subjects simply could not be made because they could potentially be banned. Self-censorship is the easier way, yet these filmmakers have been consistently choosing the hard way. They really helped to push the envelope. For example, Hu Jie made Searching for Lin Zhao’s Soul in 2004. It was about a political prisoner who was executed in 1968. At the time when Hu Jie made it, everyone was surprised that a film like this could be made. Hu Jie had to leave his job while making it, because of the political sensitivity of the topic. Yet in the end, it turned out ok. The film was shown on some university campuses; it couldn’t be distributed in China but was downloadable online for a long time. Lin Zhao became a household name after the film went viral online. Filmmakers like Hu Jie are passionate about their subjects. They take the risk to push the envelope just because they have to tell the story. They then created room that later generations of filmmakers now enjoy.

The biggest hurdle, I think, is funding. Many of these filmmakers are badly funded. Some have to leave official jobs when their subjects become more politically sensitive, or when filming takes too much of their time. Wider distribution of Chinese documentary is necessary for the continued growth of the independent documentary film industry. But wider distribution domestically is not yet possible due to the political circumstances.

Documentary Makers as Portrayers of Chinese Reality

Calum MacLeo wrote in USA Today: “Their subjects include people living at the margins of society, fighting property demolition, tracing the death of relatives persecuted under Chairman Mao, and even a government official discussing the corruption and bullying rife in his City Hall. As China's Communist Party boosts efforts worldwide to soften its image, a determined and growing band of independent filmmakers documents the complex, often uncomfortable realities of China's past and present. [Source: Calum MacLeo, USA Today, February 8, 2012]

The number of independent documentary makers has passed 100 over the past two years, Zhu Rikun, a veteran documentary producer and supporter, told USA Today. The digital age has slashed equipment costs, while the Internet and pirated films, commonplace in China, offer cheap inspiration to budding directors, Zhu says. Foreign film festivals provide crucial support, he says.

Gritty reality is in plain view in the films of director Xu Tong, whose "Vagabonds" trilogy documents people at the bottom of Chinese society. "I want to show the complexity of society," he says. "These are real social situations. Even if I can't show the films in cinemas, or not many people can see them now, I don't care. I have the duty and desire to record their stories." Xu is proud of the independent film community's perseverance in the face of censorship. Director Zhang Bingjian is still smiling even though police hassle him when he shoots, and censors block his films.

"China is such an exciting place now; it's too interesting a subject," says Zhang, 52, who spent a decade in the USA. His film Ready Made follows two ordinary people, including a woman whose resemblance to Mao leads her to a double-life impersonating him for money at nightclubs and malls. Films such as Ready Made, which offer plenty of laughs, show that "Chinese documentary" does not always mean bleak and political, says He Zhong, founder of Trainspotting, a film-themed restaurant in Beijing that shows independent, unapproved films. Police have never interrupted a screening, which "shows more that I am careful, rather than that the authorities are tolerant," says He, who did not show sensitive films such as Karamay and Zhao Liang's Petition, which follows desperate citizens in their futile search for justice. "We don't want confrontation," says film festival organizer Zhang Qi, "we just want to be able to express our own voice."

Chinese Documentaries and Politics

Independent documentary filmmakers now play a vital role in questioning Beijing’s authority. Over the last few years, a number of talented and courageous independent filmmakers have dedicated themselves to capturing the rapid changes brought about by China’s feverish economic boom. Zhu Rikun, Curator of the Beijing Independent Documentary Festival, said “Chinese independent nonfiction filmmakers care more about political and social issues.”

Comparing Chinese documentaries with Taiwanese ones, Hong Kong-based director Tammy Cheung told the Taiwan News,” In terms of subjects, shooting styles and editing skills, Taiwan’s films seem similar because most filmmakers like touching, personal stories with a pinch of softness. Taiwanese filmmakers care more about what their audiences like. Chinese documentaries look very different because they have a touch of aggressiveness and center around serious social issues such as legal reforms, the gap between the city and countryside, plus human rights of Tibetans and migrant workers.” [Ibid]

But the Chinese government has prohibited its filmmakers from shooting a documentary about sensitive political issues. Chang Chao-wei, director of the Documentary Center at Hong Kong-based Sun TV, cited taboo subjects as peasant workers, unemployment, demolition of buildings, homosexuals, drug dealers, Chen Duxiu (a co-founder of the Chinese Communist Party in 1921), China’s Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976, the negative impact of the Three Gorges Dam Project, and the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. [Ibid]

Problems Faced by Chinese Documentary Filmmakers

"The authorities believe these films, and the people who make them, are all problematic," Zhang Qi, organizer of an independent film festival in a sprawling artists' village in east Beijing, told USA Today. "Officials fear it's a big land mine that could explode at any time."

Beijing police raided the opening ceremony of Zhang's independent film festival, and a strict censorship system blocks many films from being seen by mainstream Chinese. Still, the independent documentaries reach a tiny audience within China, and their directors insist the stories are so good and important that they will keep on shooting. [Source: Calum MacLeo, USA Today, February 8, 2012]

"The political challenges are greater than the financial, so filmmakers must still be careful in choosing their topics," says Zhu Rikun, a veteran documentary producer and supporter. Last May, authorities canceled a documentary film festival Zhu was directing and banned his Fanhall Films website, a forum for debate.

State broadcaster CCTV launched a channel for documentaries last year, "but they are not independent, they are still propaganda," Zhu says. Among the films Zhu doubts would ever be shown on CCTV is Xu Xin's Karamay, which tells the story of a fire in 1994 that killed 288 schoolchildren who were ordered to remain seated to allow officials to leave first. "Such a film is like a hidden history, as nobody wants to talk about such topics in public," says Zhu, who reopened his website last month by switching to a server outside China. "This film can make Chinese people rethink about life, our history and society."

In China, "the government has a complete stranglehold on culture," says David Bandurski, a Hong Kong-based film producer and China media analyst. Chinese film directors face censorship "effective enough to shut them out of the mainstream scene, so they don't impact domestic public opinion," he says.

So many contemporary issues are considered sensitive that directors who seek official approval and thus the right to screen in movie theaters often set fictional films "in the romanticized, dynastic past," he says. Instead of becoming a culturally strong nation as Beijing plans, China risks becoming "a nation of cultural relics," Bandurski says.

China Independent Film Festivals

Up until the early 2010s there were several film festivals for independent films. The The Nanjing-based China Independent Film Festival (CIFF, late October and early November ) was the most important event on China's indie film circuit, drawing buyers and festival programmers from the US and Europe. It is also one of the few opportunities for independent filmmakers to show to large audiences. Only films that have received the "dragon seal" after clearing the State Administration of Radio Film and Television approval process can normally be shown in commercial theaters, sold or broadcast on television. The approval process is both cumbersome and often entails compromise.But the commercial and cultural potential of independent filmmakers has not escaped the notice of government officials, several of whom attended for the second year in a row, albeit at a subdued second ceremony held early next day, featuring flowers instead of a former madam. [Source: Chris Hawk, Global Times, Los Angeles Times 3, 2011]

Shelly Kraicer wrote: The Nanjing-based China Independent Film Festival (28 October-1 November 2011), unlike the Beijing Independent Film Festival, benefits from a substantial degree of official and semi-official “cover”. Unlike BIFF, there is a certain amount of practical compromise with official bodies and officially approved cinema: purity isn’t such an issue. Co-sponsors include the Nanjing University School of Journalism and Communication, The Communication University of China (Nanjing) and the RCM Museum of Modern Art. [Source: Shelly Kraicer, dGenerate Films]

The second day of CIFF includes a forum attended by local propaganda department officials. A sidebar of the festival (nicknamed the “Longbiao Section” for the dragon-headed insignia that appears at the beginning of all officially approved film prints in China) included screenings in a luxurious commercial cinema of several films that that are strictly speaking non-independent (i.e. censor-approved) but are made in a spirit of independence. These films would not appear at BIFF, for example, but might show later in official venues like Beijing’s Broadway Cinematheque MOMA, where approved “arthouse cinema” (i.e. non-commercial) finds a refuge in Beijing.

The core of CIFF, though, consists of four sections of new “unapproved” films: the feature film competition; a carefully curated set of documentary features---split in two, a “Top 10 Documentaries of the Year” section, and a set of new documentaries (the next ten best; 2 sets of short fiction films; and two programmes of experimental films.

Songzhuang’s Chinese Independent Documentary Film Festival

There were festivals dedicated to independent and documentary films in Beijing, Shanghai, Nanjing, Guangzhou and Chongqing, and some of China independent films are finding a small audience abroad. Ying Qian said, “When documentary films are being showed in galleries that are only accessible by car, in a suburb of Beijing, it raises questions about the audience. At the same time, now there are a lot of films that are distributed on line.

Songzhuang’s hosts the Chinese Independent Documentary Film Festival. Every year the Songzhuang indie film scene shows encouraging signs of incremental progress, as an institution and as a community. Every year the international contingent of visitors increases in size and significance. Reporting on the festival in 2010 Shelly Kraicer of, wrote: Most ambitious, and most strange in its epic scope and eerie tone, is Yang Yishu’s second film “On The Road” (“Lushang”). She planned to shoot a road documentary, riding with a couple of truckers through southern China, when what turned out to be China’s worst winter storm in a century struck, transforming their road-bound world into a nightmare of snow, ice, and immobility.” [Source: Shelly Kraicer,, 2010]

“If there had been an audience award, it would surely have gone to “A Song of Love, Maybe” (“Lianqu” ) by the (male) director Zhang Zanbo. Snazzy and snappy, surprisingly slick, like reality TV with Chinese indie characteristics, Zhang shot the ultra-personal moments of a young KTV hostess and her louse of a boyfriend, whose soap-operatic duplicity is apparent to everyone but her. Emotional breakdowns, shocking revelations, captured by Zhang’s high-def fly-on-the-wall camera.” [Ibid]

“I have to mention two of the weirdest films at Songzhuang this year, both approaching something like experimental / fictional / performance / documentaries, both by male directors, each of which left me alternately stupefied and somehow curious for yet more. Dancer Li Ning’s Tape (Jiaodai), an epic three hour film on himself, his performance art, and his doomed troupe of guerilla urban dancers, was wildly disorganized but intermittently compelling. And new director Xue Jianqiang’s bravura night poem Martian Syndrome (Huoxing yao zonghezheng) is as hallucinatory in its image aesthetic as it is infuriating in its documentary ethics.”

All of which confirms that the future of Chinese indie documentaries still looks bright, diverse, healthily contested, and always full of surprises. But A couple of issues cropped up again and again... Many of the documentaries this time ran three hours or longer...There are of course subjects that demand amplitude and epic treatment, but it seems not unlikely that a significant number of the over-extended films now being produced would benefit from some rigorous, third-party editing.

Independent Film Festival Cancelled

DOChina, the independent documentary film festival scheduled for May 2011 7 in Songzhuang, an artists’ village in the suburb of Beijing, was cancelled. Shelly Kraicer of dGenerate Film wrote: ‘several levels of government, represented at a surprisingly high level, made it clear to the sponsoring organization of the festival, Li Xianting’s Film Fund that this was not the right time for an independent organization to screen Chinese films that the state has not authorized. [Source: Shelly Kraicer, dGenerate Film]

Various reasons were given for why this was precisely the “wrong time” to hold the festival. There are of course the Arab popular democratic uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Libya, Oman, and Syria, which the Chinese government can’t help but find relevant to their own situation. There are the recent sporadic, low-key Sunday afternoon “walks” in crowded districts of major cities, which so far seem only to have inspired large contingents of security agents and foreign reporters to congregate and observe each other (or interact in less friendly ways). There is the detention and disappearance of Ai Weiwei, some of his staff, and subsequent detention of five Songzhuang performance artists in the weeks before DOChina was to start.

And there was the coincidental timing of the 1st annual Beijing International Film Festival (April 23-28), in many ways the opposite of DOChina. The BIFF bestrode the capital with glossy, state-sponsored, high-budget and high profile media-driven events, attended by a galaxy of prominent foreign representatives from overseas film festivals and other organizations.

What happened instead? An opening banquet, attended by the festival staff, filmmakers associated with past editions of the festival and foreign guests. In a strange twist, graciously footing the bill were jovial representatives of the local government (including a table of heavyset guys in the corner, whose serious mien didn’t exactly fit the profile of a Songzhuang artist type). Over the next few days, we could meet several of the filmmakers whose films had been scheduled, and we could watch a few of their films on DVDs on a TV set.

DOChina was neither revolutionary nor radical. The organizers are savvy, and know when it’s time to press forward, and when it’s time to take a temporary step back. A very similar event might reappear later in a somewhat different incarnation, in a less sensitive location (i.e. one far from the capital), with a different name. For now, I hope this step back will lead to a stronger, more vibrant, even more independent China Documentary Film Festival in the future.

dGenerate Filmsand Chinese Indy Film Scholars

For distribution in the United States many Chinese independent filmmakers have turned to dGenerate Films, a company founded in 2008 by Karin Chien, a Chinese-American film producer whose credits include American indie movies like “The Exploding Girl.” It was after attending a screening of “San Yuan Li”---in which a group of painters and visual artists, Mr. Huang among them, combined to create a vivid depiction of urban sprawl overwhelming traditional village life---at New York University, which sponsors the biennial Reel China festival, that she decided to branch into Chinese film. [Source:Larry Rohter New York Times, February 18, 2011]

dGenerate Films stands as an important cultural pipeline, distributing independent cinema from mainland China within North America and Europe. It carries several dozen titles available for online streaming at five dollars per film, and for purchase, at varying prices. Larry Rohter wrote in the New York Times in 2011, “Ms. Chien’s company now distributes 38 independent Chinese films abroad, mostly to film societies and universities and for showings at festivals. In some cases, she said, to get the films out of China, “we end up inventing some very creative routes of transmission” involving networks of couriers to evade export licensing and other controls.

The community of scholars who work on Chinese documentaries is quite small. Among them are Professors Yingjin Zhang (UC San Diego), Carlos Rojas (Duke), Eileen Cheng-yin Chow (Duke), Claire Roberts (Australian National University), Qi Wang (Georgia Tech), Luke Robinson (Nottingham, UK), William Schaefer (U. Rochester) and others from Harvard (Winnie Wong, Eugene Wang, Jie Li and Ying Qian). Ying Qian is a PhD candidate in East Asian Languages and Civilizations at Harvard University. Qian’s area of focus involves examining the evolving documentary visions in 20th century China. She is interested in the social processes and “film thinking” that have enabled and shaped the making of documentary images, and the ways in which these images have provided framings, interventions and agencies to historical change.

Rofel, Professor of Anthropology from the University of California Santa Cruz, and Berry, film professor from the University of London, first received a grant from the University of California’s Pacific Rim Research Program to do research on independent Chinese documentaries in 2003. Back then (and as still is the case), the state film archive of China, China Film Archive/ China Film Art Research Institute, did not bother building a collection of independent Chinese documentaries []. In order to get their hands on these undocumented works, the two professors relied entirely on the close-knit community of independent filmmakers and a few film enthusiasts for second-hand copies.

Image Sources: YouTube, dGenerate Films

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated December 2012

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