Jia Zhangke Speaks Out Against Censorship

Jia Zhangke speaks out at a forum held at the 2011 Shanghai International Film Festival (photo: china.org.cn)

Originally published in The Guardian, June 16 2011

He had to abandon one film lest it broke anti-pornography laws. Then he ditched a spy movie rather than fill it with Communist party “superheroes”.

The frustration of making films in a country with “cultural over-cleanliness” has led an internationally acclaimed Chinese director to lash out at its censors, a state news site has reported.

Jia Zhangke won the Golden Lion at the Venice film festival in 2006 – apparently earning the approval of China’s leader-in-waiting Xi Jinping, who is expected to become president next year.

But he began his career as an “underground” film-maker – directing movies that were praised abroad but never saw official release in China– and he complained of ongoing battles with censors as he addressed a cultural forum in Shanghai. Unusually, his remarks were reported by an official news site, china.org.cn.

“The only reason that we cannot make genre movies is the barrier that censorship sets,” Jia said.

He said he scrapped a film about a man’s sex life after an official decided it might break anti-pornography laws. He also abandoned a spy film about the Communist party and Kuomintang due to controls.

“If I want to make the movie here, I have to portray all the communists as superheroes,” Jia said.

“This would betray my original idea and make it difficult to develop the story.”

He added: “This kind of cultural over-cleanliness that bans the erotic, violent and terrifying is cultural naivety.”

China has a vast censorship apparatus, but films and television programmes are particularly tightly controlled. One film director told the Guardian that censors demanded 400 changes before they would pass his movie.

Hong Kong director and producer Manfred Wong told the Shanghai forum that in crime movies made on the mainland all police officers must be portrayed as good guys, while romantic movies cannot show affairs or cohabitation before marriage.

He argued that mainland film-makers need a ratings system. Some believe the government might relax constraints if age restrictions were introduced.

But Li Hongyu, who writes about film for Southern Weekly newspaper, said it was simplistic to suggest a ratings system would result in less censorship.

While western ratings systems focus on issues such as violence and pornography, China has much wider concerns about the content of films, he said.

“China’s control over movies is more detailed. China has a movie censoring committee composed of approximately 30 or so staff whose backgrounds are very diverse, spanning from movie professionals, the Women’s Federation, the [Communist] Youth League, teachers, and a religious committee to various governmental administration departments,” Li added.

“The debate about introducing a ratings system has been going on for many years. But it is hard to implement, since if the system is used, it will not be easy to cover the government’s other considerations. What if it is concerned about political views?”

Official requirements, which concern the moral as well as political qualities of content, can be baffling to outsiders: the head of the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television recently denounced TV time travel dramas for their “frivolous” approach to history.

Jia Zhangke’s film Dong is available through the dGenerate catalog.

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