Report on Chinese Independent Documentaries for Roger Ebert’s Website

By Isabella Tianzi Cai

Directors Zhao Liang and Fan Lixin in Zhao Liang's Beijing studio (photo: Grace Wang)

An article of great interest was recently posted in the Chicago Sun Times-based blog, Etheriel Musings: A Journey in China, by Canadian-based blogger Grace Wang, who is a “Far Flung Correspondent” for Roger Ebert. In her lengthy article “Chinese Documentaries: An Inside Look,” Wang emphasizes the importance of Chinese documentaries in the world at large today: “they reflect, from the closest distance possible, in the most direct way possible, the rapid social, political, and cultural changes happening in China right now.”

What Wang believes Chinese documentaries can achieve is fascinating. She argues that Chinese documentary cinema outperforms conventional journalism in bringing “a deep and thorough look” into China because it is unconstrained by “the time-sensitive nature of the journalists’ occupation” and “the bureaucratic red-tape” within the Chinese press. Though it is not specifically noted, we shall understand that here she refers to independent documentaries made largely outside of the state-censored film and media industry.

Wang points out that Chinese documentary cinema, being relatively new, is defined by its unofficial stance. These films are hardly ever registered with the state and therefore not included in state archives. They circulate the market in an underground mode. Public screenings only take place in non-theatrical space. As for the filmmakers,

Unlike some of the higher profile documentarians in North America and Europe, the majority of documentary filmmakers in China are working alone or with a skeleton crew, without shooting permissions, and often little to no funding.

Wang asks, if these documentary filmmakers are really faced with countless adversities, what drives them to continue to churn out so many great works?

In her conversation with Zhao Liang, the director of Petition (2009) and Crime and Punishment (2007), Zhao revealed that he spent 12 years filming Petition. Once he started, he felt that he could not stop. His conscience and sense of responsibility reached such a high level that he could do nothing but become fully committed to his task.

How can these documentary filmmakers keep going? For Wang the answer seems to be for them to succeed both artistically and commercially. In order to succeed both ways, she thinks that one or all of the following are needed:

Better-produced films, continued artistic innovation, attention to details, and much, much needed marketing to get people in front of screens.

Besides these areas for improvement, Wang includes another view uttered by Wang Shiqing, the cinematographer of the award-winning Up the Yangtze (2007): “Film is a group art. You can’t make a good film alone.” The proverbial one-man crew is perhaps still the most common approach adopted by contemporary Chinese documentary filmmakers In fact, many dGenerate directors, including Zhao Liang, Zhao Dayong and Xu Tong have made superb films that received international acclaim using this method.

Fan Lixin holds pirated copies of his film "Last Train Home" (photo: Grace Wang)

In terms of domestic film distribution, Wang says that today, Chinese independent documentaries most often travel by word of mouth. People’s blogs serve as one of the most important platforms for news of new documentaries to reach out. To illustrate the actual distribution mechanism, Wang interviewed Fan Lixin, director of the acclaimed Last Train Home, who was buying pirated DVDs of his own film in China. Fan confessed that he was happy to see those DVDs despite the fact that he was helping illegal DVD-makers make money because it was better that the film was being watched than not so at all.

Regardless of how films circulate in China and ways to improve the current situation, especially with the state censorship board, Wang perceives “open collaboration” between and among Chinese documentary filmmakers, “international producers, good editors” and those with “artistic visions” to be the key in taking Chinese documentary cinema to a new level. The goal, as she firmly believes, is to create a bridge that allows the world to come and see the real China, one that no one can afford not to look at any more.

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