Posts Tagged ‘chinese documentaries’

Report on Chinese Independent Documentaries for Roger Ebert’s Website

Tuesday, May 24th, 2011

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.

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San Francisco Press Raves Over “Fearless” Series – Films Start This Weekend

Friday, April 1st, 2011

Karamay (dir. Xu Xin)

Fearless: Chinese Independent Documentaries” is a monthlong series of films screening at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco. The series opens this Sunday with Karamay, Xu Xin’s 6 hour investigation of the 1994 Karamay fire. Other titles include Disorder, which just won Best Documentary at the Ann Arbor Film Festival, and Tape, which recently won the Silver Award at YunFest.

For details on the screenings and venues visit the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.

Reviews from local press:

SF Bay Guardian:

There is a long history of radical documentaries that contest official histories and sanctioned depictions of everyday life, but rare is the concentrated activism we see in the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts series “Fearless: Chinese Independent Documentaries.” These risk-taking records of injustice bear no resemblance to the easy history lessons and celebrity profiles that pass for documentary in the HBO/Sundance sphere. With extended running times and steadfast dedication to witnessing people, places, and histories the Chinese government would just as soon erase, the films are monumental in the deepest sense. “Fearless” opens with Karamay, Xu Xin’s six-hour examination of a tragic fire that killed 323 people while leaving several officials unharmed. As with several of the films that follow, the exhaustiveness of the treatment is itself a rebuke to the government’s suppression of the facts.

SF Weekly:

In December 1994, the top primary-school students in Karamay, China, assembled at the town theater to perform for smiling Communist Party and city functionaries. This was a high honor as childhood events go, a ceremonial rite of passage attended by the heads of the community. Out of nowhere a short circuit ignited something (it’s not known exactly what), provoking this infamous announcement: “Everybody keep quiet. Don’t move. Let the leaders go first.” And so they did. When the smoke cleared, 288 children lay dead, along with 35 teachers and other adults. The government suppressed this heinous display of cowardice and “leadership,” blocking all outlets for the parents’ grief and outrage. Xu Xin’s six-hour documentary, Karamay, is a landmark in journalistic diligence and a dedicated act of commemoration and healing. The opener of the six-film series, “Fearless: Chinese Independent Documentaries,” Karamay generously gives families and teachers space to relate their memories of that awful December day – and how it forever clouded the way they view their country, leaders, and fellow citizens. Made with the expectation that more foreigners would see it than Chinese, this human-scale epic speaks in a language that transcends borders and governments.

Read some interesting responses by Chinese nationals to Karamay when the film screened at MoMA Documentary Fortnight.

Read a review of Karamay by Robert Koehler in Variety.

Chinese Indie Docs Hit Harvard and Santa Barbara

Monday, April 13th, 2009

Last weekend I had the pleasure of attending “Emergent Visions: Independent Documentaries from China” a special series held at Harvard University. In addition to screening eight films over three days, the University brought from China Zhu Rikun, head of Fanhall Studio and programmer of the Beijing Independent Film Festival and the China Documentary Film Festival, as well as three directors of films in the series, to present the works and engage in discussion with audiences. The series will travel this coming weekend to Santa Barbara, with Zhu and the three directors in tow.

The Harvard screenings were anchored by a panel session, chaired by Harvard professor Eileen Chow, that offered three distinct takes on the burgeoning indie documentary scene in China. Lu Xinyu of Fudan University examined what she dubs the “First Generation” of Chinese documentarians, describing their chief characteristics and principles: an emphasis on social observation executed via direct cinema practices, and a rejection of the mainstream practice of idealization in representation. Lu noted an emerging “Second Generation” of documentarians whose works reflect an increasingly subjective and self-reflexive approach.

Zhu Rikun offered his own historical account of the explosive production of Chinese docs over this decade, commenting specifically on how affluent members of Beijing’s art scene (such as Li Xianting, who funds both festivals programmed by Zhu) became invested in supporting documentaries. Zhu observed that Beijing artists and art patrons were concerned that an increasingly commercialized contemporary art scene was growing disconnected from China’s reality. They felt the need to bolster the connection between art and society, and found documentary as their ideal medium for this endeavor. Zhu also remarked on how the availability of digital video and editing equipment accelerated the documentary movement at every step, from production to distribution; and how the internet helped organize of a critically engaged audience across the country, giving rise to an independent film festival circuit that has become increasingly visible and vital over a remarkably short period.

Markus Nornes, professor of Asian Film and Video at Michigan and currently visiting scholar at Harvard, offered a provocative presentation titled “Demolition, Christianity, and the Slaughter of Animals Great and Small.” The title reflected his paper’s overall concern with thematic and formalistic conventions emerging among Chinese documentaries. At the same time Nornes acknowledged the vitality of the documentary circuit, specifically in venues like YunFest where local film projects and exhibitions have engaged their communities, reflecting the potential of these festivals to reflect the heterogeneity of China’s culture. His talk concluded with concerns over the future of the independent spirit of Chinese documentary filmmaking as the genre matures under the auspices of industrialization and professionalism.

As for the films in the program, the ones I managed to catch were uniformly outstanding, and having three of the directors present greatly enhanced the experience. Xu Xin‘s two films reflect a fascination with cultural practices in danger of extinction, whose practictioners are seemingly out of step with their times and surroundings. Torch Troupes follows a traditional Sichuan opera singer as his troupe struggles to get by, while Fangshan Church depicts a Jiangsu congregation of mostly elderly Christians. Wang Wo’s experimental documentaries Outside and Noise take the direct cinema approach to the realm of avant gardism, immersing the viewer in a non-narrative, highly sensory experience of urban China in its visual and aural splendor. Zhao Xun‘s Two Seasons, which recently premiered at YunFest, was a true crowd-pleaser, depicting the rigid, at times absurdly comic social dynamics that govern a middle school in Hubei.

The series also included Feng Yan‘s Bing Ai (sort of a feminist version of Jia Zhangke’s Still Life), Zhao Liang‘s Crime and Punishment, a remarkable documentary on police interrogation tactics, and Zhao Dayong‘s Ghost Town, a devastating three-part chronicle of an existence in utter poverty in a remote southwestern mountain town.

Kudos to J.P. Sniadecki, Ying Qian and Jie Li at Harvard for assembling an impressive program.

Emergent Visions: Independent Documentaries from China was co-sponsored by the Harvard University Asia Center, the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies, the Harvard East Asia Society, the department of Visual and Entertainment Studies, and the Carpenter Center for Visual Arts.