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Navigating “The Future of Independent Documentary in China” in 2019

“The Future of Independent Documentary in China” was the focus of a recent panel at the University of Southern California, where as part of the Visible Evidence documentary conference, Luke Robinson of the University of Sussex led a discussion amongst Chinese cinema scholars and filmmakers including independent filmmaker Zhu Rikun, Jenny Chio of USC, Michael Berry of UCLA, and Sabrina Qiong Yu of the University of Newcastle.

These scholars and filmmakers, all based outside of China, positioned the panel as an opportunity to look back at the devastation of documentary communities in recent years, examine the current landscape for independent documentary, and engage in a community-oriented dialogue making sense of the questions that have always stalked China’s documentary makers – do the challenges facing Chinese documentary communities represent a death knell or the opportunity for a transformation? Where do we go from here?

The Present of Independent Documentary in China

In his self-introduction during the “The Future of Independent Documentary in China” panel, Zhu Rikun – director of such films as Dust and The Dossier, and a leader of the Chinese independent film community now living in the United States – told a story about a retrospective screening of his work at another North American university. Zhu’s documentary work, which is largely concerned with images and language that expose the injustices in Chinese power structures, seemed to hit a member of the audience hard. “He was a man from Mainland China, but he was shouting in English,” Zhu recalled, “saying it was shameful to show this dark side of China.” The man continued to shout, rejecting Zhu’s attempts to speak up on behalf of his film. “This is a typical story,” Zhu told the audience at USC, “so if this kind of hostility is typical at a screening outside of China, you can just imagine how bad it is in China.”

Independent documentary in China has never had an easy life. In the past twenty-five years, nonfiction filmmaking communities in China developed a filmmaking practice independent of the state, the domestic commercial film market, and more often than not, official narratives of Chinese history and social movements. The climate for these films was never exactly comfortable, but for a number of years in the 2000s and 2010s, film festivals all over China brought independent filmmakers and scholars together as a supportive community; international festivals celebrated the artistic achievements and activist spirit of Chinese documentary filmmakers; and mentorship programs like the extant Wu Wenguang Documentary Memory Project gave young people cameras and initiative to interrogate the past and forge a new nonfiction storytelling culture. Films about environmental devastation, state abuse of workers and minorities, the largely-unexamined crimes of the Cultural Revolution era, queer and feminist histories of China, and dozens of other “unofficial” stories came into the world through these documentary communities, creating what panel moderator Luke Robinson called an “alternative archive” of Chinese history and society.

Films about environmental devastation, state abuse of workers and minorities, the largely-unexamined crimes of the Cultural Revolution era, queer and feminist histories of China, and dozens of other “unofficial” stories came into the world through these documentary communities, creating…an “alternative archive” of Chinese history and society.

In 2019, the situation for independent documentary in China is one of tight state scrutiny, dissolved communities, and dim optimism. Many significant independent festivals have been closed down, film archives have been seized by state authorities, and filmmaking communities have largely been forced to disband – leaving filmmaking and critical practice scattered. Chinese independent films are increasingly barred from appearing at international festivals; and a wolf in sheep’s clothing has arrived at China’s box office in the form of commercial films that co-opt the lo-fi cinematic language and anti-aesthetic of independent documentaries to tell state-approved stories. While the ingenuity and resilience that has long characterized Chinese independent documentary is still evident in individual efforts and evolutions of thought about independent media making, pressure to suppress non-state filmmaking has created an anxious and inhospitable environment for independent documentary in China.

Losing a Community and Archive

Throughout the 2000s and early 2010s, the independent documentary communities in Kunming and Beijing sustained a tense equilibrium with state attention. This era represented a gray area of inconsistently-enforced restrictions on independent artists that allowed filmmakers to develop outsider filmmaking practices and engage with a tight community of collaborators, critics, and variously open-minded artists. Harassment of festivals and cancelled screenings became more common in 2013 and finally in 2014, the Beijing Independent Film Festival was forcibly shut down, and archives from the affiliated Li Xianting Film School were seized. The community lost its base; and hope for an equipoise with state power that would allow future documentary production all but disappeared.

Following the dissolution of this community and distribution framework, documentary filmmakers faced a narrow range of choices. Quoting producer and curator Zhang Xianmin, Robinson outlined the three choices most independent filmmakers were forced to make to survive: “go to the countryside, cooperate with the state, or move overseas.” Some filmmakers have remained in China and continue to make independent films and teach – Wu Wenguang’s Documentary Memory Project at Caochangdi Workstation, which allows young filmmakers to engage with family history, memory, and self-identity through non-fiction media, is still operating, albeit in a new location – but many filmmakers unwilling or unable to cooperate with the state have gone into some form of self-exile. While these choices have allowed some filmmakers to continue to work in a compromised capacity, “Independent communities cannot exist anymore,” Zhu said at USC, “there are individual efforts to make films now, but we are at the darkest point.”

The dismantling of these community centers has created a global diaspora of documentary filmmakers, and also made precarious the fate of these filmmakers’ archives. Michael Berry pointed out that the transition from DVD to streaming culture has strangled distribution of independent films within China, making it easier for censors to chase illegal or “underground” films online. “There’s no freedom in cultural spaces,” Berry added. The control and censure of this “alternative archive” is dully troubling to Zhu as he looks to the future of Chinese independent filmmaking. “The new generations won’t have any exposure to independent films,” Zhu said, “it just won’t exist for them, so they won’t know there is another way to make films. It’s kind of like how people in Beijing no longer know that the sky is actually supposed to be blue.”

“The new generations won’t have any exposure to independent films…it just won’t exist for them, so they won’t know there is another way to make films. It’s kind of like how people in Beijing no longer know that the sky is actually supposed to be blue.”

Aesthetic Appropriation and the Evolution of “Indie” Film in China

While skies may be quite dark for independent documentary filmmakers, Chinese “indie” film on a commercial, global scale is having a moment in the sun. The panel attempted to reconcile what “independent film” means when indie darling Bi Gan’s “A Long Day’s Journey Into Night” smashes box office records, and “indie”-branded documentaries such as Jian Fan’s “Still Tomorrow” and Guo Ke’s “Twenty-Two” find mainstream success through state cooperation. These films may bear the aesthetic hallmarks of Chinese independent documentaries, but are among the few films that manage to emerge from China’s increasingly opaque censorship process. “[These films] put a gritty wrapping on pro-state storylines,” Berry explained.

While some find the artistic diversification of mainstream Chinese cinema to be a positive step towards an increasingly sophisticated global cinema, Zhu sees these films as a commercial co-opting of the “indie spirit.” Other attempts to commercialize – or possibly evolve – this “indie spirit” may be evident in new film festivals that have emerged in Hangzhou and Pingyao, Shanxi Province. While the Westlake International Documentary Festival and Pingyao International Film Festival, founded by director Jia Zhangke, don’t exactly claim to be filling the vacuum left by the closing of the Beijing Independent Film Festival and Yunfest in Kunming, unpublicized screenings and guest programmers at these festivals – as well as the Sichuan Women’s Film Festival and smaller screening series around major cities – create spaces for independent and experimental films. Indeed, there be some hope in the fact that these festivals are young and there remains an open question of what kinds of filmmakers – and narratives – they will serve in the long run.

Redefining Documentary and Swinging for the Fences

Models of viable nonfiction filmmaking in China have narrowed, but Jenny Chio suggested that reframing “documentary” as “non-state media making” creates space for consideration of other forms of state-defiant or state-agnostic media creation in China. Outside of formal documentary or journalistic practice are an army of amateur media-makers, often from rural or minority backgrounds, creating humorous or instructional videos, music videos featuring traditional songs, or documentation of religious festivals to serve their local communities. Chio spoke about Kuaishou, an app sometimes referred to “nongcun TikTok,” or “a window into rural China,” where video snapshots of rural life ranging from agrarian idyll to the truly absurd have captured the attention of Chinese and Western media. While these instances of “vernacular media” don’t necessarily share the goals of independent documentaries, these videos represent a platform for marginalized voices in China, a localized form of expression that exists outside a state-directed framing.

From the micro-filmmaking of rural communities to the maximalist efforts that have defined Chinese independent documentary’s greatest successes, Sabrina Qiong Yu points to filmmakers who have reacted to the restrictiveness of the artistic climate by swinging for the fences – creating vastly ambitious, formally complex, and stylistically daring work. Pointing to Zhao Liang’s “Behemoth” – a film as massively complex and dramatic as the damning message it carries about environmental devastation – Qiong Yu argued that byzantine censorship requirements have inspired filmmakers to make films that are harder to pin down; blending genres to confront formally the complexity of their subject matter, engage multiple ideas of reality, and ultimately offer a reconsideration of fact and fiction.

Following the panel, a passionate conversation occurred among the panelists and various champions of Chinese independent film in the audience. Many audience members discussed the pressure on international programmers to fight for Chinese films that may not ultimately be permitted to participate in their festivals. The losses suffered by the Chinese independent documentary community in recent years are profound, but this well-attended, extremely thoughtful panel was heartening in bringing together those who are working to protect and promote these films and filmmakers.

Thanks to Zhu Rikun, Luke Robinson, Michael Berry, Sabrina Qiong Yu, and Jenny Chio.


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