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Survival in Crisis - Talking to Chinese Independent Filmmakers During a Global Pandemic

By Maya E. Rudolph

This article originally appeared in Filmmaker Magazine

The challenges faced by a global film industry attempting to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic are often described, like so many things in this new reality, as “unprecedented.” Filmmakers must find approaches to working under conditions that can feel insurmountable—restricted movement, the digitization of film festivals and filmmaking communities and stunted distribution channels, among others. Strategies for staying productive, connected and solvent in a time of isolation and uncertainty are newly forming. But for a Chinese independent filmmaker like Zeng Jinyan, who works outside state systems of censorship and distribution, filmmaking under adverse circumstances is nothing new.

The producer of the documentaries We the Workers (2017) and Outcry and Whisper (2020), Zeng may be best known for the 2006 documentary Prisoners in Freedom City, codirected with Hu Jia. Shot entirely inside the walls of Zeng and Hu’s apartment in the Beijing suburbs, the film chronicles the daily terrors and banalities of the activist couple’s life under a “soft detention” house arrest. A tense mutual surveillance evolves between the filmmakers and the state police who guard their apartment and follow their every move while playing cards and eating boxed lunches outside their windows. Watching Prisoners in Freedom City (available on YouTube) from inside a near-global quarantine is a sobering experience, even as Zeng and Hu’s diaristic framing of the shapeless passing of time starts to feel eerily familiar.

Still from Outcry and Whisper, a 2020 film by Zeng Jinyan, Wen Hai, and Trish Mcadam

From first-person documentaries to innovative uses of archival footage, many creative hallmarks of Chinese independent film have emerged from filmmakers creating work with limited resources or in compromised political environments. Zhu Rikun’s 2013 documentary The Questioning shows the filmmaker enduring a police interrogation from the eye of a hidden camera, while films like Huang Weikai’s Disorder (2008) and Xu Bing’s Dragonfly Eyes (2017) engage with footage produced by mass surveillance practices in China to create social commentary and narrative meaning. Even films like Liu Jiayin’s Oxhide (2005) and Oxhide II (2009), which chronicle the minutiae of family life within a small apartment in Beijing, are quietly radical in their transformation of familiar figures in a claustrophobic physical space into an emotional and dynamic family epic.

The strength of these films—made in restricted spaces amid censorship, interrogation and mass surveillance—is a testament to the creative ingenuity that has allowed the Chinese independent community to survive and may offer lessons in endurance for film communities globally in times of crisis.

Zeng now lives in Haifa, Israel. Speaking from her apartment in May 2020, Zeng said that she has managed the quarantine through a simple routine of reading and writing each day, preparing basic meals and watching comedies and Japanese animated series with her teenage daughter. “I feel like I’m homeless because of China’s politics,” Zeng said. “So, I tried to build up a home in writing and filmmaking. That’s my task: to build something no matter what.”

In the early 2000s, a community often called the “digital generation” of filmmakers and curators emerged in mainland China, creating works that interrogated accepted narratives around Chinese history and culture. For years, these filmmakers cultivated a sui generis digital aesthetic while operating in a tense-but-tolerable stalemate with the authorities. They built independent festivals and film schools, provided mutual support for each other’s creative and political projects and created exhibition and distribution outlets for independent work. But over the past decade, the expansion of the mainstream Chinese film industry as an instrument of soft power, and the restrictiveness of artistic and political expression under Xi Jinping, have had disastrous effects on independent cinema in China.

Surveillance and police harassment against film festival organizers and participants ramped up between 2012 and 2014, culminating in the closing of every independent film festival in China and the police seizure of the archives of the Li Xianting Film School, home to more than 1,500 works of independent media. A diaspora of independent filmmakers to North America, Hong Kong, western Europe and elsewhere followed. “I think it’s almost been 10 years that the sense of solidarity among Chinese independent filmmakers has been broken,” said Yi Cui, director of Of Shadows (2016). “We’ve been so used to this state of solitude.”

Yet, even under the new pressures of 2020, the community is rallying. “Everyone is currently concerned about the issues facing Chinese independent films and actively participating [in the community],” said Zhu Rikun, the filmmaker and producer who has continued organizing online screenings and discussion forums throughout the COVID-19 crisis. “Although everyone is relatively pessimistic about the current situation, they are still trying hard to carry out their work.”

For filmmakers in mid-production or who were looking forward to festival premieres at the beginning of 2020, projects have been frozen in time. “January 2020 seemed like a proper beginning of a new year, or rather a new decade—exciting, hopeful… with no idea what was waiting ahead. I was hoping to shoot and finish the first part of my new documentary, Zodiac 12, so it’ll be ready for the Year of the Cow in 2021,” said Jian Yi, the director of the 2007 documentary Super, Girls!, whose recent work focuses on animal rights and sustainable food systems. “But now, I don’t think we can plan any offline event for the rest of the year.”

Pema Tseden, the Tibetan director of Jinpa (2018) and Tharlo (2015), described how the European release for his film Balloon (2019) was cut short by quarantine orders in France. “It was a big blow,” Tseden said. “The space for Chinese independent films in the past two years was very small, and the epidemic made it even worse.” Zeng’s film, Outcry and Whisper, which tells stories of women’s political resistance as community organizers and labor activists, premiered in late April through digital screenings and a Zoom discussion organized by Visions du Réel. “[Experiencing a] film is really about time and space,” Zeng said. “So, of course, a digital screening has a different feeling. But as a Chinese filmmaker, we’ve experienced screenings moving online since 2012, when the independent festivals were forced to close in China.”

For the Chinese independent community, the emergence, and now ubiquity, of digital screenings has been a sign of encouragement. “At the point when physical independent film festivals had become almost extinct,” said Cui Zi’en, the prolific writer, LGBTQ activist and director of the documentary Queer China, ’Comrade’ China (2008), “it seems that the pandemic has activated the online film festival. It seems that the independent film community has always been there, and it is possible to reorganize ourselves.”

Zhu Rikun has been at the center of many of these efforts, organizing screenings through YouTube or Chinese streaming sites (“Of course, one problem is that many convenient broadcast platforms are banned in China,” said Zhu) and hosting discussions in virtual screening rooms for an engaged, if self-selecting, international audience. In late April, Zhu organized an online premiere of Zhao Dayong’s 2019 documentary One Says No as a YouTube screening with a Zoom Q&A to follow. The premiere was publicized through Facebook and, significantly,—a pre-2012 distributor, exhibitor and site of exchange for the Chinese independent film community that Zhu recently relaunched after years out of commission.

“During the pandemic, I spent more time on the internet than before,” said Zhu, who is based in New York. “I think it’s a pity that I don’t know where to get information about Chinese independent movies. The news on social media is too fragmented… I came to feel that a platform like Fanhall is still very important.” The return of Fanhall has been a triumphant one for the community, offering a digital gathering place and a way to highlight and archive films that might otherwise fall off the map.

Zhang Xianmin—a curator, producer of more than 80 films and influential voice among Chinese artists—is also relaunching curatorial projects that promote new films. Zhang is planning a new edition of Shi Jian (“Ten Propositions”), a curated list of independent films and the closest thing to a “state of the union” of Chinese indie film. The first edition in 2018 went viral, giving independent film both a boost of visibility and increased vulnerability to surveillance. The new edition of Shi Jian will continue the conversation and reflect Zhang’s observations on trends in indie film and the evolution of screen culture in China, and serve as an intellectual reference point to debate challenges facing indie filmmakers in China.

These digital points of exchange have given independent filmmakers much-needed shelters in recent months, but how these platforms will endure or generate income for filmmakers going forward is another story. Sales agent and producer Cao Liuying confirms, “Some online platforms are now expanding their content to independent cinema. Some directors shared their work with audiences for free. There might be more channels for viewing those films, but it has not yet translated to financial revenue.”

The mainstream Chinese industry, whose past decade of relentless growth has been stymied by the reported loss of 5,000 production companies since the beginning of 2020, will have to adapt to a new paradigm in coming months. “This pandemic may increasingly bring the mainstream film community back to independent thinking and production,” said Cui Zi’en, speaking to independent filmmakers’ more nimble approach to small-scale production and online distribution. “But perhaps it will be the opposite.” Jian Yi is similarly skeptical about the fate of independent film in a new era of distribution: “More online possibilities might be open for indie films, and there might be a new mechanism of distribution evolving out of this post–COVID-19 [era], which somehow can be sustained with audiences getting used to paying to watch films online.” Jian speculated, “The even harder-to-predict side of the story is if censorship will also evolve—quite likely, I guess.”

In the early days of the virus, after Wuhan-based whistleblower doctor Li Wenliang succumbed to the threat he sought to make publicly understood, netizens around China participated in an outpouring of public grief and anger previously unseen in the WeChat age. Many posts were tinged with rare public criticism of the Chinese government, which many citizens believe acted too late or in bad faith to curtail the virus. “I did observe that there were quite a few moments during the past months when people all of a sudden were voicing themselves together with such a strong sense of solidarity, and independent filmmakers were certainly part of it,” said Yi Cui. “But now it’s becoming a quiet moment again.”

Post-COVID, no signs point to a loosening of censorship or a sustained upswing of political expression in the mainland. “Digital control has spread wider, and measures have been taken in the name of security and national health,” said Rita Andreetti, the Italy- and China-based director who recently completed The Observer (2019), a portrait of prolific Chinese documentarian Hu Jie. “This COVID-19 crisis will affect freedom, if it hasn’t already, allowing soft power to enter into daily life on a permanent basis.” The tracking of people’s movements and body temperatures has become a fact of life in major Chinese cities. The Chinese government is moving swiftly to tighten its legal control on Hong Kong, where protests raged for much of 2019 and have reignited. In the past, filmmakers like Zeng have self-exiled to Hong Kong to escape police harassment, to study and create work freely. But for now, the future of safe spaces for independent thought and political filmmaking is grimly uncertain.

While some filmmakers have continued working relatively uninterrupted (“Independent filmmakers usually spend so much time at home writing grants or editing,” Yi Cui said, “I don’t feel the virus had made it much worse”), the pandemic has summoned a tangle of existential and creative woes for many. “During the pandemic, sometimes there was a strong sense of loneliness and nothingness,” Pema Tseden said of the interruption to production and distribution of several projects. “Sometimes, I also doubted the meaning of creation.”

Zeng, on the other hand, sees filmmaking in the post-COVID era as a time of new possibilities. “A new time is coming. In this new time, the politics in our everyday will be the most urgent agenda we need to deal with,” Zeng said. “With questions like whether you choose to wear a mask or not, your relationship to your community and your individuality changes. When bio-politics become everyday politics, how do you adapt your thinking and individuality? This has a huge impact on our thinking, so it will have a huge impact on our filmmaking.”

For some, like Cui Zi’en, the post-COVID film may not be a film in the traditional sense at all. Speaking about how his creative practice has been transformed by the quarantine, Cui said, “My image imagination is more active… I was used to expressing thoughts with moving images, but for now, I only take still pictures. Freezing the images has made me feel firm and powerful.” Cui described capturing images and watching the pandemic unfold from his home near Jacksonville, Florida, sewing these images together to create a kind of mental movie: “This ’movie’ has…a sense of global participation… a grand narrative, with documentary-like details. The drama I like is seeing is all these movements toward and against isolation around the world. For example, I see a friend in Beijing playing table tennis on a dining room table, people in Wuhan protesting government officials from the balconies of residential buildings, international students grabbing flights to go back home. I edit these moments into a ’movie’ on the screen in my brain every day as if I were directing this with all my own ideas and interpretations.”

The prospect of filmmaking after a global crisis is not easy. Yet the cultivation of community, scaled-down and self-sustaining approaches to production and unconventional distribution models embraced by the indie community offer a bittersweet primer for filmmaking in dark times, for continuing the work no matter what. The future of filmmaking may feel precarious, but if Zeng has anything to say about it, it’s never been more crucial to keep going. “If we can learn anything from past disasters, it’s that this is all about our memory,” she said. “The past, present and future need to be documented. Filmmaking is the way to do this.”

Thank you to Karin Chien, J.P. Sniadecki and Ruidi Ni for support with this article.


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