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Tenacity of Indie Documentary-Makers Profiled in USA Today

"Karamay" (dir. Xu Xin)

An article entitled Reel China: Hard-pressed documentary makers keep rolling appeared recently in USA Today, spotlighting some of Chinese independent documentary’s heavy hitters and their struggle to keep shooting and telling stories. Calum MacLeod writes:

Their subjects include people living at the margins of society, fighting property demolition, tracing the death of relatives persecuted under Chairman Mao, and even a government official discussing the corruption and bullying rife in his City Hall. As China’s Communist Party boosts efforts worldwide to soften its image, a determined and growing band of independent filmmakers documents the complex, often uncomfortable realities of China’s past and present. “The authorities believe these films, and the people who make them, are all problematic,” says Zhang Qi, organizer of an independent film festival in a sprawling artists’ village in east Beijing. “Officials fear it’s a big land mine that could explode at any time.”

While independent filmmakers who operate outside of state sanction may be persecuted for violating industry regulations, it’s often the subject matter of this class of documentaries that create the most friction between independent documentarians and CCTV and SARFT–the state giants responsible for China’s above-ground documentary programming and censorship guidelines.

“The political challenges are greater than the financial, so filmmakers must still be careful in choosing their topics,” says Zhu Rikun, a veteran documentary producer and supporter. Last May, authorities canceled a documentary film festival Zhu was directing and banned his Fanhall Films website, a forum for debate. State broadcaster CCTV launched a channel for documentaries last year, “but they are not independent, they are still propaganda,” Zhu says.

"Fortune Teller" (dir. Xu Tong)

Films like Xu Tong‘s Fortune Teller, Xu Xin‘s Karamay and Zhao Liangs Crime and Punishment are at the forefront of Chinese independent documentary, but the sensitive topics and unapologetic storytelling of these remarkable films have contributed to the tense environment for underground documentary films.

Gritty reality is in plain view in the films of director Xu Tong, whose “vagabonds” trilogy documents people at the bottom of Chinese society. “I want to show the complexity of society,” he says. “These are real social situations. Even if I can’t show the films in cinemas, or not many people can see them now, I don’t care. I have the duty and desire to record their stories.” Xu is proud of the independent film community’s perseverance in the face of censorship.


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