Monday, November 17, 2008

China's documentary realism

I highly recommend this China Digital Times article on the not-quite-underground Chinese documentary scene. These filmmakers operate in a gray area that is increasingly a part of Chinese culture — unsanctioned by the government, at times out-and-out banned but still managing to circulate inside China thanks to video hosts like Youtube and the considerable Chinese black market for censored materials. In a weird twist, there are even award ceremonies for documentary festivals that feature banned films within China (and no, I don't get quite how this works either). Support from "common people" is also essential:
Commenting on the way independent Chinese documentaries have become an alternative livelihood for the people, the Beijing Broadcasting Institute professor Cui Weiping said to Duowei: “Many people help other people shoot films for advertisements, and most people engage in the advertising industry. Some people, after shooting a commercial for five months and earning 100,000 RMB in profit, will invest this money in documentaries.”

For the documentary filmmakers, the greatest problem isn’t making a living, but having their documentaries censored and unable to enter the market through normal distribution channels. Professor Hao Jian said to Duowei: “The making of independent documentaries in China isn’t a normal occupation and lacks normal commercial activity. Because feature movies are able to gain commercial value through the participation of film festivals, and at the same time documentary film makers are crammed in a run-down room of a rented building, filmmakers of feature films usually have better living conditions. The government’s criticism of independent documentaries is usually negative, and thus the government will not let them enter the market.”

At the moment, support for Chinese independent documentaries comes from the common people. Some celebrities and civil organizations have provided the funds to establish some documentary film festivals such as the Chinese Independent Film Festival in Nanjing, the Clouds South Documentary Festival, the Chinese Documentary Exchange Week at the Songzhuang Art Museum, the Beijing Independent Film Forum and Chinese Independent Documentary Film Festival. In the fall of 2006, Li Xianting set up the Li Xianting Fund at the Song manor to collect 34 independent Chinese documentaries. The top donor was Fang Lijun who gave 100,000 RMB.
You can find the work of one banned Chinese documentarian, Hu Jie, at the CDT link, and also here, where his hour-long documentary on a Cultural Revolution casualty, "When I am Gone," is available with English subtitles. I strongly recommend it. Part 1 is linked below...

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