Chinese Documentaries Show Realities Missing from Chinese Films

Duowei News journalist Wan Yizhong reports (translated by CDT):

“When friends ask me to recommend some Chinese movies, I will always tell them to watch documentaries,” Beijing Film Academy professor Cui Weiping told Duowei News. “Even though the quality of some images seems rough, these documentaries possess a reality that mainstream movies lack.”

On October 25, 2008, the Fourth Reel China Documentary Biennial showcased three grand prize-winning documentaries chosen out of 33 competing films from New York: “Bing Ai,” “Though I Am Gone,” and “My Dear.”

Since 2006, the biennial event has moved the awards ceremony back to China in order to let these blacklisted documentary films that are banned from public showing return to their home country with accolades and capture the attention of the Chinese people. The awards ceremony for the Fourth Reel China Documentary Biennial will be held on November 5, 2008 at the Shanghai Zendai Museum of Modern Art.

Hu Jie, who was blacklisted:
Hu Jie, a native from Nanjing, won one of the grand prizes at this year’s biennial for his 60-minute historical documentary, “Though I Am Gone.” He served in the army for 15 years, and then he graduated from the Department of Oil Paintings at the People’s Liberation Army Art Academy and worked as a Xinhua News Agency Reporter. After he resigned, he joined a group of people to take wedding photos and became a photographer for a living. His attitude towards life is no different from a normal person. However, what sets him apart is that he has filmed documentaries dealing with sensitive issues before, such as “Seeking Lin Zhao’s Soul,” which forced officials to blacklist him.

What kind of conditions existed in China when Hu Jie came out with his documentary? Hu Jie and Zhu Rikun, a Chinese documentary operations engineer also from New York, collectively tell a story: “One time, I was in Beijing filming a documentary event. At one point, I wanted to screen Hu Jie’s documentary, but because we could not expose the documentary ahead of time, I told him to secretly come to Beijing from Nanjing and patiently wait for my notification,” Zhu Rikun said.

“One day, as it was nearing midnight, I received a phone call from Zhu Rikun asking me where I was. I told him my approximate location, and he made me wait for his car on the street. Half an hour later, I was seated in his car, and after an hour’s drive he took me to a house located on the outskirts of the city. Inside the house, I saw the showing of my documentary.”

Because Hu Jie’s “Though I Am Gone” touches upon sensitive issues during the Cultural Revolution, it was banned in China. Hu Jie himself was blacklisted by the government. The Fourth Reel China Documentary Biennial’s evaluation of the above-mentioned film is as follows: “The noble temperament and the questioning nature of the work are like a whip, flogging the sleeping reality. The film’s clean and simple black and white colors and the cross-editing of photography and videography — the visual elements became a witness to prove and reveal evidence; all these elements leave an extraordinarily intense and lasting impression on viewers, and the kind of suffering and repressed emotion continues through to the end of the film.”

Before the film’s screening, Hu Jie told Duowei reporters, “Although my documentary cannot be released domestically in China and thus is unable to generate income, I am still very content when I see it being duplicated and sold on the black market because in this way, I can still spread my work in China.”

Increasing numbers of documentary filmmakers and activities
Due to the simplified and ubiquitous digital recording technology, no one knows exactly how many people in China are shooting documentaries as more ambitiously vocal Chinese have participated in the movement to record China. Beijing Film Academy professor Hao Jian believes that “as the numbers of people increase, the people within our field of vision are in the hundreds.”

During the Third Bienniel in 2006, Chinese peasants filmed simple, black-and-white silent documentaries to help the European Union carry out the “Plans to Spread the Image of the Autonomy of Chinese Villagers.” In the midst of those plans, the European Union subsidized ten Chinese peasants and trained them to shoot documentaries on grassroots democracy.

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. Professor Cui Weiping told Duowei, “Chinese officials don’t care much for these. However, occasionally, they will look into some films and blacklist the people they don’t like. Hu Jie was blacklisted in this way.”

Beijing Film Academy professor Hao Jian said, “In China, the propaganda films that Zhang Yimou has shot for the Beijing Olympics and Shanghai World Exposition have been categorized as documentaries. The documentaries conserved by the government officials are known to possess Zhang Yimou’s style. I used to be the art director or supervisor of some of these films, but I am sure I am not the one who has directed such a style into these films.”

Hao Jian used three key words to link the independent Chinese documentaries: reality, ethics, and language. He especially takes notice of the language of the documentaries and discovers that there is a huge disparity between the independent documentaries and CCTV aesthetics: “Because of my background in mainland China, when I am watching independent documentaries, I always wonder, ‘Will the CCTV censorship officials let these documentaries pass?’” Hao Jian said, “In comparison with the CCTV aesthetics, not only do independent documentaries have the drive and courage to confront reality, they also have vigor and conciseness in language.”

Hao Jian said to Duowei, “Independent documentaries have presented reality. Its original and concise language is even more powerful than the language in Shen Shaomin’s “I am Chinese” in its representation of the artistic style in the contemporary age.” Hao Jian believes that in China, a new documentary code of ethics is being created: “That is, ‘It’s okay. You can process the footage, but you must tell the audience what you did.”

- See also:
* Hu Jie’s full documentary “Though I Am Gone” via YouTube
* A profile of Hu Jie from journalist Zhao Minglei’s blog
* An excerpt from Out of Mao’s Shadow, by Philip Pan, which tells the story of Hu Jie’s efforts to document Lin Zhao’s life and death (Read CDT’s interview with Pan about the book.)

Hu Jie’s documentary about Lin Zhao can be seen in full on YouTube.
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