The 93rd Academy Awards have just ended, and although “Do Not Split”, which reflects Hong Kong’s anti-China movement, missed out on the Best Documentary Short Film award, another independent documentary, “The Siege of PolyU”, was selected as the opening film for the upcoming 12th Taiwan International Documentary Film Festival (TIDF). However, “PolyU Siege,” an independent documentary about Hong Kong’s anti-China movement, was selected as the opening film for the upcoming 12th Taiwan International Documentary Film Festival (TIDF). The director from China told Voice of America that Chinese independent documentaries have gone from the peak of their popularity to the suspension of independent film festivals and the exile of many directors overseas.
The 12th Taiwan International Documentary Film Festival will be held on April 30, and the opening film, “The Siege of Li Da” by an anonymous Hong Kong documentary filmmaker, will be selected to kick off the festival. The film chronicles the massive clashes between police and civilians that erupted at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University in November 2019, and several other Chinese documentaries such as “Wandering Stones,” “Lost in Translation,” and “One Day. “and others, are also included in the “To! Chinese Independent Documentary” section.
The Breakthrough from “One Piece” to “Everyone”
It is generally believed that Chinese independent documentaries began after 1989. At that time, cameras and film were very expensive, and even the development of film had to be accompanied by a shooting license, so it was difficult for the general public to access them. If you really wanted to learn how to make films, you had to work in a TV station to have access to cameras and editors. As you can see, most of the documentary filmmakers at that time graduated from the Beijing Film Academy and the then Broadcasting Academy, but they were limited by the equipment and facilities, and many of them were “piecemeal”, so they did not follow up after making a film.
Wen Hai, a Chinese independent documentary filmmaker who was a jury member of the Beijing Independent Film Festival and now lives in Hong Kong, told the Voice of America, “At that time, equipment was very expensive, and not many people could shoot. This was because of the very large equipment limitations at the time. These equipment and expensive and there is a strict censorship, in fact, you are very difficult to continue to make films in China, including China in the 1990s there are some directors to make films, or after shooting is ‘a piece of doctrine’, after shooting do not know where to go.”
According to Wen Hai, it was not until 1997, when Japan’s Panasonic launched a handheld digital video recorder (DV), that the development of Chinese documentaries entered a very important turning point. Its ease of use, as well as the more affordable and other advantages, so that the general public can have this shooting tool, resulting in the shooting of documentaries is no longer only the patent of professional institutions.
In addition, the emergence of a large number of pirated CDs in the late 1990s made it possible to see much of the content that could not be seen in film schools, and directors watched other people’s original works, making it possible for “self-taught filmmakers” on the one hand, and expanding the horizons of Chinese directors on the other. They discovered that making documentaries was not just about going to Xinjiang to shoot the landscape, but about exposing the real face.
According to Wen Hai, in 2001, China’s independent documentary film festival emerged, establishing a platform for communication between directors and Chinese audiences, so that directors could finally not have their films smuggled abroad for festival screenings, but could screen them publicly in their own countries.
According to Chinese independent documentary filmmaker Wen Hai, the emergence of DV, the prevalence of pirated CDs, and the exchange of independent films in China have led to more people getting involved in independent documentary filmmaking. As a result, Chinese independent documentaries can operate independently of the government system, from learning to make films, to production and exchange, without the need for official resources.
Wen Hai said, “(With) these three conditions, you can learn to make films on your own, you can make them on your own, and you can practice them on your own. Film is the art of practice, after shooting you empower yourself, then I have a place to put my film after shooting, I am a director, not you are a director only when you join the official film association.”
After that, one can see that many of the directors/shooters of independent documentaries in China are not professionals in film or television, and are no longer dependent on television stations for a living. They come from a wider social class, including bank employees, teachers, NGO workers, painters, human rights lawyers, petitioners, peasants, and migrant workers. The documentary is a vehicle for them to express their observations, criticisms and personal ideas about society.
From “public space” to “private colony”
Wen Hai says that in the 1990s, as the economy improved, he, like many others, believed that the day of democracy and freedom in Chinese society would come, so he was not afraid to make independent documentaries.
He said, “I started to feel more pressure after 2010, including the previous independent film festival, although it was also very difficult, but more or less changing places to broadcast became more niche, basically still existed, but then even the possibility of existence did not exist!”
According to Wen Hai’s recollection, after 2010, the most important independent documentary film festivals in China were “demolished” one after another. The “South of the Clouds” independent documentary film festival, which had been held for five years, was completely shut down. Independent documentary film festivals in Beijing and Nanjing have also reverted from public or semi-public spaces to “private colonies” and “underground” status. The most notable example is that in 2014, on the eve of the opening of the Beijing Independent Film Festival, public security confiscated more than 1,500 films from the collection, making it a “film festival without films” and the darkest day in the history of Chinese film festivals.
Chinese independent documentary filmmaker Wen Hai said, “At present, China’s public independent documentary film festival no longer exists, and everything seems to be back to the 1990s. People can only show their films privately or at home, and they are afraid to write reviews to communicate with each other. Although some people continue to make documentaries, the government is trying to “convert” them to the system.
Ying Liang, a Chinese director in exile in Hong Kong, says that documentaries have never been a part of the mainstream of film and television, and that it has always been very difficult to go from filming to promotion and distribution. Chinese independent documentaries, like the development of Chinese civil society, reached a peak around 2008, when they reached a relatively impressive level of production, both in terms of quantity and quality, whether they were about social movements or exploring roles at the forefront of art.
Speaking to Voice of America, Ying Liang said, “Around 2011 and 2012, several large and long-lasting independent film festivals were shut down by the government, basically marking a serious blow to the documentary movement, a state of ‘ruin’ in the language of a commentator called Zhang Xianmin. That is to say, it is more famous but not real, there is no release, or even if we see the authors continue to do it, but the number is reduced, and the standard also tends to decline.”
According to Ying Liang, the situation of Chinese documentaries has been at a low ebb since 2012. Some have even suggested that the era of Chinese documentaries is almost over, just as the rock movement or the poetry and literature movement that preceded it in China has become a thing of the past. In response to such pessimistic comments, Ying Liang responded, “I agree in part, and am still observing.”
Ying Liang said that as far as he knows, fewer people are making documentaries in China now, and some of them (though not too many) are losing their freedom or going to jail as a result, while others are leaving the country. It’s similar to what happened to documentary film festivals and events after 2012,” he said, “in that they’ve been broken up, and they’re not a group like they used to be. They’ve also dispersed outside of China, and it’s harder to get together and have a centralized dialogue. The documentary community is also similar to this situation, including the division of consciousness, which is the situation after the peak of documentary film.”
Comment: Documentaries should reflect, record and respond to the times
In an interview with the Voice of America, Guo Lixin, dean of the School of Communication at Taiwan’s National Chengchi University, said that documentaries often reveal the truth that is covered up by the government, and that they can play a role in influencing society and changing it.
He said, “For example, director Wang Jiu-liang made two films, one is ‘Garbage Siege’, he filmed the garbage piles buried everywhere in Beijing’s fourth and fifth ring roads, piled up on the roadside, he made this record, the Beijing government later immediately reformed the problem of dealing with garbage in Beijing, so he is immediately helped to So he was an immediate environmental health favor.”
Guo Lixin says that the Chinese government is unlikely to accept documentaries that deal with political issues, and directors who question the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party are not allowed to stay in the country, so directors often choose self-exile and exile.
Although the change in material conditions has revolutionized the concept of documentary filmmaking from aesthetics, subject matter, distribution channels to production, and what used to be considered the work of professional photographers, now everyone can become a creator, and editing software has become easy to use, but the ease of access to tools does not mean that a documentary can be organized with a clear point of view or drive people’s awareness.
After all, says Guo Lixin, documentaries need to have a point of view and be of value to public affairs. Regardless of the subject matter, the creators should reflect what they think and feel with their documentaries, and record and respond to the times.