Independent documentaries from mainland China have received increased attention and recognition overseas in recent years. The 2010 Buenos Aires International Festival of Independent Cinema has added a new category, “Radical Visions From China,” consisting of eight locally based contemporary filmmakers.
Four of the eight winning entries of Humanitarian Awards for Documentaries shown during the Hong Kong International film Festival that concluded on April 6 were productions by mainland Chinese directors.
One of the award winners was Petition, a 12-year project by 39-year-old Zhao Liang. The documentary that recorded the stories of a group of petitioners in Beijing was to be shown by invitation at a special screening in Cannes last March. The movie was banned in China right after its debut at the Beijing Independent Film Festival.
Zhao Liang remarked that Petition is more important for Chinese audiences than foreign audiences, because many people in China have no idea that incredible things like this happened and are still happening in their own country.
Another documentary, Karamay by Xu Xin tells the story of a tragic fire on Dec. 8, 1994. Students were unable to escape the burning theater because they followed a government official's order: “Every one keep quiet! Don’t move. Let the leaders go first.” The officials left safely, leaving the children to perish in the burning theater.
Xu Xin commented he records history because he hopes these momentous events would never be forgotten. Commenting during an interview with Hong Kong media, he stated: “Even today these issues have not been resolved. In 2008 we experienced the melamine milk scandal, and this year we had toxic vaccines. We have numerous yearly mine accidents. All those cost lives.”
Xu said the authorities promised to raise a memorial to the young burn victims, but 16 years have passed, and the promise has not been kept. The children's parents have not been issued death certificates, and all their petitions have been rejected.
‘People Want to Know’
Karamay is banned in China, but Hong Kong independent documentary director Tammy Cheung, who hosted the movie’s Hong Kong premier, affirmed it attracted a large crowd at the Film Festival and spotted Chinese officials among the audience. “I eventually heard these officials told the Film Festival organizers to stop showing this movie,” she said.
Though under pressure from China, Chinese independent documentaries have gained worldwide respect. However, independent filmmakers are compelled to bring their productions abroad since for them, mainland Chinese media access is tightly closed. Independent directors have produced most award-winning Chinese documentaries during the past two decades.
As she spoke about the popularity of Chinese documentaries in overseas markets, Tammy Cheung related her experience at a European film festival: “The reporters were only interested in independent documentaries from mainland China and paid little attention to those from Hong Kong and Taiwan. People want to know more about what’s happening in China because it has been behind closed doors for so long, so topics about China are really a focal point.”
Cheung has made several trips to mainland China to make documentaries and was shocked by the challenges that confronted her: “In Hong Kong you can use any topic, but that is not the case in China. Many sensitive topics, like mine accidents, earthquakes, and land grabs are taboo subjects. We were denied access to many regions.”
When Cheung and her colleagues finally finished two education documentaries in the far rural areas of China, they found it impossible to bring their productions to the mainland Chinese public. “All we could do was to screen those movies in private gatherings of professionals,” she said. “Going public in mainland China is out of the question.”
Documentaries are rare in China’s government-run media. As Chinese documentary director Zhou Bing pointed out, independent documentaries are not in any way supported in China. “There is no organization or fund for documentaries, and there is barely any platform to play documentaries.”
Hu Jie, a former military man and painter, resigned from the Xinhua News Agency in 1999 to shoot a documentary about miners working at small coal mines in Qinghai’s Qilian Mountains. He told the media of his experiences of hiding from the mine owners. “They wanted to drive me away, so I hid among the miners or hid in the Tibetan regions for a while, and then snuck back.
“The miners eventually told me to run, so I did. On my way out, a bullet flew past my shoulder from behind. I could feel the bullet's trajectory being fast enough to shoot through my body. I knew this was a threat. I had hunted with those people, and I knew they were good marksmen.”
Advanced technologies have allowed many to film their own documentaries. Tammy Cheung reads it this way: “The country is inundated with too much tension and hatred. Many people want their voices to be heard. Many want to be interviewed, to be heard.”
The new Simone de Beauvoir Prize-winner, Ai Xiaoming, a Chinese professor and producer of a few human rights-related documentaries has been denied passport renewal and access to Hong Kong.
Ai said she was told not to shoot movies or discuss human rights before she went to Sichuan Province for her documentaries about the earthquake victims and survivors, including Our Children and An Investigation by Citizens.
“Sichuan’s Domestic Security Team officials blacklisted my name, so I had a really hard time there. We didn’t even dare to go to a hotel for a shower because the hotels would request to see our ID,” she said.
Ai persisted despite the dangers. “Today’s China is losing an important part—memory. This is how authorities maintain an autocratic ruling: They take away history and thus take away common sense, morals, and many other things,” she said. “If we persistently record history over the past 10 years, we will be able to see the changes in the decade. We can save this history for future generations.”
Read the original Chinese article.