Close Shots of Society


One of the most anticipated activities during the ongoing Beijing International Film Festival is the screening of 260 movies in a single week, a diverse offering compared to current selections at theaters. Of the films, 21 are documentaries, including six from China. Documentary movies made in China tend to be sparse, compared to the mainstream, box office hits. But recent attention paid to documentaries signals a shift in the field.

Though few documentaries make significant profits, Chinese cinemas still make room for documentaries each year, both domestic and international productions. Documentaries such as The Bund (2010), Ocean (2011) and The Somalia Truth (2012) were all warmly welcome in China.

Documentary development

Domestic documentary filmmaking burgeoned in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Li Xiaofeng, an associate professor of College of Communication and Art at Tongji University, told Oriental Outlook magazine that the combination of US direct cinema and the French cinéma vérité, or real cinema, led to the transition of the field. Domestic, CCTV-made documentaries like The Silk Road and Recovering the Yangtze River were no longer the only models. 

In China, film directors are usually grouped by generation. But there are no clear divisions of independent documentary filmmakers.

Documentary filmmakers Wu Wenguang, Duan Jingchuan, Jiang Yue and Zhang Yuan were key figures in cultivating the rise of this film genre in Beijing. They emphasized the key principles behind independent filmmaking: independent operation and independent thoughts.

Themes of documentaries evolved over time. In the 1990s, most documentary filmmakers went to remote regions like Xinjiang and Tibet to shoot. For example, Ji Dan spent a year in a Tibetan village, producing two documentaries, The Older and Gongbo's Happy Life.

About 10 years later, themes shifted from filming remote locations to focusing on societal issues and marginalized groups. Representative works of this period include Du Haibing's Along the Railway, which featured tramps living on a day-to-day basis, and Yang Lina's Old Men, which documented old Beijing men who devoted their youth to factory work.

Entering the new millenium, a younger generation of documentary filmmakers surfaced. Xu Qiangwu, born in 1984, explores post-modern themes in his films. Martian Syndrome tells the struggles of a man from Mars who visits Beijing. I Beat Tiger When I Was Young profiles a middle aged man, living in the memories of his faded youth.

Unheard voices

Independent documentaries focus on less privileged, disadvantaged groups of society. Xu Xing, an independent director, was an avant-garde writer back in the 1980s. Back then, the limitation on film technology delayed his entry into the industry. When technology was more accessible in the 1990s, Xu began experimenting with different types of film, focusing on marginalized communities.

"Who has a drastically different life? Pan Shiyi and Ren Zhiqiang [two real estate tycoons]? Or a coal miner and a butcher?" Xu asked.

"The reality is that these [laborers] are [hardened by society] and easy to reach," Xu said. These groups are the heroes and heroines in his documentaries.

Xu once filmed under the Guangming Bridge in the East Second Ring Road. Beijing often uses bridges as a symbol to advertise the capital as a modern, connected city, yet there is an unexposed city of people living under the bridge. Xu met a young woman from Yunnan Province who sold corn under the bridge. She was meant to be sold as a bride in Beijing, but escaped.

Westerners use documentaries as a way to see the unknown parts of China. While some domestic directors cater to the tastes of a Western audience, shooting documentaries to appeal to commercial ideals, most independent directors provide accurate portrayals of Chinese society. In a culturally rich and rapidly developing country like China, old houses are torn down overnight, and new buildings are erected in a flash. But there is never a shortage of filming material.

"The everyday life of Chinese people is filled with interesting things," Li said.

Harsh realities

In 2009, Shan Zuolong, an independent filmmaker, read Chinese novel Lixiangzhuyi De Kunhuo, roughly translated as, confusion about idealism. Shan was moved by the main protagonist Ogawa Shinsuke, and his pursuit of art despite living in poverty.

There are five people in Shan's company, sharing a 140 square meters house in Hangzhou, capital of Zhejiang Province. The rent is 3,500 yuan ($556) per month.

Xu, 56, also lives minimally. He rents a two-bedroom house outside Beijing's North Fourth Ring Road. Half of the rent is paid for by his mother, who is already 90 years old. "I still [live off my parents]," Xu said.

Hao Jian, a professor at the Beijing Film Academy, compares independent feature films directors and independent documentary filmmakers. While the former lives in wealthy residence communities that border Beijing's Third Ring Road, the latter congregates in Tongzhou District and Songzhuang township, often paying less than 1,000 yuan for a room.

"What a documentary filmmaker cares about is sustainability," said documentary filmmaker Li Xiaofeng. "When one project wraps up, money needs to be collected for the next. Many film directors give up if their first film fails."

"If you do not think about what is sustainable, you won't have money to continue," said documentary filmmaker Jing Huaqing, who is hoping to get financial help from international film organizations.

A BBC documentary can cost over 200, 000 yuan ($32,000) per minute to film. For most independent domestic directors, this is greater than the cost of producing an entire film.


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