The hazards for independent Chinese cinema

Zhu Rikun writes about the perils of trying to make political films in an authoritarian state.

Statues at the Songzhuang Culture Arts Festival. Photograph: Getty Images.

In April 2011, less than a month before the opening of the eighth Beijing Independent Documentary Festival – of which I was artistic director – I had to announce that it was cancelled. I also withdrew from a film foundation in Songzhuang, Beijing, which I had chaired for almost five years.

For me, these actions reflect how the independent film scene in China is trapped. Naturally, the government has never liked independent films. Over the past few years, the festival that I set up has hardly ever been able to run smoothly. In China, such a project is considered “illegal”. Although it seems that more people are interested in the country’s independent films and the critical reception is positive, they are misguided – the current state of independent cinema in China is far from ideal.

From 2000, changes in digital film technology and the development of the internet made production simpler and boosted independent film-making. Many works of value emerged. Ultimately, though, this lively period did not produce plentiful results. In the past two years, independent film-making has been lacklustre.

In China, there are three types of film: mainstream films led by the Communist Party and government propaganda; commercial mainstream films; and uncensored independent films. However, all kinds of work fall into the category “independent” and there is a gap between people’s expectations and what exists under the definition.

A few years ago, the commercial success of contemporary Chinese art seemed to be an example for independent film-makers to follow. They hoped to duplicate the methods used in contemporary art to promote an independent film-making “movement”. In the famous 798 Art Zone in the north-east of Beijing, the Iberia Centre for Contemporary Art held an important position in independent cinema and was good at publicity. In the academic world some people also wanted to promote independent films. For example, some of the teachers from the Beijing Film Academy, such as Cui Weiping and Zhang Xianmin, were able to show independent films in the academy and hold salons. They also held screenings and commented on films. At Tongji University in Shanghai, there were festivals and discussions. In this way, the visual artists and academics became interlinked. Although these two groups do not have a strong influence on film creativity itself, they are able to build a profile for independent film among wider society.

Over the past two or three years in China there have been more and more independent festivals and screenings. On the one hand, this shows that the number of people who know about

independent film is increasing. On the other, these activities rarely involve any noteworthy or innovative directors. First, self-censorship is serious. The organisers are almost all pragmatists, not idealists. Nanjing’s China Independent Film Festival and Shanghai’s Film Festival on the Water, for example, exclude sensitive works and only screen films tolerated by the government. Some censored documentaries have been distributed but the most widely distributed in recent years, such as Together (2002, about a 13-year-old violin prodigy) or Last Train Home (2009, about China’s 130 million migrant workers), are films that have passed censorship. Television stations also took part in production of parts of these films.

The earliest group of underground directors – which included Zhang Yuan, Wang Xiaoshuai, Lou Ye and Jia Zhangke, and emerged between the late 1980s and 2000 – was dubbed the “Sixth Generation” by western film critics. It no longer exists. Most of the directors now

submit to the system or have lost their creative power. Some of the Sixth Generation continue to produce work in isolated cases, but independent film has become a muddied pond. There

are no longer prominent figures and international recognition has been flattened. Within the circle, motives are mixed. The lifespan of the Sixth Generation is short.

Nowadays, poignant and outstanding films cannot be distributed, such as Karamay, Xu Xin’s documentary about the 1994 theatre fire where audience members were not allowed to leave until Communist Party officials had been evacuated. Documentaries from Ai Weiwei’s studio rely on the internet and free DVDs to

get a reaction. Few film festivals and screenings are interested. In academic and independent film circles they are seldom discussed. Disturbing the Peace (in which Ai confronts government officials about the arrest of his assistant) was watched widely because it was put on the internet. Some artists on the relative fringes of filmmaking, such as Ai Xiaoming, find it hard to get their works shown, because a lot of her films are about sensitive incidents or people.

Yet many film festivals consider it an honour to gain official blessing or have academia as

a co-operation partner. Some years ago, the head of Film Art, a magazine of the China Film Society, wanted to run a festival and show some independent films. I gave some advice. But this festival is now basically no different from an official meeting. During the activities, officials come to give speeches and all the films have to undergo censorship.

At present, the best that artists can do is to persist as far as they can within the limitations of the system, but the results often lack creativity. Optimism would be misplaced. I still doubt whether there is a way out when there is clearly a lack of ideas or skills and when there is such a restrictive environment. Things will change if genuinely independent film-makers leave this circle and take responsibility themselves. Only then will there be a glimmer of hope.

This article is available in Chinese here.