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See no evil

Zhu Rikun, a leading light of independent Chinese film, on its troubled future.

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 first appeared in the 22 October 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Ai Weiwei guest-edit

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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis