Forays into Film: Independent Chinese Documentary

By Cindy M. Carter, published

Some folks document contemporary Chinese society with words. Others do it with photography, visual art, music or film. At Paper Republic, we tend to focus on the wordsmiths: the novelists, essayists and poets who form the landscape of Chinese literature, and help to shape our perceptions of modern China.

But some of the most daring work in China today is being done by independent documentarians, guerrilla filmmakers armed with newly-affordable digital cameras, laptop computers and editing software. They tend to work alone, on shoestring budgets, outside the state-owned studio distribution system and - perhaps more importantly - beyond the reach of censors. And they're not the cast-offs, people who couldn't cut it the world of mainstream film: many are graduates of the Beijing Film Academy, alumni of China Central Television (CCTV), accomplished directors or cinematographers who left lucrative commercial careers to make the kind of films they always wanted to.

One of these days, we'll have a section on Paper Republic about Chinese indie film. Maybe we'll call it Digital Republic. In the meantime, my little bio of film work includes synopses of 15 outstanding documentaries and feature films from the last 8 years, with links to directors (photos/bios/filmographies), film festival awards and reviews in industry publications. Some of the highlights:

Wang Bing - continuing "his run as one of the world's supreme doc filmmakers with Fengming: A Chinese Memoir." (Variety)

Zhao Liang - whose Crime and Punishment "cements China's position as a doc powerhouse" (Variety), says that sometimes he feels "like I’m stealing from the people I shoot. It’s their life that has given me the inspiration to create, and that’s why I feel guilty."

Li Ying - who was forced to relocate his production company offices in Tokyo after receiving right-wing death threats related to his film Yasukuni, a controversial documentary about Japan's Yasukuni Shrine. Although the film was expected to sail through the Chinese censorship process, it has yet to be approved for theatrical release in China.

Cui Zi'en - author, director and university professor widely hailed as one of the pioneers of Chinese queer cinema.

And those are just the filmmakers I've translated, the ones who happened to make the list. Here are some other outstanding documentary directors, not to be missed:

Du Haibin: Along the Railway, Beautiful Men, Umbrella Wu Wenguang: Bumming in Beijing, Dances with Migrant Workers, Fuck Cinema! Yang Lina: Old Men, Home Video, The Love of Mr. An Ni Zhen: Graduation, Postscript Duan Jinchuan: The Square, No.16 Barkhor Street Zhang Yuan: The Square, Demolition and Relocation, Crazy English Yu Guangyi: The Last Lumberjacks, Survival Song Luo Jian/Jiang Ping: Tale of Zhou


# 1.   

Hi, Cindy!

I've been waiting for some kind of resource like this, as I'm trying to put together some kind of pitch that university libraries should have a considerable collection of independent Chinese documentaries. Is there a centralized way to order or purchase these? US/China English/Chinese is fine -- I'm just looking for a way to avoid traversing all the festival websites.


Nick Admussen, June 29, 2009, 9:23p.m.

# 2.   

Dear Nick,

As far as I know, there isn't one centralized archive or website with a full selection of Chinese independent documentary films. I can recommend a few sites and organizations that might be helpful:

(1) The Li Xianting Film Fund in Songzhuang arts district (near Beijing) houses an extensive collection of Chinese indie documentaries, feature films and shorts. Contact info can be found on the website.

(2) Fanhall Films is an independent distribution company, also based in Songzhuang. It was started by Zhu Rikun, the organizer of the Beijing Independent Film Festival and the Beijing Independent Documentary Festival. Zhu Rikun knows more about Chinese indie film than anyone, and should be able to help track down any film you might want. If you can't reach him via the e-mail address on the site, I can give you his number.

(3) The China Independent Documentary Film Archive (CIDFA) is curated by director Wu Wenguang, and offers films for purchase.

(4) dGenerate films has a small, but growing, catalogue of Chinese documentaries and feature films available for institutional and private purchase. (see comment below for info on new dGenerate film releases).

(5) The government-run China Film Archive may have some recent documentaries. I also hear that they have a large collection of early propaganda films (zhuanti pian)and documentaries.

If I hear of any new sources, I'll pass them along.

Best of luck with your university library proposal!


Cindy M. Carter, June 30, 2009, 5:11a.m.

# 3.   

Hi Cindy, thanks for all your great subtitles. I just wanted to add that Zhu Rikun actually is the manager of "Li Xianting Fimfund". All the Best, Katharina

Katharina Schneider-ROos, June 30, 2009, 7:49a.m.

# 4.   

Excellent. This helps very much -- thanks.

Nick Admussen, June 30, 2009, 5:15p.m.

# 5.   

Dear Katharina - thanks for the note about Zhu Rikun and the Li Xianting Film Fund. I forgot to mention that.

For readers who aren't familiar with Zhu Rikun, he wears many hats: film fund manager, festival programmer, film distributor, critic, film promoter and all-around "angel" for struggling independent filmmakers. Just a few months ago, he was in the U.S. hosting a series of Chinese film screenings and Q&A sessions at Harvard and other university campuses. This week, he and his wife welcomed their first child! A busy guy who has made immeasurable contributions to Chinese film.

Cindy M. Carter, June 30, 2009, 11:38p.m.

# 6.   

Also worth checking out for screenings of new documentaries, and interesting chat and projects on the subject, is CNEX, run by a Taiwanese collective and headed up by the similarly multi-talented Ben Tsiang. See more Thanks Cindy!

Jennyniv, July 2, 2009, 3:11a.m.

# 7.   

I didn't know about CNEX. Just checked out their site...very cool. There are some familiar names too: Ben Tsiang, Sina co-founder; director Hao Zhiqiang; other talented people. Many thanks for posting this, Jenny.

Cindy M. Carter, July 2, 2009, 4:49p.m.

# 8.   

Much thanks for the mention of our small but rapidly growing distribution company. We will be distributing Cui Zi'en's films Queer China and Enter the Clowns in the fall, and have added prominent films like Liu Jiayin's Oxhide. We've been working closely with the independent film community in China since our inception, and are excited about making these films available in the US.

Nick, feel free to contact us, we'd be happy to assist however you like. Thanks!

Brent, July 21, 2009, 5:15p.m.

# 9.   

Suppose I should have made it clear I'm with dGenerate Films (!

Brent, July 21, 2009, 5:21p.m.

# 10.   

Dear Brent,

Thanks for your post. Great to hear about new additions to your catalogue from directors Cui Zi'en and Liu Jiayin, among others.

For you film buffs following this thread, the dGenerate website has a series, "Cinema Talk", which features conversations with Professor Lu Xinyu, author of Documenting China: The New Documentary Movement and Professor Chris Berry, author of Cinema and the National: China on Screen.

Cindy M. Carter, July 22, 2009, 11:46p.m.

# 11.   

Hey Cindy,

I just wanted to say that this web page is amazing. I'm currently compiling a filmography of contemporary Chinese films which document the social implications of economic reform in post-79 China. This has been really useful. Thank you!

Faith Pang, September 28, 2009, 6:05p.m.

# 12.   

Thanks Faith, and am glad you enjoyed the site! I thought of a few other films, perhaps not very well-known, that might be useful for your filmography:

Tale of Zhou (2006. 136 mins.) by directors Jiang Ping and Luo Jian. The first in a five-part documentary series (Southern Tales) depicting the lives of economic migrants in Guangzhou.

Survival Song (2008) and Men Without Women (2009) by director Yu Guangyi. Both are documentaries that show how urbanization, economic development and new environmental regulations have affected the livelihoods of people living in remote mountainous regions of Heilongjiang Province.

In Survival Song, a hunter/trapper and his wife take an unemployed drifter named Xiao Lizi into their home. When their house is demolished to make way for a nearby dam, the family scatters: the wife goes back to her hometown, Xiao Lizi finds temporary work on a construction site, and the hunter/trapper - who is wanted for poaching - flees to escape the law.

Men Without Women tells the story of four men whose marriages have been destroyed by poverty and unemployment.

Many of Du Haibin's films touch on the social effects of China's economic reform. I think there's a lot of information about him and his films online.

Hope that's helpful.

cindy carter, October 8, 2009, 7:22a.m.

# 13.   

Hi everyone,

Great resources here and a great article!

I have a question for the community. I'm a film producer / director based in San Francisco...and I have three documentary films in post-production. But, I'm looking to replace or hire an editor for each film (or maybe do two at the same time). The editor needs to be bi-lingual (Mandarin / USA), and have experience editing documentaries. This is a PAID position.

Here's a quick synopsis:

  1. Asian American actress with TV credits goes back to Taiwan to confront the father who left her and her mom when she was two. Father married 5 wives in the span of 25 years, and is still running.

  2. A personal documentary for the new singer in Jay Chou's company. Tracks her rise from a no-name college graduate in the US to the biggest thing going in Taiwan.

  3. A documentary on the shifting landscape of dating in Taiwan. How has the economic explosion of Taiwan in the last 40 years affected the current generation's views on dating and marriage.

Please contact me if you have any referrals for editors.

Thanks in advance.


Damon Chang, October 17, 2009, 10:30a.m.

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