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Beijing Doc: A Report on Nonfiction Filmmaking in China

By Lisa Leeman

From Kevin McKieman's 'Bringing King to China', which documents the National Theater of China's production about Martin Luther King Jr.

Last summer, as part of an exchange program with the University of Southern California and the Communication University of China, I set off with six USC students and fellow US filmmaker Johanna Demetrakas to teach a six-week documentary workshop in Beijing, China. 

With China in the headlines almost daily, I wondered what I'd encounter. I'd spent a month there in 1984--only eight years after Mao died--and I remembered Beijing as a chaotic sea of bicycles, powered by citizens dressed in somber green and blue "Mao jackets." Foreigners were required to stay in cordoned-off hotels; few Chinese dared talk to us Westerners; I saw no free enterprise anywhere

The difference between China then and now is astonishing. I saw a smooth web of cars; a sea of mini-skirts and bell-bottoms; and a bustling capitalism was everywhere, from street vendors to giant electronic billboards to state-run television news reports about the bull stock market and advice for newbie investors. When I remarked on this to one of my students, she quickly corrected me: "It's not capitalism, it's free-market reforms." 

Beijing, and much of China, is a society in rapid, dizzying transition. The New York Times has called this "The Chinese Century," and it was thrilling to find that documentary filmmakers are capturing the disorientating transformation.

It was only as recent as 1990 that Wu Wenguang's Bumming in Beijing, a portrait of five artists living and working in Beijing without work permits, appeared and earned the moniker of the first independent Chinese documentary. Eight years later, with the advent of digital cameras, economic reforms, the Internet and thriving cultural exchanges, there is an explosion of independent documentary work taking place in China, being produced by both Chinese and foreigners. 

What follows are purely anecdotal impressions of the indie doc scene in Beijing, ranging from an afternoon with Wu Wenguang, "the father of independent Chinese documentary," to American docmaker Kevin McKiernan (Good Kurds, Bad Kurds), who was chronicling the National Theater of China's production of the life story of Martin Luther King Jr. Others interviewed include co-teacher and veteran documentary filmmaker Duan Jinchuan (The Secret of My Success); Canadian Patrick Pearce, who is making a doc about the red-hot art scene in Beijing; Jian Yi, a prolific young Chinese filmmaker (Supergirls); and Miao Wang (Yellow Ox Mountain), a Chinese-American woman making a doc about Beijing taxi-drivers.


Vérité: The Chinese Style and Aesthetic

My primer on Chinese indie docs, and therefore, on contemporary modern Chinese life, came from Duan Jinchuan. Each Tuesday he screened an indie Chinese doc that captured yet another slice of life being turned upside down in the new China. Docs screened included Duan's The Secret of My Success, for which he spent six months following the shenanigans and serious stakes in the village council election in a remote town in Northeastern China. The film is a humorous and insightful look at China's attempts to adopt democratic norms, as well as the impact of China's one-child policy. This film was part of the series Interesting Times (Denmark's TV2, the UK's BBC and Arte-France), in which four established Chinese documentary makers were commissioned to make observational films about how the changes in modern China affect its citizens.

Other docs screened included This Happy Life (Jiang Yue), a portrait of two workers at the Zhengshou train station, China's largest rail hub. The colleagues represent old and new China--one is an idealist and romantic, stuck in the past; the other yearns to lead a modern consumer life. The film fascinatingly captures changes in both the spiritual and material lives of millions of Chinese today, as some leap forward and others are left behind by the new spirit of free enterprise. Floating Life (Huang Weikai) is a grim portrait of a free-spirited slacker street-performer who constantly fights with his girlfriend and dodges the authorities. 

Each of these docs was produced in an unflinching observational style, with long takes-- often in wide shot, with few close-ups or cutaways--and a pacing that often seemed slow to this Westerner's sensibilities. One Western filmmaker mused, "It is a delicate question--do Western and Chinese filmmakers and audiences simply have deeply different senses of pacing and storytelling, or could Chinese docs still be in the process of maturing?"

Another Western filmmaker observed, "Chinese docs are obsessed with vérité, at the expense of craft."  He cited one post-screening discussion, in which a Westerner criticized the Chinese documentarian for being "anti-style" and disregarding the audience. The filmmaker replied disdainfully that "We're not interested in massaging audiences." Another Western filmmaker speculated that Chinese programmers and filmmakers are still developing a unique Chinese vérité style. "Everybody here ‘knows' that vérité docs are the highest level, but they don't necessarily know how to approach it," the filmmaker notes. "Filmmakers here bow down to Fred Wiseman, but they are not yet thinking carefully about character, story and structure, how to develop vérité stories in a compelling way."

Many Chinese documentarians I spoke with did cite Wiseman, DA Pennebaker and Bob Connolly as influences on their work. University of California San Diego Professor Yingjin Zhang has argued that the issue is more nuanced: "The Chinese preference for the cinéma-vérité and interview styles represents an attempt to resist the propagandist, voice-of-God approach in the official news and documentary programming."

Chinese colleagues told me that until the '90s, all docs in China were officially made, and heavily pre-produced. Footage was carefully edited to conform to a pre-existing script. "Creative editing," in which the story is created in the documentary editing process, is itself a relatively new practice in China. Many of these new indie docs in China are being edited over four to six months, which is similar to many Western indie schedules.

Docs and the Government

A puzzling question arose from a classroom screening of To Live Is Better Than to Die (Weijun Chen), a heartbreaking vérité portrait of a farmer and his family, in which both parents and two of their three children are infected by HIV. One of our Chinese students dismissively commented, "These films feel like they're made for foreigners." When I asked why, she shrugged her shoulders. "We all know about this, why make a film about it?"--implying that it was sensationalism and spectacle, produced to make China look bad to foreigners. Another student maintained that Chinese filmmakers focused on social problems in order to sell to foreigners; who else would be interested?   

A Western acquaintance, making a doc in Beijing, feels that Chinese government-run TV does run many docs about social problems, but that they are "mostly 60 Minutes- type nonfiction. Maybe students just aren't used to observational docs." Docmaker Miao Wang, born in China and raised in the US, described a day she was shooting a blind musician performing on a Beijing street. Local bystanders started grilling her: "Why are you shooting this? Are you Chinese? Why would you want to show this? What's your motive?" She quickly stopped shooting because "It was becoming too big of a scene." 

Several filmmakers confided that they seem free to operate below the official radar, as long as their films don't openly criticize the government and don't attract too much attention. Though many observed that there are usually Chinese police or army around, ready to ask, "Are you a journalist?"-because one can be arrested for "committing journalism without a license." Recently, the Chinese government has allowed foreign journalists to travel freely, without a permit, though I am told that Chinese journalists do not enjoy this right. While there has been an explosion of indie digital docs, one Chinese documentarian insisted, "I don't think it's because of a more open political climate; I think it's as oppressive as ever."

The pressure is on for the Chinese government right now; hosting the Olympics is a great source of national pride, and there is a big push to put on a good face to the outside world. But in 2006 the blogosphere exploded with stories about Hao Wu, a Chinese filmmaker (Beijing or Bust), who was arrested and imprisoned for nearly five months while working on a documentary about one of Beijing's many "underground churches." Bloggers speculated about whether the government arrested him for making a film without a permit, or because the government wanted his footage to prosecute members of China's underground churches. The very question captures the chilling dilemma for any filmmaker who wants to record the unofficial margins of a society.

The Audience for Docs

Scholar Huiming Yu wrote in 2003, "Though the word ‘independent' itself is still sensitive in China, carrying possible political connotations, the country's censors don't pay much attention to films showing in the documentary genre at foreign festivals, since in China, audiences for documentaries are so few..."

This brings up the most confounding question for me: the matter of audiences. Whenever I asked Chinese docmakers where their films were shown in China, I got mystifying answers. I repeatedly met Chinese documentary filmmakers who continue to make docs, even though there are almost no distribution channels in China for their films.  It's rare, if not unheard of, for an indie doc, or any doc, to play in theaters in Beijing. TV is run almost entirely by the government's CCTV (China Central Television), so few, if any, independent docs run on television.

So, where do documentaries get shown in China? Filmmakers say their films can play in private film clubs, as long as they are not high-profile screenings, or high-profile criticisms of the government. Of course, these screenings will not be publicly promoted or advertised; you have to already know about them to know about them.

The most widespread distribution for indie docs, and indeed, for all films in China, is the energetic DVD scene. I spent many hours browsing racks of indie DVD stores next to Beijing campuses. Besides offering a wealth of Chinese docs and films I wouldn't be able to find in the States, I was surprised to find several films by American friends and colleagues, including Kirby Dick's recent This Film Is Not Yet Rated and the brilliant mock-doc Brothers of the Head, by Keith Fulton and Lou Pepe (who assured me they had not made a distribution deal with China). And there's the kick: Most of these DVDs are pirated. A Western friend who's lived in Beijing for the last three years assured me that it's the height of success to find your films bootlegged in China. I was quoted a sophisticated tier of prices for pirated DVDS: for subtitled only, street price is $0.75; store price, around $1; DVDs with all the extras run $1.50 on the street and as high as $2.50 in stores. Or you can rent pirated DVDs for $0.12 to $0.25 per day. Westerners who've spent any time in Beijing marvel at the sophisticated packaging of pirated DVDS; often a Chinese title is simply added over beautifully printed cover art.  "English language synopses and credits on the back, however, often have nothing to do with the film," points out documentary filmmaker Patrick Pearce. "Occasionally they print excerpts from film reviews that hilariously trash the film." Chinese friends add that the Chinese subtitles are often erroneously translated.

I saw several talk shows on CCTV about new legislation protecting intellectual property rights, but in practice there seems to be little enforcement. What this means for Chinese documentarians is that while their work might be seen by many on DVD, the filmmakers will get no financial reward, nor any direct contact with audiences.

A Chinese critic recently observed that there are three ways for a Chinese filmmaker to achieve success overseas: (1) Make a Chinese historical drama; (2) make a fantasy film about China; (3) make a film that will be banned, either by deliberately forgetting to ask the government for permission to produce it, or by neglecting to present it to the censor board when finished--then submitting it to overseas festivals. Once a film is banned, the foreigners will assume it must be good.

It is true that the new Chinese docs have found a wider audience at international film festivals (The Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival has been a particularly important channel.). Veteran docmaker Duan muses that "Even now, it's hard to tell who my audience is. Why I have to [make docs] is out of a sense of responsibility. In this way, the audience has become an abstract concept. I find that audiences are decreasing. And I care less and less about overseas audiences. It's hard to make overseas audiences understand our work. One reason is that our history is so different. Another is that we use pure vérité, and with no narration, it's harder for overseas audiences to understand [our society]."

Duan and his collaborator, Jiang Yue, elaborated on this paradox to Joshua Fischer on Frontline's website: "Mostly our films influence a small group of people, such as intellectuals, who share the same interests as us. But we have also discovered a devious road: Our documentaries can influence members of the official media. We are both members of the avant-garde, post-1989 movement of documentary filmmakers. Although our independent films are not released publicly, they have a large influence among others in the media industry. You can't expect China's media to be completely open when you wake up tomorrow morning. But there's got to be someone pushing it so that restrictions will become fewer, and the chances for free expression will become higher."   

One of the "under the radar" film exhibition sites is Beijing's Cherry Lane Movies, a small theater that presents weekend screenings of (mostly) Chinese films (fiction and doc features) with English subtitles, often with filmmakers attending for Q&A. The documentaries are programmed by Patrick Pearce, who himself is making a doc about the red-hot Dashanzi Art District (known as Factory 798), which was once a state-of-the-art military and civil electronics factory. "I'm looking at the idea of production, the transition from traditional industrial production to ‘creative industries,'" Pearce explains. "And I wondered what had become of the old factory workers." The 798 district represents the rapid cycle of change that is popping up across Beijing. "This is a zone where you feel anything can happen, and often does."

New Directions in Chinese Documentary

It was at Cherry Lane where I came across the feature doc Supergirls!, directed by Jian Yi, about the Super Girl Singing Contest, a reality TV show modeled on American Idol. Negative press surrounding the contestants of the show piqued Jian's curiosity and motivated him to explore the new generation. "The marginalized people in society are often the same at any time in history--a prostitute is a prostitute--but the mainstream can be very different," he explains. "Twenty years ago, the mainstream was the Red Guards; now it's Super Girls." The doc's end credits reveal that the show was banned after the second season. The official reason given was that the low-brow contest was diluting Chinese culture, but many suspect that the government saw the ardent devotion of the fan clubs as a potential threat to the required undivided loyalty to the Party.

Jian just finished his first fiction feature, Bamboo Shoots (Dong Sun), which won the Bronze Zenith Prize at the Montreal World Film Festival, but he particularly likes documentary because "life is a better writer than fiction." Jian's next doc, tentatively called The New Socialist Climax, follows Chinese civil servants encouraged to make pilgrimages to the birthplace of the Red Army.

Jian recently collaborated with Wu, a former teacher turned journalist whose first indie doc was Bumming in Beijing (1990). Shot between 1988 and 1990, it profiled five artists trying to live a freelance life in Beijing--the first generation to do so since 1949.

Wu's many other docs include My Time in the Red Guards, At Home in the World, and Jiang Hu: Life on the Road. But his most recent work, Fuck Cinema, changed the way he approaches filmmaking. In that film, what starts out as a simple profile of a country bumpkin who comes to Beijing to sell his screenplay transforms into a disturbing meditation on the filmmaker/subject relationship. Wu follows the bumpkin as he relentlessly tries to break into Beijing's version of Hollywood. Wu finally asks him, "You're in such a hurry to be an instant success, but is that realistic?" Taking a long time to answer, he finally replies through gritted teeth, "Mr. Wu, you said you were only going around with me for fun...but while it's fun for you, it's real suffering for me." Up to this moment he's been extremely deferential to Wu, but now he abruptly turns his back on the filmmaker and walks away without a word. His story ends back in his home province, reading a letter he wrote to Wu, referring bitterly to the "lens that Wu points at me like a gun."

Wu looked pained as he told me that he has always cut himself out of the films he made. But after six months of editing Fuck Cinema this way, he thought, "OK, I have to be honest. The young people who want to be successful in movies, I was one of them. I'm also using these people for my purpose. I can't take myself out of the movie." So he began re-editing, this time incorporating the footage of himself. "It was hard for me, something like feeling naked," he admits. "People can see who is really Wu Wenguang."  Wu says he found the process exciting, and that it allowed him to finish the film. But the experience of being confronted by his subject's pain at the "lens that Wu points at me like a gun" has radically changed Wu's approach to filmmaking. To him, after Fuck Cinema, the most important thing has become to help people express themselves. "It was bothering me to take from people, but never give back," he observes. "More and more I work as an educator," empowering and training others to make films.

Wu tells students not to worry about audiences, but to make their films to express themselves. One such project is the EU-sponsored Village Self Governance Project, made with Jian Yi, in which they selected and trained 10 villager filmmakers and 100 villager photographers from around the nation to make documentary films and photographers on China's historic rural elections. Wu also frequently works with his wife, dancer and choreographer Wen Hui, and the two co-founded the CaoChangdi Workstation Art Center, a work/live/performance/screening space, which hosts workshops and dance and documentary festivals twice a year.

While Wu's work is deeply and purely Chinese, filmmaker Miao Wang (Yellow Ox Mountain) straddles both Chinese and US cultures. Born in Beijing just after the Cultural Revolution, Wang grew up with the last remnants of a pre-modernized Communist China. She immigrated with her parents to the US in 1990, but has returned to China's capital to make the doc Beijing Taxi, which follows the lives of three taxi drivers before, during and after the Olympics. Beijing taxi drivers turn out to be yet another vehicle to understand contemporary Chinese culture. The Beijing government is actively campaigning to "improve" taxi drivers before the Olympics--drivers are given cassettes with slogans like "brush your teeth often, shower often, change your clothes often, learn English..." Wang captures Beijing with the unique point of view of an emigrant Beijinger carrying the perspectives of both a native and an outsider. "I feel the part of my work that is Chinese is not the filmmaking, it's something more elemental. It's my Eastern philosophy and outlook." She acknowledges that having lived in the US for so long, she now has to work hard to get through the differences in culture and communication style.

China: An American View

Yet another prism of changing China is seen in American Kevin McKiernan's Bringing King to China. The film chronicles the year-long attempt to produce the international premiere of the American Clayborne Carson's play Passages of Martin Luther King. In doing so, the film captures a bumpy cross-cultural dialogue between the all-Chinese cast from the National Theater of China and the African-American gospel singers that accompanied them about the validity of the late civil rights leader's philosophy of nonviolence and economic justice.

McKiernan points out the irony that Mao and other Chinese communists considered King's nonviolent approach a sellout to reactionary forces. "Mao did not look at Martin Luther King and see issues of race," he maintains. "He looked at King and Malcolm X in terms of class struggle." McKiernan hopes his doc can provoke both American and Chinese audiences to examine the moral health of their societies, in terms of civil rights for minorities, economic justice and participatory democracy.

It seems that with small digital cameras and portable editing systems, along with the infinite reach of the Internet, there are unprecedented opportunities for those making docs in China. The challenge now is to navigate the stated and unstated policies regulating filmmaking. It's too early to say whether there's no turning back, as history is replete with examples of governments that have extended freedoms to artists and journalists, only to clamp down on them a few years later. For now, we can enjoy a wealth of stories about real people and issues across China, and an honest representation of the challenges of a dizzyingly changing society.


Lisa Leeman is currently directing One Lucky Elephant and producing Crazy Wisdom; both are feature documentaries.