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Made in China: Fearless Docs from the Mainland

By Frako Loden

The 21st-century marriage of the digital revolution with China's drive toward First World status, and the resulting collateral damage, have been auspicious for nonfiction filmgoers outside China. Cheap, portable digital technology has seeded a flowering of uncensored documentaries about this country that sadly will remain unseen by ordinary Chinese, given scant venues and their outspoken criticism of authorities' mistreatment of minorities, victims of tragedy and artists. Shot with low budgets and under the radar of government surveillance--but not without a fair share of confrontations with authorities caught on film--these works earned San Francisco's Yerba Buena Center for the Arts' recent series title "Fearless: Independent Chinese Documentaries."

This series, and many others in the US, have been happening thanks to dGenerate Films, the New York-based distributor of contemporary independent Mainland Chinese works. Outstanding documentaries make up the bulk of the company's ever-growing catalog.

Many of the six works featured in "Fearless" are long. To quote a programmer's characterization of a recent overall trend in film-festival films, they "find their own length." The subjects of these works have convoluted histories that need to be told. Conventional running times don't do them sufficient justice, and the patient viewer at any rate soon finds herself deeply and rewardingly immersed.

The series kicked off with its most grueling and finest film, Karamay (2009), with a wholly justified six-hour-plus running time. Everybody in China knows about the "12/8/94 Incident" in which 323 people died, 288 of them schoolchildren, in a fire that broke out in the cheaply constructed and illegally modified Friendship Theatre in the oil company town of Karamay in far northwestern Xinjiang province. Because the children died obeying instructions to remain seated so that inebriated Communist Party cadres could escape first, the government hastily assured the bereaved that the victims would receive "national martyr" status--one of many promises that it didn't keep. The children didn't even receive death certificates, which left them disgracefully nameless. Moreover, the middle-class parents of the dead children were subjected to firings, surveillance, ostracism, arrest and even beatings when they conducted their own investigation and petitioned for reparations. Director Xu Xin visits the victims' families on the 13th anniversary of the tragedy and records their still explosive rage and recriminations.


From Xu Xin's Karamay. Courtesy of dGenerate Films

The fourth hour of the film is devoted to the extraordinary soliloquy of one father, who comes closest to positing an overarching conspiracy theory for the tragedy. In indirect language whose import gains devastating power, he methodically indicts all the responsible parties in the incident, evoking a China that has broken down at every possible level. This is politically engaged cinema at its most appalling best--a must-see. YBCA Curator Joel Shepard reports, "Amazingly, we had zero walk-outs for Karamay."

Xu was hoping to world-premiere his new film Pathway this May at the 8th (independent) Documentary Film Festival China in Beijing, but organizers cancelled the entire festival, citing "a lot of pressure," without elaborating.

Ghost Town (2008) is also about people living on the geographical and ethnic margins of Chinese society--this time in Yunnan province near the border with Burma, a town gradually being abandoned by its inhabitants for the city because they can no longer scrape together a living there. The film follows citizens still making an effort: father-son Christian preachers; a young trucker in love with a girl about to be sold to another man; a pair of alcoholic brothers wearing out the patience of their womenfolk; and a 12-year-old boy abandoned by his parents who traps birds, cooks fry bread and hauls rocks for a living, but still finds time to play like a child or sit quietly in a church pew. The town's dwindling population shows plenty of life, nonetheless, notably in an enthralling shot of a church congregation wearing colorful knit caps singing a hymn, which rivals the pan shot of boat passengers in the opening sequence of Jia Zhang-ke's Still Life.

The title 1428 (Du Haibin, 2009) refers to the hour at which the 2008 Sichuan earthquake struck; this film refutes the implicit conclusion of the recent Aftershock, a melodrama bookended by the 1976 Tangshan and 2008 Sichuan temblors and China's top-grossing locally made film. In that fiction film's feel-good ending, the heroine, whose family was torn apart in the earlier quake, joins government rescue operations in Sichuan with full confidence that this time they have gotten it right. 1428 puts the lie to that complacent and dangerous attitude, as it details governmental neglect and abuse of the victims and survivors of Sichuan-first, 10 days after the quake and again, seven months later.

From Du Haibin's 1428. Courtesy of dGenerate Films

Disorder (Huang Weikai, 2009) is the most hyperbolic of these documentaries--aptly called by journalist Chris Chang "a city symphony from hell," and a near sellout at YBCA. In grainy black-and-white footage taken from dozens of videographers, the film cross-cuts various chaotic happenings in Guangzhou seemingly at the same time: the confiscation of contraband bear and anteater parts from a supermarket; a motorist pleading with a semiconscious man on the road to accept a monetary settlement before the cops tow his car; a diner demanding satisfaction for a roach found in his noodles; a man threatening to jump from a bridge and another dancing in traffic; pigs running loose on the highway; a baby found abandoned in a trash-filled lot. The overwhelming impression conveyed by this film is, again, a China in utter chaos, broken down at every level.


From Huang Weikai's Disorder. Courtesy of dGenerate Films

Two profiles of individuals rounded out this remarkable series. Fortune Teller (Xu Tong, 2010) follows an old soothsayer as he hobbles from town to town with his physically and mentally disabled wife (and their cat in a plastic bag), visiting members of their family who abused them in the past. Meanwhile, he hones his fortune-telling craft by learning from other roving diviners and testing his skills at rural festivals. He advises prostitutes, predicting their lonely and unlucky fates. It's wrong to pity this couple despite their poverty and disabilities, since he has canny street instincts and a wicked twinkle in his eye and she has been rescued from the horrific barnyard existence her family inflicted on her. Tape (Li Ning, 2010), five years in the making, uses a mixture of re-enactment, musical performance, special effects and experimental street theater to document Li's life as performance artist and leader of an unruly avant-garde troupe. Torn between his artistic imperatives and pressure to conform to the conventional roles of husband and father, Li depicts a wildly entertaining and poignant portrait of the artist. (Sadly, his "Honey" is forced into the stereotype of nagging wife.)

Even at their bleakest, these documentaries are a caustic tribute to the spirit of the Chinese people, for whom absurdity and disaster have become a way of life. If only they could see their lives, and their overlords, reflected in these fearless films.


Frako Loden is a Berkeley-based writer who teaches ethnic studies and film history.