Huiming Yu
Final Paper for Introduction to MIAP
A Contemporary Chinese Independent Documentary Show, and Related Archiving and Preservation Research
MIAP Program Dept of Cinema Studies, NYU

A Contemporary Chinese Independent Documentary Show, the related archiving and preservation research

From the end of 1980s, there is a new kind of documentary gradually emerged in China, which is totally different from the previous officially made documentaries which has an apparent propagandistic function. The new documentary producers try to make their works have two characters: being made independently and having independent thoughts. We call it the New Documentary Movement. With the popularity of DV, now more and more independent documentaries are made in China and a lot have gained international reputation. Over the last decade, Chinese documentary film has moved away from highly scripted and planned production methods, and television shows such as CCTV's Dongfang Shikong (usually translated as "Oriental Moment") have won enthusiastic audiences with pop-style interviews and more relaxed techniques. But the independent documentaries makes are not merely satisfied with it. They are pursuing a way of recording the reality and expressing their opinion with more freedom.

Archiving and preservation:

China has only one national film archiving organization-the China Film Archive. It claims the biggest film archive in Asia, having near 30,000 films. The basic function of China Film Archive is to preserve the films for the country, offer the collections for academic screening and research. Almost all the films made in China must send a copy to the national archive, except for those that were invested totally by foreign fund who owns the copyright. Each Thursday the China Film Archive will play two foreign films that will not be screened publicly. No any commercial screening at all. And the Archive itself has realized that its arts promotion function has degraded more and more. At present the China Film Archive has no plan to cooperate with the independent film producing organizations including some private companies and individuals, unless it is the instruction from the National Film Bureau. That has never happened. In fact till now the independent works just scatted in individual producers or some foreign organizations and film festivals. Because the censorship system upon the film industry, till now the independent films are not officially recognized by the government. That means they have no chance to be played in public cinemas. Nor could they be archived and preserved by the China Film Archive. People can buy some privately made copies of these works. And some private screening activities will be held in universities and small bars. From its debut in October 1989, the biennially held Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival is a very important channel for Chinese independent documentaries makers. Almost all the important documentaries I will show here were sent to attend the film festival. And they collected more than 50 Chinese independent documentaries for the past 15years. It may be the biggest collection in the world for contemporary Chinese independent documentaries. 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. Furthermore, ordinary people have no channel to touch this kind of works in public cinema. Lacking of public acclaim and further financial support, most of these independent filmmakers make just one or two films and then give up. The completed works are always saved as Beta cam, VHS, VCD, with a few films. Almost all the independent documentaries works, including the original materials, lack necessary preservation.

The producers: 1) Most of the independent documentary producers are veterans of the film/TV industry. They master lots of resources both on facilities and information, and relationship, which will be very helpful during the production. At the same time, they worked for the official TV stations. Fox example, Jiang Yue and Duan Jinchuan, two Beijing filmmakers who worked for China Central Television (CCTV) before starting their own production company, are examples of the breed. They pay their bills by making programs for state television under contract, while satisfying their artistic yearnings with self-financed projects. In February 2003 the BBC aired two of their films as part of a series entitled New China, New Year. 2) A lot of the producers are students from Beijing Film Academy and Beijing Broadcast Academy, the top schools on training the professionals for film/TV industry in China. 3) Those who are fond of filmmaking. For example, Yang Tian-Yi, a young lady who never touch DV camera before she began to shot her first documentary which own some award in international festivals.


Just like its western counterparts, the documentary production faces a tough situation for fund raising. Financial difficulty is the biggest problem. Now the independent documentary production is mainly composed by three parts: 1) Some documentaries were invested by some companies, or even by official TV stations; 2) Personal savings of the producer's own; 3) Foreign investments such as TV channels that are interested in buying some programs, the others are some film festival and film foundation. Sometimes the foreign TV channel will pay the money partly in advance.

The copyright and distribution Issue:

Because of the lack of distribute channel, as well as the lack of a mass market, the independent documentaries producers always can only circulate their works underground. Most of them are privately copied and sold in some video shops if not be noticed by the official. The copyright of their works are extremely difficult to be protected, the underground distributors can easily pirate and sell them. Very few cultural communication companies sign the contract with the producers and share the mere profit of the sale. And the government doesn't protect the copyright of this kind of works. The main circulating format in the underground market is VCD. The price will be a little higher than common pirating VCDS, normal 2-3 US$.

1. No.16, Barkhor South Street ????16?

1996 /Color /Video/100 min (Original footage: 400minutes) Director/Editing/Sound: Duan Jin-chuan
Photography: rDor-rje Producer: Thashi-Dawa (bKra-shis-zia-wa),Wei Bin
Production Company: Tibetan Culture Communication Company

Attendance of international film festivals and awards: Mediawave Festival 1997(Hungary)
YAMAGATA International Documentary Film Festival 1997(Japan)
Grand Prix du Cinema du Reel in Paris 1997 (France)
16th San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival 1998(USA)
Archived by Moma, the Museum of Modern Art

Brief synopsis: No. 16, Barkhor South Street examines the "neighborhood committees", the most basic unit of the Party and government that exist throughout China. The main responsibility of the committee is to implement governmental policies, measures and directions. The title address is the office of the Barkhor Neighborhood Committee in Lhasa, Tibet where officials and community workers deal with various events and neighborhood problems in 1995. Duan documents the relationship between ordinary citizens and low-level political cadres in Lhasa, Tibet. People come to the committee to sort out various problems: marital disputes, petty theft, robbery, delinquency and unemployment. The most basic unit of the Party, committees hold primary responsibility to implement government policies. This documentary is a classic in the new documentary movement. It is the first Chinese documentary that won a grand award in the international documentary festival.

About the director: Duan jinchuan was born in 1962. He is one of the first pioneers of independent documentary producer in China and one of the most famous filmmaker in this circle. After graduating from the Beijing Broadcasting Academy in 1984, he worked at Tibet TV station as government-sent volunteers. Another important works is The Square (1994, with Zhang Yuan, YIDFF '95 International Competition).

2. Jiang Hu: Life on the Road ??

1999 /Color/Beta cam SP/150 min Director/Script/Editing/Producer: Wu Wenguang
Photographer: Su Ming
Production Company: Wu Documentary Studio

Attendance of international film festivals and awards: YAMAGATA International Documentary Film Festival 1999(Japan) International Documentary Film Festival in Amsterdam (IDFA) 1999(Holland) International Forum of New Cinema at Berlin International Film Festival 2000(German) Nyon Documentary Film Festival-Switzerland 2000(Switzerland)

Brief synopsis: "Jiang Hu" means River and Lake. In Chinese, it means that the world of out of home, or on the road. The movie is about the lives of vagrant performers. A father, used to be a farmer and was the head of his village for several years, took his two sons, their girlfriends and young people who like singing and dancing in the village on tour to make money by performing in a big tent. Featuring karaoke pop songs and young women dancing in bikini outfits, the show travels around various nondescript suburbs. But with the 50th national anniversary closing in, government officials are tightening their regulations on show troupes. Business is bad, local gangsters want a cut of the pie, and the police hint that they can help, but for a price. The boss hasn't paid the performers for months, and frustration is rising under the single tent roof.

About the director: Wu Wenguang is almost the most famous documentary filmmaker and also the pioneer of the New Documentary Movement in China. He was born in 1956. He went to the countryside after graduating from high school in 1974, and worked as an elementary school teacher for three years. He joined a television network in 1985 to work as a news journalist and in 1989 he become an independent documentary filmmaker and freelance writer. Documentary films include: Bumming in Beijing-The Last Dreamers (1990); 1966, My Time in the Red Guards (1993), Ogawa Shinsuke Prize at YIDFF'93, and At Home in the World (1995).

3.There's A Strong Wind in Beijing ??????

1999/Color/16mm/50 min
Director: Ju Anqi

Attendance of international film festivals and awards: YAMAGATA International Documentary Film Festival 1999(Japan) 30th International Forum of New Cinema, 50th Berlin International Film Festival 2000(German) Acclaim Award: Australian Independent Film Festival Australian 2000(Australian)

Brief synopsis: Beijing, China, 1999: a city and a nation in flux, peeking out on the verge of the millennium and the preparations for the 50th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic. Breaking with the conventions of Chinese film and media, Ju Anqi uninhibitedly and confronts directly Beijing's people on the street, in public squares, schools, restaurants, beauty parlors, and public bathrooms, with some simple questions, especially "Do you think there's a strong wind in Beijing?" The idea of being direct reflects Ju's conscious break with Chinese culture and media, in a society where the influence of politics and history on personal psychology makes spontaneity virtually impossible. In the second half of the film, they come across an unfortunate couple from rural area whose child suffered leukemia and have no money for the treatment. The camera then follows the couple to the hospital and this time, they don't ask any question. It is quite rare to see such a shocking film, especially when the film's footage was shot in a 1:1 ratio with nothing in the final production being left out.

About the director: Ju Anqi was born in 1975. At age 12 he began to write poetry. He graduated from the Department of Director, Beijing Film Academy in 1999. In 1998, he started Trench Film Group, an independent film group involved in documentary and short film. He borrowed an old camera and use about 20 minute-long outdated films to make the film. So a large part of the film is just white or black background with soundtrack.

Lazy English ????

1999/Mandarin, English /Color /35mm/90 min Director: Zhang Yuan Attendance of international film festivals and awards: YAMAGATA International Documentary Film Festival 1999(Japan) Best Film Award: Milan Filmmaker Film Festival 1999(Italy) Brief synopsis: This documentary introduces us to Li Yang, a madly successful teacher of conversational English who conducts mass teach-ins all over China in all manner of public spaces - sports ground, campus auditoria, school assembly yards, the Great Wall of China, the Marco Polo Bridge - and in all weathers to primary, secondary and tertiary students, to the personnel of the People's Liberation Army, to teachers, bureaucrats and businesspeople. He has them beaming, gesturing and shouting in unison snatches of English conversation - "How are you?" "You're welcome!", "Good, better, best", "Beautiful!", "I want to be somebody some day!", "You had better study hard!" etc. In interviews and public appearances, he promotes the learning of English as a patriotic duty and a means of self-improvement, a way for China to gain "international muscle" and make money so that they can take over the three major international markets of Japan, the United States and Europe. Zhang Yuan's "Crazy English" presents a new type of Chinese nationalism, and not in a pejorative way. He and Li Yang openly encourage the export of Chinese culture, stating that by learning the language of the West, you can penetrate the Western World. Overall. What may be perceived as slight tones of propaganda lacks political involvement. The type of nationalism presented here is uniquely cultural and linguistic, and encourages the Chinese to be proud of their culture and language. Formerly banned Zhang produces a mixture of comedy, information and school lessons. About the Director: Zhang Yuan is a representative director of the "Sixth Generation" filmmakers of China. He graduated from Beijing Film Academy in 1989 and produced independent films in the post-Tiananmen years. His first feature, Mama (1990), about an unwed mother and her mentally disabled son was officially banned by the government although a print surreptitiously taken out of China was screened at the 1991 Festival of Three Continents at Nantes and was awarded a Judge's Special Award and the Audience Prize. After making Beijing Bastards(1992), he and Duan Jinchuan co-directed The Square (1994) which was screened at YIDFF '95. East Palace, West Palace (1996) was screened in Un Certain Regard at Cannes in 1997. His latest film 17 Years won the Special Prize for Directing at the Venice Film Festival. 5?Beijing Cotton-Fluffer ???? 1999 /Video/78 min Director/Editor: Zhu Chuanming Producer: Chen Jia-le Attendance of international film festivals and awards: Award of Excellence: YAMAGATA International Documentary Film Festival: New Asian Current 1999 (Japan) Brief synopsis: A young man has left his home village for Beijing, to make a living fluffing cotton of old quilts and cushions. He lives in a makeshift roadside shack and waits for customers to arrive. The filmmaker, a student at the Beijing Film Academy, befriends the young migrant and begins to record his daily life. The video shows him in his frustration and loneliness at his destitute life in the big city. An old hometown friend, now a college student, is not terribly happy to meet him again. Poverty and power relations within his family limit his ambitions and memories of an old girlfriend leave him confused. In making the film, the director said he had been moved by the character's simple and tedious life, sensitive and fragile heart. I was shocked by the misery behind his smiles and sweaty sighs. Recording all with cinematography, I focused on the rough and stupefied faces, and noted their natural life, tears and smiles, hurt and happiness, struggle and resignation. About the director: Zhu Chuanming was born in 1971. After graduating from a technical school, entered a factory and was a worker for five years. He then applied for the entry exams of the Department of Photography at Beijing Film Academy. Beijing Cotton-Fluffer is his first work in the visual arts. He picked this topic when he was looking for topic for his photograph homework. The director made the work by a Hi8 family-use camcorder, so the image and audio quality are very poor but the story is awesome. 6. Old Men ?? 1999/Color/Betacam SP/94 min(Unedited Footage length: 160 hours) Director/Photographer/Editor: Yang Tianyi (US distributed by First Run/Icarus Films in NY Sale/video: $440 Rental/video: $100. In China the official price is $2) Attendance of international film festivals and awards: Official Selection, Association for Asian Studies Film Festival 2001 (USA) Award of Excellence, Yamagata Documentary Film Festival 1999(Japan) Golden Dove of Peace Prize, Leipzig Documentary Film Festival 2000 (Germany) SCAM Prize, Cinema du Reel 2000 (France) Global Visions Festival 2001 (Canada) Brief synopsis: First-time filmmaker Yang spent over two years documenting her neighborhood's elderly, who gather on a street corner each day. Every morning, they come promptly out of their homes together by the roadside beside a big wall. Sitting under the sun, they chat among themselves. At noon, they go home for lunch and return outside right afterwards. Year after year they abide by this routine as if it were their job. The camera follows their body rhythms, observes their aged physiques, and listens to their chattering and complaints, throughout the four seasons in a dusty Beijing suburb. The old men bear the searing summer heat, hobble through the windy gusts of spring, and disappear when the city is silent under a blanket of snow. Now when the director passes by the wall, she saw many faces that she can't recognize. The old men who had caught her attention are now either bed-ridden or have moved away to live with their children's families, and some have gone away. About the director: Yang Tianyi was born in 1972. She studied dance in her teens. From 1992-1995 she studied in the Department of Acting, at the Art Academy of the People's Liberation Army (P.L.A) as an actress. Since 1997 she worked as an independent documentary filmmaker. Yang spent two years documenting the Old Men. It is her first film. Before that, she almost didn't know how to operate a DV camera. She devoted herself to the making of this work for three years. 7. Along the Railroad ???? 2000/ Beta cam SP, VHS/125 min Director: Du Haibin Attendance of international film festivals and awards: Special Mention Award of YAMAGATA International Documentary Film Festival: New Asian Current 1999 (Japan) The Grand Award of China first independent Film/Video Festival 2002 (China) Brief synopsis: Baoji is a hub in the north-south trunk railway of China where vagrants from the southwest(Chengu) and northwest(Xining) have always gathered. The director, a student at Beijing Film Academy, was visiting this place of his childhood to location-hunt for a fiction film project when he met a group of homeless boys by chance. Each tells his story of leaving home, often a farm or an orphanage and empty bottles for meager food and dream of becoming break dancers or food stall owners. Wary of the police, teary remembering home, and using slick hair mousse to show off, the boys live their lives on the edge. About the director: Du Haiubin was born in 1972. He graduated from the Beijing Film Academy in 2000, majoring in photography. He has just completed his new documentary Under the High-Rise Building. The funding for the second documentary came from a company. The company offers him the DV camera and tape. The cost is the company will have the copyright of the documentary. 8. Tie Xi Qu: West of Tracks ??? 2003 /Color / Beta SP / 545 min (unedited footage is 300 hours) Director: Wang Bing Part 1: Rust (240 min) Part II: Remnants ( 175 min) Part III: Rails (130 min) Attendance of international film festivals and awards: Best Documentary Award: Portugal International Documentary Film Festival 2002 The Robert and Frances Flaherty Prize (The Grand Prize): YAMAGATA International Documentary Film Festival 2003 Rotterdam International Film Festival 2003 (Part 1 Only) Torino Film Festival 2003(Italy) International Forum of New Cinema at Berlin International Film Festival 2003(German) Part 2 Only Brief synopsis: Once the heart of state-run heavy industry, Tie Xi is now a scene of decay, as economic reforms, bankruptcies, relocation, and demolition have left many factories empty and entire communities jobless. The director follows the old railway line that bisects the industrial area to interview locals about their precarious situation. In Rust, he spends an entire year with one community as it copes with the disintegration of its village. In Remnants, he portrays children who, with no prospects for the future, still manage to find small pleasures in everyday life. And in Rails, he follows the old railway track past dying factories, visiting the people who have stayed behind. It's an extraordinary documentary that puts the realities facing Chinese society into stark relief, through an exclusive and extended exploration of the region. About the director: Wang Bing was born in 1967. In 1991 he attended LuXun Academy of Fine Arts to study photography and further his study at Beijing Film Academy in 1995. He rent a DV camcorder and bough 20 DV tapes to start the shoot, planning to get 50 hours original footage. The shoot last 2 years and he get further fund from Rotterdam International Film Festival when he sent there his first part of the wonderful work. Moma arranged two day to play this long documentary in May 2003. Reference 1. Time Asian April 14, 2003 / Vol. 161 No. 14 2. 3. 4. Lu Xinyu, Recording China: the New Documentary Movement in Contemporary China, Sanlin Publishing House, 2003 5. Chris Berry, at Home in the World: A Report on the China-Australia Documentary Workshop Beijing, July 11-13, 1997 6. Chris Berry, Face the Reality: Chinese Documentary, Chinese Post-Socialism Guangzhou Triennial Exhibition of Art, 2002 7. 8.