Independent Spirit in China

KUO Li-hsin (Photography and documentary film critic)
Chinese independent documentary filmmaking began around 1990. The pioneers such as WU Wenguang, DUAN Jinchuan and JIANG Yue deliberately tried to get rid of the pompous style and narrative adapted in the Chinese television documentary programmes in the 1980s. They insisted on fighting against the propaganda films made by the authorities and those "politically correct" movies or the commercial documentaries on television like Discovery Channel that had mushroomed from the mid-1990s onwards. These independent documentary filmmakers work very hard to bring back our concern about "reality" and search for the individual values. In addition to these pioneers' collective effort, the easy access to the digital photography equipment has initiated an unstoppable wave of films that reflect the contemporary Chinese society and the political reality.
For a quarter of a century, the Chinese independent documentary films have been regarded as "illegal" by the authorities and remained underground. The ruling class that possess the power to censor and ban films see these independent films as enemies or even great threats due to their ignorance, lack of the ability to judge, low self-confidence or paranoid fear. As a result, they vehemently oppress the production and exhibition of independent films. Nonetheless, the restriction and oppression not only fail to silence the independent documentary filmmakers but make them ever stronger. The performance of the Chinese independent cinema in the past decade prove to be more than impressive; whether it is about the subject matters, aesthetics or the political and social involvement, their courage as well as their ability to realise their ambition is truly admirable. Due to their "illegal" status, the Chinese independent documentaries have neither any broadcast platform like the "Viewpoint" on the Public Television Service in Taiwan nor venues like cinemas or film festivals. The filmmakers certainly do not have any chance to apply for the government subsidies like those we have in Taiwan, either from the government or the semi-official organisations. Nevertheless, the lack of opportunity and the imposed restriction stimulate the growth of the Chinese independent documentaries even more, and as a result, this wild and rebellious force has produced so many rare fruits full of vitality and possibility. Since they are free from the running time set by television programme or cinema, these films could be a ten-minute short that feels as sharp as a dagger or an epic of more than eight hours. In terms of aesthetics, it could be experimental or realist.
Some bravely comb through the history of the communist China, digging up the forgotten people and incidents. Some pursue the environment issues caused by the wrong policies so persistently like the faithful followers on the pilgrimage. Some muster their courage to document the local conflicts between the officials and the civilians or the action taken by the public. Some shift their focus from the bottom of society or countryside to the middle-class or even the officials that prove to be a much more difficult subject to film.
Although Chinese independent filmmakers mostly work on their own, they have demonstrated a collective power and result. It comes from not only the filmmakers' hard work, but the contribution made by the festival programmers, film critics, educators, activists and countless anonymous supporters of the independent cinema. Their fighting spirit that makes them "fight for the impossible" is worth the attention of Taiwanese society. What we can learn from them are more than the film form and the content; they may remind us of the freedom that we are so used to that we should reflect upon it.

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