The State of Chinese Independent Film
After independent films first appeared on the Chinese cinematic landscape three decades ago, they gradually became the method of choice among young Chinese filmmakers. The large number of Chinese independent films also transformed the broader creative ecosystem by bending the constraints of China’s once-monolithic state-controlled film system. These positive developments gave many filmmakers great optimism and confidence in the future of Chinese film. In recent years, however, domestic political changes and the effects of the pandemic have essentially put a halt to the development and production of independent films in China. There are very few directors left who continue to create independent films.
There are three main factors affecting Chinese independent films. The first of these is politics. The Chinese government exerts stringent ideological control: any film not approved by government film censorship authorities is considered illegal, no matter where it is filmed, and it is also possible for local government administrators to thwart the filming process. Upon completion, independent films cannot be screened or disseminated in China, and the director and crew may be subject to varying levels of civil or criminal punishment. Government ideology forcefully interferes with the creative process by not allowing filmmakers to think for themselves. Because all themes, plots, and characters must conform to ideological requirements, the final product that passes muster with the censors is not at all the film that the creator intended to make. Despite a strong desire to make independent films, many Chinese directors have given up on them due to political pressures. The government has used a variety of methods – ranging from the enticements of domestic box-office profits to threats of civil or criminal punishment – to thwart the production of independent films. From 2000 onward, the emergence of grassroots independent film festivals in China played a positive role in the development and popularization of Chinese independent films. Festivals such as the Yunnan Multi-Culture Visual Festival (Yunfest), the Nanjing China Independent Film Festival (CIFF), and the Beijing Independent Film Festival (BIFF) flourished for over a decade until the government, through various stratagems, shut all such grassroots festivals down.
The second factor is financing. Bringing a film to completion requires capital investment, and China’s film authorities have enacted policies that penalize corporate and individual investors in independent films. Since 2004, it has been difficult to secure domestic financing for Chinese independent films. Because reported box-office revenue for films made “within the system” is very high, domestic investment in low-budget independent film projects has shifted to films made within the system, and many formerly independent filmmakers have been co-opted into the system. When the Chinese economy was booming and private financing was fairly robust, it was still possible to find individual investors who were fans of indie film and were willing to invest small amounts of capital to finance low-budget independent films. In line with increasingly stringent government film policies and investment oversight, independent films cannot be shown in Chinese cinemas, which means they have no hope of earning any box-office revenue or recouping production costs. For these reasons, investment in independent films has continued to shrink. Beginning in the 1990s, many Chinese directors chose to make independent films, but the dearth of funding and lack of domestic market support has caused the number of independent film directors to dwindle. The era of Chinese independent film is nearing an end.
The third factor is cinematic aesthetics. When film first appeared in China, people regarded it as a sort of novelty, a plaything. Over time, film developed into a form of entertainment or a means of disseminating political propaganda. Film as an art form has no place in the hearts of most ordinary Chinese filmgoers because film has been used as a political propaganda tool, a way to achieve the goal of “educating the people.” Audiences exposed to this kind of political propaganda for decades on end, ad nauseam, have developed a fixed way of interpreting film. And the cinematic aesthetic of those working within the Chinese system is predicated on the cinematic history of that very system. With the advent of independent films that emphasized authenticity and individual creativity, it was only natural that the “independent film aesthetic” and “official film aesthetic” would come into conflict. At the time, within mainstream Chinese society, there were many obstacles to acceptance of the independent film aesthetic. But three decades of continuity and progress have led to the creation of an astonishing number of independent films, many of them quite outstanding, whose cinematic aesthetic has garnered widespread acceptance by Chinese society. Despite exerting varying degrees of influence on official film aesthetics, in the face of political ideology, all of these independent films are currently still classified as “illegal” productions. To fill in the gaps of the domestic film market, the official Chinese film industry is investing massive amounts of capital to produce a steady stream of cinematic garbage that, to the minds of ordinary Chinese audiences, seems utterly disreputable.
The three points above summarize my basic views on the current state of Chinese independent film.
Most of my film work is documentary. Why do I make documentaries? The main reason is that the cost of shooting documentaries is so low that they can be completed with a very limited amount of funding. Documentaries require fewer crew members than scripted films, there is no need for actors or fixed film sets, and there is greater freedom in the filming process itself, which is conducive to shooting in an environment subject to strict ideological controls. Documentaries are a direct record of the lives of ordinary people, and it is this directness that appeals to me and makes documentary my favourite type of film. The subjects’ stories are open-ended, everything about them is unknown, and the film unfolds in tandem with their lives. The subjects and the camera co-exist in real life, allowing the film’s narrative to develop free of any man-made boundaries.
With thanks to Wu Lei and Liyo Gong