Interest in Chinese documentaries is on the rise. Both this year’s Leipzig Doc Festival and cph:dox featured Chinese retrospectives and they had plenty of independently produced Chinese docs to pick from.

Ulla Jacobsen
Jacobsen was previously editor in chief of the DOX Magazine from March 1998 until early 2009. A lot of the DOX articles republished in ModernTimes was ordered by her. After 2009 she worked freelance, until she died in 2013.

What are the conditions for making documentaries in China? One of this year’s most acclaimed Chinese docs is “Before the Flood” by Yan Yu and Li Yifan. DOX met the latter of the two at Docs Kingdom in Portugal.

160205_dl_00042_web_img_367xvarLi Yifan and Yan Yu, both of whom have been working in other areas of film and TV, made their first documentary together entitled “Before the Flood”, which has travelled to several festival around the world, including Berlin, Cinéma du réel, Los Angeles Film Fest, Munich Doc Fest and Yamagata. The film follows the inhabitants of Fengjie, just before their town was to be flooded as a result of the building of the Three Georges Dam (see review DOX#59).

Filming “Before the Flood”

“Before the Flood”has quite a narrative structure. Did you have a planned script beforehand or did things develop as you came to shoot?”

We basically had the idea to shoot there in Fengjie, and we were very clear that we didn’t want to tell a story about one single person-otherwise the issue would get lost. We were going to shoot life in the village, not one exact story about one person. We hadn’t planned every detail, we just went there and began to shoot and then the things came up, as we shot we drew up the plans and changed the structure.

“The film is quite critical of the way the authorities dealt with the relocations. Were there any problems shooting or showing the film afterwards?”

No, there were no problems with the local authorities, because first of all they did not know for sure who we were or what we were making because we were together with some journalists from national TV stations. The second point is that the authorities think, ‘I am doing my job. I am not being immoral. I am not guilty of anything, I am just doing my job. I don’t feel bad about that.’ We had established this principle that the people we shoot have to feel comfortable with us and the situation, so some issues we left out because people did not want to show it to the camera.

Chinese Doc Makers

“How do European and Chinese documentaries differ?”

There is a big difference in the reality that Europeans face and Chinese face. The things people are shooting are very different, the situation they face is very different. It is not a technical difference. For sure the Chinese are lacking behind, because they just began and they have no big financial support, but this they can learn and develop. The difference is people, culture, the issues, concerns.

Since the opening of China to the world, there is this crazy capitalism, the opening of communism. People are being more selfish and it is all about money. You have to reach your own goals. There are new rich people, and the poor people continue to be poor, or even poorer, and for a developing country the difference is huge. For example in Europe it is more calm, quiet, people just let go. In China you have to keep fighting to survive.

“And which issues are the filmmakers dealing with? Are they making films about that situation?”

We can distinguish three different groups of documentary filmmakers in China which co-exist:

The first are those who show their point of view of the society now in China.

The second are those who make films because of passion for cinema, like my partner Yan Yu. He is the kind of filmmaker who wants to make films. He loves cinema and is not so concerned about society, about the problems.

The third group are like my students in their early 20s who are concerned about showing themselves, how they think, their point of view. It is not that they really know much about cinema or are concerned with social problems. They don’t even know about historical happenings, turning points in history. It is just a way they can show the way they think, their feelings.

I belong to the first category. Documentary film is a way I can show the people my point of view of society and the problems of society, mainly due to my education. I don’t want to do big, technically advanced productions or go to Hollywood. I want to keep expressing my point of view through the documentary.

Funding of Docs in China

“How do you fund the docs?”

From our own pockets. We are not very clear about the international opportunities for support. When some filmmakers or artists get foreign, financial support, they don’t seem to share with other colleagues. Even friends won’t tell you clearly how to do this.

“What do you earn your living from, then?”

I do everything, but for the last five years I only worked as an editor at a newspaper and producer for TV. I stop when I have enough money.

“What is needed to improve the situation of Chinese doc filmmakers?”

The most urgent and important is to get things organised for documentary filmmakers, to set up a machine to get things going and going, to function well. Now it is really hard when you don’t have a system to lean on, so many documentary filmmakers just make one film and then give up. Documentary filmmakers need some self-supported organizations for fundraising, distribution, communications, etc. If we had them, we might be able to keep on making films.

Showing Docs in China

“And how do people get to see the films?”

At some festivals, some universities that do special events. For example, “Before the Flood” was shown at a festival that officially is a festival about anthropological investigations, but they show many, many different things. In big cities there are many events, many meetings between filmmakers, not so official. Just before I came here, I had these two events in Guangzhou. Each meeting gathers like 30 or 40 people.

In China if you want to get into the commercial distribution, you got to have your film registered, you have to be official. They have to see your film first and accept it, see that it is not against the government. So we did not even think about this. But you have this network of university students, cultural groups more concerned about issues, and you have these cultural magazines, which sometimes write about this kind of films. For sure, you cannot get anything in the daily newspapers or TV, you can not put your film up in cinema, nor for DVD distribution. But you always have these pirates, the underground market. For example, if we get foreign distribution on DVD, for sure in a short time there are going to appear many, many copies in China.

Our film has not yet reached the main population, only these intellectual cultural groups which are concerned about society. The way to get to the main population is TV, as they wouldn’t buy a DVD. The commercial market of mass culture will not accept documentaries, which is the same situation that exists in western countries. But as long as the documentaries reach the intellectuals in cultural and social areas, the purposes of the works have been fulfilled. The point of the documentary is that if you can influence some people who can influence other people, you are successful already. This is our goal.

“Who are your sources of inspiration when making your documentaries?”

Kiarostami, Ivens, Fellini, Antonioni.

Li Yifan is currently working on three new projects: a feature film, a documentary about the emergence of religion in China, and a documentary about ethnic minorities.

BOX:

The latest edition of Doc’s Kingdom took place in Serpa, Portugal, on 14–19 June. Doc’s Kingdom is an international documentary film seminar which describes itself as ‘a platform for the discussion and reflection on contemporary documentary film’. The director of Doc’s Kingdom, José Manuel Costa, wanted to create an alternative to the film festivals which have enormous programmes with several parallel screenings and little time for debate, as well as an alternative to all the workshops and gatherings focused on financing and pitching. He founded the first Doc’s Kingdom in 2000, together with Apordoc (the Portuguese documentary association). At Doc’s Kingdom only one film is screened at a time, all the participants watch the same films, and there is plenty of time for debate with the filmmakers after the films. The programme of this year’s Doc’s Kingdom was structured around four themes: rural culture, landscape, time and memory, and about twenty films were shown, mainly from Portugal, Spain, Italy and France, though a Chinese and a Thai film had also found their way to Serpa.


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