In 2012, the 61st Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF) will feature “Street Level Visions: Indie Docs from China”, a retrospective of seven digital documentaries produced over the past eight years by independent Chinese directors. Prominent filmmakers Ou Ning and Wang Jiuliang will also be in Melbourne as guests of the festival. The curator of the season, Dan Edwards, takes a look at the seven titles appearing at MIFF and considers their place within China’s burgeoning independent documentary field.


By the time Zhao Liang’s camera picked out the severed hand of an elderly petitioner beside a railway track, Shang fang (Petition, 2009) had seared itself into my memory with an emotional heat that has not lessened with subsequent viewings. Part of the film’s impact stemmed from the fact that I had seen the people on screen – or at least people just like them. I was living in Beijing at the time, and I passed petitioners every day squatting outside the gates of various ministries and government offices as I cycled through the streets on my way to work. I had always wondered who they were, since the people who travel to the capital from all over China seeking redress for injustices perpetrated in their hometowns are a subterranean population living below the mainstream life of China’s capital. Locals mostly ignore them and the Chinese media barely acknowledges their existence. Their dull, traumatised eyes in the morning light told something of their situation, but until I watched Zhao’s film I had no idea just how dire their predicament was.

My love affair with Chinese documentaries began with that first viewing of Petition. The images spoke of a reality I was glimpsing on a daily basis in Beijing and longed to understand better. Like countless titles I’ve watched in the years since, Petition probed behind the surface appearance of prosperity into the hidden recesses of China’s contemporary situation. Often technically rough, these films pull no punches in their portraits of life in the tough, ever-changing world of the 21st century People’s Republic. This is China through Chinese eyes, and the results can be intriguing, confronting and emotionally devastating.

So who makes these films, and why? The short answer is that they are made by individuals working outside of China’s state-sanctioned production channels, usually using digital cameras and editing software on home computers. Official audio-visual product in China, whether it’s screened on television or in cinemas, is subject to the censorial dictates of the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television (SARFT). This organisation’s “supervision” has created the strange world of Chinese film and TV, where the nation’s pressing problems are downplayed or simply don’t exist, and real causes are never discussed. These days the hunger for uncensored images and views is most obviously reflected in the popularity of micro-blogs like Weibo (a local version of Twitter), but years before the internet, filmmakers working inside China’s state broadcasters were beginning to borrow cameras and make their own work in an attempt to bypass the restrictions of the nation’s ruling party.

The most important of these early independents was Wu Wenguang, widely credited as the first director to produce a Chinese documentary outside state-sanctioned channels since the Communist takeover in 1949. Wu is a child of the cultural and political ferment of the 1980s, which boiled over with the nationwide protests of April-May 1989 and ended abruptly when the People’s Liberation Army barrelled into Beijing on the night of 3-4 June 1989 to put down the movement centred on Tiananmen Square. Throughout this period, Wu was shooting a film about his friends – five local artists eking out an existence in the grey post-Maoist landscape of late-’80s China – interviewing them about their lives and dreams for the future. Shooting was interrupted by the protests of April-May, and when Wu resumed in late 1989, two of his five subjects had married foreigners and left the country. Despite these upheavals, Wu managed to finish his film, and Liulang Beijing – zuihou de mengxiangzhe (Bumming in Beijing – The Last Dreamers, 1990) became the first documentary ever made outside official channels in the People’s Republic.

Since consumer video cameras were unavailable at that time and access to film equipment was still strictly controlled, Wu used Betacam cameras borrowed from the national broadcaster China Central Television (CCTV), where he was working on a freelance basis. In terms of style, Wu made up his approach as he went along, though he cites two important foreign influences. One was the BBC series Heart of the Dragon (1984), and the other was Chung Kuo – Cina (1972), Michelangelo Antonioni’s epic three-part documentary filmed during the Cultural Revolution and long banned in China (1). Wu was only able to see both films due to his status as a television worker, and their scenes of prosaic everyday life on the nation’s streets was a revelation to someone who had grown up in a period when heavily choreographed staging was the norm in Chinese documentary work.

Other independents quickly followed in Wu’s footsteps, similarly emerging from the world of state television. Stylistically, most followed the lead of Bumming in Beijing, mixing observational sequences with interviews and focussing on figures living on the fringes of Chinese society – artists, migrant workers and ethnic minorities. Key filmmakers of the period include Duan Jinchuan (Bakuo nanjie shiliuhao [No. 16 Barkhor South Street], 1996), Jiang Yue (Bi an [The Other Bank], 1995), Li Hong (Hui dao Fenghuang Qiao [Out of Phoenix Bridge], 1997) and Shi Jian (Tiananmen, 1991) (2).

While Wu and his cohorts continued to make work throughout the 1990s, it was the arrival of digital technologies at the turn of the 21st century that really ignited the explosion of independent production that has continued to this day. Even before cheap digital cameras arrived in China, VCDs and DVDs had played a crucial role in facilitating a broad independent film culture. A decade-and-a-half later, it’s hard to imagine how culturally impoverished Chinese cinephiles were prior to the arrival of pirated DVDs. Acclaimed Chinese director Jia Zhangke recalls:

Works originating from other cultures, those classics of cinema that had influenced and moved humanity, were beyond our grasp. Before pirated DVDs began circulating, it was hard to imagine that an ordinary city dweller could see films such as Godard’s Breathless or Tarkovsky’s Mirror. Even popular American films such as The Godfather or Taxi Driver were hard to find. (3)

By the late 1990s, however, a vast array of world cinema was suddenly available in Chinese cities at rock-bottom prices, and many local viewers were inspired by this influx to put their own thoughts and experiences on screen. As documentary maker Ou Ning, a guest at this year’s MIFF, commented in 2010:

People didn’t need to go to Beijing Film Academy – they saw a lot of films through pirate DVDs, which gave a very rich film history. When they had seen this history they wanted to make things themselves, and they found there were very cheap cameras that had come out. I mean everyone can buy a camera and start filmmaking. This technology has had a great impact on filmmaking in China. (4)

Ou set up one of the earliest and most prominent of the screening groups that sprung up all over China in the wake of the DVD tsunami. “U-thèque” was founded in the southern city of Shenzhen in 1999, initially as a way for Ou to share his growing DVD collection with interested locals (5). The first screenings were held in the borrowed showroom of a local electronics store, but within six months U-thèque had attracted a large membership and spread to the nearby metropolis of Guangzhou. At its height Ou claims the group had around 800 members. Budding filmmaking talents like Jia Zhangke made appearances, screening their banned features for the first time in southern China. Established Hong Kong talents like Ann Hui also crossed the nearby border to introduce and discuss their work (6).

With popularity came attention from the authorities. Despite the DVD hawkers on every street corner in China, strictly speaking it is still illegal to publicly screen content that has not passed through the censor, and large gatherings of any kind unsettle a deeply paranoid state. Police seized U-thèque’s projector during a screening in 2001, and the group was finally declared an “illegal organisation” in 2004 (7). Although this forced U-thèque’s demise, to this day similar groups showing films in unofficial venues continue to provide the main outlet for independent work within China’s borders.

By the time U-thèque was banned, it had evolved into a production group, collectively making the experimental short documentary San Yuan Li for the 2003 Venice Biennale, under the direction of Ou Ning and visual artist Cao Fei. Ou relocated to Beijing in the mid-2000s, and while shooting an archival record of the rapidly changing Da Zha Lan area just south of Tiananmen Square, stumbled upon the story of restaurateur Zhang Jinli. Like many parts of Beijing at this time, the street holding Zhang’s home and business was being flattened as part of a pre-Olympics “modernisation” of the capital, a frenzy of destruction that saw thousands of residents forcibly thrown out of their homes and businesses, often for little or no compensation. Captivated by Zhang’s charismatic personality and recognising the importance of his fight for just recompense, Ou handed him a camera and asked him to document his own struggle. The resultant film, Meishi Jie (Meishi Street, 2006, featured at this year’s MIFF) set a new benchmark for the increasingly participatory tone of Chinese documentaries. In contrast to the more observational style of much ’90s work, many filmmakers of the past decade have pursued various participatory strategies in an effort to engage more directly with the stories of China’s lao baixing – the ordinary people so rarely consulted about their views or life tales. As Ou says of Meishi Street’s moving finale:

You can see at the end of the film there are so many cameras on the scene… some cameras from the police station, some from our team, some from NGOs. Digital technology has brought some opportunity to the people to document history by themselves. This is a great change in China. Before history only had one version, by the Chinese Communist Party, but now with digital technology history has different versions. That is a great progress in the political situation in China. (8)

Ou remains a central figure in Beijing’s creative community, using his curatorial and organisational skills to foster and showcase younger talents in exhibitions and festivals that continue to provide a grass-roots perspective on contemporary China and an alternative to the anodyne image presented in official Chinese media.

While the self-consciously participatory approach adopted by Ou in Meishi Street represents one important recent trend in Chinese documentary, other filmmakers have adopted a more personally involved style that directly explores their imbrication in the situations they depict. Zhao’s Petition is a story of Chinese citizens huddled in a shantytown in southern Beijing, enduring violent harassment from the authorities while pressing their demands for justice. But the film also starkly dramatises the ethical conundrums involved in representing such chronically disempowered people on screen, as the filmmaker becomes torn between sympathy for one petitioner’s plight and her daughter’s request for help in fleeing Beijing and starting a new life. Zhao ends up assisting the young daughter’s escape, and the heartrending scene in which her mother runs from Zhao’s lens after the filmmaker informs her of her daughter’s desertion couldn’t be further from the studied detachment of a strictly observational style. For some viewers Zhao crosses a line here, but the scenario illustrates the manner in which China’s highly politicised legal system demands ethical comprises from all who come into its orbit. When the chances of a fair hearing are almost nil, plaintiffs are forced to either give up on any notion of justice or else condemn themselves and their families to a life of crushing misery and persecution. Even as a filmmaker-observer, Zhao was faced with the choice of betraying his subject’s trust and aiding her daughter’s escape from Beijing, or else closing his eyes to the daughter’s situation. All these choices were made in the knowledge that both he and the petitioners were helpless in the face of courts more interested in maintaining social control than providing just resolutions to disputes.

For all these stylistic developments, however, the observational tradition remains strong in China’s documentary world, especially when filming the face of power. For his 2007 film Zui yu fa (Crime and Punishment, also screening at MIFF), Zhao took up a more dispassionate position to provide a rare view of life inside China’s coercive machine. By telling the police he was conducting research for a TV drama, Zhao was able to film the daily workings of a unit of the paramilitary People’s Armed Police in Dongbei, the country’s far northeast (9). In the process he subtly reveals the way young recruits are lured into the system by the promise of a stable career and a position on the authoritarian ladder. The sad reality is that most of these young men are discarded after a year or two of service, discharged from the force and left to fend for themselves in the sea of humanity they have spent a year or two policing. There are certainly no heroes in Crime and Punishment ­­– the incompetence and casual brutality of the police is sometimes astounding – but there are no villains either. Despite his critical stance, Zhao sympathetically portrays young men caught up in a cycle that ultimately keeps most of them as powerless as the villagers they lord over.

Crime and Punishment

For obvious reasons films like Crime and Punishment, shot from within the Chinese state apparatus, are rare in independent Chinese cinema. Apart from Zhao’s effort, the most notable film of a similar ilk in recent years is Zhou Hao’s Shu ji (The Transition Period, 2008, screening at MIFF), which follows the last months in office of the party secretary of Gushi County, located in the underdeveloped landlocked province of Henan. Parallel governmental and Communist Party structures exist at all levels of authority in China, with party officials invariably wielding the greater influence. So while Gushi has a county chief, it’s the local party secretary who holds the real power.

Like the police in Crime and Punishment, the party secretary of Zhou’s film is a pathetic rather than frightening figure – it’s hard to take any politician seriously who is prepared to drunkenly smear his own face with cake icing for the camera. But the party secretary’s disarming willingness to make a fool of himself on screen does not change the fact that receiving bribes, manipulating political processes and consuming vast amounts of alcohol on the public purse are all in a day’s work for this party official – and so many others just like him. The most shocking aspect of Zhou’s film is not that these abuses occur, but the openness with which the party secretary and his cohorts indulge in this behaviour for the camera. The arrogance underlying these displays speaks reams about the nefarious nature of China’s authoritarian political culture.

Other documentary directors have looked to the historical roots of China’s current social problems, most notably the Nanjing-based filmmaker Hu Jie, represented in the Melbourne program by two of his best-known titles: Xun zhao Lin Zhao de ling hun (Searching for Lin Zhao’s Soul, 2004) and Wo sui si qu (Though I am Gone, 2007). Hu Jie’s early work was fairly typical of independent Chinese documentary, as he delved into the little-known worlds of illegal coalmines and a rural matchmaker. He found a more distinctive niche when he stumbled upon the historical tale of Lin Zhao in the early 2000s. Hu claims that when he first heard of this young woman, executed in 1968 for her outspoken criticism of the Communist Party, he was quite ignorant about the Maoist era. Like so many Chinese under the age of 40, Hu was unaware just how much of the nation’s recent past had been covered up and suppressed. In a 2010 interview he explained:

I knew very little about the history of the 1950s and 60s. All I knew was what I learnt from textbooks…. While making Lin Zhao I had the sense that I was feeling in the dark. Then I found the door of history, opened it and walked in. There I found a lot of ridiculous, cruel stories that really shocked me – I found that our recent history was both ridiculous and cruel. I was really shocked by that, and that was the motivation to go further. (10)

Searching for Lin Zhao’s Soul details Hu’s journey into the metaphorical historical light, as he travels the length and breadth of China interviewing those who knew Lin Zhao. Gradually he pieces together her metamorphosis from an enthusiastic supporter of the Communist Revolution and Mao’s land reforms, to a passionate dissident imprisoned in Shanghai. Despite concerted attempts to bury Lin Zhao’s story – Hu Jie was fired from his state newsagency job and blacklisted when his employers got wind of the film he was making – her spirit has lived on in the thousands of words she composed while in prison, frequently using her own blood as ink when she was denied writing materials. Hu’s film has quietly circulated in China since its completion and keeping Zhao’s memory alive has become something of a cause célèbre for today’s activists.

Though I Am Gone

Hu followed up Searching for Lin Zhao’s Soul with another indictment of Mao’s senseless political violence. Though I am Gone details the circumstances around the death of Bian Zhongyun, deputy headmistress of a prestigious Beijing high school beaten to death by her own students in the opening days of the Cultural Revolution in 1966. Incredibly, her husband documented the events leading up to her death, as well as her bruised corpse, using a small 35mm stills camera. It took a year of negotiations and a viewing of the Lin Zhao film to persuade Bian’s aging husband to tell his story and show his photographs for the first time (11). These images, and Hu’s film that has taken them to a wider audience, is testimony not only to the brutality of the Maoist era, but also the importance of documenting history – especially in an environment in which the past is constantly erased and rewritten to suit the political needs of the present.

Hu’s experience of being blacklisted is, unfortunately, not atypical of the harassment many independent documentary filmmakers endure in China. While punishments like the six-year prison sentence meted out to Tibetan filmmaker Dhondup Wangchen in 2010 (12) far exceed anything inflicted on Han Chinese directors in recent decades, phone taping and constant surveillance are common. Several well-known directors are currently unable to leave China. The situation has worsened considerably since early 2011, when upheavals in North Africa and the Middle East unnerved the Chinese regime and provoked a tightening of social controls.

Beijing Besieged by Waste

Despite these impediments, the stream of independent documentaries continues, albeit at a slightly reduced rate over the past year. The most recent film in the MIFF program, Wang Jiuliang’s Weicheng laji (Beijing Besieged by Waste, 2011), employs a more journalistic style to document the scandalous state of Beijing’s waste disposal arrangements. Like so many contemporary Chinese documentarians, Wang had little previous filmmaking experience, but was inspired to pick up a camera when he stumbled upon this story and realised how little the public really knew about the perilous state of the nation’s environment (13).

Wang’s initiation into documentary making is typical of China’s independents. These directors are not driven by money or the desire for fame. Most of them struggle even to get their work seen in China. The authorities have the power to inflict all manner of punishments on them if they are sufficiently displeased, yet large numbers of Chinese citizens continue to risk everything to put stories on screen that would otherwise simply fade into history. The fact that these filmmakers take such risks is enough to command our respect. The fact that they are documenting a nation that is now a cornerstone of the global economy and home to roughly one-fifth of the world’s population commands our urgent attention. If these scenes feel distant, even alien, to many of us in the West, much of China’s present is our future writ large, especially on the environmental front. What these films capture is going to impact on all of us – and reverberate around the globe for generations.


  1. Wu Wenguang’s influences during this period were recalled in the author’s interview with the filmmaker, conducted on 9 May 2012 in Beijing.
  2. Senses of Cinema provided some of the earliest in-depth English-language coverage of Chinese independent documentary work of the 1990s, with two seminal articles published in 2003: Bérénice Reynaud, “Dancing with Myself, Drifting with My Camera: The Emotional Vagabonds of China’s New Documentary”, Senses of Cinema no. 28, October 2003: http://sensesofcinema.com/2003/feature-articles/chinas_new_documentary/; and Charles Leary, “Performing the Documentary, or Making it to the Other Bank”, Senses of Cinema no. 27, July 2003: http://sensesofcinema.com/2003/feature-articles/performing_documentary/.
  3. Jia Zhangke, “Irrepressible Images: New Films in China From 1995”, trans. Sebastian Veg, China Perspectives no. 1, 2010, p. 46. This essay revises and combines two earlier articles by Jia published in 1998: “The Age of Amateur Cinema is About to Return” and “Now That We Have VCDs and Digital Video Cameras”.
  4. Author’s interview with Ou Ning, conducted on 6 March 2010 in Beijing.
  5. Ou’s memories of U-thèque’s founding and operation were related in his interview with the author.
  6. Details of U-thèque’s various programs can be found at: www.u-thèque.org.cn/en/index.html.
  7. According to Ou Ning, U-thèque’s banning was part of a sustained campaign against the Southern Metropolis Daily (Nanfang Dushi Bao) newspaper, which had sponsored a retrospective of Jia Zhangke’s work organised by U-thèque in Guangzhou. Southern Metropolis Daily provoked the anger of the authorities in early 2003 by exposing the cover-up of the SARS epidemic by the provincial and central governments. On 25 April 2003, the paper further angered the authorities by reporting the death of 27-year-old designer Sun Zhigang while in police custody for failing to produce an ID card or residence permit upon request. Guangzhou security forces launched a systematic campaign against the newspaper in the wake of these reports, which included the harassment of advertisers and investigations into “illegal organisations” linked to the publication. Given that U-thèque was not an officially accredited screening organisation, it was an easy target for police. According to Ou, his office was raided and his papers and DVD collection confiscated. U-thèque was then officially declared an illegal organisation. For more on Southern Metropolis Daily’s reporting of SARS and the Sun Zhigang case, see Philip P. Pan, Out of Mao’s Shadow – The Struggle for the Soul of a New China, Picador, Great Britain, 2009, pp. 247-67.
  8. Author’s interview with Ou Ning.
  9. Author’s interview with Zhao Liang, conducted 19 December 2010 in Beijing. Translated by Wang Yi.
  10. Author’s interview with Hu Jie conducted by phone on 6 March 2010 between Beijing and Nanjing. Translated by Wang Yi.
  11. Author’s interview with Hu.
  12. Andrew Jacobs, “Tibetan Gets Suspended Death Sentence in China”, The New York Times 27 May 2010: www.nytimes.com/2010/05/28/world/asia/28tibet.html.
  13. Christen Cornell, “Besieged by Waste, Interview with Director Wang Jiuliang”, Artspace China 6 March 2012: http://blogs.usyd.edu.au/artspacechina/2012/03/besieged_by_waste_interview_wi.html.

About The Author

Dan Edwards is a fellow at the Research Unit in Public Cultures at Melbourne University. His debut monograph, Independent Chinese Documentary: Alternative Visions, Alternative Publics, was published by Edinburgh University Press in 2015. He lived and worked in China as a magazine journalist from 2007–11, and before that worked at the Australian Film Commission. He was awarded a PhD in Film and Television from Monash University in 2014.

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