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Almost three years into the pandemic, online festival screenings have become a new norm, and while they meet our needs to catch up with new productions, they certainly cannot replicate the shared experiences of physical attendance. Overseas film observers interested in Chinese, Taiwanese and Hong Kong cinema have been particularly cut off from their natural terrain, as the borders of the three territories have been shut tight for visitors. In this context, reviewing this year’s selection of Chinese and Hong Kong independent films at the Taiwan International Documentary Festival (TIDF), which was held 6-15 May, was a bittersweet, nostalgic and remote pleasure since I wasn’t able to travel to Taipei in person and had to watch the films through private video links provided by the programming team.

TIDF is a long-running film event that offers every two years a broad, eclectic, and in-depth reading of the current documentary landscape in its international, Asian, and Taiwanese selections, and several carefully curated side programs, exhibitions, talks and retrospectives. Solidly anchored in Asia, TIDF is at the forefront of documentary film programming in the region, and fosters a lively dialogue across continents thanks to its competitive selections and other programs. 

This year, aside from the competitive programs, Contemporary Scenes was populated by major works from both upcoming filmmakers and festival regulars such as Hubert Sauper, Theo Anthony and Rithy Panh. Malleable Docu/Memory interrogated the renewed usage of archival images and found footage in productions from around the globe. South African contemporary artist William Kentridge was Filmmaker in Focus with a selection of animated shorts reflecting on the history of colonial and racial oppression of the South African people. A Focus Programme entitled Necessary Fictions, Negotiating Realities in Post National Philippine Documentary featured films from Raymond Red, Kidlat Tahimik, Raya Martin, and Lav Diaz among other talented post-1980s authors from the Philippines. Three more sections rounded up TIDF’s programme – one on newer documentary forms around the globe (Stranger than documentary: The Potential Future), and two focusing on Taiwanese documentaries – Triviality that Speaks Volume on female filmmakers since 1990s, and A Selected Series of The Portrait of Hundred Occupation (1986-1991) a television program aired during the crucial time of Taiwan’s democratic transition. 

In each edition, TIDF dedicates a special section – Salute! Chinese Independent Documentaries to independent productions from mainland China and Hong Kong, which is often their only international platform in the region, or elsewhere in the world. This program is an invaluable window onto documentaries that are hard to source and is therefore highly anticipated by filmmakers, the general public and film experts. In its previous edition of 2021, Salute! included 13 documentaries, seven of which were on the 2019 Hong Kong democracy protest movement, participating as such to the much-needed debate between filmmakers, Hong Kong activists in exile and the Taiwanese audience on the future of Hong Kong and more. 

Over the years, TIDF has also shown many ground breaking documentaries from mainland directors Zhao Liang, Hu Jie, Ma Li, Wang Bing and so on, consolidating their ascent into notoriety, and widening our knowledge of the range and diversity of documentary filmmaking in China. This curatorial expertise is the result of years of research on the ground, in connection with filmmakers and film programmers in both territories. In a context of closed borders and mounting political antagonism in the region, their work has become even more complicated so the Salute! Chinese Independent Documentaries program represents this year again, a feat against all odds. As often, the eight short and long feature documentaries in Salute! reflect on some level the current situation of independent filmmaking in China and Hong Kong, and as such, the selection is highly diasporic, reflexive, and composed of independent documentaries that reconfigure a filmmaking style that has long been defined by observational methods. 

New challenges for independent documentary filmmaking in China and Hong Kong

Being two distinct political entities reunited only in 1997 under the “One country, two systems” principle, China and Hong Kong have had a separate film history in which independent documentaries are just a new addition. Filming at the margin of the official or commercial film industries and sharing similar interests for social issues and experimentation with the documentary form, independent documentary makers from China and Hong Kong provide with their works an inspiring dialogue between the two places, especially now that they face similar censorship challenges. 

In mainland China, the first independent documentaries were the fruit of the economic opening of the post-Mao era, and appeared after the Tiananmen movement at the onset of the 1990s. Experimenting with light and cheap video cameras, independent filmmakers operated in a so-called non-official space, turning their gaze toward a wide range of topics and people – migrant workers, urbanisation, historical testimonies, and marginalised groups of all kinds. In two decades, they have built a substantial body of works, in styles ranging from activist cinema to observational and experimental forms. These films used to be shown in small, unofficial film screenings and festivals across China. Tolerated as long as they did not attract too much attention at home or abroad, the small, and often informal independent film production and dissemination structures became the target of authorities at the turn of the 2010s. Independent film schools and festivals were shut down, and the small community became monitored online and in real life. As a result, these productions have dramatically decreased, after a period of flourishing in the late 2000s. Many Chinese independent filmmakers have moved abroad, or adopted a low profile, even though many continue to work on their projects, some to great international acclaim. 

In the case of Hong Kong, documentary filmmaking has long depended on television production, until a new wave of independent documentary filmmakers emerged following the digital turn, and the rise of social movements advocating for greater democratic rights in the 2000s and 2010s. These new productions are made for the silver screen and often focus on rural Hong Kong, local expressions of identity through oral history, traditional and youth culture, and give an intimate view on local protests, depicting in particular the 2014 Umbrella movement and its aftermath, as well as the 2019 pro-democracy protests. The recent crackdown on public protests and their representation with the enactment of new censorship guidelines, and the launch of the National Security Law raises concerns about the future of independent documentaries in Hong Kong. From 2020 onwards, amidst a never-ending series of police arrests and news media outlets closures, new film censorship rules and threats to film distributors and exhibitors, Hong Kong activists and creatives emigrated massively. If numbers are any indication given that this year’s edition occurs only a year after the previous one, film submissions to TIDF from Hong Kong were half that of 2021. 

A diasporic, reflexive 2022 selection 

The 2022 Salute! selection stands out firstly by a large representation of female filmmakers, many of whom are young and making their first significant contribution to the genre. A sizable portion is also made by directors from the diaspora (Weina Zhao) or studying or living in Europe (Viv Li, Tang Han), or in the US (Crystal Wong, Zhu Rikun). The fact that out of eight documentaries, only three are made by filmmakers based in China and Hong Kong (Chan Tze Woon, Li Wei and Hu Sanshou) is unusual. Surely, the shrinking of filmmaking freedom in both places is a factor – which doesn’t mean that these three filmmakers are exercising it less than the others. Understandably in the current context, the selection is haunted by issues of migration, belonging, identity and political rights, with examinations on rural poverty, family histories and personal memories, cultural and generational gaps around sexuality and activism. 

No Desire to Hide

A founding member of some of the most important Chinese independent film structures, Zhu Rikun makes a comeback to filmmaking with No Desire to Hide. The documentary was shot over a few years during trips to China and follows the very intimate life of two artists, maverick independent filmmaker Wu Haohao known for his provocative and sexually explicit videos and his actor and dancer girlfriend Ge Ningning. Zhu Rikun explores the couple’s open relationship at a time in their life when both of their careers are slowing down, the social pressure of child bearing increases while their project of emigrating to the USA has come to a halt. Filmed in their daily life, either separately or together, the couple’s power dynamic seems at first to favour Wu Haohao. Aloof and quiet in the beginning of the film, the frail, often naked Ge Ningning adopts many of the roles assigned to her gender (listening, providing food and physical care), while Wu Haohao orders her around. Despite his provocative personality, his lifestyle choices and push against social conventions, Wu Haohao has a traditional mindset. He is gradually trapped in his own contradictions and shows impatience toward Ningning’s unwillingness to marry and have children, and resentment for her sexual freedom. Undeterred by his abusive behaviour and her own internal turmoil, Ge Ningning articulates a feminist discourse in her own words and onscreen performances that Wu Haohao is unable or unwilling to comprehend. A mid-film sequence with Wu Haohao’s parents making dumplings in an admirably executed choreography contrasts starkly with the young couple’s dysfunctional dynamic. Zhu Rikun’s portraiture of artists’ longing for sexual freedom, fulfillment and recognition is somewhat reminiscent of previous Chinese independent documentaries by Wu Wenguang, or Wang Wenhai. Rarely, though, have the issues of gender equality and relationship abuses been laid bare so frontally, perhaps influenced by ongoing discussions on the MeToo movement in China.

Silence in the Dust

By contrast with these important yet slightly middle-class issues, Li Wei’s Silence in the Dust presents a harrowing and unfortunately not uncommon story of the cascading tragedies faced by migrant workers and their families. The film starts with a long hand-held shot following three young children running in a sunny field, playfully addressing the filmmaker and each other on their way back home. Li Wei adopts their point of view from the start, observing the siblings’ daily life at their height, trying to grasp their emotions without interfering in the narrative. Looking for better wages, their father Dazhang went working in Guangdong province in an illegal quartz mine and quickly developed pneumoconiosis, a deadly lung disease that has already killed most of their colleagues. Back in his home village, he is bed-ridden and cared for by his aging parents with the help of villagers and local volunteers. His wife, who has an intellectual disability, has left, and the mine owner disappeared without providing assistance to the sick workers. Over many months, Li Wei films the unbearable agony of this man who clings on to life with dignity and resignation, the staunch dedication of his parents, and the children’s growth. In an engaged observational style that is the historical trademark of many Chinese independent documentaries and recalls Wang Bing’s depiction of “left behind” children in Three Sisters, Li Wei does not shy away from scenes of physical and emotional distress – including Dazhang’s funerals attended by his speechless, wide-eyed and exhausted children – to share with the audience the experience of social injustice faced by migrant workers.

The Burrows

Death in rural China is also at the centre of Hu Sanshou’s The Burrows, a poetic record of his family’s grave building activities shot at the outset of the Covid 19 pandemic. Hu Sanshou is a member of the Folk Memory Project, a collective of artists and filmmakers focusing on documenting their family’s oral history. Back in his native village for the 2020 Lunar New year celebrations, Hu Sanshou starts the film from inside the grave, with a long shot on his family members observing the small, shrine-like structure. In an intimate voice-over narrative, Hu Sanshou introduces each of them, describing their personality and sharing childhood memories. Like other works in this selection, a reflexive and personal approach is used throughout the film, weaving the grave building process and the discussions it generates on traditional funeral arrangements or archaeological findings of ancient tombs, with the filmmaker’s recollections of mythological stories and dreams inspired by the cemetery. The use of disembodied voices – primarily the filmmaker’s off-screen commentary and public announcements propaganda about the Covid 19 pandemics – gives a surreal atmosphere to the otherwise quaint and peaceful village. Apart from these external sounds and the erection of road barriers to isolate the village from the rest of the country, the local population seems untouched and goes about its business as usual. With its multifaceted approach on death, memories and rituals, The Burrows creates an imaginative reflection on rural China and renews the documentary cannon of the Folk Memory Project. 

Pink Mao

The short documentaries Pink Mao and I Don’t Feel at Home Anywhere Anymore made by two female filmmakers based in Berlin are also exploring new narrative styles, each in their own way. Tang Han’s Pink Mao is an engaging investigation on the visual history of the 100 CNY banknote, which bears Mao’s portrait in a distinctive pink colour that most people would however instinctively define as red, given the symbolic value associated with that colour and Mao’s figure in communist China. Usually associated with femininity in Western and Chinese cultures, pink was adopted for the bank note in the 1980s era of economic opening. Using archives, image processing software, and sleek visuals, Tang Han reveals in a soft and inquiring voice over, the rationale behind this unusual choice of colour, walking us through the fascinating history of the banknote. 

I Don’t Feel at Home Anywhere Anymore

The video essay I Don’t Feel at Home Anywhere Anymore also experiments with new storytelling forms. During a trip to China for Chinese New Year, Berlin-based filmmaking graduate Viv Li reunites in front of the camera with family and friends. Living abroad has created a feeling of estrangement in formerly intimate relationships. In her still yet humorous framings of herself interacting with parents or friends around a dinner table we can feel the cultural distance she experiences, especially when political topics arise in conversations. Uncomfortable discussions and silences are cleverly summed up in humoristic titles on screen instead of being entirely translated in subtitles, which creates a sense of incommunicability that echoes the author’s feelings of uprootedness as much abroad as in her home country. 

Weiyena – The Long March Home

Another first-person documentary that explores geographical belonging is Weiyena – The Long March Home. Co-directed by two female directors, Weina Zhao and Judith Benedikt, the film examines Chinese-Austrian filmmaker Weina Zhao’s family history with a distinctive reflexive approach. Several sequences expose how Weina Zhao directs her family members for the shooting, for instance in a semi-staged dinner preparation sequence. In a voice-over commentary delivered in her Austrian-accented English, Weina Zhao interrogates her feelings for her two homelands, her interest in documentary film, her relationship with parents and grandparents and guides us in her investigation of her family’s complex history across a century and two continents. To understand her position in the world, she looks into her family’s past, meticulously reconstituted through conversations with her grandparents, research in personal documents and film archives. The investigation reveals a very contrasted past that has informed the personal trajectories and psychological construction of her parents and ultimately herself: on the father’s side, a humble Northern Chinese worker background; on the mother’s side, a wealthy and educated Shanghainese family that left their mark on Republican China’s film industry to become after 1949 a target of multiple political campaigns. Her maternal grandmother, a former State studio documentary filmmaker, whom Weina says that she would have been the “star” of the film if she had been alive for the shooting, acts as Weina’s identification figure. Her tragic life of political vicissitudes and consecutive mental health issues is a sobering reminder of China’s violent past, and there is a sense of closure and acceptance of the filmmaker’s dual identity in the Austrian Yodel song at the end of the film. 

The Grass is Greener on the Other Side

Broadly connected to the other films by their themes, the two Hong Kong documentaries of the selection differ from them by their frontal engagement with current political issues in the Special Administrative Region. The Grass is Greener on the Other Side, made by US-based Crystal Wong, follows several Hongkongers who have decided to leave their homeland in search for freedom abroad. From the outset, it is obvious that their deep and emotional attachment to Hong Kong is incompatible with their government’s authoritative turn, especially after the harsh repression of the 2019 pro-democracy movement. The first half of the documentary is located in Hong Kong and shows the two main protagonists, a graphic designer about to become a father and a university student bidding farewell to their friends and families. The second half focuses on their establishment in the UK. If the grass seems greener over there in some important respects – they can freely express their thoughts, participate in demonstrations, and regain some peace of mind from the constant political turmoil in Hong Kong – their daily life is fraught with the trials of immigration, and they need to navigate unfamiliar linguistic, social and cultural barriers, while mourning the separation from their friends and their home. 

Blue Island

A special mention should be made of Blue Island, by far the most formally and thematically ambitious offering of the selection. Directed by Chan Tze Woon, author of the Umbrella movement documentary Yellowing (2015), Blue Island was made during one of the most uncertain times in recent Hong Kong history, from the aftermath of the 2014 Occupations up to the proclamation of the National Security Law in 2020. Through three main protagonists, the film investigates three decisive periods for the formation of the territory’s multifaceted identity: the 1967 anti-colonial Riots with activist-turned businessman Raymond Young; the 1970s afflux of mainland refugees fleeing the Cultural revolution with Chan Tak-Chi and his wife who swam across to freedom; and the 1989 Tiananmen movement through former Hong Kong participant Kenneth Lam. Documentary recordings of the protagonists’ current lives are filmed between 2017 and 2020 and show Raymund Young and fellow 1967 activists seeking redress of their rioting charges or taking part in patriotic events on the mainland. In his 70s, Chan Tak-chi exercises each day to strengthen his body and mind and joins the 2019 pro-democracy marches with his wife. A solicitor and human rights advocate, Kenneth Lam participates in the June 4th candlelight vigils that have been organised for more than three decades in Hong Kong to commemorate victims of the Tiananmen movement, despite its de facto interdiction in recent years. 

Blue Island. Actor and activist Kelvin Tam Kwan-Long playing former 1967 rioter Raymond Young and reflecting on his own possible imprisonment

Interspersed with these documentary sequences are reconstitutions of key moments of the protagonists’ past, re-enacted by young actors in short period scenes that are willingly presented as fictions thanks to “behind the scenes” shots where the actors break character and become the main focus of the documentary. In interviews with the filmmaker during hair and makeup preps, the young actors candidly talk about their sense of identity and belonging. Born after the Handover, they have only known Hong Kong as a part of China, yet reject a Chinese identity even when they are born on the Mainland. Having followed or taken part at various levels in the 2019 pro-democracy movement, they are all affected by the political crackdown, and some have even been charged and await their trial. They are also shown interacting with the older protagonists, on set and in costumes. In a reconstituted “struggle session” in a 1960s mainland village, the young actors ask protagonists Chan Tak-Chi whether the re-enactment is faithful to his memories. In another poignant scene, actor Kelvin Tam Kwan-Long who plays Raymond Young as a young man breaks character while they are both on set in a prison cell and has a heart-to-heart conversation with the older man about his ongoing trial despite the two men’s diametrically opposed views. A parallel between Kenneth Lam’s experiences in 1989 and his actor – student representative Keith Fong Chung-Yin – during the 2019 protests is also staged with the recreation of a television interview that the former gave after witnessing the brutal repression in Beijing. Treating the young actors not only as vehicles to represent the past but also as active participants and witnesses of present political movements, Chan Tze Woon examines different facets of youth activism and creates a compelling mise-en-abyme of situations and characters that mirror each other, yet are never quite the same. By displacing protagonists and actors’ points of view, and making them exchange roles, Chan Tze Woon creates an empathic dialogue between generations that are not always able to understand each other, when they don’t fundamentally disagree on political views. 

Blue Island contains and subsumes many of the rich thematic and formal elements of this selection: a reflexive approach, an examination of identity, history and exile through interviews and observational filmmaking, but also fictional re-enactments of personal memories from different times and protagonists. The editing weaves together these sequences in a powerful flow, diving in and out of these different materials without losing sight of the main narrative. Hong Kong is indeed a blue island of melancholy and sorrow as suggests the Chinese title, now that it no longer represents the “land of freedom” that Chinese refugees dreamed about, nor the main locus to commemorate and perform democratic movements, now that public acts of protest are all but criminalised. But as the main protagonists, their actors and the silent gallery of portraits of well-known and lesser-known activists demonstrate in the striking final sequence, it is also an island of perseverance and ideals that won’t be intimidated.

 In TIDF’s rich programme, the selection of independent films from China and Hong Kong – some of which were included in competitive sections and have received several awards here and elsewhere1 – illustrate the ongoing vitality of independent filmmaking in Chinese-language territories. Despite the diasporic and scattered situation of many of these filmmakers and their protagonists, they are here to bear witness to the breaks and continuities in the societies they film, sharing with us what these changes mean not only in China and Hong Kong, but also in the world at large.

Endnotes

  1. Blue Island received the Best International Feature Documentary Award at Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival and TIDF Visionary Award’s Grand Prize, as well as the Special Jury Prize of the Asian Vision Competition and the Audience award. The Burrows received the Grand Prize of the TIDF Asian Vision Competition and the Jury Special Mention of the Visionary Award. Weiyena – The Long March Home received the TIDF Grand Prize of the International Competition. Silence in the Dust received TIDF Visionary Award’s Special Jury Prize.