feature stories

Many Truths to Speak: The Changing Ecology of Documentary Industry in China Part One

The documentary form in China has always had a very fraught relationship with the government because it combines the mass-media potential of film with the dangerous weapon of truth. This has produced a clear schism between the documentaries produced and aired on Chinese television [titles translated by author for reference]—nature docs, docs on ancient culture, such as Hand Made in China (中国手做), Celebration Nation (a collaboration with Tencent and Nat Geo), or the massively-popular food documentaries Bite of China and Flavor Origins—a very granular food doc series now streaming on Netflix. The entry of players such as the Discovery Channel and Nat Geo, has certainly brought with it more compelling storytelling, and with local tech sector players such as the BATs (Baidu, Alibaba, and Tencent) becoming big digital content players, the commercial documentary TV sector is expanding. 

These larger-than-life entities tend to hoover-up young talent, names such as Chai Xiaoyu, Zhou Ziyang, and Qin Xunkun. These filmmakers according to commentator Bei Xi, are part of the group of directors who are open to commercial pursuits or in Bei’s words “climbing upwards.” Their work is part of a different ecology and supported by FIRST International Film Festival in Xining—a festival run by the Xining municipal government and the government-sponsored China Film Critics Association. The festival provides access to VC and support to filmmakers who are working with CCTV/government-friendly topics.

In contrast to these more flexible directors, open to commercial opportunities, the independent documentary makers—names such as Wang Bing, Jiang Nengjie and Zhou Hao—are “digging downward for more shocking reality,” according to Bei, and thus they are cut off from the spigots of state and commercial capital. Their opportunities to recoup their investments are limited as they require a dragon seal, longbiao龙标to be shown in Chinese cinemas and an audiovisual license to stream online—most would never pass censorship and mainstream audiences have yet to develop a taste for these kinds of ponderous films, and the brutal realities they depict. These documentaries tend to attract a die-hard crowd of those particularly interested in seeing an unadulterated version of events. Devotees of the genre would make annual pilgrimages to China’s three independent film festivals, which would happen or not, depending upon the whims of the authorities.

There was the Yunnan Multi Culture Visual Festival, which focused on anthropological films (Yunfest closed in 2013), China Independent Film Festival (held in Nanjing and closed in 2018, announcing it would never reopen in 2020), and the Beijing Independent Film Festival (held in Songjiang Beijing and closed in 2014). For an in-depth view of the “sting operation” by Beijing police, see Wang Wo’s A Filmless Festival, which documents the festival’s closure, when authorities shut off the power and water and then scaled the courtyard walls of the festival offices. One of the staff responds to the cop who has just landed in his courtyard saying calmly, “Why didn’t you just knock on the door? We would have let you in.”