Chinese Documentary Makers Say They Enjoy Freedom

Dissidents pave the way for artistic freedom, filmmakers said.

HONG KONG -- News of the arrests of prominent Chinese dissidents such as Ai Weiwei and Liu Xiaobo has dominated headlines and painted a picture of harsh oppression and censorship. But two independent Chinese documentary makers attending a Hong Kong festival say they enjoy a great deal of creative freedom.

The two filmmakers say they can tackle most subjects they are interested in -- in part thanks to the dissidents' sacrifices.

"On the surface, people think that making documentaries in China is a very difficult task, that we are doing something that the (Chinese Communist) Party doesn't like. That is not necessarily the case," director Zhou Hao said during a public talk on the sidelines of the 2011 Chinese Documentary Festival in Hong Kong late Friday.

"I think we enjoy a significant amount of space," he said.

Zhou, who used to work as a photographer for the state-run Xinhua News Agency, described the Chinese documentary scene as "a hundred flowers bloom," using a Chinese idiom. "There are all sorts of movies. There are movies that examine different sides of different issues."

Zhou said people often ask him if he worried about the consequence of his work. "But my understanding is that you can basically film everything you want to film. The key question is whether you want to shoot something. If you want to shoot something, you can definitely do it," Zhou said.

"Of course there are restrictions in the mainland, but I think the tougher restrictions come from the heart of the filmmakers. The fear comes from ourselves. I think the other factors are irrelevant," he said.

Fellow director Ma Zhandong agreed. "If you like what you are doing, you can overcome the hurdles," he said.

Beneficiary of dissidents

Zhou added that he felt he and his fellow filmmakers are the beneficiary of the sacrifices made by high-profile dissidents such as Ai, the avant-garde artist and activist who was released last month after almost three months in detention for alleged tax evasion. Critics view the case as political persecution.

Zhou cited the examples of two fellow filmmakers. They include Xu Xin, who interviewed disgruntled parents of a deadly December 1994 fire in a remote western town that killed more than 300 children staging a performance at a local theater for his six-hour documentary Karamay.

Some parents believe that preferential escape for officials attending the performance led to the deaths. Thirteen local officials were sentenced to jail terms of up to seven years for negligence and the parents were paid compensation, but many still think the government hasn't done enough.

There is a caveat to Zhou's and Ma's comments. Filmmakers like the two of them can enjoy wide latitude thanks to the advent of affordable and small digital cameras. The sheer vastness of the country also makes it impossible for Chinese officials to police every independent director.

But underground filmmakers who operate outside the system -- officially sanctioned projects must have their scripts and final cuts approved by censors - cannot secure commercial releases. They are limited to small, unofficial screenings and foreign film festivals, or in Hong Kong, the former British colony that returned to Chinese rule in 1997 under a special semiautonomous status that promises freedom of speech.

Both Zhou and Ma are also screening bold works at this year's Chinese Documentary Festival, which kicked off June 18 and ended Sunday.

Ma screened One Day in May, which follows a family's recovery from the deadly 2008 earthquake in southwestern Sichuan province. The Chinese government is still wary of critical coverage of the disaster, which killed 87,000 people.

Glimpse of troubled Chinese

Zhou entered Cop Shop and The Transition Period. The first film documents activity at the reception desk of the police station near the main train station close to the southern city Guangzhou just before Chinese New Year, when migrant workers flock to catch trains heading to their rural hometowns. The 56-minute documentary gives an unvarnished look at troubled Chinese citizens - a drunk repeatedly shows up at the station, an alleged pickpocket is berated in front of his young daughter and other walk-ins ask for handouts.

The Transition Period offers a rare, fascinating look at how the Chinese government operates at the lowest level.

Guo Yongchang, who is serving a seven-year prison term for accepting bribes of $310,000, is shown discussing how to split tax revenue with lower-level officials, meeting with constituents as well as smearing birthday cake onto the face of an American businessman and wining and dining with Taiwan businessmen in another drunken episode. A secretly recorded sound section shows Guo ordering an aide to return certain bribes.

On Saturday, festival organizers named One Day in May best documentary feature and The Transition Period the runner-up. Cop Shop placed second in the best documentary short category. The winner was Taiwan director Ho Chao-ti's My Fancy High Heels, which traces the production of high heels from calfskin to New York City fashion stores.

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