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The Oscar for best documentary short tends to be somewhat overlooked amid the glitz and glamour of the Academy Awards ceremony. But the underappreciated category is fast becoming a major sticking point in China this year.
Beijing’s media regulators told local press outlets not to broadcast live coverage of the Oscars ceremony and to play down their reporting of the event overall, according to sources familiar with the directive. The tamping down on the Oscars, which have a wide following among Chinese movie buffs, is believed to be a response to the nomination of the short documentary Do Not Split, which explores the 2019 pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, as well as ongoing official unease over past statements attributed to Chinese filmmaker Chloé Zhao, who is nominated in the best director category for Nomadland.
Sources close to state television network CCTV, the home of the Oscars in China, told The Hollywood Reporter on Wednesday that a decision hasn’t yet been made about whether to carry the awards show as usual this year.
The Academy Awards ceremony is typically aired live in China by M1905, the streaming video service of the state broadcaster’s movie channel, CCTV6. The live broadcast always falls on a Monday morning in China, because of the time difference, but an edited version of the show is later aired nationwide by CCTV6 during primetime.
Bloomberg and Hong Kong’s Apple Daily newspaper reported Wednesday that Beijing’s Propaganda Department instructed local media outlets to focus on “non-controversial” awards categories.
Should the Oscars broadcast go forward in China in some form, cuts to the ceremony would be far from unprecedented. In 2019, Chinese streaming site Mango TV, which shared the online live broadcast rights with M1905, cut the phrase “gay man” from Rami Malek’s acceptance speech for the best actor Oscar for his performance in Bohemian Rhapsody. The words were instead swapped with the phrase “special group” in the Chinese subtitles. Lady Gaga, who is persona non grata in China because of past support for an independent Tibet, also was cut from portions of the show that year.
Directed by Norwegian filmmaker Anders Hammer, Do Not Split follows the 2019 protests in Hong Kong over the proposal of a law that would have made it possible for Hong Kong residents to be extradited to mainland China to face Beijing’s highly politicized legal system. The film focuses on the protestors, most of whom are young students, as they face an increasingly brutal backlash by the Hong Kong police, with their protest movement gradually evolving into a broader call for democracy and human rights. The film continues until the 2020 passage of Hong Kong’s draconian national security law, which effectively quashed the protest movement and resulted in the arrest of scores of activists.
Zhao’s Nomadland, which earned six nominations overall, including for best picture, has become a more complicated and counter-intuitive case for China’s censorship apparatus. When Zhao won the best director award at the Golden Globes on Feb. 28 — a first for an Asian woman — the moment was widely celebrated in China, with local news outlets and social media users rallying around her success as a source of national pride. Within a day, however, the mood had darkened dramatically, after internet sleuths unearthed old interviews in which Zhao appeared to make statements critical of her country. Beijing’s internet censors then entered the fray, blocking most publicity for Nomadland on social media and deleting many references to the film’s April 23 China release date.
Chinese industry insiders contacted by The Hollywood Reporter have said that regulators seem to be waiting and watching before making a final judgment on the fate of Zhao’s movie in China. How Zhao’s potential Oscars glory is received in China — not to mention how regulators handle the fall release of The Eternals, the big-budget Marvel superhero movie she directed for Disney — will pose an interesting test for China’s always-evolving censorship system.
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