The Death of Chinese Independent Cinema?
Article written by Chris Berry, China Policy Institute 1 .
Is independent cinema in China dead? Chinese indies have been in a cat-and-mouse game with the authorities since their beginnings in the 1990s. Regulatory punishments are announced, but somehow the filmmakers carry on. However, the forceful suppression of the Beijing Independent Film Festival in 2014 made people sit up and wonder if it was for real this time. The implementation of China’s first actual Film Law in March of this year seems to have added to the chilling effect.
In April, at the Department of Film Studies at King’s College London, and in association with the Chinese Visual Festival, a symposium optimistically called “The Future of Chinese Independent Cinema” took place. Speakers included Professor Zhang Xianmin of the Beijing Film Academy, who is also one of the leading producers of Chinese independent films, and independent documentary filmmaker and author of a recent Chinese-language book on Chinese indies, Wen Hai, as well as other speakers from outside the People’s Republic of China. Based on what we heard, Chinese indie cinema as we knew it really is in steep decline. But perhaps it is being reborn as something new.
Chinese indie cinema “as we knew it” was a sort of shadow cinema. It went unrecorded in official yearbooks and uncollected by the China Film Archive. But it survived in the grey areas of China’s regulatory regime. “Independent” has a distinctive meaning in China. In the United States and most liberal democracies, “independent cinema” is understood in contrast to Hollywood and other mainstream commercial industries. The main thing that Chinese independent films and filmmakers try to be independent of is the state.
Therefore, the main standard for defining independence in China is not submitting your film to the censors. Censorship is a pre-condition for commercial exhibition. So, the filmmakers figured that if they did not try to sell tickets, making the films was not a problem. Instead, a circuit of events like the Beijing Independent Film Festival sprang up to exhibit the work and enable filmmakers to meet audiences. And because the regulations say that “film festivals” must be approved by the Film Bureau, in Chinese they were called “exhibitions” or “audio-visual screenings” to avoid that issue.
- Chris Berry is professor of Film Studies at King’s College London and has published widely on Chinese and East Asian cinema