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China's Indie Film Scene Under Siege, Has Become a 'Muddied Pond,' According to Beijing Indie Doc Fest Artistic Director

Photo of Jay A. Fernandez By Jay A. Fernandez | Indiewire October 26, 2012 at 1:20PM

Independent film may be flourishing in many parts of the world, including much of Asia, but ambitious Chinese filmmakers remain crushed by the cultural and political constraints of the imposing Communist government. That’s the thesis of Beijing Independent Documentary Festival artistic director Zhu Rikun, writing on the New Statesman website Thursday.
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Ai Weiwei Never Sorry

Independent film may be flourishing in many parts of the world, including much of Asia, but ambitious Chinese filmmakers remain crushed by the cultural and political constraints of the imposing Communist government. That’s the thesis of Beijing Independent Documentary Festival artistic director Zhu Rikun, writing on the New Statesman website Thursday.

Rikun notes that optimism about a loosening film culture in China is misplaced, and that even with new-millennium advantages such as the Internet and cheaper digital technology, Chinese filmmakers remain smothered, co-opted by official channels or shoved into self-censorship. Top-down pressure is such that even ostensibly independent-minded festivals are just as guilty of seeking government approval as mainstream filmmakers.

READ MORE: Big Trouble in China: Festival Director Li Speaks Out About Beijing Independent Film Fest Shut Down

Here’s the meat of Rikun’s despairing statement:

Over the past two or three years in China there have been more and more independent festivals and screenings. On the one hand, this shows that the number of people who know about independent film is increasing. On the other, these activities rarely involve any noteworthy or innovative directors. First, self-censorship is serious. The organisers are almost all pragmatists, not idealists. Nanjing’s China Independent Film Festival and Shanghai’s Film Festival on the Water, for example, exclude sensitive works and only screen films tolerated by the government. Some censored documentaries have been distributed but the most widely distributed in recent years, such as "Together" (2002, about a 13-year-old violin prodigy) or "Last Train Home" (2009, about China’s 130 million migrant workers), are films that have passed censorship. Television stations also took part in production of parts of these films.

The earliest group of underground directors – which included Zhang Yuan, Wang Xiaoshuai, Lou Ye and Jia Zhangke, and emerged between the late 1980s and 2000 – was dubbed the “Sixth Generation” by western film critics. It no longer exists. Most of the directors now submit to the system or have lost their creative power. Some of the Sixth Generation continue to produce work in isolated cases, but independent film has become a muddied pond. There are no longer prominent figures and international recognition has been flattened. Within the circle, motives are mixed. The lifespan of the Sixth Generation is short.

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Rikun acknowledges that Ai Weiwei -- the subject of Alison Klayman’s 2012 Sundance documentary “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry” and one of the country’s more high-profile artistic agitators -- can get sensitive documentaries made by his studio into the hands of audiences, but only via free DVDs and the web. The situation as described sounds even more stifling than that in Iran, which has recently punished filmmakers such as Mohammad Rasoulof and Jafar Panahi, who was awarded the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought by the European Union Friday.

Given that independent artistic voices are often drivers of societal change, it's no surprise that the Chinese government would seek to quiet them (as they do those of the rest of the media). But other cultures have shown that only when those honest expressions of life inside the country are seen and heard by others can the greater world ever truly understand them -- or can they truly understand themselves.

You can read the full article by Rikun here.

This article is related to: News, Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, Jafar Panahi, Zhu Rikun, Beijing Independent Documentary Festival, Last Train Home, Together