Making independent films in Xi Jinping’s China is getting harder and more dangerous: ‘We’re thorns in their sides’

Filmmaking in China is an increasingly difficult business. A small group of artists is trying to get around the rules.

Among the many grievances voiced during last month’s nationwide protests in China, there was this, chanted by a crowd of protesters in Shanghai:

“I want to see a movie!”

It was just one small expression of anger about the long-running covid restrictions, but the cry went viral in China — a very understandable example of something a resident of a locked-down city in China just couldn’t do. For tens if not hundreds of millions of Chinese over the past three years, the covid rules have made going to a movie theater either a logistical nightmare or altogether impossible.

All freedoms of expression have been curtailed in President Xi Jinping’s China, and a film industry that was once widely respected around the world is no exception. The process of gaining approval for making films in China has never been easy, but censorship of domestically produced films has grown increasingly severe under Xi.

Given those realities, some independent-minded filmmakers have fled to other parts of the world, some have self-censored their work, and others have abandoned the industry entirely. And a small minority have chosen to fight from within the mainland, doing what they can to make what they consider meaningful — and sometimes critical — films about China, knowing full well that they risk punishment in doing so.

A pair of documentaries

Not long before the protests erupted in China, 19 films — a mix of experimental short films, longer narrative movies and independent documentaries — were screened at New York University’s biennial Reel China film festival, which, as co-organizer Zhen Zhang put it, aims to “showcase the indomitable spirit of [Chinese] independent filmmakers.”

That spirit has rarely been as challenged as it is now.

Grid spoke with the directors of two films shown at the festival — the documentaries “One Says No,” about one family’s fight against the demolition of old neighborhoods in Chinese cities, and “Silence in the Dust,” which chronicles the last months of a man, Dazhang, who is dying of black lung disease contracted in a quartz factory in Guangdong province.

If their themes are utterly different, both are sharply critical looks at the dark sides of China’s remarkably rapid modernization.

The films have been well-received in the U.S., but Chinese audiences never got the chance to see them. Neither filmmaker applied for the necessary authorization to film, so screenings on any large scale in China weren’t a possibility. “We didn’t take that route and didn’t report to the film bureau,” Li Wei, director of “Silence in the Dust,” told Grid. Zhao Dayong, director of “One Says No,” said that when his work was in production, shooting the film was still possible, but screening the finished product in China was out of the question. Zhao himself decided to move to the U.S., feeling he could no longer work in China given the government’s limits on expression. “They’ve come to regard us independent filmmakers as thorns in their sides,” he told Grid. “Thorns who shouldn’t exist in China anymore.”

Li has chosen to stay in China. Zhao said he isn’t planning to return. They have this much in common: They have created compelling films about China that will never have a large audience in their own country.

The power of the “dragon seal”

As was the case before, the law requires producers to file script outlines in advance with the Chinese film bureau. What’s new is that the law penalizes any filmmaking or screening done outside official channels. These regulations have hit smaller screening venues in China especially hard. “They used to show lots of [Chinese indie] films without dragon seals,” Chris Berry, professor of film studies at King’s College London, told Grid. “Now, it’s become clear that showing anything without a dragon seal is illegal.”

“This has intensified under Xi Jinping in a way that is increasingly obvious,” David Bandurski, director of the China Media Project, told Grid. “No longer were the authorities willing to sit idly by as filmmakers screened independent documentaries on various social issues before audiences in Rotterdam, Cannes or Berlin.”

Toeing the party line

Some prominent filmmakers — and actors as well — have chosen to play by the rules.

Charles Laughlin, professor of East Asian studies at the University of Virginia, told Grid that “to whatever extent possible, Xi is … trying to encourage a kind of cultural production, which from the point of view of outside observers seems to be just propaganda … extolling the party and the progress China has made over the last 70 or more years.”

Younger generations of Chinese directors toe the party line in different ways. Grid spoke to Chloe, a young filmmaker based in Beijing, who spoke on the condition of partial anonymity using only her English first name. Chloe terms her films “art house” rather than commercial, but they carry the official dragon seal of approval. Chloe said that because she steers clear of political topics, “the censorship system hasn’t impacted me too much. … I’m more interested in telling human stories from the mainland.” She has made the choice to do what’s necessary to win the seal, which means being careful with what she says and scripts. Or as she puts it, “I want to make films expressing China’s story, even though there are many challenges.”

Searching for ways around the rules

Other experimental movements may be just out of frame. Berry told Grid that “[The] art world in China … has become more and more taken over with visual moving image work, quite a lot of it in forms that could be seen to overlap with cinema. This world has its own separate regulatory and censorship environment. And, because it’s seen as being of more limited social and cultural impact, it is often understood as less strict.”

Film students also tend to get a little more slack. Film schools in China offer opportunities for students to create work that isn’t subject to the official rules and regulations because their films will be screened only on campus for a limited audience.

For documentary filmmakers, meanwhile, the road to a dragon seal can be particularly fraught.

China’s remaining independent documentarians are doing what they can to make films without the dragon seal. Li Wei is still in China, where “Silence in the Dust” was not authorized for distribution, and his options for showing the film were limited.

“We held a few private screenings in different cities … but with a very limited audience,” Li told Grid. “Even though quite a few members of the [Chinese] press have seen the film, they can’t write anything about it.”

These under-the-radar screenings can exist only on the margins, often in private spaces and always without any expectation of publicity.

The enforced silence from Beijing contrasts with what Li describes as a largely productive dynamic with the local government in Guangzhou, a major city in southern China, where he filmed the documentary with assistance from a nongovernmental organization.

“Over the past few years, the local government [in Guangzhou] has become more willing to cooperate with NGOs. This is what I have observed … at least to a certain degree.”

Li said the big caveat is that this cooperation is possible only as long as “there is not too much publicity or fanfare.” While his film bears no dragon seal, Li was still able to shoot it under the radar, in part thanks to his relationship with Da ai Qingchen (Love Save Black Lung), a Chinese NGO advocating for sufferers of the disease in the region. He continues to find alternative screening venues for his work, from Taipei to New York. As Zhang at NYU put it, Li “simply operates outside the system.” So far, Li reports no interference from the central government or its censors. But that could change at any time.

In an environment where publicity means the potential for central government scrutiny and censorship, walking this tightrope — trying to get just enough attention, but not too much — may be the way to go for independent filmmakers.

When a film hits a nerve

This is the world of Zhao’s “One Says No,” in which a character, A Zhong, and his family resist, sometimes violently, the forced demolition of their home. As director Zhao puts it, “memory is resistance.” His central character would likely agree. In a key moment, A Zhong holds up a deed dated 1938 and points out that his family’s claim to the house and the land “is older than the Communist Party’s [control of China], older than the People’s Republic.” Outraged when a female neighbor who has lost her home takes her own life after enduring mockery by the authorities, he tells them: “This is the land of my ancestors. If you [insist on] carrying out forced demolition, at least know that.”

Zhao, who now lives near New York City, has come to a different conclusion. In a conversation in Washington Square Park after the screening, Zhao told Grid, “I once wanted to go back [to China] but realized it was just a dream. I used to hope that documentaries could influence audiences, influence society and politics.” That, he said — in China at least — is now a dream as well.

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