“The Chinese Mayor” and the History of Independent Chinese Documentary Film at Sundance

After director Zhou Hao and producer Qi Zhao premiered their new documentary feature THE CHINESE MAYOR at Sundance about two weeks ago, the film got high praise from US critics, and won a Sundance special jury award for “unparalleled access” to its subject Geng Yanbo, the mayor of Datong. The city lies at the heart of China’s polluted coal country, and the film follows Geng’s campaign to transform the city’s reputation through controversial demolition and redevelopment projects. This is Zhou Hao‘s first work to screen at Sundance. His other works include COTTON (2014), THE TRANSITION PERIOD (2009), USING (2008) and SENIOR YEAR (2005).

Daniel Walber of Nonfics called THE CHINESE MAYOR “the first great political documentary of 2015” and Dennis Harvey of Variety  described it as “a fascinating vérité portrait of the collision between progress, politics, corruption and citizens’ rights in a rapidly changing People’s Republic”.

Picking up on the previous lack of independent non-fiction from China at Sundance, Vadim Rizov of Filmmaker Magazine wrote:

The vast world of Chinese independent documentaries was finally acknowledged by Sundance with the inclusion of Zhou Hao’s The Chinese Mayor. That’s not to bag on the festival for an anomalous oversight: this exciting and politically urgent strain of films has been happening for 15 years or so but not often acknowledged by U.S. festivals at large. This is a very good starting point.

A BRIEF LOOK BACK: INDEPENDENT DOCUMENTARY IN CHINA

The beginning of independent documentary filmmaking in China can actually be traced back about 25 years, to Wu Wenguang’s BUMMING IN BEIJING in 1990. Previously, Chinese documentaries were all pre-scripted and often propagandistic works for television, employing a heavy-handed use of music and omniscient voiceover. Since then, Chinese independent filmmakers have developed their own unique values for documentary, in reaction to the older, more prescriptive rules that continue to govern television docs.

In a 2013 talk at MoMA, Chris Berry summarized a few of these developments:

  • In the early 1990s, a new word for realism (jishizhuyi), often translated as “on-the-spot” realism, entered the parlance of many Chinese doc filmmakers, referring to a spontaneous observational approach that American filmmakers and critics might associate with cinema vérité or direct cinema. However, despite the stylistic inspiration that a number of early Chinese independents gained from filmmakers like Frederick Wiseman, Chinese practitioners of “on-the-spot” realism were more deeply influenced by a desire to distinguish their work from earlier Chinese documentaries – This was a departure from both the prescriptive, ideology-driven style of PRC TV docs, and an earlier Marxist concept of realism (xianshizhuyi), which sought to present the hidden reality of class struggle.
  • In the late 1990s, the spread of digital video allowed for further experimentation with “on-the-spot” realism and the flourishing of many new nonfiction modes, including the personal/diary documentary, the experimental documentary, the essay documentary, and what Berry calls a more relaxed set of rules for the spontaneous observational style, showing more flexibility toward voiceover and music.
  • Finally, in the late 1990s and 2000s, Chinese independent documentary filmmakers moved away from being primarily concerned with the issue of filming objective truth as an alternative to the official state narrative. “Instead,” as Berry describes, “the related questions of ethics and access become more crucial — the ethics of the relationship between the filmmaker and his or her subjects, and the question of who gets to make films, and who gets to speak on camera and about what.”

For more on this history, you can read the full text of Berry’s talk on the dGenerate film blog.

THE SUNDANCE MODEL OF DOCUMENTARY

While many independent Chinese films have found their way to American audiences via festivals, local screenings, and distributors, Sundance’s selection of Chinese docs in recent years has been limited to those by only a few directors and producers, not including the many other rich modes of nonfiction filmmaking that have emerged in China. In a way, this is a specific example of the critique that Anthony Kauffman makes of Sundance in a recent IndieWire article. He writes:

Sundance lacks a significant presence of nonfiction films that push the form forward stylistically or that dare to be different. […] Where at Sundance can you find films that don’t fit into preconceived molds? […] A vast majority of the titles have been crafted according to the PBS school of documentary filmmaking.

While festivals should have complete freedom in their programming vision, the subjective decisions of a festival like Sundance can influence what is made visible and accessible to millions of people each year, and what remains in the dark, most notably in the case of non-US works.

CHINESE DOCUMENTARY IN PARK CITY

Technically, there aren’t any Chinese documentaries that have screened at Sundance without Qi Zhao on board as a producer, or without Canadian creative personnel. Most of these selections don’t actually represent the field of Chinese independent nonfiction, and may be better described as North American productions or co-productions.

Aside from this year’s THE CHINESE MAYOR, producing powerhouse Qi Zhao was also behind Sundance 2013’s FALLEN CITY (director/producer), 2012’s CHINA HEAVYWEIGHT (co-producer), and 2010’s LAST TRAIN HOME (executive producer).

Additionally, the acclaimed Canadian production company EyeSteelFilm was involved in the production of CHINA HEAVYWEIGHT, LAST TRAIN HOME, and UP THE YANGTZE (Sundance 2007), working with Chinese-Canadian filmmakers Yung Chang and Fan Lixin on all of these titles.

The very first independent Chinese documentary that appears in Sundance records is the 2003 premiere of Chen Weijun’s TO LIVE IS BETTER THAN TO DIE, which was edited by Fan Lixin.

Within this very small circle, the director of THE CHINESE MAYOR, Zhou Hao, is a new name for Sundance. Based in Guangzhou, he has been building his reputation for over a decade with works like USING and  COTTON, which just won the Golden Horse for Best Documentary this year in Taipei.

Here is the full list of these feature documentaries from 1990-2015, as found in the Sundance festival archive and on IMDb:

2015: THE CHINESE MAYOR
Country: China
Director: Zhou Hao
Producer: Qi Zhao

2013: FALLEN CITY
Country: China/Japan
Director: Qi Zhao
Producer: Qi Zhao, NHK

2012: CHINA HEAVYWEIGHT
Country: Canada/China/Finland/Japan/UK
Director: Yung Chang
Production Company: EyeSteelFilm
Co-producer: Qi Zhao

2010: LAST TRAIN HOME
Country: Canada/China/UK
Director: Fan Lixin
Production Company: EyeSteelFilm
Executive Producer: Qi Zhao

2007: UP THE YANGTZE
Country: Canada
Director: Yung Chang
Co-production: EyeSteelFilm / National Film Board of Canada

2003: TO LIVE IS BETTER THAN TO DIE
Country: China
Director/Producer: Chen Weijun
Editor: Fan Lixin

WHY CHINESE DOCS DON’T GO TO SUNDANCE

For the past several years, Sundance has sent North American filmmakers to Beijing to provide documentary workshop opportunities for Chinese filmmakers, but so far this hasn’t led to the appearance of any new Chinese documentary talent in Sundance programming.

Given these new efforts and the rich 25-year history of independent documentary filmmaking in China, why have Chinese doc independents been underrepresented at Sundance for so long?

Of the many possibilities, here are two:

A lack of knowledge about US festival strategy among Chinese filmmakers. Producers like Qi Zhao may be one in a billion when it comes to talented Chinese producers who also have a deep understanding of North American festival strategy. Without guidance from a producer who has previous festival experience in North America, many Chinese filmmakers may not be able to navigate the unfamiliar festival submission process on their own, and perhaps may never end up submitting to Sundance.

A stylistic disdain for Chinese independent documentary among US film circles. In a 2008 piece on Chinese nonfiction cinema for IDA, US producer Lisa Leeman described this disinterest in recounting the reactions of a few filmmakers to the “unflinching observational style” and slow pacing of several Chinese docs selected for a screening series by filmmaker Duan Jinchuan:

[One] Western filmmaker observed, “Chinese docs are obsessed with vérité, at the expense of craft.”  He cited one post-screening discussion, in which a Westerner criticized the Chinese documentarian for being “anti-style” and disregarding the audience. The filmmaker replied disdainfully that “We’re not interested in massaging audiences.” […]

Another Western filmmaker speculated […] “Filmmakers here bow down to Fred Wiseman, but they are not yet thinking carefully about character, story and structure, how to develop vérité stories in a compelling way.” […]

One Western filmmaker mused, “It is a delicate question–do Western and Chinese filmmakers and audiences simply have deeply different senses of pacing and storytelling, or could Chinese docs still be in the process of maturing?”

This last question is important, because it leads to another, more difficult one – by whose standards do we measure the “maturity” of a film culture? Because, if we use the Sundance standard, the vast majority of Chinese nonfiction cinema will continue to be invisible to American audiences.


Gen Carmel

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