July 31, 2017 / Rowan Parry

On-going Digitization and Independent Chinese Documentary — A field report from Beijing 2015-2016

Principal investigator: Rowan Parry

In this essay I briefly set forth how I experienced the impact of on-going digitization during several field trips to Beijing during 2015 and 2016, which I made as part of my current research on independent Chinese documentary. This essay highlights three digital developments, namely digital recording, the Internet, and WeChat, which have had a significant impact on the ways in which independent documentaries are produced and distributed.

Key terms:
China, digitization, independent documentary, film distribution, WeChat

When tracing the developments of independent documentary filmmaking in China it is impossible to neglect the role that digital technologies have played in this field. It is accepted amongst most scholars of Chinese cinema that the emergence of conveniently sized digital cameras (DV) in the late 1990s had an immense influence on independent filmmaking practices (e.g. Zhen and Zito 2015). The affordability and accessibility of DV enabled a generation of filmmakers to create films outside of the commercial and state dominated production systems. Often using a direct cinema style, these films brought to light otherwise unseen and unheard aspects of Chinese society. The liberating effects, its specific aesthetic characteristics, and the ethical challenges brought on by DV in China has been widely discussed (e.g. Robinson 2013, Wang 2005).

In the late 2000s, ten years after DV made its introduction, Chinese DV productions had gained large scale international recognition with films like West of the Tracks (2003), 1428 (2009), Last Train Home (2009) and Petition (2009) winning awards at film festivals around the world. At the same time smartphones with built in cameras made their introduction and rapidly began to spread amongst the population. At present close to 60% of the Chinese population owns a smartphone, and amongst people aged 18-34 this is round 85% (Pew Research Centre 2016: 20). This development has given rise to a generation of people for whom owning a camera, and as such being equipped to make films (and to a much larger extent photographs), is not considered to be anything out of the ordinary. Coupled with the ability to instantly disseminate, edit and manipulate these images the way in which images are produced and consumed is rapidly changing, and this also seems to be having an impact on the independent film scene in China.

An example of these developments can be found in the young filmmaker Zhao Xu (born in 1992) who made his first short film in high school and dropped out after one semester of art school in order to devote all his time to making films. Readily available filmmaking equipment enabled Zhao to experiment with filmmaking from a very young age and at only 24 years of age his film Regarding Lambs in the City (2015), about people and sheep living on the edges of Beijing, has been screened at multiple film festivals. Also the ease with which films can be made influences his approach to documentary filmmaking, and gives him a desire to do more than just capture reality. For the production of his forthcoming film Hills and Mountains, he is using documentary footage of his friend in order to craft a semi-fictional tale that goes beyond the main characters experiences. The main aim of this film he says is “to capture the dynamics between the spiritual and material world.”

Where Chris Berry and Lisa Rofel noted the contrast between how “Chinese filmmakers and commentators valued DV’s ability to capture what was happening around them in a direct and unmediated manner” and how western theorist emphasizes digital filmmaking’s “ability to manipulate what is recorded in an almost equally direct manner” (Berry and Rofel 2010). The ability to manipulate and craft digital images in an age where everything is recorded, posted, mashed up, and re-posted appears to be one of the driving factors towards a fusion between these two positions and a catalyst in the rise in looser forms of documentary making and docufictions which started in the late 2000s with titles like Disorder (2009), Noise (2007), and Oxihide (2005), and continues today with films like Behemoth (2015) and Li Wen at East Lake (2015).

Besides the proliferation of digital recording devices the most important development on the digital front has been the spread of the Internet. The promises and perils of the Internet in China has been a hotly debated topic for many years (e.g. Yang 2009, Lagerkvist 2006) and it is not my intention to address this debate here, but instead I would like to expand on how I personally experienced the Internet in doing my research.

Technically the Internet can enable people to view, share, and discuss anything in real-time, which, judging by the amount of people staring at their phones on the Beijing Subway, seems to be happening continuously. However, this in no way means that independent documentaries are freely disseminated across the Internet. Even though it is possible to share films online, and to find various documentaries through both video-hosting sites like YouTube, Vimeo, Tudou, and Youku, and some filmmakers, particularly those with an activist agenda, like for example Ai Weiwei and Ai Xiaoming, use all channels available to disseminate their films as widely as possible, it is not a given that everything can simply be found online.

First of all, uploading a film to a Chinese based website like Youku might also mean that it will be removed if the content is not deemed suitable. For example the films by LGBT activist/filmmaker Fan Popo were available on these sites but were removed. An inquiry into why the films where removed, led him to find out that no order was given to remove the films. In a following court case the court order the film be allowed back online. However, at present, he said during an interview, the websites have a system in place that automatically recognizes banned content (including his film) and any attempt to upload this material is immediately met with a message that it cannot be uploaded. The inability to publicly share specific types of content through Chinese video streaming services means that the potential to reach large Chinese audiences through the Internet is limited for many indie filmmakers.

Over the past years several films have been released on DVD by companies like dGenerate, Fanhall Filmstudio (no longer in operation), Visible Record, Icarus, CNEX, Hubert Balls Fund, and several of these titles can still be ordered online with the prices ranging from 5 to 395 euro’s. After being released these films will usually find their way onto specialist film pirating websites and can then be illegally downloaded by people who know how to navigate these parts of the Internet.

Even though I was able to find a fair amount of material online through various methods, it is only a fraction of the independent documentary titles that I know have been produced. Besides several thresholds that would prevent people from disseminating their material online, it is more common that filmmakers purposefully neither upload their films online nor release them on DVD, and on many occasions when I have been given DVDs or private links to watch or download films this has been with the request not to further disseminate the film. This is done for a variety of reasons, but most often I have found that it is done to more tightly control the distribution of their work, either because it has been agreed with the subjects that the film will not be distributed, or for the films retain some kind of value and exclusivity.

In addition to these obstacles to using the internet to find independent films, also websites which are dedicated to the discussion of independent Chinese films are hard to come by or blocked in China, for example the Chinese website Fanhall was shut down, the US based website of dGenerate is blocked in China, and many films like Petition (2009) can not be listed on the popular entertainment platform Douban. These examples show that even though a web-savvy documentary enthusiast will be able to find a fair amount of films and information online, in this particular case the Internet is not the free and open platform that it could potentially be.

Like the documentary film is somehow rooted in material reality, it is through being present at film screenings held across the city and engaging with filmmakers and audiences that I got the best understanding of what independent documentary filmmaking in China entails. However, to find out about the screenings there is one last digital hurdle to cross: WeChat.

WeChat is a smartphone application launched in 2011; in 2016 it had over 700 million active users, and close to 93% of the Beijing population uses the app (Business Insider 2016). The application is used for pretty much anything you could possibly do with a smart phone like chatting, sharing locations, making payments, booking taxies or restaurants, and charging the credit on your phone. The app also allows people to share “moments” with their contacts; these could be photos, texts, news articles, or event information.

In the initial phases of my fieldwork I did not yet fully understand what WeChat meant for promoting screenings, and it was only after attending my first screening, which was listed in an expat magazine that this began to unfold. After this screening I joined a WeChat group dedicated to the screenings at that specific club and I began to realize that only a fraction of the screenings were listed on websites and very quickly WeChat became my main channel to receive information.

As I attended more screenings, I joined more WeChat group chats related to specific screening venues, followed official accounts set up by screening groups and could see events shared by my contacts in their “moments”. As my WeChat contact list grew and I added more subscriptions, my phone became flooded with an endless stream of information. Scrolling through all of it to pick out interesting screening events became a daily activity. Not before long, the main issue was not where to find films, but to decide which of the many screenings to visit, especially during weekends when there could be up to six events on a single day.

In essence, almost all events I visited used WeChat as the main form of promotion. Most events were shared in groups, through moments, and via subscriptions, the organizers also often urged interested people to forward this information to potentially interested people. In many ways, using WeChat as a promotion channel can be seen as a contemporary form of word of mouth advertising. Even though WeChat has a lot larger potential reach and is much faster than word of mouth, the excess of information being received through WeChat can make it easy to overlook stuff or simply forget it as soon as the next message pops up. Unless you are especially on the lookout for screenings it becomes just one more drop in an endless stream of messages, photos, news and events.

For most venues, using WeChat is the only way used to attract an audience for the events. Several also use the event listings on douban.com. Practically nowhere did I encounter posters or flyers advertising screenings. In this sense you might say that the entire process of promoting independent film screenings has been digitized. Many events would require people to register in advance to be sure that everybody would be able to get a seat, and simultaneously keep track of the people attending.

The downside to the heavy reliance on WeChat for promoting events is that it does not only allow the organizers to keep track of people attending but the state is also keeping track of everything that is being said and done. This did not seem to impede the use of WeChat though, of the many people I met who were involved in independent film only two do not use WeChat.

In this short essay I have attempted to briefly highlight digital transformations in the recording and distribution of independent Chinese documentary. Digital technologies have altered independent documentary in several ways, transforming their production, aesthetics, and consumption. Besides offering new possibilities for watching and promoting films, this is not without obstacles, and what will happen with all the data being automatically collected online and through WeChat remains to be seen.

  1. Bunisess Insider. ‘WeChat breaks 700 million monthly active users’. Available here.
  2. Edwards, Dan. Independent Chinese Documentary: Alternative Visions, Alternative Publics (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2015).
  3. Fan Popo interview with author and Jeroen de Kloet. January 2016, Beijing.
  4. Lagerkvist, Johan. The Internet in China: Unlocking and Containing the Public Sphere (Lund: Lund University, 2006).
  5. Pew Research Center. ‘Smartphone Ownership and Internet Usage Continues to Climb in Emerging Economies.’ Available here.
  6. Robinson, Luke. Independent Chinese Documentary: From the Studio to the Street (London: Palgrave Macmilan, 2013).
  7. Wang Yimin. ‘The Amateur’s Lightning Rod: DV Documentary in Postsocialist China’. Film Quarterly 58/5 2005, pp. 16-26.
  8. Yang, Guobin. The Power of the Internet in China: Citizen Activism Online (New York: Columbia University Press, 2009)
  9. Zhao Xu interview with author. January 2016, Beijing.
  10. Zhen, Zhang and Angela Zito, eds. DV-Made China: Digital Subjects and Social Transformation after Independent Film (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2015).
  11. Independent Chinese documentary here refers to films that embody an “independent spirit” and are made largely independent from Chinese commercial and state film structures. Due to limited space I cannot go into the details of what constitutes independent documentary in China, for details on this please see Berry, Rofel and Lu (2010) or Edwards (2015)
  12. Video streaming sites contain large quantities of amateur films made with nothing more than a phone, and even though smart phones are not marketed (or often used) as professional filmmaking equipment, many models posses the capabilities to produce professional quality film recordings. Examples can be found in the Korean short Night Fishing (2011), filmed with an iPhone4, and the American feature film Tangerine (2015), which was shot entirely on an iPhone 5s.
  13. Even films of which the filmmaker agrees not to distribute them (in China) might still find their way online though.
  14. The only exception to this was a small cinema with daily screenings, which would print posters of the films they were showing that week and hang them in the windows of the venue.

Rowan Parry

PhD Researcher