by Eduardo Gagliardi
When we talk about ‘Chinese independent cinema’, we refer to an alternative mode of film production realized outside the official system, but also to a kind of cinema that gives priority to self expression, individual perspective, and artistic value. Born in the nineties, the Chinese independent cinema has seen in the last ten years further developments and changes, so that nowadays it should be distinguished by the cinema of the Sixth generation directors.
1- Nineties: the Sixth generation
This mode started in China in the early nineties with those directors, after known as the Sixth generation directors, like Zhang Yuan, Wang Xiaoshuai and He Jianjun. These directors were Beijing Film Academy graduated. Despite their training instead of working in the official film production system, they began, for the first time in China, to realize their movies with private capital and without submitting the work for the censorship approval; hence they had to find alternative ways to show those works. One of these ways was the international film festival circuit where the movies found positive criticism and foreign producers. After some conflicts with the authorities these directors started to realize movies sanctioned by the censorship, and hence finally shown in China. In 1997 emerges Jia Zhangke that marks the passage of independent cinema toward a new phase.
2 – 2000: “New” Chinese Independent Cinema
With the turn of the century due to the rapid spreading of digital technology, film production finds a huge change. The DV (digital video) is widely commercialized in China and allowed virtually to everyone to engage in film production, without needing a specific or professional training and a consistent production capital. Movies are now shot on site (xianchang) and use non-professional actors, very often the production crew is narrowed to few members if not to the only director. By a stylistic point of view in general in these movies is preferred a form of documentary-realism, with some influences from neo-realism, where the an episodic narrative that avoids any complex dramatic construction.
The DV opens to new possibilities of representation, and documentation. Independent cinema find itself as an instrument to document new aspect of contemporary China, especially the marginalized and the ones that are neglected by the official discourse. In this context independent works can be distinguished in three main film forms emerge: the narrative or fictional, the documentary and a new kind of film where the DV is used as a way to image experimentation.
But along with the increasing number of independent film productions, emerge in China also a sort of independent film culture as a development of filmclubs and film buffs circles appeared in the major Chinese cities at the turn of the century. In fact, a film culture mainly devoted to art-house movies and the works of world-great directors emerges in some Chinese cities, but it will focus soon on the Chinese cinema and in particular the independent one, also as form of resistance against the commercial movies, including the Hollywood imports, promoted by the Film Bureau.
These filmclubs organize public screenings, Q&A with directors and in general constitute a space for dialogue and exchange for members and general audience. Usually their activities are held in public space alternative to the usual movie theatres, such as bars, cafes, libraries and even universities, and by the vast majority these activities are free of charge for the audience. Among these filmclubs worth to mention Practice Society, founded in Beijing in April 2000 by some students of Beijing Film Academy. If at the beginning association as Practice Society focus on international art-house cinema they soon turn their attention to the Chinese independent cinema, also as consequence of the spreading of the cheap – mostly pirate- Dvds of that world cinema that at the beginning was at the core of their activities.
After Practice Society, closed in 2003, not only new associations exclusively devoted to the promotion of independent cinema (especially documentary) come out, but also a new kind of structures emerge. Aiming to promote Chinese independent cinema, through a series of different strategies and orientations these structures contribute to the creation of a new and marginal form of popular culture. Collective activities like screening, workshops and talks become part of a wider promotion of independent cinema spirit and are extended to the production, (non-theatrical) distribution and the creation of a network connected with the circuit of international film festivals, film funds, distributors and art institutions.
Chinese independent cinema is today a space that has gone far beyond its own initial definition, becoming a space of dialogue and self-expression of an emerging Chinese civil society.