David Bandurski: Thanks for sitting down to reminisce about independent documentaries. It’s been a decade of rather dramatic change. As it happens, we’ve both landed in Taipei. But perhaps you could begin by reflecting back on where independent film in China stood in 2013 when things started to really shift. And what was so special about these films?
Huang Wenhai: The Exile Gaze: Witnessing Independent Documentary Film in China, the book we cooperated on, actually covers events up through 2013, when YunFest was forced to shut down. That year, the Beijing Independent Film Festival in Songzhuang managed to make all of the scheduled screenings, despite facing major pressure, and being under strict surveillance. The Independent Spirit Award that year went to Ai Weiwei (艾未未), I remember. He was under residential surveillance at the time.
That was in August 2013, exactly 10 years ago. Who could have known that would be the last time an independent film festival was held in China? By 2014, the Songzhuang event had become a “film festival without films” (沒有電影的電影節). So this year marks a full decade since independent film festivals in China have been banned.
DB: Give us just a sense, if you would, of how these documentaries had developed up to that point.
WH: China remains a one-party dictatorship, and mainstream films (主流電影) today, as at that time, are tools of political propaganda. But after 1989, alternatives began to emerge as independent directors like Zhang Yuan (張元) and Wu Wenguang (吳文光) produced independent films that took on elements of personal experience. Toward the end of the 1990s, as pirated films appeared in China, this was a new path for ordinary people to learn more about film. At around the same time, the emergence of inexpensive and practical DV cameras greatly lowered production costs, making it possible for individuals to complete documentaries independently.
It was in 2001 that local independent visual forums emerged and offered a platform for independent filmmakers to interact with local audiences. At that point, Chinese independent documentaries were completely free, from production to distribution, from the shackles of the official system. They could operate all on their own. The result was unprecedented development in terms of sheer variety of subject matter, depth, and sensitivity — and in terms of the number of independent filmmakers involved too.
The directors who took up their DV cameras in the 2000s were ordinary Chinese, the “underclasses describing the underclasses” (底層人描述底層人). They exposed an inside world that up to that point had been invisible to the outside world, and they said things those living through these experiences hadn’t yet found the means to say. They expressed the complexity of the world around them through direct and effective visual vocabularies.
DB: I’m going to ask a question that is perhaps naive. Actually, definitely naive. Why was this a problem for the government?
WH: You can now say that independent film in China is the most actively suppressed form of artistic expression in China. One key reason for this shift was the entry into the field by the mid-2000s of public intellectuals like Ai Weiwei and Ai Xiaoming (艾曉明). They focused their attention on hot-button social issues and used the internet as a communication tool, which linked independent documentaries with social movements in China. This not only affected the development and outcome of incidents in society, but also inspired more people to participate in the production and sharing of visual material.
You could say this became the “power of the powerless.” Examples include the farmers of Wukan Village in Guangdong Province, who filmed and shared their experiences, turning a case of illegal land seizure into an international news story. This ultimately enabled the villagers to democratically elect a new village committee — though in the course of time it would not be a happy ending. Independent documentary also played an important role in the case of the trial of the “Three Netizens” (三網友) in the Mawei District People’s Court in the city of Fuzhou, in Fujian province, which developed from online appeals by netizens to offline protest marches outside the court building.
DB: Just then you referenced the 1978 book The Power of the Powerless by the Czech political dissident and statesman Václav Havel. It all connects, of course. Because that political essay was among the writings of Havel translated into Chinese in the 2000s by Cui Weiping (崔衛平), the Beijing Film Academy professor and social critic. To help make the connection to social movements, could you talk a bit more about some of the standout films at the time and the topics they addressed?
WH: In 1999, the filmmaker Hu Jie (胡杰) resigned from his post with the Nanjing bureau of the official Xinhua News Agency in order to shake off official pressure and concentrate on his historical documentary Searching for Lin Zhao’s Soul (尋找林昭的靈魂). Lin Zhao, who was imprisoned and executed during the Cultural Revolution, was seen as a taboo subject by the government — and still is. Hu’s transition was a major step for Chinese independent directors. The importance of this act of “severing of ties” (決絕) can hardly be overstated. It encouraged independent filmmakers to root their documentaries more deeply, and more empathetically, in the soil of reality. The filming also became much freer, with less self-censorship.
I also think the emergence and development of independent documentary filmmaking in China was related to the citizen’s movement in China (中國公民運動), that it was a product of the expansion of civil society as a “second space” (第二空間). Not only did documentary filmmakers witness the awakening of citizens — they also joined the ranks of resistance. Their works generally had a strong sense both of bearing witness and of actively resisting. One good example is the film Petition (上訪) by Zhao Liang (趙亮). You mentioned the scholar Cui Weiping. She once called Petition “one of the most powerful films in China since images were available.”
Ai Weiwei’s film Disturbing the Peace (老媽蹄花) documented at great personal risk his struggles with local police, and it encouraged many people to take up their mobile phones and DV cameras and monitor public power through video. Among those inspired was Zhang Jianxing (張建興), a farmer from Wukan Village, who used a camera the villagers bought by pooling resources to film Wukan, Wukan! (烏坎, 烏坎!), a documentary about their struggle to defend their land. The film boosted the confidence of Wukan villagers in defending their rights, and it changed the course of events in the village.
DB: As someone involved for many years during that decade in producing Chinese independent films, I have pretty vivid personal memories of when I felt things had started to shift. I know you know the story of how I arrived in France for a festival and I learned you wouldn’t be coming because the Chinese Embassy in France had pressured the festival organizers. That was in 2010. When did you first begin to notice obvious changes in the official attitude toward these films?
WH: Independent films have always been a struggle in China. Prior to 2010, the filming and screening of independent documentaries in China had still not been easy, and activities were often suppressed. The government had passed restrictive regulations on digital video already in 2006, for example. The unfortunate fact is that any independent and free enterprise in China is effectively a criminal act. And yet, all things being equal, those years were nearly a “golden age” in comparison to the current situation.
According to my research, 2010 was a real turning point in the citizen’s movement. The “Three Netizens” case in Fujian province that I alluded to earlier was widely regarded as a landmark event in the government’s crackdown on freedom of expression on the internet. As the case went to trial at the Mawei District People’s Court in Fuzhou, netizens from all over the country showed their solidarity online, but more than 200 people also showed up outside the court to protest. That meant the citizen’s movement in China had evolved to the point where appeals on the internet could translate into real action on the streets.
At the end of 2010, the Jasmine Revolution broke out in Tunisia. Social media such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube played an important role in fueling the mass demonstrations that culminated in the overthrow of the regime of then-President Ben Ali. The Jasmine Revolution was also a mobile internet revolution. Government fears in China of an “internet revolution” (互聯網革命) brought increased repression of both group activities and new media.
Also that year, there was a dramatic shift in the [government] perception of independent documentary, and there was a development from the suppression of individual films for their content to the suppression of independent film more broadly as a new medium.
DB: We can maybe fast-forward from 2010 to 2013, when April brought the shutdown of YunFest. Were you in Yunnan when that happened? What do you remember about that time?
WH: I wasn’t there, but in September, several months later, I went to Kunming to interview some of the people involved in YunFest, including Yi Sicheng (易思成) and He Yuan (和淵). You’ll recall that I was working at the time on The Exile Gaze, so I was very aware of the situation with the festival, and much of it is there in a chapter called “The Forced Demolition of Film” (被強拆的影像).
What made a deep impression on me at the time were Yi Sicheng’s words. They ring back to me now like a warning bell for independent film. “Independent film has become a sensitive word,” he said. “This is not about incidental factors as in the past, about a certain film or filmmaker. It’s all-encompassing, and it’s risen to the national level.”
DB: It’s been 10 years, but so many things have happened it can feel like an eternity. You eventually made it to Hong Kong, and we worked together on the book. And then you witnessed the changes there too. What reflections do you have on your time in Hong Kong?
WH: After I moved to Hong Kong in 2013, I met both the exiled director Ying Liang (應亮) and the dissident Zeng Jinyan (曾金燕) there. Both were engaged in independent documentary filmmaking and curating in China. As independent film festivals were being shut down in China, we were all talking about what we could do in the “land of the free” [that Hong Kong was at the time]. We decided we could organize festivals, so eventually we formed the China Independent Documentary Association (中國獨立紀錄片研究會). Our first screening was of Dialogue (對話), a film in which Chinese human rights lawyers and dissident writers speak online with the Dalai Lama.
At the China Independent Documentary Association we eventually screened more than 100 films in Hong Kong. And we invited more than 50 Chinese independent filmmakers to visit Hong Kong and have post-screening discussions with audiences. We were able to continue showing films even beyond the demolition of festivals across the border. Some of the discussions we had with visiting filmmakers are now collected in a book called Images in the Gloom: Discussion Chinese Independent Documentary in Hong Kong (在幽昏中顯影：港中對話中國獨立紀錄片).
As for myself, during my seven years in Hong Kong from 2013 to 2020, I did my utmost to take advantage of the “land of the free.” I made four films: We the Workers (凶年之畔), Women Workers (女工), Outcry and Whisper (喊叫與耳語), and In Exile (在流放地). I wrote The Exile Gaze to gather together the history of China’s independent filmmakers. I published a book of photography called Existent (存在的). And I organized a film retrospective called Rejection/Determination: Chinese Independent Documentary Film after 1997 (決絕：1997年以來的中國獨立紀錄片回顧展). Needless to say, none of this work could have been completed had I been in China.
DB: What have you been doing here in Taiwan? Have you managed to remain connected to China and what’s going on there?
WH: After the anti-extradition protest movement in 2019, and the national security law that followed in 2020, it was no longer possible for us to continue the China Independent Documentary Association. So in 2021, we disbanded.
Since 2019, I’ve been working with National Chung Cheng University and SPOT Cinema to hold five tours of Chinese independent documentaries to schools in Taiwan. I’ve also worked with National Tsing Hua University and National Chung Cheng University to build up collections of Chinese independent documentaries. While I was in Hong Kong, I worked with the Center for China Studies at the Chinese University of Hong Kong to collect more than 400 independent Chinese documentaries. The political situation in Hong Kong is such now that it is impossible to preserve and study these precious film resources, so my hope is to establish a “Research Center for Independent Chinese Documentary Film” (中國獨立紀錄片研究中心) in Taiwan — and to begin the process again of collecting and protecting these films.
My work is all about China, and I’ve been in touch with independent directors in China. I’ve been trying to find whatever opportunities I can to screen and introduce independent documentaries. Most recently, I’ve organized a course called “Paths in Film: Witness, Awakening, and Resistance in Chinese Independent Documentaries” (影之道—中國獨立紀錄片的見證、覺醒與抗爭) at the National Association for the Advancement of Community Colleges (NAACC), with the aim of presenting a different image of China to the Taiwanese people through independent documentaries.
DB: What is the situation today with independent documentaries in China? Are there murmurings of activity?
WH: The Chinese government’s continued suppression of independent documentaries has created a deep sense of sadness within the independent documentary community over the past few years. Independent documentaries have always led a troubled existence in China — something so clear to me as I wrote The Exile Gaze. As we’ve said, independent film festivals have been banned for ten years now. But there have also been many cases of independent directors being arrested and imprisoned for making films. This has obviously impacted the development of the industry as a whole, and it’s clear there are fewer and fewer directors working on independent documentaries, and there are precious few films out there.
The general environment, the policies and so on, have in fact not changed at all. But the people have changed. And I want to emphasize how decisively important the initiative of people can be. Without the precious efforts of a core group of independent directors — around 100 people, I would say — there never would have been such an accumulation of films, running to over one thousand or so. All together, they have built a new tradition of Chinese documentary.
In 2017, at a forum on the future of independent documentaries in China held at King’s College in London, I remember saying that as the political situation in China has become more and more serious, more and more directors have moved overseas — and this geographic change has inevitably brought a major shift in terms of creativity. It’s my personal view that this change will inevitably follow the same three directions we witnessed in the case of Chinese literature after 1989, where we had official literature, underground literature, and literature in exile.
I still believe, in spite of the official suppression and the disappearance of independent film festivals in China, that independent directors haven’t lost their creative spirit, and strong films continue to emerge. For example, Li Wei (李維), a young director born in 1994, made the documentary Dusty Breath (塵默呼吸), which bravely touched on the taboo subject of black lung disease and presented the difficult situation the continues to face migrant workers. And independent directors that have gone into exile — including the likes of Ai Weiwei, He Yang (何楊), and of course your former collaborator Zhao Dayong (趙大勇) — have in many cases continued to produce and screen their work.
The new situation continues to evolve, and I still believe in the future of independent documentaries. We’ll see what happens.