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What American Indie Film Can Learn from China, and Six Ways to Start

An award winning producer shares provocative thoughts on the real meaning of “independent” in independent film.

Nothing to Lose: Chinese indie films like "Meishi Street" are made for social purpose rather than profit.

The blog of indie film producer Ted Hope is playing host to a provocative article by fellow indie producer Karin Chien. Chien’s latest production Circumstance, which opens in theaters August 26, is a taboo-breaking, politically-charged love story between two teenage girls in Iran.  As eyebrow-raising a project as that may be, it’s not her first foray in pushing, if not breaking the boundaries of independent cinema. One of her most distinguished ventures is dGenerate Films, a distribution company she founded to bring independent films from China to audiences around the world, especially in the U.S. (Of course I may be partial since I am a founding partner of dGenerate.) On Hope’s blog, Chien, who won the 2010 Independent Spirit Producers Award, offers some challenging observations in comparing Chinese and American independent filmmaking, and asking aloud which one is really “free” and “independent.”

Below is a newly revised version of Chien’s article, with some clarifications in language. Below the article, Chien and I have also hand-picked six films as a starter kit for anyone interested in discovering the world of Chinese indie films. – Kevin B. Lee

Indie Producer and Distributor Karin Chien

Let me start by making a provocative statement – in my three years of distributing and working with Chinese independent filmmakers, I’ve experienced greater creative freedom than in ten years of producing independent film in the US.

For most of us, Chinese independent cinema is an unknown. A film like Zhang Yimou’s Hero, financed with Chinese state backing, about Chinese empire, and made by a party-line director, is sold here as arthouse fare, distributed by Miramax. Subtitles are enough to qualify a film as “independent cinema” in America.

So let’s begin with a redefinition. The films I work with are made outside the state studio system and without official government authorization. These are films that do not submit scripts or finished products to censorship committees. These are also films that cannot obtain official distribution or official funding in China. These films are often referred to in the West as unauthorized, underground filmmaking. The Chinese filmmakers call it independent cinema.

So how do you make films outside the system in China? You fly under the radar or work on the margins. Films are made on microbudgets, with cast and crews consisting of friends and family, shot with digital cameras, edited on laptops, and fueled by passion and a singular vision. In their domestic market, most of these films will only be shown at independent film festivals, where filmmakers sometimes hawk DVDs after screenings. Some filmmakers experiment with uploading films onto YouTube, some count on European sales to recoup their budgets, some rely on grants to finance their next films, and some even find angel investors. A tiny percentage will pierce the mainstream consciousness, but all of them will strive to make another film.

Sound familiar?

WATCH CHINESE INDEPENDENT FILMS ON FANDOR

But here’s where American and Chinese micro-budget cinema diverge. Because we still believe in a one-in-a-Blair-Witch chance, most American indie films willingly play the Hollywood system. The carrot of theatrical distribution and financing motivates even micro-budget films to favor rising stars when casting, adjust scripts for wider audience appeal/product placement/cameos, or tell stories in genres that American and international audiences watch in droves. (As a producer, I’m fully guilty.) In short, commercial considerations influence nearly every aspect of American independent filmmaking, even at the $25,000 budget level. There are those who escape these burdens and make uncompromising films, but they are the exceptions.

Disorder (Dir. Huang Weikai)

In Chinese independent cinema, our exception becomes their rule. When you take the domestic marketplace out of the equation, what becomes the impetus for filmmaking? Not only trained filmmakers but poets, painters, and journalists are turning to digital video as an aesthetic, social, political, or personal tool. Painters like Xu Xin (Karamay) and Hu Jie (Though I Am Gone) wield video cameras like a well-honed brush: within the digital image, they are preserving and observing China’s recent history, showing us events that cannot be taught in schools or spoken about on the news. Artists like Huang Weikai (Disorder) and Zhao Dayong (Ghost Town) are making groundbreaking films that rewrite the rules of cinema because they weren’t taught those rules in the first place.

By choosing to work outside the system, Chinese independent filmmakers are shut out of monetized domestic distribution. No theatrical, no TV broadcast, no home video (pirated anyways), no Internet VOD. Here’s a thought: if there was absolutely no chance your film would receive commercial distribution in the US, would you still make your film? What would it look like, and would you cast/write/shoot/edit differently? And if that freed you to take creative risks, would that be irresponsible filmmaking or would it be truly free filmmaking?

I don’t mean to dismiss the very real and very diffuse oppression that Chinese independent filmmakers can face. The temptations of wider audience, greater financing and theatrical distribution are as strong in China as anywhere – they have lured many a filmmaker away from independent filmmaking and into the state studio system. Those who choose to create independent cinema in China are operating on the margins of a large state apparatus, without guarantees of freedom of speech, freedom of movement, or freedom of production. Yet they have generated a space that allows for maximum creative freedom. Somehow, in the midst of all this repressive state authority, independent filmmakers are producing the only free media in China. It’s a startling realization.

Given the production parallels to our own micro-budget filmmaking, it’s hard not to extrapolate the comparison. In the US, where capitalism long ago co-opted the language of independent film (see Warner Independent Pictures), it’s a small miracle that any film is made outside the Hollywood system. Anyone who’s ever tried to cast a film with professional actors can attest to this. Perhaps in China, because the machinery is so clearly labeled “State,” it’s a more visible force. Here, the multi-national corporate apparatus is omnipresent.

For the last three years, my dGenerate Films partners and I have been distributing Chinese independent cinema around the world, mainly in the US. We send revenue to independent filmmakers in China every fiscal quarter, and that feels good.

But our revenue is small compared to what filmmakers receive from European distributors. The greater international film community has set up shop in Beijing so they can catch these films first. American industry and audiences would do well to pay as much attention. We will not only learn something about China, but perhaps also about creative freedom in independent filmmaking.

Karin Chien is an independent film producer based in New York City, the recipient of the 2010 Independent Spirit Producers Award, and producer of eight feature-length films, including Circumstance (2011), The Exploding Girl (2009), The Motel (2005), and Robot Stories (2002). Karin is also the president and founder of dGenerate Films, the leading distributor of independent Chinese cinema to North America and beyond.

———-

Six Essential Films from the Digital Generation of Chinese Independent Cinema

—–

Unknown Pleasures (2002, dir. Jia Zhangke)
Jia Zhangke’s last film made independently outside the state system was also his first film shot on digital video, and remains a milestone in validating the DV aesthetic for international art cinema. Available on Netflix

Meishi Street (2006, dir. Ou Ning)
A landmark in activist filmmaking in China, Meishi Street shows ordinary citizens taking a stand against the planned destruction of their homes for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. The subjects were even given cameras to film their first-hand confrontations with the authorities.

WATCH MEISHI STREET ON FANDOR:

Disorder (2009, dir. Huang Weikai)
Huang Weikai’s one-of-a-kind news documentary captures, with remarkable freedom, the anarchy, violence, and seething anxiety animating China’s major cities today. Made from over 1000 hours of amateur footage, Disorder reveals an emerging underground media, one that has the potential to truly capture the ground-level upheaval of Chinese society.
Available on institutional DVD from Amazon and dGenerate Films

Ghost Town (2009, dir. Zhao Dayong)
A remote village in southwest China is haunted by traces of its cultural past while its residents piece together their existence. The first Chinese independent documentary to screen at the New York Film Festival, Ghost Town elevated the Chinese digital documentary movement to new levels of poetry.
Available on DVD from dGenerate Films, coming soon to Fandor

Oxhide 2 (2009, dir. Liu  Jiayin)
Breaking new ground in cinematic art, Liu Jiayin’s follow-up to her masterful debut Oxhide turns a simple dinner into a profoundly intimate study of family relationships.
Available on DVD from dGenerate Films

Petition (2009. dir. Zhao Liang)
Shot over twelve grueling years, this heartbreaking study of petitioners spending their lives waiting for justice to be served is a monumental testament to the tremendous dedication and creative resourcefulness found among the Chinese independents.  Avaialble on institutional DVD from Cinema Guild

FIND MORE CHINESE INDEPENDENT FILMS ON FANDOR

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10 Comments »

  • Still Will Prescott says:

    Oh wow a snobby elitist Chinese person thinks China’s films are better what a shock. I’ll stick to American indy flicks, at least i know I won’t pick up lead poisoning just by handling the DVD box.

  • Wayne says:

    I find it hard to fathom that American filmmakers can learn ANYTHING from Oxhide or Disorder. China is hot now for political/economic but that doesn’t mean Americans haven’t done anything good in comparison (in terms of underground/indie productions).

    Wait till the Communist Part falls. First thing the Chinese film industry will do, commercial or independent, is to copy the Hollywood system.

  • Joe says:

    I just wanted to say thanks to Karin Chien for this article. It’s exciting knowing that a movement like this exists in China and is able to show a different side of China than we are used to seeing.

    Btw comments by Still Will and Wayne are disappointing. If that’s the attitude of American indy filmmakers today then I fear for it’s future. Bergman, Kurosawa, Hitchcock, Tarkovsky, Fellini all legendary filmmakers who were NOT from America.

  • Mike says:

    You’ll always get the cultural imperialists defend their own country’s superiority, mind. Still Will and Wayne are just reacting automatically to what they think is an attack of their national culture, it’s not a criticism or even a comment of Chien’s article.

    I’ve got to say it didn’t even occur to me that there might be an underground Chinese film industry in the way the article described, I’m definitely interested in investigating it.

  • Karin says:

    Thanks all for reading and the feedback.

    Will – I like to think of myself as a snobby elitist AMERICAN person. Also our DVDs are manufactured by Amazon, good luck handling those boxes.

    Wayne – Sadly the Chinese film industry is already copying the Hollywood system. Also as an American indie film producer, I agree, Chinese filmmakers have a lot to learn from our films too. But the difference is, they are actually watching our films. Why aren’t we watching their’s?

    Bottom line is indie film is now a global conversation. Americans didn’t invent micro-budget filmmaking, and it will help our own art and industry to pay attention to what indie filmmakers are doing around the world.

  • Michael says:

    Really fascinating article. I’m an Asian American filmmaker making his first indie film in Beijing right now and it really is so different the way they have this massive SARFT machinery setup for state run films. If a tiny dinky indie flick wants to get state approval they go through the exact same government channels as the massive Hollywood co-productions. I hear that it’s a bureaucratic nightmare. It’s like everyone either gets painted with the same dull brush or they try to fly under the radar. Karin, how does someone in China get to watch the films your company is distributing in the states?

  • Karin says:

    Hi Michael –

    Your experience might warrant it’s own blog post! There are a few ways to see some of these films, esp in Beijing:

    – Ullens (UCCA) has an amazing monthly series featuring indie Chinese film
    – BC MOMA screens indie films in their Library / Cafe
    – the Beijing Independent Film Festival will take place in Songzhuang in late October
    – the China Independent Film Festival will take place in Nanjing at the end of October

    I’ll be at both festivals too – they are the only festivals in China that show independent narrative films. Good luck!

  • David says:

    Karin and Kevin:
    I’m delighted to see this perspective on Chinese filmmaking, of course. But I have a huge caveat, and that is that we cannot overlook the fact that these filmmakers face virtual extinction on a regular basis because production funds are not readily available in China.
    We have to be careful with the assertion that Chinese indie films are “made for social purpose and not for profit.” That sounds tantalizing, but as someone struggling on behalf of a Chinese filmmaker (Zhao Dayong, as you know) to make filmmaking a viable long-term enterprise, this sounds increasingly like a Western fetishization of an “independence” that is another face of repression.
    I’m guilty too. In the past I’ve called Chinese indie filmmaking one of the freest forms of media in China (in the sense that they are not restricted by controls, because they are forced to opt out, or commercial considerations). But like anyone, filmmakers have to eat.
    So, looking forward to working with you guys and anyone cares about strong, independent filmmaking to make Chinese indie filmmaking not just “independent” but viable.
    Best,
    David
    http://www.lanternfilms.com.hk
    (where you can buy our films from Beijing, Michael!)

  • Karin says:

    Thanks David for the response! This post originated on Ted Hope’s Indiewire blog, and is specifically about micro-budget filmmaking around the world. It’s not a sustainable profession in the States either – I work full-time so I can produce full-time, and then run dGenerate Films in my off-time. Ted Hope, for example, has a full archive of thinking about how to make films not only independendent and viable… not sure there are any easy answers there.

    I wanted to draw points of connection and comparison between US and Chinese indie films, so I didn’t get into as much nuance on Chinese indies as I wanted. So your points above are much appreciated!

  • JW_Herrle says:

    Thanks for a great look into an under-appreciated area of film. American filmmakers have got to step up their games and get back to what made our indie industry great!

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