One hot day last September, around 50 art house cinema fans filed into a grimy Burger King in a Beijing suburb. They were given a ticket and directions to a shopping mall nearby, in which an ordinary commercial cinema would, for one day only, bend the law to breaking point.
The screening was of a Chinese film made on a shoestring budget, which had won acclaim from domestic critics for its truthful depiction of everyday realities. It “exactly presented the boredom in the life of youth living in small cities of China”, said viewer Li Zhaoyi, 25, “a subject less chosen by mainstream movies.”
But for all its artistic merit, the film had not been licensed by the China Film Administration, a government department on whose conveyor belt films are trimmed, edited and finally embossed with a longbiao (or “dragon seal”) of approval. “I don’t think the film will pass the censors,” says the film’s director, Wang Huilin (who has been given a pseudonym for his safety), citing how “empty” the film’s protagonists are — everyday youth struggling to find a purpose in life, rather than role models upholding President Xi Jinping’s core socialist values.
A censorship process has been in place in Chinese film since the 1930s, under the Nationalist government. With film creation in the hands of a few studios, it was easy for the government to monitor output, until the commercial boom of the 1980s and 1990s made recording equipment more affordable to aspiring directors.
Between the 1990s and the early 2010s, hundreds of independent grassroots films were filmed and screened without a dragon seal. Some directors made documentaries, using home video cameras to record local life, splicing them into pithy social commentaries. Perhaps the most famous of these is Wang Bing, who recorded hundreds of hours of footage of industrial life and mass lay-offs in China’s north-east in the late 1990s. Several independent film festivals operated across China, giving directors and producers chances to connect, all in a grey legal area outside the longbiao system.
Today, the longbiao system has been tightened. Speaking in 2014, Xi stated that all art forms in China should be both realistic and positive, using “romantic feelings to contemplate real life”, and “let the people see that beauty, hope, and dreams are ahead”. Negativity is discouraged.
In 2016, the government passed the Film Industry Promotion Law, the first law to codify in detail what could be shot and screened in the country. It imposed “comprehensive restrictions” on domestic indie films, says Sabrina Qiong Yu, professor of film and Chinese studies at Newcastle University in the UK and founder of the Chinese Independent Film Archive.
The law requires film content to adhere to core socialist values (prohibiting any film “undermining ethnic unity” and “harming national dignity”) and stipulates large fines for films screened without a dragon seal, with serious violations leading to a ban on film-making for up to five years. In 2018, a government reshuffle moved the film censorship process from a government department, tellingly putting it under the direct control of the Chinese Communist party’s propaganda bureau.
Not having the dragon seal title card snaking across the screen before his feature meant Wang Huilin’s film screened that September day could not be shown to a paying audience. Without that revenue, or the backing of big commercial studios, independent directors are faced with limited resources to create work. Wang’s film had a total budget of $2,500, partly funded by a friend from primary school. “I have two children and am married,” he says. “So there’s no money to create.”
One by one, China’s independent film festivals were shuttered by local police in the 2010s. FIRST International Film Festival — an annual event in the province of Qinghai — is considered by many to be the last bastion of China’s domestic independent film scene. Its content has suffered in recent years: when four documentaries were pulled from viewing in 2021 for “technical reasons” (shorthand in China for political sensitivities), the jury left the “Best Documentary” category empty. Jury members Wu Wenguang and Ma Yingli stated that “when the prize is divorced from viewing and from the audience, it loses its evaluative validity and meaning”.
The festival has had to adapt to survive, so is “currently supervised by the publicity department of the Chinese Communist party in Qinghai province”, says Alice Tong, a film researcher and curator based in Beijing. But FIRST still provides a valuable community for film-makers, who are able to find like minds and share their work.
One film shortlisted last year was Shanghai Reset, a five-minute piece succinctly exploring the numbing, mindless, repetitive demands put on the city during its two-month lockdown in April last year, and the collective amnesia that followed. “It is courageous of FIRST to shortlist this film,” says Tong.
Independent directors “always emit a collective groan” when asked about censorship by international viewers, wrote director Brian Hu in a 2020 blog for distributor dGenerate Films. “Beyond the question’s inherent othering of an exotic ‘forbidden’ China, it also reduces independent film-making to an act of resistance with only one intention: to oppose the government.”
If you do want to say something sensitive, “there will be a way or method of saying it”, says Ehmetjan Sabir (a pseudonym), a Uyghur film-maker who recently left China and who makes short films as true to his experiences as possible. According to him, a dragon seal isn’t required for short films, which aren’t screened in commercial cinemas, instead being shown to small groups in bars or private homes.
But even then, he has to be careful. His work only indirectly mentions what is going on in Xinjiang — through subtext, a pregnant pause, or showing the everyday realities of being a Uyghur in a state that considers you a potential terrorist — just enough to let the audience know what is meant. Fiction films, says Yu, offer the chance to “say things more indirectly”.
Sabir says that, in his experience, Uyghur film is monitored less carefully than directors from other ethnic minorities, such as Tibetans or Mongolians. He suspects the government thinks Uyghur directors have been sufficiently cowed by crackdowns in Xinjiang, and are more relaxed about their work.
There are some small cinemas that screen films without a dragon seal. Annie Song, a producer and manager of Jungle Vision, a cinema for independent film in Beijing, estimates there are at least 10-15 such independent cinemas around China, but they “come and go fast”, either going bankrupt or being visited by the police. Jungle Vision was visited in 2021, tipped off that it was screening unlicensed films. After some brief questioning and a small fine, Cui Yi, Jungle Vision’s founder, was let go. Local police are “lazy”, he says. “As long as we weren’t doing something very extreme, they’re OK with it,” adds Song.
The company continued to screen movies, but quietly. For some time, it offered “meditation sessions” in front of “shadow puppetry”, but was forced out of its building later that year by the owners. Cui and Song blame this on management wanting something more commercially profitable, and the visit from the police. “They got scared,” says Song.
The Film Industry Promotion Law also bars directors from showing films at domestic or international film festivals without government approval. Some have found a way around this by choosing to work with foreign film companies.
Renai Wei Yongyao borrowed money from his father to make The Wind Will Say, aiming to be “100 per cent honest to myself”. The entire story — from the protagonist being beaten up by a bus driver, and the inability of doctors or local police to bring him justice — was based on his own life experiences, and about the intergenerational struggles common in Chinese families today, between more individualistic youngsters and more traditionally minded elders who expect the family to work as a team. The film was released by a Malaysian production company and screened at South Korea’s Busan International Film Festival. “Technically it’s not a Chinese movie, only a Chinese-language film”, says Wei.
“More and more people are doing that right now,” says Song. “They shoot in China but claim that they got investment from other countries and they put their production company as a foreign country instead of China.”
Meagre returns mean many go with the flow and apply for a dragon seal. Both Wang and Wei started the application process for their films, the latter preparing a new ending — where the police diligently caught all the film’s miscreants, rather than being ineffective, as happened in reality — before he had the option of partnering with a Malaysian company and staying true to his vision.
Both film-makers also currently lack the funds to make new productions. A combination of pandemic paranoia and a party apparatchik heading the China Film Administration meant recent years have been particularly difficult. In August last year, the public WeChat account “Hall 3 Ticket Checker” published a list of 17 films that had been waiting to hear back from the film bureau since 2016 for their dragon seal.
Some are hopeful — a new head of the China Film Administration was appointed in 2022, a graduate of the Beijing Film Academy. “He is less strict,” reckons Wei. But for Newcastle University’s Yu, the individual in charge matters less than the system in which they operate. It’s notable that every independent film included in this piece avoids sensitive subjects as much as possible. Even Jungle Vision stopped showing politically sensitive films in 2017. Being too negative is now considered to be sensitive enough.
There is still hope for independent film in China, as long as there are directors who choose the rocky path of creative freedom. As for Wang, the film he screened last September went across China, showing to numerous small audiences. He broke even, but he cannot work on another production for now. “I have to use this money to live,” says Wang. “If I starve to death, I can’t make another film.” He’s still waiting on that dragon seal.
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