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March 18, 2010

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'Without big budgets, small films dig deeper into human emotions'

AS a film student at Shanghai University, Zhu Yingwen had ambitious plans to record the vast changes in the lives and hearts of the people he saw around him in the city.

With Shanghai's high-speed development, there were countless stories to tell, "At every level, from the poorest people to the middle classes and beyond."

On graduation six years ago, he planned to make 60 documentaries in 10 years about the stories of the city, plus a feature film on the subject that most fascinated this young director - the dreams of Chinese youth, however brief their flowering.

Eschewing mainstream cinema that mixes old plots with new special effects, or mainstream media which "speak with only one voice," he wanted to be an independent film maker speaking with his own voice on the subjects that moved him.

"Without big budgets or support, small films have no choice but to dig deeper into human emotions and human nature," says Zhu.

But in the six years since he graduated, Zhu has only made three documentaries - mainly due to the lack of funding that plagues China's independent film makers. This, in turn, is due to its ambiguous position as somewhat established but unrecognized officially by cinemas and funding organizations.

Independent films are understood to be those without official backing and not submitted for approval to the State Administration for Radio, Film and Television (SARFT).

Indie film makers are a diverse crowd of film students or professionals working in other video industries such as journalism and advertising.

Since they are not "approved" (and not rejected), they cannot be shown to large number of people in mainstream cinemas that are only permitted to show films that have been vetted; mainstream cinemas, furthermore, want to screen high-grossing films, not interesting, indie efforts, even if they have been approved.

This means that impromptu screenings are held in small gatherings and small venues. There are other possibilities: foreign film festivals and the Web.

China's independent film makers gather at the China Independent Film Festival (CIFF) every October in Nanjing, capital city of Jiangsu Province. The festival is now in its sixth year.

These are the films that international audiences want to see. They are the films winning prizes at international film festivals, such as Du Haibin's "1428" about the Sichuan earthquake that struck at 14:28 on May 12, 2008.

It won the 2009 Best Documentary Award at the Venice International Film Festival.

According to Kevin Lee of DGenerate films, a distributor of Chinese indie films to the United States, these films (with English subtitles) are valuable to international audiences as a candid, unmediated look at everyday realities within China - life as it's really lived in one of the world's largest and most-misunderstood countries.

Newly available titles include "Oxhide ("Niu Pi"), an intimate portrait of a Chinese family; "Using" ("Long Ge"), a provocative documentary on drug abuse, film making and friendship; "Enter the Clowns" ("Chou Jue Deng Chang"), in which straight, gay and in-between Beijingers unleash a gender-bending whirlwind.

(Downloading in China can be arranged by contacting the company on its Website, listed below.)

Director Jia Zhangke is a leading figure, and one of the very few to transit to mainstream success. Making his name with a trio of films in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Jia's "Xiao Wu," "Platform" and "Unknown Pleasures" explored China's transition to modernity by studying the realities of life in his native Shanxi Province.

Subsequently many indie films have followed. Common themes include long documentaries recording the minutiae of fast-disappearing lifestyles, social marginalization in the interior of the country, and generational issues and rifts in families.

Recently sexual and emotional intensity is also a theme as for example, this year's China International Film Festival winner, Lou Ye's "Spring Fever."

According to Zhang Xianming, professor at Beijing Film Academy and organizer of the CIFF, the indie scene in Beijing is more advanced than Shanghai's. But everywhere the lack of official venues for screening the films, and disconnect between mainstream and indie films severely limits the nascent industry.

According to Zhang, mainstream cinema in China tries to tell audiences that they live in the best place in the best times, whereas indie films question that assumption.

Zhang thinks that future trends in storytelling will involve "the absurdity of life, including end of life, which is the zenith of absurdity."

In Shanghai film makers are grappling with more prosaic concerns. All the film makers we talked to said they were under commercial influence or pressure. According to Zhu, this makes it difficult to remain true to artistic visions.

Zhu has set up his own production company to support himself. Most of his time is spent filming the parties and lifestyles of Shanghai's nouveaux riche to sell to luxury brands and TV stations.

With the money he makes the films he had originally planned.

Two of these, "Happy Together" (2007) and "No. 10 Qinguan Road" (2004), follow the intimate relationships of Shanghai's longtang (alleyway) life through the proprietors of a small tobacco shop that has been passed down in the same family for the previous 60 years.

His latest film, "Shanghai 8 Mile" (2008) follows the progress of a group of young hip-hop singers as they struggle for acceptance from audiences and their parents.

Though well received by those in the know, the films have not led to further funding or fame.

Others have embraced the commercial opportunities in Shanghai and tried to merge it with creativity.

Xu Dihan thinks the two need not be antagonistic, especially if the power of the Web is harnessed.

Fast-developing video Web portals such as and (China's versions of are a lifeline for indie film makers. It is a rapidly developing medium that "is taking on the characteristics of broad-based media without being yet classified as one," says Xu.

It is giving directors the support they need, in both audiences and funding, and a way out of the narrowly defined path of film school, or the film festival circuit. Xu started submitting original material to these sites when he was a film student.

s one of the few early contributors, he built relationships with the sites and an online presence that was spotted by commercial sponsors after 2007. Both were avenues of funding and viewer feedback.

But the influence of the Web and commercial sponsors are a double-edged sword.

Short, sharp and attention-grabbing videos get the most clicks due to small screen sizes online and super-fast expectations, measured in seconds.

Consequently Xu's creations are mainly shorts, including social experiments in the streets of Shanghai, and feature films no longer than 30 minutes.

Commercially sponsored works, such as one of Xu's documentaries on b-boxing culture in China funded by addidas, have commercial interests in supporting certain cultures.

For the time being the films that Xu really wants to do and which explore the stories closest to their lives have to be funded out of pocket and with friends volunteering to be actors.

Xu's latest film is set on an island and stars himself as a young man who solves his frustrations with the older generation by a chance encounter with a stranger.

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