Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival 2003
Behind the Scenes:
Documentaries in Mainland China, Taiwan and Hong Kong

Maggie Lee

The proliferation of digital video technology has rewritten the rules for documentary production throughout the world, and Mainland China, Taiwan and Hong Kong are no exception. Drastically reduced costs and lightweight, compact equipment lower the barriers for documentary making and enable video makers to construct relationships vis-à-vis their subjects that would be unimaginable with film. However, documentary makers in Mainland China, Taiwan and Hong Kong face a very different set of restraints and opportunities that are closely tied to local political conditions, as well as funding and distribution systems.


A case in point is Wang Bing, who received the Robert and Frances Flaherty Prize (Grand Prize) in the YIDFF 2003 International Competition for his over nine-hour epic, Tie Xi Qu: West of Tracks (2003). For two years, he lived with and documented his subjects in the heavy industry sectors of Shenyang in northeast China, relying on his personal resources for subsistence. His lifeline for producing the project was a borrowed Panasonic DV camera.

However, he had to look overseas for both funding to complete the project and screening opportunities. The first 300-minute version premiered at the Berlin International Forum in 2002, and subsequently Wang received a grant from the Hubert Bals Fund at the Rotterdam International Film Festival, enabling him to purchase equipment to re-edit and finish the documentary. He is currently planning a feature-length drama. Independent documentarists like Wang have largely slipped through the net of official distribution channels and mainly rely on university film departments, underground bars or a bona fide circle of friends for screenings within Mainland China. Tie Xi Qu has been selected by over ten film festivals around the world, but Wang is still not hopeful about airing the work on Mainland television, especially the national channel Central China TV.

The absence of official funding and distribution opportunities within Mainland China is closely tied to the local political climate. Tie Xi Qu’s subject matter is sensitive on many fronts: it exposes financial corruption and mismanagement imbedded within the infrastructure of China’s state enterprise, from short-changing workers with their redundancy payouts to evicting whole neighborhoods in the name of property redevelopment. Wang gained so much intimacy with his subjects that they appear literally and metaphorically naked in front of his candid camera—walking in and out of showers and watching adult videos during medical rehabilitation, none of which could escape censorship. Yet perhaps more unpalatable to state broadcasters and officials are the grievances they air, such as lead poisoning and lack of protection against accidents, which reveal how far China lags behind international standards of safety.

Li Lin, who won the YIDFF 2003 FIPRESCI Prize for Three-Five People (2001), her cauterizing exposé of juvenile drug addicts, also finds her subject matter too controversial to obtain financial support or screening opportunities in China. The unsettling scenes of children shooting up and Lin’s direct reference to a hellish ring of crime in Chengdu, capital of Sichuan, are too explosive for government censors. Li claimed her life was at risk during the time she spent filming the children because she tread on the toes of both the police and the underground by revealing how they are implicit in collaborative use and abuse of the street kids: “The local lynchpins knew of my every move. Eventually, I received warnings that I had to leave Chengdu.” Like Wang Bing, she has taken her début feature to international film festivals including Vienna, Munich, Pusan, the Shadow Documentary Festival in Amsterdam, and the Creteil International Women’s Film Festival.

Within China, Li plans to use unofficial screening outlets such as schools or other community-oriented venues, and is hopeful that her work can still have social impact through these informal channels. “My targets are the ordinary folk of China because I want to raise social consciousness on a national level. Twelve months after I wrapped up the film, I met Chen Li [one of her subjects]. She has contracted HIV. When her fellow addicts Hu Jian and Tian Bo went to the public clinic for their blood tests, the nurses refused to extract their blood, and asked them to insert the syringe themselves. I wish to combat this kind of ignorance and intolerance by opening people’s eyes to our social problems,” Li said.

Irrespective of politically sensitive content, independent documentary filmmakers have a hard time being selected for Mainland film festivals. These events have only just taken off, and moreover, there is a relative lack of interest among the public and even the festival-going crowd in documentaries. The first Yunnan Multiculture Visual Festival, organized by the Yunnan Provincial Museum, offers a documentary-only program and is definitely an exception to the rule. Sha Qing, who won the Ogawa Shinsuke Prize in the YIDFF 2003 New Asian Currents program for Wellspring (2002), participated at the festival; yet his unobtrusive style and deeply intimate portrayal of a poor rural family coping with a son with cerebral palsy appears rather at odds with a program dominated by ethnographic or exotic films about Chinese minorities, produced mainly for television.


Documentarists in Taiwan work within a very different political context, marked by increased democratization since Lee Teng-hui’s presidency in 1989 and the tumultuous impact of the Tiananmen Square massacre, which spurred public interest in current affairs as well as efforts to preserve collective historical memory. Many people formed groups to shoot street movements, and documentaries shot with DV on a shoestring and considered “underground” suddenly found a distribution channel through street vendors. There are also numerous film festivals and regular screening slots at cultural centers and reading clubs throughout Taiwan. In addition, the commercial film industry’s decline in Taiwan since the late 1980s has resulted in an influx of experienced directors and production staff, as well as new recruits, to documentary production. Every year, there are roughly 200 to 300 students who enroll in documentary courses at university. There are also some official funding sources such as the Taiwanese Cultural Fund, the Ministry of News, the Culture and Arts Foundation and the Taipei Cultural Ministry, as well as opportunities to sell works to public television. Although documentarists still face an uphill battle, these factors have served to make documentary a more widespread and accessible medium than ever before.

Wu Yii-feng represents the first wave of documentarists in Taiwan, who see the medium as a tool for social amelioration and speak on behalf of the underdog, influenced by Japanese documentarists Ogawa Shinsuke and Hara Kazuo. A pioneering figure in Taiwan’s communal media movement, Wu runs training workshops in documentary filmmaking through the Cultural Development Committee. Gift of Life (2003), awarded the Runner-up Prize in the YIDFF 2003 International Competition, traces the emotional trajectories of survivors of Taiwan’s devastating earthquake on September 21, 1999. A labor of love, Wu dropped all his other work and gave up a regular income to spend three years developing a close relationship with his subjects, who range from teenage girls living on the brink to a young working-class couple. The next work has different directors shoot their own theme, and is currently in post production.

In contrast, a new generation of documentary makers relates to their subjects with more empathy than sympathy, even as friends, and places less emphasis on larger social issues. In particular, since the 1990s Taiwanese documentary filmmakers have evolved towards a more individualistic and perhaps more sentimental response to the environment, centering on themes of hometown, family, and personal emotional history. A sophomore effort by Hsu Hui-ju, a post-graduate film student, Hard Good Life (2003) (Award of Excellence in YIDFF 2003 New Asian Currents) belongs to this category. She defines her own work as “a kind of lifescape,” using a totally subjective and intimate perspective to record the wordless relationship between herself and her father.

Huang Ting-fu, whose work Nail (2002) was selected for the YIDFF 2003 New Asian Currents program, echoes this sentiment, observing that documentarists in Taiwan are “perhaps less ambitious in the scope of our contemplation, and tend to live in our own little worlds. Therefore, the filmmaker tends to relate to his or her subject on the same level.” Contrasting this trend with documentaries in Mainland China, he observes that “independent documentary filmmakers from the Mainland have a deeper intellectual concern for problems of human rights and politics. Due to the different political systems, they have a historical background in logical reasoning. Though they may be the conscience of China, their elitist intellectual background sometimes makes them view their subjects from a more elevated level.”

Huang also finds that people’s awareness of their legal rights also plays into the relationship between documentary maker and subject. In Mainland China there is very little consciousness of privacy rights, and people tend to allow themselves to be filmed without any knowledge about the finished product. In Taiwan, by contrast, people are all too aware of their legal rights. “They’ve seen how the media can be manipulated to serve personal ends. They are also very protective of their rights, so they are not afraid of exploitation. If anything, they sometimes ‘act’ in front of the camera, anticipating what they think the filmmakers want from them, to the point of directing the film.” To capture more naturalistic, or less self-conscious responses from his subjects, Huang used many long-takes, and sometimes hid the camera when shooting the people hanging out in Long-Shan Temple in Nail.


Like Taiwan, Hong Kong has an official channel for funding through the Hong Kong Arts Development Council (HKADC), established by the Hong Kong government in 1995. Lam Kin-hung is one of the recipients of such a grant. The Circle’s Corner (2002), screened in the YIDFF 2003 New Asian Currents program, evolved as study project for his master’s degree in film and video at the California Institute of Arts. Although the college was generous in providing equipment, securing the budget was tough. “I barely had enough to pay for my course and living expenses,” said Lam. He managed to cobble together funds from a bank loan and grant from the HKADC. Halfway into the shooting, Lam’s professor, Berenice Reynaud, helped him apply for sponsorship from Kodak, enabling him to shoot the rest on film.

However, according to Hong Kong filmmakers of both drama and documentaries, obtaining grants from the HKADC has been getting harder and harder. Since 2000, deadlines for grant entry forms have been reduced from quarterly to twice a year. The delayed review time presents particular obstacles to documentary projects, as it does not take into account the numerous variables (such as the theme or focal event losing its topicality, subjects who agreed to appear before the camera changing their minds, or disappearing from the scene) that could occur in such a long time lapse.

In terms of screening and distribution channels, Hong Kong lags behind Taiwan. The biggest channels include the Independent Short Film and Video Awards (IFVA) as a yearly competition and a small slot at the annual Hong Kong International Film Festival. The Hong Kong Arts Centre runs year-round screenings of local documentaries. While broadcasts on Hong Kong’s four mainstream television channels are rare (they produce their own current affairs focused documentaries), occasionally some documentaries make it to small art-house cinemas for a few days’ screening.

However, in the last year, some have found a new screening platform—broadband internet television (now.com). Independent filmmakers are also exploring another extremely promising distribution channel—the DVD market in Mainland China. Due to the Chinese public’s overwhelming interest in anything that is happening in Hong Kong and abroad, Hong Kong documentaries have enjoyed greater popularity in the commercial (and sometime pirate) market than in their hometown, where they are considered too marginal or alternative. Some have started approaching both local and Mainland DVD distributors who are willing to pay a lump sum to buy distribution rights in China or offer them a cut in the sale of each DVD.

Since the former British colony’s reunion with China in 1997, identity crisis and the search for roots have become the dominant themes reflected in films both commercial and art house, both drama and non-fiction. However, for years, feature-length documentary productions have only averaged about one a year, and generate very little media interest or public response. This has been attributed to the Hong Kong public’s perception of documentary as an educational or informative medium, which they can have free access to on television. In fact, the only time when people flocked to see documentaries in cinemas was the 1970s, when light-hearted, exoticized films made and sanctioned by the state served as their only window onto a still walled-up China.

“My feelings towards the development of documentaries here is one of disappointment,” said Lam Kin-hung, who was a photojournalist before went to the U.S. to study film. “Before 1997, Hong Kong people had no historical perspective, and consequently, there has been no documentary tradition. Since the Handover, and now what with the availability of affordable DV equipment, the young generation ought to be out there capturing history. With such sweeping events taking place, such as the July 1st march, the largest in Hong Kong since June 4th, they should be asking ‘What do Hong Kong people have to protest about? Why do they march? Why don’t they march?’ But too few people seem to be doing that.”

With the exception of in-house productions by broadcasting channels such as the government-affiliated Radio and Television Hong Kong (RTHK), the majority of documentaries made in Hong Kong tend to be shorts, of which many are student projects. Lam Chi-hang, at twenty-two the youngest director selected for YIDFF 2003 (New Asian Currents), made Homesick (2003), a twenty-four-minute video diary about the impact of SARS on his neighborhood as an assignment for the Advance Digital Video Production course at Hong Kong Polytechnic University. He expressed no ambition in becoming a filmmaker: “Although I enjoyed making this film and learned a lot from the exchange with other filmmakers at Yamagata, my dream is to be a manga artist.”

In conclusion, Mainland filmmakers face the greatest challenges when it comes to freedom of expression and production costs (sometimes as basic as personal subsistence). However, they receive the most attention abroad and have greater chance of finding overseas investors. They are also the most resourceful in creating unofficial channels to reach local audiences. Taiwan has the longest tradition of documentary filmmaking, and independent filmmakers receive more state support and recognition of their art. While many films from Mainland China deal with the plight of the grassroots majority, works by Taiwanese filmmakers tend to be more middle-class, more inward-looking and less sensational. Perhaps for this reason, these works do not stir up so much interest when they travel abroad. Though official government funding is more readily available in Hong Kong than Mainland China, it is still limited. In spite of the greater degree of freedom of expression, Hong Kong’s documentary scene is still struggling to find its bearings. The problem seems to be a general apathy towards making, viewing and discussing documentaries. These differences closely parallel variations in funding and distribution systems, as well as local political and historical circumstances.


Maggie Lee

Writer, editor, interpreter and translator of film-related subjects. Has been Editor for the Hong Kong International Film Festival from 2001-2004. From May 2004, she is organizing the first Short Shorts Film Festival Asia in Japan.