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Close shots of society

04-26-2012 10:29 BJT

One of the most anticipated activities during the ongoing Beijing International Film Festival is the screening of 260 movies in a single week, a diverse offering compared to current selections at theaters. Of the films, 21 are documentaries, including six from China. Documentary movies made in China tend to be sparse, compared to the mainstream, box office hits. But recent attention paid to documentaries signals a shift in the field.

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Though few documentaries make significant profits, Chinese cinemas still make room for documentaries each year, both domestic and international productions. Documentaries such as The Bund (2010), Ocean (2011) and The Somalia Truth (2012) were all warmly welcome in China.

Documentary development

Domestic documentary filmmaking burgeoned in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Li Xiaofeng, an associate professor of College of Communication and Art at Tongji University, told Oriental Outlook magazine that the combination of US direct cinema and the French cinéma vérité, or real cinema, led to the transition of the field. Domestic, CCTV-made documentaries like The Silk Road and Recovering the Yangtze River were no longer the only models.

In China, film directors are usually grouped by generation. But there are no clear divisions of independent documentary filmmakers.

Documentary filmmakers Wu Wenguang, Duan Jingchuan, Jiang Yue and Zhang Yuan were key figures in cultivating the rise of this film genre in Beijing. They emphasized the key principles behind independent filmmaking: independent operation and independent thoughts.

Themes of documentaries evolved over time. In the 1990s, most documentary filmmakers went to remote regions like Xinjiang and Tibet to shoot. For example, Ji Dan spent a year in a Tibetan village, producing two documentaries, The Older and Gongbo's Happy Life.

About 10 years later, themes shifted from filming remote locations to focusing on societal issues and marginalized groups. Representative works of this period include Du Haibing's Along the Railway, which featured tramps living on a day-to-day basis, and Yang Lina's Old Men, which documented old Beijing men who devoted their youth to factory work.

Entering the new millenium, a younger generation of documentary filmmakers surfaced. Xu Qiangwu, born in 1984, explores post-modern themes in his films. Martian Syndrome tells the struggles of a man from Mars who visits Beijing. I Beat Tiger When I Was Young profiles a middle aged man, living in the memories of his faded youth.

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