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Chinese Independent Cinema Observer Launch Statement

All editors


As the most genuine and important visual document of our time, independent cinema has captured the depth and breadth of reality in contemporary China. It is also a space for dialogue, characterised by its openness, heterogeneity, and courage to say no to this world. 【Yang Yishu, China】

Independent Chinese cinema represents a world view, a critical stance, and a visual aesthetic. It is a difficult choice made by some filmmakers and researchers in an age when one is compelled to make a choice; it is also a natural response from some cinephiles to the complicity of film industries today with commercialisation and mainstream ideology. It places individual experiences and the lives of marginalised social groups at the core of its critical enquiry; it also challenges and subverts a mainstream visual regime and conventional aesthetics. In pursuing a radical visual politics, it has developed a unique visual language. As a queer film researcher, I would like to think of independent Chinese cinema as being queer, insofar as queer continues to register an anti-normative and anti-hegemonic political stance—that is, capable of imagining a different world with alternative social relations. 【Bao Hongwei, UK】

I have always enjoyed living on the margins, because I think that is the best way to maintain freedom and independence, and not to be controlled by the centre or be trapped by the mainstream. This is also a way for me to keep connected with my homeland while in diaspora; by living on the margins, I can observe more clearly a social reality filled with hardship, subtle cries, and unyielding struggles. Starting as a researcher of popular culture, I quickly found spiritual fit and emotional resonance in independent films, and rapport in those who are engaged in the production, dissemination, and research of these films. This journal represents an attempt to break all kinds of boundaries by a group of scholars or/and filmmakers who love freedom and cherish independence. Its writings explore the past, the present, and the future of Chinese independent cinema, and bear our aesthetic, social and political values, and practices. In this era of pandemic, love, compassion, courage, and strength conveyed in independent films help us to face disease, turbulence, isolation, and death. 【Sabrina Qiong Yu, UK】

Independence is a term often used across film cultures globally to describe the spaces, forms, and practices by which cinema is made, distributed, and exhibited outside the mainstream. As a quality it is thus always relational and locally configured, for what constitutes mainstream—ideologically and industrially —varies from place to place. My first experience of independent cinema in China came while working in Beijing during the early 2000s. One weekend an acquaintance invited me to watch a performance piece in an abandoned factory. Retrospectively, I discovered this piece was Wen Hui and Wu Wenguang’s Dances with Farmworkers; if you look closely at the resulting video, you may glimpse a much younger me intently inspecting the migrant workers at the centre of the performance with some puzzlement. Perhaps I was subconsciously influenced by this experience, for I went on to write a PhD about independent documentary, exploring the aesthetics of xianchang, or shooting ‘on the scene’. This is precisely one of those neorealist practices associated with independent filmmaking worldwide that also has a specific local genealogy and significance in China. But that was over a decade ago. Since then much has changed and much more been written. I hope that this journal will therefore provide a space in which to explore these developments, and to exchange ideas about the past, present, and future of independent film in China and beyond. 【Luke Robinson, UK】

What is duli (independence)? In traditional Chinese, the character du can be traced back to ancient seal script, and is considered to represent an outcast beast that wanders in the Sichuan area. In oracle bone script, the character li looks like a person standing. Therefore, put together, duli not only emphasises the individual status of an outlier, but also expresses that this individual does not need to rely on any external force to act. In a nutshell, it is about relativity and autonomy. It is easy for us to understand the independence of a creature (whether it is a human or a beast), but in connection with the cinema, independence seems to become complicated. Relativity can be understood as relative to the market, mainstream culture, mass aesthetics, or the political system, while autonomy can be understood as autonomy of thought, expression, production and communication, and so on. Perhaps absolute independence will never exist, but it is precisely because of its ‘relativity’ that independent cinema must fight against the odds, be experimental, different, and rebellious. And due to its autonomy, independent cinema must also be unique, free, powerful, and full of vitality. This is where its charm lies. Independent cinema is about the bold exploration of the boundaries of the cinema, persistent search for historical evidence, demonstration of the limitless human imagination, and the cry that bursts out from deep in one’s heart. It might be small and fragile but is always worthy of our respect. Let us pay tribute to Chinese independent cinema! 【Li Tiecheng, Hong Kong】

Like all other artistic creation, filmmaking is part of freedom of speech. Freedom of speech is a natural human right, the cornerstone of human freedom, and the core of being a human being. In a country where citizens’ rights, freedom and dignity are arbitrarily deprived and the truth is habitually obscured, the current film censorship system has become an active and effective accomplice of totalitarianism, and turned film, a great art form, into a propaganda tool or profit-maker, subsequently forfeiting its charm and vitality. Chinese independent cinema should be a light that breaks through the crack of this darkness: it reveals the truth— the external and inner truth—with great patience. It carefully depicts the plight of society and people, clearly presents individual existence and values outside of collectivism, pays attention to the marginalised, shows care for the disadvantaged, and gives dignity to the insulted and humiliated. Both in terms of their content and form, independent films are exploring ‘the possibility of expression’ beyond the surveillance of the power. As an independent filmmaker and writer, I always remind myself that I should not submit to authority, comply with capital, cater to the audience, or depend on any group; I should not surrender my freedom of speech to any kind of power; I should rely on reality, observe deeply, and maintain independence of thought and a critical spirit. I strive to create possibilities from impossibilities, and pursue freedom where there is none. 【Zhang Zanbo, China】

In the independent film sphere, most of what I have learned and created is from pain, failure, discomfort, and tension. Locality, intimacy, and vulnerability are often at the centre of my stories, where I see human dignity and social reality. The reality of this society is that poverty, inequality, or violence are major issues in most ordinary people’s daily life experiences. I believe this is the core value of independent filmmaking and distribution. Independent film, to me, is speaking truth to power, in all kinds of social contexts, and not only in its content but also in its cinematic language. 【Zeng Jinyan, Sweden】

After working and traveling between China and the US for years, it was the Chinese independent film community where I finally found my tribe. Despite being new, I was welcomed, and this open and free spirit is central to independent cinema—an openness to one another, to self-expression, to the fragility of lived- experience, and to “the cruel radiance of what is.” In solidarity and partnership with inspiring collaborators, we continue to explore cinema beyond the confines of state and studio, as an act of experimentation and devotion, a sustained resistance that reimagines both cinema and society, despite ever-growing regulations and repression. 【J.P. Sniadecki, USA】

I saw the first Chinese independent films in a French festival in 2008. One year later in Beijing, after having met the directors of these films, I became interested in how determined they were at organising screenings for their films in artistic venues and small-scale film festivals with a bunch of friends and film critics. It thus became clear to me that independence was a space where one could view films that were not distributed in Chinese film theatres, and also where one could meet people who shared a common passion for cinema and a similar societal ethics. While seeing these films and listening to the discussions between the directors and the spectators present, I realised that independence was born out of a collective reflection on aesthetics which was aiming at matching the reality shown on the screen with the lived reality of the people being filmed. In other words, to find a coherence between words and the concrete facts that they designate, in order to question the abstract language of the ideology promoted by the Party-state. Lastly, I observed independence turning into a struggle to preserve the existence of the screening spaces dedicated to independent cinema, in response to the growing restrictions imposed by the authorities. It is this vision of independence—as a social space, an aesthetic reflection, and a political struggle—that I have tried to describe and explain in my research as well as in the screenings that I have organised in France, and that I am still willing to share and reflect on as a member of the editorial committee of this journal. 【Flora Lichaa, Belgium】

I have always felt that independent film in its pure sense is an ideal. It means not escaping reality, not self- censoring, not being bound by mainstream culture, and staying away from business and industry. More specifically, it is out of the filmmaker’s curiosity and desire to explore; it is about spending the lowest possible budget to avoid capital, the box office, and profit, discovering and creating in a nearly artisanal way, and finally making what we believe are trully meaningful films. Over the years, I have been walking barefoot on a rocky mountain road. There is always a voice around me, faint but clear, seemingly broken but persistent, that inspires me. I am grateful for the ubiquitous ruggedness and the occasional gift of fragrance. I haven’t looked back; I am still on the way. 【Li Xiaofeng, China】

What is independent cinema independent of? Independent of capital, popular opinions, certain political forces, or artistic conventions? Independent cinema has been given many meanings such as low budget, niche, politically dissenting, and artistically avant-garde. I always think that the definition of independent cinema in China is very different from other regions because of the different focus. The earliest form of Chinese independent cinema involved individuals filming the stories of individuals and expressing their individual opinions. At that time, those individuals who were free of the shackles of collectivity were more able to convey the true feelings of ordinary people. Therefore, I have always said that independent films in China were honest and truthful films which aimed to capture the current reality and express their innermost feelings honestly. In fact, this is a very basic requirement; one should not be regarded as a political dissident just because one makes an independent film. The concept of Chinese independent cinema has been in constant change. In the past ten years, ‘non-dragon seal’ has come to be used as the standard, with some exceptions. Such a standard endows independent films with political meaning. During this process, the film market’s tolerance increased for a while, and independent filmmakers split; some started to attempt shooting ‘dragon seal’ films anew, while some remained screening their films in alternative spaces. But in recent years, these spaces have been rapidly squeezed. When the squeeze reaches a certain point, the absolutely underground production model of the early independent cinema may return. In this difficult political reality, a bit of space that had been gained has been lost again. At this moment, I believe that many people may lose faith in the cause they have been engaged in for years. It is a difficult time. Of course, some people may say that it has always been difficult. 【Wang Xiaolu, China】

Recently, while searching for the photos of film screenings that I had curated/participated over all these years for Chinese Independent Film Archive, I also (re)discovered the images and texts from an independent film screening event that I organized the second year after I came to Japan (2011). It was such an emotional encounter with the past! At that time, I was kind of complaining on Weibo how in Osaka I could hardly access independent films from China. Then a friend encouraged me by suggesting, “If you want to watch those indie works, why don’t you organize the screening yourself?” Collaborating with a good friend in Beijing and with the great help of my Japanese colleagues and Chinese friends (as I didn’t speak Japanese at the time), the screening actually took place! We named the event ‘Post-Underground—New Chinese Independent Cinema in Osaka’ (it was also my first time collaborating with Nagayama Hiroki, the curator of the Chinese Independent Film Festival in Tokyo!). Although the exhibition space was small (it was a shared event space) and the audience not large, looking back, I realized that without that attempt, I would not be the same person doing what I am doing today: probably I would not have worked on so-called ‘border- crossing’ Asian independent films, nor would I be part of the editorial board of Observer. In 2012, when invited to participate in a dialogue session, I wrote down lines like, “I understand that for many people, cinema or independent films/duli dianying are not the most important things in life, but if possible, watching these works allows you to grasp China and the world in a more illuminating way. People who haven’t watched a single Chinese independent film but think they can talk about the situations of China with me are terrifying”. Though the lines read a bit old-fashioned (maybe a bit too extreme) now, I still believe in the basic principles of that statement, even though the landscape of Chinese independent cinema has changed tremendously since 2012. The people and things that had/have been part of me for ten years have taken on an unfamiliar appearance and transformed…Maybe we should feel excited to live in such an interesting time as ours?!

【Ma Ran, Japan】