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China: The New Wave
Filmmakers reveal society's dark side



Joshua Fisher is a recent graduate of the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. His master's thesis documentary covered the plight of migratory beekeepers who truck thousands of hives across the United States to pollinate food crops, and the troubles these beekeepers now face in keeping their bees alive. He has worked for Al Jazeera International in Washington, D.C., taught film theory in Kazakhstan and run an independent record label in Minnesota.

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Length: 13:48

I first heard about China's independent film movement in 2000, when the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis held a special screening of Jia Zhangke's film Platform. I had spent a semester studying in Beijing a few years earlier and was itching to go back to China any way I could. So I bought a ticket and settled into a seat at the back of the theater, hoping to ease my wanderlust with a cinematic journey.

It took a few scenes before my American eyes, accustomed to the fast pace of MTV-style editing, adjusted to the rhythm of Jia's filmmaking. Each take lasted a minute or more, with the camera holding steady while events and conversations unfolded. It felt more like a documentary than a feature film.

But soon I was wrapped up in Jia's story of the Peasant Culture Group from Fenyang, a troupe of musicians and dancers traveling from village to village in the central Chinese province of Shanxi. The film follows the troupe through the 1980s, a decade of great change in China as economic reforms loosened the government's grip on society and allowed capitalistic influences to slowly spread across the country.

Over the years, I watched Jia's other films when I could find them in specialty video stores or at film festivals, and I came to realize that again and again Jia made films about small-time characters who are left behind in the great modernization of China.

In the fall of 2005 I met Li Xin, a visiting scholar and film critic from Beijing at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.

Over the next couple of months, she educated my ignorant soul. I learned that Jia Zhangke is a leading director in a new generation of Chinese filmmakers inspired more by Italian neorealism and cinema verite than by the sweeping historical epics of older Chinese directors such as Zhang Yimou (Raise the Red Lantern) and Chen Kaige (Farewell My Concubine).

I leaned that this new generation specializes in telling contemporary stories that dare to touch taboo subjects, such as class tension and homosexuality. And I learned that their films are largely banned by government censors.

I traveled to Beijing in August 2006 to meet Li Xin. Together, we interviewed Jia Zhangke and Du Haibin, a young documentary filmmaker whose films are powerful depictions of real life in China.

We also visited Duan Jinchuan and Jiang Yue, two veteran documentary filmmakers, who explained China's censorship system and told me how independent filmmakers operate outside the official film industry.

As I traveled through Beijing, I was also struck by the massive construction projects, many of them in preparation for the 2008 Olympics. As I walked down a sidewalk one day, I was surrounded by a stream of migrant construction workers heading back to their makeshift barracks. The procession stretched for an entire city block, but they were just a handful of the 3 million migrants in Beijing who have traveled from rural China to Beijing to find work. I realized that I had seen these faces in the films I'd been watching.

Later, Jia Zhangke told me he felt he had become a filmmaker by accident, that he should be one of his characters. He was taking a break from editing his latest film, Still Life, which is about a village flooded by the Three Gorges Dam project.

I asked him if his film tried to capture the lives of ordinary Chinese people in a way that journalism cannot.

"People may pay more attention to the news, but when the news is over, when the dam is finished, how will the villagers live?" Jia answered.

"The news won't care anymore. What kind of problems do the villagers face? How do they live? What do they eat? How do they breathe? These things are what movies portray best."

The following month, in September, Jia premiered Still Life at the Venice International Film Festival, where it won the Golden Lion, the festival's top prize.

-- Joshua Fisher

About FRONTLINE/World Fellows
Joshua Fisher's story about Chinese filmmakers is the latest story in the FRONTLINE/World Fellows program, sponsored by the Carnegie Corporation of New York. It is part of our ongoing effort to identify and mentor the next generation of video, print and online journalists.

The program, started in 2003, has showcased the work of talented young journalists, who have traveled across the world to report their stories. You can see them all here.

As part of the latest Fellows projects, made possible through our partnership with the U.C. Berkeley, Columbia and Northwestern Graduate Schools of Journalism, we will be publishing stories from Liberia and Morocco in the coming months.

Comments for this story are now closed.


Gaz H - Wuhan, Hubei
The China that the mainstream media portray is that of the ultra rich minority in Beijing, Shanghai and Guanzhou, etc. One billion out of the 1.3 billion are living in poverty, the only reason the 0.3 billion have any money at all is because one billion slaves work virtually for free to support them.Here's an interesting fact: more than 50% of Chinese people DO NOT HAVE RUNNING WATER!Those migrant workers you see in Beijing in dirty clothes on the construction site who all the local Beijingers look down on and think are scum are still the elite few compared to the AVERAGE Chinese person. Forget about trying to educate westerners about how bad China is, that's easy, the hard part is to educte the rich Chinese in the cities about what the majority of their compatriots are going through. Getting them to give a damn is simply not possible - how communist of them.

Tyler Keating - Allen, Texas
Wow, first and foremost, i had absolutely no idea that there was a decent amount of Chinese independent film. Even further, it's hard to believe that there's a market for the Chinese independent film. But what caught me the most about this clip was the absolute veracity of the industrialization. When Du says something to the effect of "All the trees have been replaced with cranes...there's no more trees, they're all yellow," and that in the course of a few weeks the push for modernization could trickle down into a small section of his village. It is also prudent to mention that what doesn't get published in the papers or shown on prime-time news will be left to the few that are actually living amidst the truth. And luckily, people like Jia Zhengku and Du Haibin will be around to report it.

Christie Myers - Allen, Tx
The video is an important step toward the exposition of the hardships of the Chinese despite the outward success of the country. The exposition, however, does not stop after watching the video, but allows for deeper exploration into the New World of China through independent filmmakers by viewers, and by extension other public media sources. Although the incredible economic progress of China is evident to the outside world, the effect of the development on the people and lifestyle of China is rarely exposed by the media, both due to China's attempts to suppress this kind of exposition, and the popular media's lack of world coverage. Rarely heard of are the lives of Chinese people in an entirely changed country, yet they constitute around twenty percent of the entire world population. It is interesting to know that movement of workers to urban areas in China is the largest in the history of the world, yet is virtually uncovered in popular media. Coverage of such topics is not only interesting but is completely necessary to educate the public on topics that are influential to such a large part of our world.

Chad Pennington - Boulder, CO
Having lived in China last year and seen the conditions and contrasts of day to day life, it is great to find someone getting this on film as it is happening. It stretches the boundaries which really need stretching and it will be incredibly helpful in giving the world, especially the west, a better sense of what is happening in China. I think this 'harsh reality' must be understood for people to get the real nature of what is going on globally.

Askar Abdikairov - Almaty, Kazakhstan
I was interested to see the real picture of the story and found some similarities with my own country. I would love to watch a similar independent film about my country but I doubt it's possible at the moment.

Los Angeles, CA
This is valuable information. Thank you very much. I look forward to receiving your newsletters.

Joe Qian - Tampa, Florida
I'm studying in Beijing right now and I see the grandeur and benefits of breakneck speed development as well as the costs behind by the reforms and development. I would like to know where I can watch these films and share them with others.

Tom Richards - santa monica, California
I was really interested to see and hear from Chinese filmmakers and how they are becoming the news historians of China's massive transformation -- the outcome of which no-one can predict. But these young creative voices are courageous in showing in their work another more ugly side of China's economic ambitions.