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China documentary directors say they enjoy freedom

News of the arrests of prominent Chinese dissidents like Ai Weiwei and Liu Xiaobo has dominated headlines and painted a picture of harsh oppression and censorship. But two independent Chinese documentary makers attending a Hong Kong festival say they enjoy a great deal of creative freedom.
/ Source: The Associated Press

News of the arrests of prominent Chinese dissidents like Ai Weiwei and Liu Xiaobo has dominated headlines and painted a picture of harsh oppression and censorship. But two independent Chinese documentary makers attending a Hong Kong festival say they enjoy a great deal of creative freedom.

The two filmmakers say they can tackle most subjects they are interested in — in part thanks to the dissidents' sacrifices.

"On the surface, people think that making documentaries in China is a very difficult task, that we are doing something that the (Chinese Communist) party doesn't like. That is not necessarily the case," director Zhou Hao said during a public talk on the sidelines of the 2011 Chinese Documentary Festival in Hong Kong late Friday.

"I think we enjoy a significant amount of space," he said.

Zhou, who used to work as a photographer for the state-run Xinhua News Agency, described the Chinese documentary scene as "a hundred flowers bloom," using a Chinese idiom. "There are all sorts of movies. There are movies that examine different sides of different issues."

He said that people often ask him if he worried about the consequence of his work. "But my understanding is that you can basically film everything you want to film. The key question is whether you want to shoot something. If you want to shoot something, you can definitely do it," Zhou said.

"Of course there are restrictions in the mainland, but I think the tougher restrictions come from the heart of the filmmakers. The fear comes from ourselves. I think the other factors are irrelevant," he said.

Fellow director Ma Zhandong agreed. "If you like what you are doing, you can overcome the hurdles," he said.

Zhou added that he felt he and his fellow filmmakers are the beneficiary of the sacrifices made by high-profile dissidents like Ai, the avant-garde artist and activist who was released last week after nearly three months in detention for alleged tax evasion. Critics view the case as political persecution.

"There are many people taking the heat for us ... What should we be afraid of?" Zhou said.

Zhou cited the examples of two fellow filmmakers. They include Xu Xin, who interviewed disgruntled parents of a deadly December 1994 fire in a remote western town that killed more than 300 children staging a performance at a local theater for his six-hour documentary "Karamay."

Some parents believe that preferential escape for officials attending the performance led to the deaths. Thirteen local officials were sentenced to jail terms of up to seven years for negligence and the parents were paid compensation, but many still think the government hasn't done enough.

Another documentary maker, Zhao Liang, made the 2009 film "Petition," which documents the plight of China's so-called "petitioners" — regular citizens who descend on Beijing to seek justice for wrongdoing by local officials.

"Aren't they still alive?" Zhou asked.

There is a caveat to Zhou's and Ma's comments. Filmmakers like the two of them can enjoy wide latitude thanks to the advent of affordable and small digital cameras. The sheer vastness of the country also makes it impossible for Chinese officials to police every independent director.

But underground filmmakers who operate outside the system — officially sanctioned projects must have their scripts and final cuts approved by censors — cannot secure commercial releases. They are limited to small, unofficial screenings and foreign film festivals, or in Hong Kong, the former British colony that returned to Chinese rule in 1997 under a special semiautonomous status that promises freedom of speech.

Both Zhou and Ma are also screening bold works at this year's Chinese Documentary Festival, which kicked off June 18 and ends on Sunday.

Ma is showing "One Day in May," which follows a family's recovery from the deadly 2008 earthquake in southwestern Sichuan conference. The Chinese government is still wary of critical coverage of the disaster, which killed 87,000 people.

Zhou entered "Cop Shop" and "The Transition Period." The first film documents activity at the reception desk of the police station near the main train station close to the southern city Guangzhou just before Chinese New Year, when migrant workers flock to catch trains heading to their rural hometowns. The 56-minute documentary gives an unvarnished look at troubled Chinese citizens — a drunk repeatedly shows up at the station, an alleged pickpocket is berated in front of his young daughter and other walk-ins ask for handouts.

"The Transition Period" offers a rare, fascinating look at how the Chinese government operates at the lowest level by gaining unfettered access to an outgoing Chinese Communist Party secretary — effectively the top leader — of Gushi County in central Henan province.

Guo Yongchang, who is currently serving a seven-year prison term for accepting bribes of 2 million Chinese yuan ($310,000), is shown discussing how to split tax revenue with lower-level officials, meeting with constituents as well as smearing birthday cake onto the face of an American businessman and wining and dining with Taiwanese businessmen in another drunken episode. A secretly recorded sound section shows Guo ordering an aide to return certain bribes.

Zhou said he met Guo at a dinner and the former official quickly agreed to be filmed. He said he got full access — although avoided shooting Guo's family life. Guo has seen the documentary — minus the secretly taped section — and didn't object, Zhou said.

But the director acknowledged he was lucky to come across a media friendly official. "The odds of meeting an official like him are one in 500," Zhou said.

"He is a very confident person. He said, 'If I can't be taped, then no other official in China can be taped,'" Zhou said.

On Saturday, festival organizers named "One Day in May" best documentary feature and "The Transition Period" the runner-up. "Cop Shop" placed second in the best documentary short category. The winner was Taiwanese director Ho Chao-ti's "My Fancy High Heels," which traces the production of high heels from calf skin to New York City fashion stores.