Among the many grievances voiced during last month’s nationwide protests in China, there was this, chanted by a crowd of protesters in Shanghai:
“I want to see a movie!”
It was just one small expression of anger about the long-running covid restrictions, but the cry went viral in China — a very understandable example of something a resident of a locked-down city in China just couldn’t do. For tens if not hundreds of millions of Chinese over the past three years, the covid rules have made going to a movie theater either a logistical nightmare or altogether impossible.
Now that many of the zero-covid restrictions have eased, people in Shanghai and elsewhere in China can go to the movies again (assuming they haven’t caught the virus). And then a different question arises: What can they see?
All freedoms of expression have been curtailed in President Xi Jinping’s China, and a film industry that was once widely respected around the world is no exception. The process of gaining approval for making films in China has never been easy, but censorship of domestically produced films has grown increasingly severe under Xi.
Given those realities, some independent-minded filmmakers have fled to other parts of the world, some have self-censored their work, and others have abandoned the industry entirely. And a small minority have chosen to fight from within the mainland, doing what they can to make what they consider meaningful — and sometimes critical — films about China, knowing full well that they risk punishment in doing so.
A pair of documentaries
Not long before the protests erupted in China, 19 films — a mix of experimental short films, longer narrative movies and independent documentaries — were screened at New York University’s biennial Reel China film festival, which, as co-organizer Zhen Zhang put it, aims to “showcase the indomitable spirit of [Chinese] independent filmmakers.”
That spirit has rarely been as challenged as it is now.
Grid spoke with the directors of two films shown at the festival — the documentaries “One Says No,” about one family’s fight against the demolition of old neighborhoods in Chinese cities, and “Silence in the Dust,” which chronicles the last months of a man, Dazhang, who is dying of black lung disease contracted in a quartz factory in Guangdong province.
If their themes are utterly different, both are sharply critical looks at the dark sides of China’s remarkably rapid modernization.
The films have been well-received in the U.S., but Chinese audiences never got the chance to see them. Neither filmmaker applied for the necessary authorization to film, so screenings on any large scale in China weren’t a possibility. “We didn’t take that route and didn’t report to the film bureau,” Li Wei, director of “Silence in the Dust,” told Grid. Zhao Dayong, director of “One Says No,” said that when his work was in production, shooting the film was still possible, but screening the finished product in China was out of the question. Zhao himself decided to move to the U.S., feeling he could no longer work in China given the government’s limits on expression. “They’ve come to regard us independent filmmakers as thorns in their sides,” he told Grid. “Thorns who shouldn’t exist in China anymore.”
Li has chosen to stay in China. Zhao said he isn’t planning to return. They have this much in common: They have created compelling films about China that will never have a large audience in their own country.
The power of the “dragon seal”
It’s the seal of approval without which a film cannot be officially made or screened in China. Issued by the China Film Administration, it’s known colloquially as the “dragon seal” thanks to its logo.
Film censorship is nothing new in China. The Communist Party, and the Nationalist Party before it, has a history of shaping media and silencing undesirable voices. But under Xi, China’s regulation of official film production has kicked into high gear. In 2016, China’s People’s Congress passed the Film Industry Promotion Law, which took effect the following year and formalized a new — and much harsher — set of rules and restrictions for shooting and distributing films within the country. All of a sudden, the dragon seal became a harder thing to obtain, and filmmaking without one was made a crime punishable by hefty fines. (Last year, Hong Kong passed an even stricter law, which punishes unauthorized screenings with up to three years in prison.)
As was the case before, the law requires producers to file script outlines in advance with the Chinese film bureau. What’s new is that the law penalizes any filmmaking or screening done outside official channels. These regulations have hit smaller screening venues in China especially hard. “They used to show lots of [Chinese indie] films without dragon seals,” Chris Berry, professor of film studies at King’s College London, told Grid. “Now, it’s become clear that showing anything without a dragon seal is illegal.”
Before the 2016 law, there was at least a gray area for filmmakers, which meant that films could be made without the vetting, even if wide distribution wasn’t possible. This allowed a small-scale but lively independent film scene to flourish throughout the 1990s and 2000s, even though distribution within China was limited to private screenings and a circuit of independent film festivals. After the 2016 law passed, notable indie film festivals in Yunnan, Beijing and Nanjing were shuttered by the authorities.
The government also made clear that it didn’t want these films seen in other parts of the world. China’s 2016 film law includes a clause that penalizes unauthorized international screenings, taking the government’s censorship efforts beyond its borders.
“This has intensified under Xi Jinping in a way that is increasingly obvious,” David Bandurski, director of the China Media Project, told Grid. “No longer were the authorities willing to sit idly by as filmmakers screened independent documentaries on various social issues before audiences in Rotterdam, Cannes or Berlin.”
Toeing the party line
Some prominent filmmakers — and actors as well — have chosen to play by the rules.
In the week after the October gathering of the 20th Communist Party Congress, the superstar actress Zhang Ziyi — of “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” fame — pledged her public support for the party, promising to uphold Xi’s injunction to “meet the spiritual and cultural needs of the people” by continuing “to enhance the country’s cultural soft power and Chinese cultural influence.” In other words, she wasn’t going to make any films that criticized her country.
Similar promises were made at China’s state-sanctioned Golden Rooster Film Festival awards in November, with prominent Chinese actors reciting canned lines like, “Under the guidance of the spirit of the 20th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, we wish Chinese films new glory.”
The Chinese films they’re referring to tend either to steer clear of politically sensitive topics, focusing on high drama or romance — or offer pro-China narratives in none too subtle ways. (For example, the 2015 film “Wolf Warrior” and its 2017 sequel “Wolf Warrior II,” both of which depict a heroic Chinese figure saving the day, now lend their name to China’s coercive diplomatic strategy under Xi.)
Charles Laughlin, professor of East Asian studies at the University of Virginia, told Grid that “to whatever extent possible, Xi is … trying to encourage a kind of cultural production, which from the point of view of outside observers seems to be just propaganda … extolling the party and the progress China has made over the last 70 or more years.”
High-profile actors and actresses working within the system are increasingly drafted to promote these patriotic productions. In addition to Zhang’s promise to the party, veteran actor Li Xuejian gave a speech at state media network CCTV’s National Day Gala in October lauding the virtues of the motherland and Xi’s vision for Chinese film and the country’s future. And the acclaimed Chinese director Zhang Yimou has done his patriotic service in two ways — leading the choreography for the 2008 and 2022 Beijing Olympic Games, while enduring the censorship and reediting of his films by Chinese authorities.
Younger generations of Chinese directors toe the party line in different ways. Grid spoke to Chloe, a young filmmaker based in Beijing, who spoke on the condition of partial anonymity using only her English first name. Chloe terms her films “art house” rather than commercial, but they carry the official dragon seal of approval. Chloe said that because she steers clear of political topics, “the censorship system hasn’t impacted me too much. … I’m more interested in telling human stories from the mainland.” She has made the choice to do what’s necessary to win the seal, which means being careful with what she says and scripts. Or as she puts it, “I want to make films expressing China’s story, even though there are many challenges.”
Searching for ways around the rules
Other experimental movements may be just out of frame. Berry told Grid that “[The] art world in China … has become more and more taken over with visual moving image work, quite a lot of it in forms that could be seen to overlap with cinema. This world has its own separate regulatory and censorship environment. And, because it’s seen as being of more limited social and cultural impact, it is often understood as less strict.”
These works straddle the line between visual art and cinema; examples include artist Zhao Liang’s video art and Cao Fei’s video installations. Both artists are based in Beijing, and their creations are more at home in a museum installation than a movie theater. This means they don’t have to pass under the film bureau’s watchful eye to get made; they have managed to aim their cameras at ordinary people surviving in an increasingly industrialized, polluted and dystopian China.
Film students also tend to get a little more slack. Film schools in China offer opportunities for students to create work that isn’t subject to the official rules and regulations because their films will be screened only on campus for a limited audience.
For documentary filmmakers, meanwhile, the road to a dragon seal can be particularly fraught.
China’s remaining independent documentarians are doing what they can to make films without the dragon seal. Li Wei is still in China, where “Silence in the Dust” was not authorized for distribution, and his options for showing the film were limited.
“We held a few private screenings in different cities … but with a very limited audience,” Li told Grid. “Even though quite a few members of the [Chinese] press have seen the film, they can’t write anything about it.”
These under-the-radar screenings can exist only on the margins, often in private spaces and always without any expectation of publicity.
Li’s film did find its way across the Taiwan Strait, where it was a nominee for Best Documentary Feature at Taiwan’s Golden Horse Film Awards, cementing his independent, and precarious, status in mainland China. (The Chinese government barred officially authorized mainland films from being shown at the festival in 2019.)
The enforced silence from Beijing contrasts with what Li describes as a largely productive dynamic with the local government in Guangzhou, a major city in southern China, where he filmed the documentary with assistance from a nongovernmental organization.
“Over the past few years, the local government [in Guangzhou] has become more willing to cooperate with NGOs. This is what I have observed … at least to a certain degree.”
Li said the big caveat is that this cooperation is possible only as long as “there is not too much publicity or fanfare.” While his film bears no dragon seal, Li was still able to shoot it under the radar, in part thanks to his relationship with Da ai Qingchen (Love Save Black Lung), a Chinese NGO advocating for sufferers of the disease in the region. He continues to find alternative screening venues for his work, from Taipei to New York. As Zhang at NYU put it, Li “simply operates outside the system.” So far, Li reports no interference from the central government or its censors. But that could change at any time.
In an environment where publicity means the potential for central government scrutiny and censorship, walking this tightrope — trying to get just enough attention, but not too much — may be the way to go for independent filmmakers.
When a film hits a nerve
But it’s hard to make a film about the forced demolition of entire townships in the name of modernization — a government project that has led to the evictions of tens of millions of Chinese farmers and other workers — and not attract attention. In a country where public dissent remains relatively rare, statistics suggest that this issue has generated particular attention and resistance.
This is the world of Zhao’s “One Says No,” in which a character, A Zhong, and his family resist, sometimes violently, the forced demolition of their home. As director Zhao puts it, “memory is resistance.” His central character would likely agree. In a key moment, A Zhong holds up a deed dated 1938 and points out that his family’s claim to the house and the land “is older than the Communist Party’s [control of China], older than the People’s Republic.” Outraged when a female neighbor who has lost her home takes her own life after enduring mockery by the authorities, he tells them: “This is the land of my ancestors. If you [insist on] carrying out forced demolition, at least know that.”
That scene alone is a brave show of defiance — not just for the character in the film but for Zhao, the director, known for his work shining a light on rural life in China. He filmed it in Yangji Village, a neighborhood in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou, across an 18-month span from 2010 to 2011. It’s highly unlikely that a camera crew could capture such a scene these days. As Zhao told Grid, at the time, “while there were construction company ‘thugs’ at the gate of the construction site, they didn’t pay any attention to me. … Now, it would be impossible, you wouldn’t be able to shoot a film about something like this since it’s a story that’s in opposition to the government.” The same police officers and company “thugs” now understand the power of a camera and would likely confiscate it or report it to higher-ups.
Despite all the challenges, independent filmmakers who have chosen to stay in China say they are willing to do so because they feel they must continue to tell China’s stories. Li, based in Chongqing, plans to stick it out, at least for now, because “if I left China, I don’t know how I could make films about China anymore.” His next project, also made without authorization, is an exploration of ordinary Chinese people’s views of Sun Yat-sen, seen as a founding father in both the mainland and Taiwan. Hardly an apolitical subject.
Zhao, who now lives near New York City, has come to a different conclusion. In a conversation in Washington Square Park after the screening, Zhao told Grid, “I once wanted to go back [to China] but realized it was just a dream. I used to hope that documentaries could influence audiences, influence society and politics.” That, he said — in China at least — is now a dream as well.
Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.