Bridging the Gap: Docs in China

Chinese films and filmmakers are being recognized around the world. Wintonick surveys a burgeoning nation.

37 mins read

For my money, dollar for yuan, China is the place for everyone to be these days. Either in ‘reel’ life or vicariously.

In Asia, the idea of face and saving face is everything. In the case of China, you really have to be there. A little quality face time is essential. There’s nothing like interpersonal time to solidify a co-production, and in China, from my experience, building trust and relationships takes time. My first professional face-to-face with China began when I went to the Guangzhou International Documentary Festival (GZ DOC) a decade ago. I now go every year—and not just because they were foolish enough to give me a lifetime achievement award a few years ago.

GZ DOC takes place in a city formerly known as Canton, in Guangdong province in south-eastern China, a region that is essentially the factory of the world, supplying much of its consumer goods. It’s also a key place to begin to network and exchange with new Asian documentary talent. But while there are always a number of local filmmakers at GZ DOC, there are also scores of official doc people as well. State-sanctioned committees that include the local public TV station and municipal and provincial officials started GZ DOC.

GZ DOC is a first attempt to bring international recognition to documentary in China. Its festival features short- and long-form Chinese and international docs in thematically organized competitions. In the earliest years, for the geographically challenged, it was hard to locate the venues where all the films were screening. But these days the number and location of the popular screenings have grown. Like most activities in China, there is official sanction and oversight of GZ DOC. Films are submitted to scrutiny. Certain topics are not screened.

In recent years, under the advice of Canada’s Pat Ferns (who ran Banff’s Television Festival for a decade), GZ DOC has developed pitching workshops and panels. There are always interesting projects to talk about and new Chinese documentary makers at every edition. A handful of international producers and commissioning editors also attend from as far away as Poland, Greece, Australia, Britain and Germany. They make it to Guangzhou out of chance and curiosity. They seek partnerships with their Asian counterparts. Harry Sutherland and others, hoping to foster more co-production, organized a large Canadian delegation to GZ DOC several years ago.

The GZ DOC team really puts on a good show, producing very lavish opening and closing ceremonies, which are televised throughout the region. At one of those, I followed a mass choreographed tai-chi demonstration on stage and was handed an award from a Chinese Olympic star. The organizers have tried to upgrade GZ DOC capacities through example. They’ve made trips to Sunny Side, DOK Leipzig and Hot Docs, trying to figure out how to get more organized. They started to co-organize with a local producers’ association. As the longest-standing doc fest in China, GZ DOC is a good starting point for getting to know the complicated side of making docs in China.

Several years ago, I had a hand in programming 15 Chinese documentaries at IDFA (International Documentary Filmfestival Amsterdam). Sometimes it’s hard to write the words independent and documentary in the same sentence in China. For many filmmakers of what we call creative documentary, it’s a tough haul. They often work in day jobs for the China Central Television Network (CCTV) or state-owned public television companies and at night on their own films in small bedroom studios, cutting them on non-linear editing software.

Making and screening docs

There is no real infrastructure yet to support that kind of filmmaking. Up until recently there have been few channels to broadcast them. The idea of a commissioning editor in the Western sense is a new thing there. While Beijing and Shanghai boast some giant media, advertising and design companies, and immense film studios populate the hinterland, and Chinese distribution companies are now issuing shares on the U.S. stock market, and educational institutions like the Beijing Film Academy are pumping out generation after generation of world-class fiction makers and craftsmen for the television industry, the concept of an independent documentary production house is very new.

There are very few legitimate venues in which to screen documentaries. Docs are not seen on the big screen. The odd gallery-screening situation comes up. Ad hoc and ephemeral festivals rise and fall, sometimes in dispersed regions of the nation, under the radar and under the guise of being educational and cultural events.

There is a dispersed community of documentarians in China and expat foreigners working there, making singular docs. Most of them have no overt political messaging and stay within what’s acceptable; they have simply been made without going to the bother of applying and waiting for official permission. I imagine this is possible if one is working outside of the gaze of officialdom, or off the beaten track, or is working with Chinese crews who have experience in making docs for TV and avoiding red tape. But in China, one never knows when some low-level official, with nothing else on their mind, might arbitrarily pop up, wanting to question what one is doing there with that camera on a tripod.

The alternative is to seek and obtain official permission. Many producers worry about how laborious the regulations and permissions are if one wants to do official co-productions with companies or broadcasters in China. I remind them that they also have to get permission to shoot in the streets of New York or Montreal. While it’s a more difficult procedure for individual journalists to get proper visas, in my experience the authorities are starting to distinguish between journalism and documentary and have been relatively open to documentary film and television media.

There are hundreds of production entities in China, big and small, but not all of them have the official recognition giving them the right to produce and co-produce. Most official domestic production is under the official guise of SARFT (State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television). For many big fiction films and TV shows, there is the need to secure a Sino-Foreign Film Co-production permit. To negotiate the maze, many seek the help of the China Film Co-Production Corporation, which is authorized to administer, coordinate and serve the Chinese-foreign film co-production business. Their office takes care of coordinating co-production between Chinese film studios and foreign filmmakers, and the hosting of foreign crews making non-feature films in mainland China.


The booming development of Chinese feature film has attracted co-production investors from all over the world. Among the 402 features made in China in 2007, 47 were co-productions with nearly 20 foreign countries and regions. Documentaries are extremely rare or non-existent in that group.

China is a hot topic for documentarians, audiences and broadcasters in the West. There’s a palpable urge to learn more about the superpower and what makes its people tick. Of course, with more than a billion Chinese, there’s also a large market to consider. CCTV, for example, is the biggest television network in China. It has the widest coverage in the country and reaches an audience of over one billion. It has 12 terrestrial channels, eight satellite channels and 10 digital channels with annual revenue around three billion Canadian dollars. Western film producers hope to access China’s mega-market, either through the viewers watching CCTV or in the thousands of cinemas throughout China—venues where soon, one hopes, it will be able to show documentaries and not just fiction.

Generally, to get any kind of wide access to that market, films have to be made with official sanction. Jointly produced films that have passed the Film Censorship Review Board and have obtained the Film Public Screening permit may be released in mainland theatres. In 2007, among the top 10 box-office fiction hits of the year in China, seven were co-productions. Why not a documentary next year? Over the years, the Chinese domestic production environment has become more and more standardized, and private feature and TV film enterprises have thrived. China also has a motherlode of talent from which to draw a documentary crew, all with great training, all using the latest technologies. China has a rich cinematic history, which informs all of its filmmaking there, including the documentaries. So it’s a great time for co-production with China.

Some established production companies like New Century or Rare make a living supplying series of documentaries into the domestic food chain. For example, Leland Lin’s LIC is an all-encompassing television and media company that has five daily-running documentary time slots across some 300 channels in China. Newer companies are more interested in making long-form creative documentaries as well, like Beijing’s YFM, which is working both to serve others and produce themselves.

Indie Docs

The auteur-driven documentary is a rare species. The beast of over-worked formulas in history and archeology has burdened the typical non-fiction TV programme in China. There are countless shows about the Great Wall, terracotta warriors or cute fuzzy animals in remote areas of China. One-offs are rare, with a preference for multi-multi-part factual series, sometimes reaching into ongoing sets of a hundred or more.

As is the case with co-productions elsewhere around the world, sometimes official co-productions are necessary, sometimes they are essential, and sometimes they are possible. But sometimes unofficial copros are done on a personal basis, as producer-to-producer co-ventures, outside of the view and purview of permission. There are hundreds of companies and working groups making media in China. Not all are officially recognized to do international co-productions in a place where the idea of corporation is much different than in the West, if the concept exists at all.

There are also brave young filmmakers with something to say. They work on incredibly low budgets, often on one project for years at a time. For the most part, they are making apolitical observational docs. Everyone avoids the few obviously verboten subjects—it’s a common industry understanding that films about the 3 Ts and an F (the events two decades ago at Tian’anmen, Tibetan and Taiwanese independence and the banned group Falun Gong) are in a no-go zone. But even if individual filmmakers have a right to make the films they want to make, there is almost nowhere to screen them. If lucky, the talented one among the talented many may get picked up by an international film festival or supported by an international broadcaster like the BBC. Some of the others can look for a low-paying acquisition from China’s Central TV.

There is a new kind of verité filmmaking happening in China, too. I really admire the high level of technical expertise there, and the way that Chinese filmmakers can pick up and adapt Western styles of docmaking to their own forms of storytelling. But the biggest problem I see is that there is too little exposure to the canon of world-class international documentary. I believe the best way to make great docs is to study them.

This shows up most obviously in the problem of editing; many Chinese docs have running times of two hours or more. They seem endless and could use a pair of Western editorial eyes to pare them down into forms and formats that would make access to Western markets and festivals and to their own markets easier. I don’t think this is my Western bias. Not all forms of Chinese cinema lack great editing. If they’d care to look, the young documentarians in China are surrounded by magnificent examples of montage in their own theatrical drama films and the videos on the Internet, to which five hundred million Chinese now have access.

Television Markets

There are hundreds and hundreds of television channels in China. Almost all are national, regional, provincial and city iterations of the CCTV. Much of it is fuelled by commercials. So China has a strange hybrid system in everything these days. To visit a city like Beijing or Shanghai or any other Chinese metropolis these days is like a visit to the future. Architectural marvels abound. The economy is on fire. There is progress and positivism in the air, mixed in with the well-known pollution, no doubt.

In this context, China looks more advanced than New York, London or Toronto. And it’s my belief that once the documentary community there also catches fire, the rest of us should either start working together with them or retire.

Thirty years ago, China’s Premier Deng Xiaoping decided to open up China’s economy to foreign investment, the global market and limited private competition, raising the standard of living of hundreds of millions of Chinese. The architect of a new brand of socialist thinking declared that China was one country with two systems—that free-market thinking could co-exist alongside state socialism. Now China has the fastest-growing economy in the world. It’s investing in, acquiring and bailing out the debt-torn West. In this new China, an elite generation of entrepreneurs, real estate developers and factory owners are now among the wealthiest group of people on the planet.

The new generation of young Chinese is now well educated in the ways of our interconnected world. They are walking their own roads to happiness. A new generation is also ripe to learn about the world, and documentary is one way that this is starting to happen.

There are some very interesting documentary moves afoot in China. True documentaries are beginning to be seen on television. In the past, CCTV has had an informational news channel and an English-language channel. But early in 2011, Chen Xiaoqing launched the China Central TV Documentary Channel (Channel 9) as the first dedicated documentary channel with worldwide coverage in China. It plays Chinese and international docs. Its mission is to display the “unique value of documentaries in authentically showcasing history and reality, and it will endeavor to tell Chinese stories and transmit Chinese views on the global cultural horizon.” It is also looking for documentary co-production partners and great doc ideas, with the intention of “overcoming cultural barriers and winning the universal identification and emotional resonance of the global audience.” Deputy director Zhou Yan, commissioning editor Zhang Yiqian and senior CE, executive producer and acquisitions executive Qi Zhao are also involved in CCTV’s international and documentary push.

CCTV Documentary broadcasts 24 hours a day with four hours of new programmes every day, including an hour of international documentary. They’ll broadcast 1,600 hours of premiere programmes this year, including 400 hours of imported documentaries, mainly in primetime. CCTV Documentary covers the whole of China and some parts of the Asia Pacific via satellite to reach 900 million people. They also have the foresight to want to work out possibilities of training and exchange programmes with internationally renowned documentary production teams and individual producers.

The Shanghai Media Group (SMG) is one of the more powerful regional groups in China. SMG’s Documentary Channel, founded in 2002 is a terrestrial channel covering over six million households in Shanghai. The director of the SMG’s Documentary Channel, Ying Qiming, sees SMG Doc as a valuable example for the reconstruction of China’s documentary industry. It promotes a popular, practical model for documentary production and marketing, making the Doc channel one of the most successful in SMG’s portfolio of channels.

Digital Revolution

Not all of the new wave of Chinese doc channels is linear. is a leading-edge Internet media company which presages the transformation of traditional documentary into web-intended docmedia and other plat-formats. Sina was listed in NASDAQ in 2000 and has six branch companies globally. Over the last 10 years, Sina has been riding high, through continual renewal and innovation, becoming one of the China’s industry leaders in this Web 2.0 world. Wen Jin, the deputy chief editor, is looking for what she calls excellent documentary resources and wants to cooperate with international documentary producers.

Beyond GZ DOC, there are several festivals, markets and initiatives in China friendly to documentary. There are big international festivals in Shanghai, Beijing and Hong Kong that sometimes feature a doc. I have been granted an honorary role in the Western Branch of Documentary Academic Committee of China Artists Association and as a senior consultant for the Sichuan TV Festival, a biannual international film and TV programme market for film and television professionals from a broad spectrum of places. Similar to Banff, it runs the International “Gold Panda” Awards. Representatives from major provincial TV stations, satellite channels, production companies, distribution companies and advertising agencies in China attend the market. In 2009, media organizations from 70 countries and regions submitted their programmes to, or exhibited at, the festival. More than 3,000 guests and over 100,000 members of the general public took part in the festival’s various activities.

One of the most important and innovative documentary organizations in all of Asia is CNEX, which is Beijing-based with extensions in Hong Kong and Taipei, Taiwan. CNEX (which is short for China Next and See Next) is about what CEO Ben Tsiang calls the Greater China. Stanford-trained Tsiang originally made his mark with others in the web portal Sina, but over the last half dozen years, with co-founder and chief operating officer Ruby Chen, he’s been smitten by documentaries. CNEX is a non-profit foundation devoted to developing, producing and exhibiting documentaries of concern to contemporary China. CNEX has developed a complete suite of production initiatives, project development labs and funding programmes to facilitate and co-commission documentaries. This is a new public-interest model for the promotion and production of Chinese and diasporic cinema on the mainland and across the straits.

Each year, CNEX solicits submissions for new documentaries to be developed from the world community. Films made in or about China, or with Chinese filmmakers living in the mainland or in the diaspora, or international producers with interests in the region: CNEX funds 10 of them per year. They’ve made 50 so far, and the goal is to produce 100 in 10 years. This is indicative of the long-term thinking which is necessary to work anywhere in Asia. Relationships develop over time.

CNEX also organizes well-curated parallel thematic documentary festivals and recently has been circulating docs throughout China using universities as venues. Last year, in Taipei, CNEX inaugurated a Forum to go along with its other visionary good works. It combined projects developed within its own umbrella and outside of that circle, from independents. The CNEX Forum attracted a score of broadcast commissioners and funders like Cara Mertes from the Sundance Doc Program, Claire Aguilar from ITVS and the erudite Nick Fraser from BBC’s award magnet and flagship doc strand, Storyville. I often see him in Guangzhou, China, and Taiwan looking for “captivating stories and hoping to nurture relationships with Asian filmmakers.” Mette Hoffman Meyer from Denmark’s DR network was also there, coming to Asia looking for “funny stories, stories that tell us about life in Asia right now, stories with strong social or political narratives, and stories that tell something unusual, but reflect something deep within society.”

I am particularly proud of my work advising and helping to develop a new venue for creative Chinese and international documentary—iDOCS (The International Documentary Forum). Based in Beijing, iDOCS began as the brainchild of Cherelle Zheng of Channel Zero, Coraline Zou and their very small team, as a desire to bring their own love for documentary to the Chinese public and professionals.

iDOCS is housed in theatres and venues at the Beijing Film Academy. The public part of the festival brings a select roundup of 20 of the best Western and Asian documentaries to sold-out screenings. On opening night a few years ago, the 800-strong audience gave a long standing ovation to Dutch filmmaker Heddy Honigmann, visiting with her film Forever. There is a giant thirst for international documentary in China that is just starting to get fulfilled. The films in the festival have to be submitted to the state authorities for prior approval, but even they are starting to trust the good intentions of iDOCS.

During the day, iDOCS’ professional development aspects kick in, as the cream of the world’s documentary masters comes to town. This upcoming edition will feature Kim Longinotto, Finnish master Pirjo Honkasalo and the Dean of Australian Doc, Bob Connolly. Editors like the U.K.’s Gigi Wong or Denmark’s Jesper Osmund give workshops in editing, the Achilles’ heel of Chinese docs. There’s an exciting innovative series of pop-up pitches, called the Trailer Park, which may play alongside a presentation from Adriek Van Nieuwenhuyzen about the Jan Vrijman Fund, or the AIDC’s Joost den Hartog lecturing on the history of Documentary in Australia, or Li-zhou Yang on the state of docs in Taiwan, for example. If one believes in the transformative and educational value of this thing we call creative documentary, then I think iDOCS is one of the most important initiatives going on in China these days.

West Influences East

I think the evolution of the changing ways that documentaries have been made in China by Westerners over the last decade can be seen in the work of the Montreal production company EyeSteelFilm, cited by industry magazine Playback as one of documentary’s top 100 Global companies. EyeSteel is a company whose chief operatives I mentored early on and to which I return these days as an independent international producer. In its early days, EyeSteelers Dan Cross and Mila Aung-Thwin went to China to shoot off-the- cuff films about “Chairman George,” a Canadian musician who’s very popular in southern China, and, on another occasion, a touring Canadian dance troupe. Gradually they began to work with Chinese crews as essential team members.

EyeSteel made a breakthrough when they produced Chinese-Canadian director Yung Chang’s Emmy-nominated, Genie award–winning Up the Yangtze. Chang worked with a world-class Chinese crew on that moving and richly detailed narrative about the Three Gorges Dam. EyeSteel’s production model evolved into one where Chinese partners took centre stage, with their next Asian-Canadian feature doc, the world-acclaimed Last Train Home, made with Lixin Fan and his team. That film has played at about 100 festivals over the last year, winning dozens of prizes including the top award at IDFA.

These days, I am producing Yung Chang’s China Heavyweight, which is an official Canada-China co-production between EyeSteel and its YFM (Yuan Fang Media) Chinese partners. From Ang Lee to Tsui Hark, great Chinese filmmakers have created an industry and an art form out of martial arts. Western film history also sees great fiction filmmakers taking on the boxing film genre. I thought we would give Yung a chance in the ring.

China Heavyweight is a story about young Chinese boxers and their dedicated coaches in an outpost in south-central China. In an atmosphere where China wants to make a big splash at the London 2012 Olympics, young Chinese sportsmen and women must decide whether to continue fighting for their nation as amateurs or to join the professional ranks and fight for themselves. ZDFARTE, Channel Four UK, NHK, YLE, DR, Telefilm, SODEC, the Movie Channel, Movie Central, TV5 Quebec, Kinosmith and Chinese partners are supporting the film; it’s a long list, which I include only to indicate that many people have an interest in Chinese stories—and not only this one.

YFM, the essential Chinese partner, is a production company created by Lixin and some of the most talented internationally experienced indie doc producers in China. As we engage with them to help build up capacity and expertise in the nitty gritty of world-class production based in China, we are also helping ourselves learn more about true egalitarian working models. China Heavyweight is a feature documentary conceived with theatrical potential, with a goal to be the first documentary to be released commercially in China. It will be recognized officially in China, and as an official China-Canada co-production, such distribution is more than a possibility.

These days I am also mentoring or taking an interest in helping to develop talent in China and Asia. At the recent very successful Asia Side of the Doc in Seoul, with the talented Chinese director Joy Le Li and NHK’s Kenichi Imamura at my side, I pitched a new film I will produce in China with Chinese partners and EyeSteel. In the Key of David Lai is about a 14-year-old blind piano prodigy who just may be the next bright star on the international concert stage. It garnered lots of interest from the commissioners and we were even offered an immediate contract from Norwegian TV’s Tore Tomter. In a pitching forum with many quality proposals, to our surprise we won the 2,000-euro prize for the best international pitch.

I find myself in workshop situations all over the continent. New projects and directors are coming to the fore in the various development labs now populating the region. Of course, there is always the danger of overtraining—of trying to train what’s great and unique about Chinese and Asian cinematic storytelling out of its documentary directors, writers, producers and editors as we get them to “Westernize” for the market. Other systems may be training people to pitch into a co-financing system which may not be around five years from now as Western public broadcasters turn into broadband casters and as smart multiplatform TV streams into wider use and docmedia replaces linear old-school documentaries. So we are all living in curiously interesting times, to paraphrase a Chinese parable.

There are plenty of opportunities for West to meet East on an equal basis. I invite all of you to cross the border—to bridge the gap. I feel as if I am standing on the continental fault line in Iceland between two tectonic plates—East and West. Somehow, symbolically or by design, it was here on Iceland’s rocks at the separation of the continents that the world’s first parliament, the Althing, was established in 930 AD. It has never stopped working. And we should never stop working for the internationalization of documentary.

Documentarians and engaged Canadian citizens must ask: Will we continue to look West, or will we look to the Eastern world? Or will we now look in all directions, to the South for inspiration despite all odds, and to the True Magnetic North? By which I mean to say, will we look into our innate and original global/local and sustainable, human and social natures so we can take necessary steps to cross cultures and transcend boundaries? More than ever, it’s up to cultural communities to reach out across the gap to our colleagues and co-workers and institutions and friends in China and in Asia. In that way we will co-create a voice in documentaries and beyond.

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