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Ke Dingding and Guo Jing are not your typical independent Chinese filmmakers. They don’t live in Beijing; their films aren't explicitly political; and they’re not distributed by the New York indie operation, dGenerate Films. Far from living beneath the radar, Ke and Guo have day jobs at Shanghai TV, and make their own independent docos on the side. Intelligent, personal and often profoundly sad, these documentaries are a reminder of the diversity of Chinese independent filmmaking: it’s not only the underground DIY crew who demonstrate courage and a critical eye.

At Shanghai TV, Ke and Guo have made programs about celebrity blogger, Han Han, and the much-admired choreographer, and transgender role-model, Jin Xing. In their own time, however, they make intimate films about everyday people in contemporary Shanghai, often focussing on the pressures Chinese society puts upon its children.

Their documentary, Circus School, is a particularly painful film about a school for children training for China’s highly competitive circus industry. First Period: The War Of Growing Up follows the lives of three students at one of Shanghai’s most prestigious primary schools, revealing similar cycles of stress, expectation and a fear-driven need to succeed. More complex still, When My Child is Born exposes – piece by careful piece – the conflicts and burdens of a young Shanghai couple. After the birth of their daughter, the couple long for their independence, yet find themselves more bound by obligations to their parents than ever.


These are just three of Ke and Guo’s more well-known films, and those that are available internationally. However if you can get a hand on anything they’ve made it will be rewarding. Keep your eyes peeled for their names in film festival catalogues and television schedules.

Below are excerpts from a brief interview I conducted with them by email recently.

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The Fringes of Beijing B02

In October 2008, photographer Wang Jiuliang began a project investigating waste disposal in and around Beijing. Following the trucks that collected his daily rubbish, he discovered eleven large-scale refuse landfills scattered around the close suburbs of the city, each one growing daily alongside the skyscrapers, housing developments, and general urban boom that surrounded them.

Beyond this, Wang also uncovered an underground industry in which rubbish was being removed from the inner city and taken to hundreds of illegal dumpsites around the urban fringe. Here, people were making their homes and their living, building houses from discarded construction materials, wearing clothes they had gleaned in the trash, and making their dinners from the city’s food scraps. They raised pigs on leftover organic matter. Local shepherds brought sheep and cattle to graze between the bottles and plastic bags.

The speed and scale of China’s development always makes for a particularly shocking story, here easily interpreted as 'the dark side' of China's economic miracle, which in many ways it is. However the problem of junk is one shared by all consumer societies. To quote Wang, ‘Many of us believe that we are completely disconnected from the garbage we produce once it has left our sight. Few realize that their garbage has not gone far ... ’

Shocked by what he had found, Wang developed his project into a powerful documentary film called Besieged by Waste [垃圾围城], released in 2011 and now available for distribution through dGenerate Films. Shot with both a photographer’s eye for aesthetics, and an activist’s commitment to social change, the film is a striking reminder of the inextricability of society and its trash.

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Nova Heart Helen flash small.jpg
Helen Feng, lead singer of Nova Heart, has been dubbed 'China's Blondie', but the comparison doesn’t go quite far enough. Sexy, provocative and confident, she’s perhaps more of a femme Jim Morrison, constantly feeling out the boundaries of appropriateness in order to nudge them that bit further. A recent stage dive left her on crutches for months, and she’s just as bold offstage as on. Intelligent and articulate, Feng brims with opinions on American imperialism, Chinese politics, and the identity of the Beijing indie rock scene.

Born in Beijing, but raised in North America, Feng has been a major shaker in Beijing music circles since moving to China in 2002. In 2004 she started the punk band Ziyo [自游], in 2007 co-founded the electro group Pet Conspiracy, and in 2009 she and her partner, Philip Grefer, founded the Chinese music collective, FakeMusicMedia. Nova Heart is Feng’s long-planned solo project, and has the full force of her energy and professional experience.

Last Saturday I lay on a grassy slope in Bondi Beach, sizzling in the sun, with Feng, her guitarist Zhong Can and bassist Bo Xuan, and various other musicians and organisers who had been involved in the Sydney gig the night before. See below for our conversation. And thanks to Shaun Hemsley of tenzenmen for his contributions.

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Liao Yiwu is best-known for his book The Corpse Walker, a colourful collection of interviews with oddballs, crooks, hustlers, toilet-attendants, ex-landlords, so-called rightists, garbage-collectors, and a variety of others whose voices are rarely heard in mainstream Chinese history. First published in Taiwan in 2001, and later in a variety of languages, The Corpse Walker quickly became a bestseller in the West, its success fanned along by the news of the book’s banning in China and Liao’s uncomfortable political position back home .

Liao’s recent book, God is Red, is another collection of interviews, this time with elderly Chinese Christians whose faith has brought them into conflict with the state. Published to an eager audience in the West, God is Red will be supported with author tours and book signings not previously possible, since in July 2011 – after seventeen unsuccessful attempts to leave China – Liao Yiwu secretly emigrated to Germany.

Given his reputation as a political dissident, it would be fair to imagine Liao Yiwu as a terribly earnest person. If he is this, it doesn’t come across in a first meeting – at least not in the conversation my friend Suna Xie and I had with him in Sydney last week. More than anything, Liao made us laugh with his dry irreverence, and a tendency to see life as a series of terrific stories. Even the sinister seemed darkly amusing in Liao’s hands, as if life were a perverse comedy choreographed by money and power. Read on …

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Artspace China profiles Chinese visual arts, music and literature, presenting an overview of Chinese contemporary culture while also being a resource for specialised research. It is jointly sponsored by the University of Sydney China Studies Centre and Confucius Institute.

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