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Still image from Fujian Blue, 2007, 87 min. Directed by Robin Weng

dGenerate Films is a US-based distributor of independent contemporary Chinese cinema, with a catalogue drawn from the salons, festivals and personal distribution networks of China’s underground film scene. Since their inception in 2008, they’ve built a catalogue of around thirty titles and have been instrumental in increasing the profile of independent Chinese cinema, both overseas and within China itself. They also have a cracking website with critical reviews and commentary on contemporary Chinese cinema in general.

I recently spoke with Kevin Lee, dGenerate’s Vice President of Programming and Education, about this burgeoning underground film scene, the documentary impulse, and the power of cheap technology.

Christen Cornell: How did dGenerate begin?

Kevin Lee: dGenerate really started as the brainchild of Karin Chien, who’s the founder and president of the company. Around 2007 Karin and I both started noticing Chinese independent films being screened in the US, in special venues like the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) or the New York University.

There was one artist in particular: Ou Ning, who’s done a couple of documentary works like Meishi Street and Sanyuan Li. Karin and I had attended separate screenings of his work and had both noticed how exceptional this work was.

Karin struck up a conversation with Ou Ning and asked: Are these films available in the United States, and are there other films like them? Ou Ning’s answer to the questions was: Yes there are other films like this, and no there’s no real distribution system set up – not even in China, except for a kind of underground DVD distribution, people passing DVDs to each other, copying them, pirating them, or watching them in specialty venues or these underground or independent film salons or festivals. So it sounded like the exposure of these films was very limited both domestically and abroad.

We got talking about it and decided to take a chance and set up a distribution system for these films. Partly for business reasons, but also to give the filmmakers a revenue stream, an ability to actually make money on the films – since in China it’s technically illegal to sell these films and most of them are distributed by pirated networks anyway, so typically an independent filmmaker in China doesn’t see any money from the distribution of their films. Here [in North America] there was at least a substantial possibility that these films could make money for the filmmakers.

So not only would we create this as a business but also as a support system for the filmmakers, to raise money for them through the sales of their DVDs and enable them to raise funding this way for their future projects.

In 2008 Karin flew out to China. She didn’t know anyone there except for a handful of contacts, but she’d meet with one person, get three or four contacts from that person, and then meet the other three or four people, and then by the end of the month she’d established this network of thirty or forty key figures in the independent film scene both in Beijing and in Shanghai.

She came back to the States with about seventy or eighty DVDs that people had given her. These weren’t signed deals, but just screeners, and the fact that people were so willing to give them to her really spoke to everyone’s acknowledgement that this was something that was really wanted: a distribution system, a way to get these films seen. There was this collective frustration that these films, great as they were, just really weren’t reaching as much of an audience as they could.

So Karin brought the eighty DVDs back to the United States, but she was pretty wiped out from the trip and needed someone to watch all the films. I’m a rabid cinephile so I happily devoted the next month to watching them, and then we created an evaluation system to assess which ones would have the most potential as distributed DVD titles in the United States.

At the same time Karin met with one of her old friends, Brent Hall, who was really instrumental in helping us devise a business model for how we could operate. Suyin So brought a legal perspective, and this was a very key thing because at the time there was really no widely accepted or implemented law in China, and a lot of filmmakers didn’t even understand the first thing about copyright law. A lot of them still don’t understand. [laughs] It’s like every time we try to bring a filmmaker on board and distribute their films we have to do this sort of impromptu tutorial on what the contract means, what copyright means, what rights mean.

So basically with the four of us – Karin leading; me handling programming as well as educational outreach; Brent doing the operational work; and Suyin doing the legal work and consultations – we’ve been able to form this company, and in just the two years we’ve been operating we’ve gone from zero films to about thirty titles. All of our filmmakers have made money in the first quarter of working with us, and we’ve really built up a reputation for these films and for Chinese independent cinema in general.

CC: Do you think that you’ve increased the profile for these films in China as well?

BH: In China, yes, we have made an impact, somewhat to our surprise. I guess because these films are in their own way as invisible within the context of Chinese culture and pop culture as they are in the United States. Since they don’t have access to a mainstream distribution system, they can’t be shown in theatres except for informal venues – art galleries, cafes or whatnot – we’ve been able to make some headway at giving them more exposure.

One event series that we’ve started in Chinese language are these talks at the Apple Store in Beijing (we’ve already had about six so far). We’ll bring a filmmaker to the Apple Store, have an hour-long conversation with them, and show some clips from their films. It’s done very informally with a very general audience and it’s been really successful.

The one I attended in August with Liu Jiayin was standing room only and the people there were really into what she had to say. I guess the idea of someone making films on their own, with mostly their own resources and outside the system and with a greater degree of personal expression and creative energy – it really piques people’s curiosity. It kind of plants the seed that it’s possible for someone, just anyone really, to make a film. If you have access to the resources (and it’s not too expensive to get a video camera), if you’re resourceful enough and you have a creative vision, you can make a film with relatively little.

CC: I guess that’s what the technology now allows people to do. There are lots of moments converging in China right now and this is one of them. Almost anyone can get a digital camera and make a film.

KL: Right and I think it’s a very powerful thing, a very revolutionary thing in the context of Chinese cinema, as well as in Chinese media history. Just the fact that any citizen can access a camera and if they’re inspired to make a film, either about real life going on around them, or a story – a fictional story that they think is really wonderful but for whatever reason couldn’t get made within the auspices of mainstream film production – they actually are able to do this now. This is an unprecedented moment. The sky’s the limit for these types of films. They’re limited only by the resourcefulness and the degree of creativity the artist has.

CC: A film takes time to make though. That’s a level of investment required of the filmmakers themselves.

KL: That’s right, and these filmmakers spend years out of their lives making these films. For example, Before the Flood, which is about the forced eviction of an entire city of people along the Yangtze River in anticipation of the Three Gorges Dam being built, was shot over two years. A film like Ghost Town took three years to make. Zhao Dayong, the director, would go repeatedly back to this remote village, Zhiziluo, which is in Yunnan Province, and spend days, weeks, months with people to establish a relationship so that after that he could represent them in a way that was true to life – that really reflected the experience of living there. Many of these films are about the incredible investment of time with their subjects.


CC: What percentage of your catalogue would be documentary?

KH: I think at this point we’re at two thirds documentary, one third narrative. We actually had a pretty even split for a while. But as our business has evolved we’ve realised that our audience – which is primarily the educational market – are mostly interested in real life things going on in China.
CC: Is your increasing number of documentaries also reflective of the number of documentaries being made in China right now?

BH: That’s a really good point. I would say that the number of documentaries being made greatly outshadows the number of narrative films. I’ve seen close to 400 Chinese independent films in the last three years, and I would say that overwhelmingly they are documentary.

I think the documentary impulse has been one of the major powerful forces within independent cinema within the last ten or fifteen years. A lot of the best narrative films that have been produced in China in the last ten years even bear the influence of realist or documentary aesthetics. A film like Betelnut or Black and White Milk Cow – they each have this very austere realist aesthetic that evokes the feeling of a documentary camera being fixed in a specific place, trying to capture all the real life details of a location and the people within it.

CC: I guess there’s just so much to document in China right now, so the documentary style makes sense.

KL: I think it was Lu Xinyu [a leading documentary film scholar in China, Professor of Journalism at Shanghai’s Fudan University] who said that the influence of documentary in Chinese film right now is a by-product of a creeping, growing alienation that Chinese people are feeling towards their environment. So much has happened in so little time, and the landscape, the economy, and even the values of Chinese people have been radically altered. It’s created this sort of ache, this desire to find a way to grasp on to reality – to re-establish a connection with the real. To feel resettled in the world, even if it’s been radically overturned around them.

There’s also a really strong social ethic at the moment, with filmmakers telling stories about the underclass, those who had been exploited or left behind by social change. Together it’s a very powerful formula for making films that have a real sense of urgency as well as a clear aesthetic vision.


CC: The mainstream Chinese film industry is booming at the moment and looks to get even bigger. What effect do you think this will have on the independent film scene, if any?

KL: That’s still to be determined. I originally thought that mainstream Chinese cinema was next to worthless, or of little interest at all, and that the independent cinema was where all the interesting work was being done. And to a large extent that’s still the case. But then Aftershock came out and I was shocked by how good it was. It’s a very potent film. It still serves the ideology, but then again so did a lot of communist propaganda films of the 50s and 60s that I really enjoy. There’s a difference between a hack propaganda movie that just delivers the message with very little complexity or artistry and one that actually has these layers of thematic subtext that you can actually get your hands around and work with. Aftershock is a significant leap towards that kind of complex art even if it does service a propaganda-istic purpose.

So it’s really got my antennae up in terms of how much potential and how likely mainstream Chinese cinema will evolve. And that’s just speaking on the artistic level. I think on the commercial level it really is this growing tidal wave. There’s so much money and resources being poured into this effort – by the Chinese government and the film bureau – working to raise money both domestically and overseas to stage these increasingly lavish productions with production values and c.g.i. [computer generated imagery] that rivals Hollywood. It’s really just a matter of time before they make a film that will command the attention of international audiences to the degree that a Hollywood blockbuster will.

With all that happening it really is an interesting question how this will affect independent films, and what the role of independent films will be. Because it will no longer be a case of independent film scene being the only place you’ll find interesting films in China. And of course the independent film world stands a risk of falling into its own kind of malaise or clichés – its own sorts of ‘underground’ narratives involving gangsters and prostitutes etc. I think inevitably more and more attention will be paid to Chinese cinema and so by virtue of that there’ll be more attention paid to independent film. It’s just a question of what will independent film will stand for.


CC: What’s your background? You’re a filmmaker yourself, aren’t you?

KL: I guess I see myself mostly as an enthusiast because I never had a formal film education. I didn’t go to film school. After college I taught English in China for a couple of years, and that was kind of like my first real immersion in Chinese culture. Even though I’m Chinese-American, my family is from Taiwan, and I guess I didn’t really come to embrace Chinese culture until I spent two years there, and that really gave me a foundation for appreciating a lot of these films.

Coming back to the United States I mostly worked as a film critic. I’ve also made a bunch of short films and I’ve tried to make inroads into the independent film scene in America but for the most part independent film in America has left me fairly disenchanted just because of the whole Sundance paradigm of independent film which was something I could never understand or learn to work with. So the more I learned about independent films in China, the degree of freedom and lack of rules or formulas that were in play, the more I really came to admire the filmmakers there.

dGenerate was the perfect opportunity for me to explore my interest and it’s led to the point where I’m now making my own independent documentary which I spent the summer working on. It’s about some of my former students which I taught ten years ago and tracing their lives – seeing where the circumstances of the past decade in China, the social reforms and economic policies and just the evolution of everyday life has taken them to now. China’s is the most aspirational society on the planet now and, in my film, I really want to explore the degree to which that aspiration can realise itself and what it takes to do that.

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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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