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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.

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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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My Chinese Canadian Boyfriend, directed William Yung

On Friday night I attended the opening of the Beijing Queer Film Festival in a gay bar in Beijing’s Gulou bar district. Held biannually, the festival is now in its tenth year, and still thrums with all the intensity of an underground, emergent community. The bar on Friday night was packed, and filmmakers invited from around the world spoke of a time when their own country’s queer community had the same sense of adversity and purpose.

The next day I spoke with the festival’s executive director, Yang Yang, a clear-thinking woman who has been the backbone of the festival since its inception. Yang is neither gay, nor a filmmaker, and so her commitment to Beijing’s queer community is intriguing.

Yang Yang’s preface to the festival program is a beautiful piece of writing that suggests some of the ongoing complexities behind identity – sexual or otherwise. Below is my discussion with Yang about her ten years running the festival, and the potential of film to communicate difference.

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Picture a film made as if looking through slats in a wall, peering into a dimly lit, traditional Beijing home. Cramped, intimate, and soaked in the sea-green of cheap lighting, Liu Jiayin’s feature films Oxhide and Oxhide II (牛皮,牛皮二) are concerned primarily with this sense of perception. Tight shots of hands, waists, objects, and only the occasional face – we wonder if someone has forgotten their camera and left the room.

But nobody has forgotten anything, and Liu Jiayin is clear in what she's trying to achieve. Shot in her parents’ home, with she and her parents playing the roles of mother, father and daughter, Oxhide and Oxhide II are highly stylised, cinema depictions of Liu's own particular view on the world.

Born in 1981, Liu Jiayin belongs to the most recent generation of Chinese filmmakers, and has already been credited as one of the most important of her time. I met her in a Beijing cafe last week, where I was treated to her plucky, Beijing wit and a self-possession that belies her age. Read on ...

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Cinema Alley 2011
4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art
Photo: Susannah Wimberley

The material of film and video is light, so we usually create darkened rooms in which to experience its art. 4A’s Cinema Alley however makes use of the night, erecting a large outdoor screen in Sydney’s Parker St for one evening each Chinese New Year Festival. Now in its third year, the event transforms this Chinatown backstreet into an open-air cinema and screens a selection of Chinese video art curated by 4A Director, Aaron Seeto. 4A’s own ‘laneway project,’ Cinema Alley is also a result of the gallery’s focus on community engagement, extending outdoors from the gallery and, this year, including screenings from their 2010 Animation Project with the local community.

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Pangbianr 旁边儿 in Chinese means ‘next to’, or ‘to one's side’, so it’s an appropriate name for a group based on the idea of community. Existing at the fringes of Beijing’s fringe culture, Pangbianr is a collective of Chinese and non-Chinese musicians, filmmakers, artists, distributors and general cultural enablers, working to create a DIY arts scene.

Pangbianr run events and a website – they also have an organic community farm beyond Beijing’s sixth ring road! But that’s another story, and you’ll have to check their website for that.

Below is my interview with Josh Feola, Pangbianr’s chief mover and shaker.

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Tomorrow is Day One of The China Independent Film Festival (CIFF), running from 21-25 October across eight university campuses in Nanjing. This is the festival’s seventh year and based on recent years’ attendance about 12,000 people are expected to attend.

As usual, this year’s CIFF program includes drama and documentary, along with art films and archival projects that would rarely (if ever) be shown in mainstream venues. These films have all been made outside the commercial film system and are all screened in the CIFF free of charge.

I managed to track down Festival President, Professor Zhang Xianmin, just days before the opening of CIFF. Zhang believes we are living in a historic time for Chinese independent cinema – one that will probably be remembered as its greatest moment. Don't you wish you were at the festival? Read on for an insight if you're not.

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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.

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