Thomas F. O'Neill
My students at the Suzhou International Foreign Language School in Suzhou, China, love American films. They bring up the titles and talk about the new releases quite a bit on the school campus. They also love watching them in the local IMAX movie theaters here.
American films although extremely popular in China must pass the Chinese censors before they can be viewed on the big screen. The Chinese authorities have gone as far as to digitally change some of the scenes in the films prior to them being released in the Chinese cinemas. That doesn't seem to deter the American movie industry from releasing their big budget films in China. That is understandable though because the Chinese movie goers make for bigger profits for the American film industry.
What is ironic though many of China’s independent films are rarely released in their own Country. Independent film makers see it as China’s clampdown on freedom of expression. The Chinese Government in recent months shut down an independent film School in Beijing, and disrupted two film festivals.
The Government authorities are applying across the board censorship of anything that puts their country in a negative light or exposes Government corruption. Filmmakers whose work contrasts with China’s mainstream image will find their work censored for public viewing.
The Chinese Government appears to be clamping down hard on the open discourse of independent films over the internet as well. They are blocking online discussions and the sharing of information on the various filmmakers’ independent films.
The Chinese Government is aggressively seeking out independent films that potentially undermine the country's one-party rule. Some independent films revealed arrests of bloggers who posted sensitive material online and covered activists who have accused Government Officials in China of corruption. The Chinese Government views these types of films as potential threats.
Some independent filmmakers try to have their work viewed abroad in order to bypass the Chinese censorship. Yang Lina, an independent documentary maker whose first fictional film — about urban Chinese women — debuted at Rotterdam's international film festival this year.
Yang Lina, was quoted as saying "They (Chinese authorities) just want us to make films about food, clothes, entertainment. They don't want people to think, they don't want people to have the freedom to express themselves, they don't want people to have independent and free ideas," she went on to say, "we are upset, but also find it absurd."
Police under pressure from Government authorities last month came to the Beijing’s Independent Film festival and ordered the event cancelled. Organizers, however, did their best to keep their event going by changing locations and programs. Some filmmakers stayed away from the event though due to fear after what took place with the police.
Independent filmmakers also accused Government officials of intimidating their films financial backers. In November of last year attendees of the 10-year-old China Independent Film Festival in eastern Nanjing - said the festival's financial backers withdrew support under pressure from authorities.
In March of this year the Yunnan Multi-Cultural Festival in southwest China, an influential platform for documentaries, was cancelled. Last month the Li Xianting Film School in Beijing, was also ordered closed by the local authorities. They claim the School was "promoting anti-social ideology."
Four years ago film departments in Chinese universities considered independent cinemas to be a form of dissent. The students, however, see their film work as ways of expressing their views cinematically with artistic flare.
Thirty students this year from Li Xianting Film School in Beijing, ranging in age from their 20s to 60s were staying at a hotel in Beijing on the first day of their new semester. It was then police and officials from the Industry and Commerce bureau came and told them the school was illegal. Police took them to train stations and told them to return home, but teachers later arranged for the students to be taught elsewhere.
The ability to instantly capture a mood on film with a smartphone is something that was unavailable a generation ago. The Chinese authorities are becoming more and more threatened by the current generation’s ability to use social media and technology as a means of mobilizing others and creating activism.
Today’s youth have the ability to tune themselves and others into the social issues of the day through instant online communication. It’s not just the independent films that China is threatened by but rather the potential social unrest generated by social media.
The Chinese authorities are also threatened by students growing interests in "Western constitutional democracy" and "universal ideals." The Chinese authorities believe such interests could lead to wide-reaching descent among university students.
China’s mainstream movie industry is supported by their Government; they see huge potential in the world’s second largest film market. China’s censorship, however, restricts their film industry’s growth with safe story lines.
The Chinese Government would like to shape the world’s perception of China by controlling and managing how information is disseminated. However, that lack of control on their part is becoming counterproductive when it comes to the eyes of the world.
Artists, journalists, and academics throughout China are always exploring new ways to bring new ideas and social themes to the world. Digital filmmaking is just one of the ways in achieving their goals.
Many films as I said before that deal with China’s social issues rarely make it to the movie screens in China with the exception of in small clubs. Some independent films however have gained critical acclaim outside of China, such as Wang Bing's 9-hour "West of the Tracks," which documents the lives of workers in a decaying industrial area of China. Wang's latest film, "'Till Madness Do Us Part," will be shown at the Venice Film Festival this year. Sadly to say though none of Wang's films have been screened in his own country.
It really doesn't matter how hard the Chinese authorities’ crackdown on the independent filmmakers because they will continue to go on making their films. The great artistic voices throughout the world have always been heard. They are like burning flames that dissipate the darkness of ignorance around them.
What the Chinese authorities are failing to understand is that the popularity of the American culture especially in Asia is mostly due to our free society and our ability to express ourselves openly. The Chinese youth are intrigued by our freedom and that is why American films and music are so hugely popular in China.
China has come a long way in the past 30 years or so but it surely needs to move further in terms of allowing its people to voice their opinions openly and freely without the fear of a Government crackdown.
Our ability to express what we think and feel is an inalienable right in America. That freedom not only defines us as a people but it defines us as a Nation. Our Country the greatest Nation on earth is a beacon of hope for all people throughout the world due to our freedom and that alone makes me proud to be an American.
Always with love from Suzhou, China
Thomas F O’Neill
U.S. voice mail: (800) 272-6464
China Cell: 011-86-15114565945
Other articles, short stories, and commentaries by Thomas F. O'Neill can be found on his award winning blog, Link:
Click on author's byline for bio and list of other works published by Pencil Stubs Online.