Sundance Institute’s Documentary Film Program Goes to China

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Cara Mertes

April 13-16, 2011, saw Sundance Institute’s Documentary Film Program lead the first ever Institute workshop for independent Chinese documentary filmmakers. Co-hosted with CNEX, a five-year-old Beijing-based foundation dedicated to supporting artistic documentaries about contemporary Chinese life, the gathering brought together 11 projects from several regions in China to work with a group of international Advisors on story and structure. More than 120 Chinese filmmakers applied for this gathering, which was supported by a special grant for the Open Society Foundations and designed by Documentary Film Program Director Cara Mertes, Ben Tsiang and Ruby Chen of CNEX, and Chinese filmmaker Lixin Fan, to best address the needs of these filmmakers in a three-day forum.

Cherry blossoms in Beijing. Photo by Jill Miller.

Beijing has been strikingly beautiful this week, as the first warm weather brought a profusion of blooms across the city. The Chinese capital’s famous Temple of Heaven gardens sported everything from daffodils to tulips to cherry, peach, and apricot trees. What seemed like acres of lilac bushes and bluebells carpeted the ground under old cypress trees, which had been planted during the last days of the emperor 100 years ago. Inside the CNEX Salon, which sits in one of the newly developed ‘art districts,’ three intensive days of presentation, discussion, and feedback revolved around the 11 projects and their aspirations for their films, focusing on developing a strategy for next steps. Award-winning filmmakers Arthur Dong, Stanley Nelson, and Lixin Fan joined Sundance Institute staffers Win-Sie Tow and Meredith Lavitt, along with myself, in providing specific feedback to the filmmakers about their projects. Between 50 and 100 people attended sessions, mixing observers with the invited filmmakers. CNEX staff was heroic in providing technical support, wonderful meals, and an atmosphere of openness, community, and camaraderie.

Chinese director Lixin Fan introduces the first screening of his film Last Train Home at the Beijing Film Academy. Photo by Jill Miller.

Independent documentary in China is at an early and exciting stage of evolution, and the Sundance Institute Documentary Film Program has been researching ways to aid the growth of this emerging activity for the last three years with visits and explorations of the current state of Chinese documentary. CNEX is increasingly providing an important forum for discussion and resources in support of this new generation of filmmakers who want to tell stories about contemporary China. As in the West, many Chinese filmmakers direct as well as produce and edit their own work, and they often work in isolation. There is great sensitivity to government concerns, and the filmmakers are increasingly sophisticated at developing a style and approach that communicates important ideas about today’s realities. One such film is Last Train Home, by Chinese filmmaker Lixin Fan. A bona fide hit on the international festival circuit, the film had a premiere in China under Sundance Institute’s Film Forward project, which coincided with the documentary workshop activities. A grantee of the Documentary Film Program and a Sundance Film Festival alum, Last Train Home is now being supported by Sundance Institute in its planning to become the first independent contemporary issue documentary to be government approved for commercial release in China. We were fortunate to have both Lixin Fan and Stanley Nelson represent both the Documentary Film Program and Film Forward while in Beijing. China is one of 12 destinations for Film Forward, which kicked off in Beijing and travels to Wuhan and Xi’an.

Small group session for 11 selected Chinese filmmakers to present their work to DFP advisors. Photo by Meredith Lavitt.

One of the more unusual aspects of the documentary workshop was the need for translations, as the majority of filmmakers did not speak English, and an extraordinary amount of high quality translation came from CNEX staff and a core of volunteers. Despite the language barrier, which also provided endless humor throughout the three days, everyone was eager to engage and move their work forward. Topics as diverse as coal mining in Inner Mongolia, the nature of patriotism in China, and the history of the older generation’s experiences during the cultural revolution held the attention of the group, as each filmmaker had to present their work at the beginning and end of each day. By the closing reception, it was clear that a new community of filmmakers had connected across China, and a common goal of telling authentic stories had been reached. All of the filmmakers made tangible strides conceptually, from developing plans for refining their films’ structure to creating materials for gaining funding to decisions to work with editing and producing advisors. For Sundance Institute, it is clear that we will continue to support a new wave of Chinese documentary films which will be arriving on the international stage in short order, guided by each artist’s will to tell their own stories and the hope that other people will hear them.

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