New Chinese Documentary Primer: What Films to Watch Now

Welcome to the first of a new bi-weekly series where we take a brief look at an international documentary scene or movement.

Two of last year’s most exciting American documentaries came from China. Alison Klayman’s Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry and Stephen Maing’s High Tech, Low Life surprised, entertained and moved audiences with their stories of charismatic activists fighting within China for freedoms of information and expression. They offer a clear window into what we too often choose to perceive as a closed off country. Yet, hopefully, these two films can also be a gateway to something even richer. Ai Weiwei’s own films in response to the 2008 Sichuan Earthquake are but a rambunctious drop in an ocean of exceptional nonfiction cinema. Chinese filmmakers have been making brilliant, politically controversial documentaries for a quarter century, and you should watch them.

The story of contemporary Chinese documentary cinema begins with a bang. In the late 1980s, all nonfiction media in China was controlled by a repressive government. The dominant style of documentary, mostly on television, had been one of highly choreographed socialist realism, telling stories from a top-down perspective designed to reinforce the official government ideology. The Fifth Generation of Chinese filmmakers had begun to resist this style earlier in the decade, with intricate and colorful works such as Chen Kaige’s Yellow Earth (1984) and Zhang Yimou’s Red Sorghum (1987), but the penny had not quite dropped in nonfiction cinema. In many ways, the documentaries on television were more fictionalized than any of Chen or Zhang’s work. Then, alongside the 1989 thunderclap of Tiananmen Square, New Chinese Documentary was born.

It began in an unlikely place: the state-controlled media engine, China Central Television. In 1988, CCTV produced River Elegy, a six-part miniseries that focused on what it perceived as the decline of Chinese culture since the Ming Dynasty. Unsurprisingly, its bleak view of Chinese conservatism and isolationism inspired a lot of debate. It has been called a primary inspiration for the student demonstrations that ignited the following spring. An equally significant miniseries chronicling the protest movement itself, SWYC Group’s Tiananmen, was then made in 1991. It was never aired by CCTV.

In roughly the same moment, filmmakers in Beijing began to dive into independent documentary production, mostly using TV equipment. The very first of these to be shot was Wu Wenguang’s Bumming in Beijing: The Last Dreamers (1990). It follows the lives of five artists, trying to find their way in China’s sprawling capital. Not necessarily even living in Beijing legally, they create films, paintings and theatrical productions while struggling to survive. Its spontaneous style was a major break from socialist realism, and its makeshift aesthetics would become the predominant form of the movement.

This new way of portraying real life was given a name: jishi zhuyi, or “on the spot realism,” as opposed to xianshi zhuyi, the official and staged realism of before. These new films were filled with subject interviews, giving a voice to those who had previously been simply objects of study and manipulation. The filmmakers embraced a verite style, and saw themselves as simply individuals with cameras, documenting the story of Chinese society from the bottom up. They often referred to themselves as artisans rather than artists, de-emphasizing their active authorship.


Over time, however, things changed. Like most movements labeled “new,” it’s hard to discern when and whether it ended. Lu Xinyu, the scholar who coined the term “New Chinese Documentary,” argues that a second phase of the movement began around 1997. This is colored first by a theoretical shift from the “individual” to “individualism.” Briefly, this is the idea that directors have a distinct perspective and should use it as the core of their work. Around this time, directors began to abandon the purely observational model of Bumming in Beijing and began to experiment with performance and reflexivity. The Road to Paradise (2006) is a good example. Director Zhang Hua, a struggling business woman who was to be the subject of an earlier documentary by Li Jinghong, decided to pick up a camera herself and tell her own story.

Of course, this “second wave” also brought a number of much less theoretical changes. The mini digital video camera arrived in China in 1997 and the resulting explosion of filmmaking made an already diverse movement even more complex. Moreover, the impact of New Chinese Documentary began to appear in the fiction films of the Sixth Generation. Jia Zhangke and Zhang Yuan, who both made nonfiction films themselves, brought the aesthetics of NCD into their narrative work.

More than two decades after the initial Tiananmen moment, things have understandably splintered. There is no uniting theme among the Chinese documentaries of the new millennium, though they all carry on parts of the legacy of NCD’s style. They deal with the disparities between urban and rural life, the government’s handling of natural disasters, the lives of artists and performers, marginalized communities, and countless other subjects. This diversity has only strengthened the work, and Chinese documentarians continue to make some of the most exciting nonfiction films today.

Now, Watch Some Docs!

If you’re unfamiliar with New Chinese Documentary, you might want to start with the earliest works. A shortened version of River Elegy is online (see the YouTube video above). It summarizes all six episodes in a single hour, making it an excellent glimpse at the early CCTV style but perhaps not the easiest to watch. Bumming in Beijing, on the other hand, absolutely holds up. In particular the story of Zhang Xiaping, a painter at the end of her rope in the build-up to a solo gallery show, retains a stunning resonance.

From there, a number of the most significant films of the last decade have been made available on Amazon Instant by dGenerate Films. I highly recommend this double feature:

Li Yifan and Yan Yu’s Before the Flood (watch it here) is an extraordinary panorama of urban life and the assault of modernization. It chronicles the forced evacuation of the city of Fengjie, a community essentially dismantled by the Chinese government in the process of building the Three Gorges Dam. Bureaucratic incompetence, ignorance and indifference are certainly a major focus of the film, but it is principally devoted to the citizens themselves.

The same is true of Du Haibin’s 1428 (watch it here), so named for the exact time at which an earthquake hit the province of Sichuan in 2008. The film follows the recovery effort, weaving between different survivors fighting the government for compensation and struggling to rebuild their lives. Both Before the Flood and 1428 are staggering efforts to apply a verite style to events almost too large for human comprehension.

If you’re in New York City, you can also attend an upcoming series of films being screened by The Wooster Group. The selection is built around the notion of performance in Chinese documentary, featuring films made between 2009 and 2013 that will indubitably complement Lu Xinyu’s reading of the individualist, performative tendencies of the “second wave” of NCD.

Finally, a book. If you’re interested in reading more about these films, the collection of essays edited by Chris Berry, Lu Xinyu and Lisa Roefl is essential. The New Chinese Documentary Film Movement: For the Public Record not only offers a complex, expertly articulated introduction to the history of Chinese nonfiction cinema, but a great deal of in-depth writing that shows the breathtaking diversity of recent years.

Daniel is a freelance critic living in Brooklyn. His writing has appeared at Nonfics, The Film Experience, The Brooklyn Rail, Indiewire, and Dok.Revue.