Digital cameras help Chinese film makers skirt censor

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The Independent Culture

Independent Chinese cinema has boomed out of the sight of censors because of new, handheld digital video cameras, several directors said at Spain's foremost film festival.

The nine-day San Sebastian festival, which got underway last Friday, features 18 films made by Chinese directors over the past decade with the digital cameras, which make it cheaper to shoot and easier to skirt government censorship.

"Digital technology is a new technology, it gives us many more possibilities," said 44-year-old Chinese short story author turned director Zhu Wen whose film "Thomas Mao" is part of the "Digital Shadows: Last Generation Chinese Film" retrospective.

The movie, which features martial arts fantasies and visions of an alien invasion in a dreamlike narrative, tracks the friendship between an awkward European traveler and a short-tempered innkeeper in Inner Mongolia.

It is a good example of how Chinese filmmakers are using digital cameras to explore new, more daring forms of storytelling and are covering marginalized characters and themes that were previously ignored.

"There really are many people who are filming in this format, which is the independent cinema in China," said Chinese filmmaker Liu Jiayin, whose movie "Oxhide II" is in the film festival.

The movie features her mother and father as actors and the action takes place entirely inside their dark, dreary and modest home where the couple and their daughter discuss the state of the family's failing business.

Like most Chinese movies made using the digital technology, the director also wrote the script.

"With this format I can do everything. Five or ten years ago if I wanted to shoot a film, I couldn't have done it. Now I can," said 30-year-old Liu, who invested all her savings to buy the camera she used to make the film.

The digital format has also helped these new independent moviemakers to thumb their nose at the government censorship that afflicts mainstream Chinese films, even though they are not entirely free from it.

Tight censorship of films, newspapers, books and magazines is one of the ways the Communist Party in China maintains its grip on power but independent films often fall through the cracks since their appeal is limited to a small audience.

"The vast majority of movies that are shown in China are American productions, they can maybe screen their films in two or three cities in the whole country," said Isabelle Glachant, the French producer of Chinese film "11 Flowers", which is among 16 films in the official selection for the Golden Shell.

If independent films do not get approval from the censors, their only possibility to be screened is at international film festivals.

"The real support comes from film festivals. These festivals are keen to show these types of movies. If they are lucky and they are successful at a festival, the movie can come back to China as a pirate DVD," added Glachant.

Directed by China's Wang Xiaoshuai, "11 Flowers" tells the tale of an 11-year-old who is confronted by a wounded runaway murderer who asks for his help.

"What I most like about this type of movies is that they were made for the love of it," said the curator of the retrospective of Chinese digital movies, Berenice Reynaud.

The San Sebastian fim festival, the Spanish-speaking world's oldest and most prestigious, wraps up Saturday with the world premiere of "Intouchables", an out-of-competition French comedy about a friendship beween a millionaire tetraplegic and his ex-convict carer.