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Independent Chinese Documentary

Alternative Visions, Alternative Publics

Dan Edwards

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Analyses how independent documentaries are forging a new public sphere in today’s China

Since the turn of the twenty-first century there has been an explosion in Chinese independent documentary filmmaking. But how are we to understand this vibrant burst of activity? Are these films brave expressions of dissidence, or do they point to a more complex attempt to expand the terms of public discourse in the People’s Republic?

This timely study is based on detailed interviews with Chinese documentary makers rarely available in English, and insights gained by the author while working as a journalist in Beijing. It considers the relationship between independent documentaries and China’s official film and television sectors, exploring the ways in which independent films probe, question and challenge the dominant ideas and narratives circulating in the state-sanctioned public sphere. Detailed analyses of key contemporary documentaries reveal a sustained attempt to forge an alternative public sphere where the views and experiences of petitioners, AIDS sufferers, dispossessed farmers and the victims of Mao’s repression can be publicly aired for a small, but steadily growing, public.

Key Features:

  • A detailed account of one of the world’s most active, vibrant and challenging contemporary documentary sectors
  • Draws extensively on first-hand interviews with filmmakers
  • Offers in-depth, critical analyses of China’s most challenging contemporary independent documentaries
  • Discusses China’s state-sanctioned film and television sectors to cast new light on how the official public sphere is shaped and guided by the state


List of Illustrations
A Note on Terminology


  • Defining Independence in a Chinese Context
  • Engineering Hegemony in Today’s China
  • China’s Official Public Sphere as an Arena of Hegemonic Influence
  • What Distinguishes Independent Documentaries from State-sanctioned Representations?

Chapter One: From Underground Practice to Alternative Public Sphere

  • The New Documentary Movement as an Underground Filmmaking Practice
  • Independent Documentary Culture in the Digital Era

Chapter Two: A Public of Viewer-producers

  • U-thèque: Screening Group, Training Centre and Production Collective
  • Participatory Documentary Practice: Meishi Street
  • Participatory Documentary as Rural Reconstruction

Chapter Three: Remembering the Past, Reclaiming History

  • The Chinese Amnesia and Official Historical Representations
  • Reclaiming the Historical Subject: Searching for Lin Zhao’s Soul
  • Reclaiming the Public Memorial: Though I Am Gone
  • A Growing Body of Historical Testimony

Chapter Four: The Right to be Public and a Public with Rights

  • Documentary and the Rights Defence Movement
  • Provoking an Interclass Response: Taishi Village
  • AIDS and Activism: The Central Plains and Care and Love
  • The Impact of Activist Documentaries in Contemporary China

Chapter Five: The Ethics of Encounter in Chinese Documentary

  • The Perceived Crisis of Values in Contemporary China
  • Complicity and Reflexivity: Paper Airplane
  • The Ethics of Portraying the Powerless: Petition
  • Ethical Questions as Political Threat in China’s Alternative Public Spheres

Afterword: Future Prospects for the Alternative Public Sphere of Independent Documentary
Glossary of Chinese Terms

About the Author

Dan Edwards has published over 70 articles on film and media in Australian newspapers and magazines. He worked as a magazine writer in Beijing, China from 2007-11, before completing a PhD in film and television at Monash University in 2014. Prior to living in China he worked for the Communications Branch of the Australian Film Commission and was the editor of the OnScreen section of RealTime arts magazine. He now lives in Melbourne, Australia, where he teaches film at the University of Melbourne and Monash University.


'While Chinese cinema has been dominated by the ascendance of blockbusters and box-office fare, a more edgy, experimental and uncompromising vision for Chinese film comes via the independent Chinese documentary filmmaking scene. In this fascinating study, Dan Edwards delves deep into this world, exploring the twisted intersections of filmmaking with ethics, activism, and historical memory.'

- Michael Berry, University of California
'Edwards’ volume functions in various ways as an update on the rapidly changing independent documentary scene in China...One of the most outstanding features of Edwards’ book is that he consistently deploys first-class journalistic methodologies by conducting revealing, in-depth interviews with the filmmakers inspiring book.'
- Paul G. Pickowicz, University of California, San Diego, JOURNAL OF CHINESE CINEMAS

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