Interest grows on real life on film

Shanghai International Film Festival jury members talk about their approach to making documentaries and the importance of the genre.

The documentary “Twenty Two” was the biggest Cinderella story in Chinese film market last year, with a total box office of more than 170 million yuan (US$26 million) from a budget of 3 million yuan. It recorded the lives of the only 22 elderly “comfort women” — those forced into sex slavery by Japanese troops during World War II — still alive.

The rare commercial success of “Twenty Two,” considering that only nine documentaries hit the silver screen in China last year, drew attention to the genre previously thought to be too serious to attract audiences or make a profit.

It wasn’t a single case, as quite a few documentaries gained popularity through different channels — TV, cinema and Internet — which sparked an ever-greater interest in documentaries from audiences, film studios and streaming sites, as seen at the recent Shanghai TV and film festival. It is no longer “impossible” for non-fiction movies to hit the silver screen or a TV series to occupy the prime spot.

“It is always difficult to raise funds for documentaries, because nobody — investors, cinema managers, your own crew — expects you to make money with it and of course that is never the reason to make one,” says Zhao Le, a local documentary filmmaker in his 20s. “I can see that changing a bit now, though slowly. The many success cases in the past two years made people realize that the young generation does have an appetite for good-quality documentaries.”

According to a report on the development of Chinese documentaries by Communication University of China, the total investment in documentaries in 2017 was 3.9 billion yuan, up by 14 percent from the previous year, and output at 6 billion yuan, up by 15 percent.

Like elsewhere, the Internet is credited for getting the documentaries out there or turning a good one into a viral one.

Interest grows on real life on film

Chinese documentary "Twenty Two" looks at lives of the nation's surviving "comfort women."

Interest grows on real life on film

Chinese mini-documentary series “If Treasures Could Talk”

“If Treasures Could Talk” is one of them. The 100-episode series, five minutes each, introduces some of China’s most precious historical relics and has gone viral on the Internet. In the series, the national treasures that many have only seen in museums or history books was animated to introduce them and their historical significance, speaking in a tone familiar to the young generation.

It was first aired on CCTV and then went viral on social media platforms and streaming sites, which turned the series into a hit, especially with the young generation, who found it unique to bring a seemingly complex subject closer to them.

Chinese Internet giants Alibaba and Tencent both upgraded their documentary branches recently and announced more investment in the genre.

“The biggest feature of the Internet culture is that the receiving party chooses the content they like,” says Li Bing, executive of the entertainment leg of Alibaba which owns Youku, one of the biggest Chinese streaming sites, adding that it makes it possible to produce hit content as long as they fit the aesthetics and demands of the target audience.

With the Shanghai International Film Festival about to announce its awards on June 24, Shanghai Daily interviewed two documentary jury members.

Interest grows on real life on film
Jiang Xiaowei / SHINE

Finnish director Pirjo Honkasalo

Pirjo Honkasalo

The Finnish director is the head of the documentary jury. He has made both features and documentaries movies, winning many awards. 

Q: Is this your first trip to Shanghai?

A: I backpacked for a month around China in 1989, including Shanghai. I remember going to this old hotel where there was a jazz band and old men who had been playing since before World War II.

I had such great memories of the city so when the festival invited me first, I actually said no, because I wanted to keep my memories. It has changed so much.

Q: As chair of jury, what do think of this year’s selection?

A: All five entries are very different, from all over the world. The great thing about documentary altogether is that they basically talk about globalizing being a progress and being a danger. Globalization was originally a dream of poets, so we can travel around and we can understand each other globally.

In a way, good documentaries add to the understanding of people from totally different backgrounds and to their tolerance of other cultures. 

Q: You have made both feature and documentary films, how do you choose?

A: I always say that making documentaries is a humble work, because you can’t demand anything. People are not stupid when you make documentaries. They look at you and they decide if they want to do anything, and you don’t get more than you deserve. So you have to be humble in front of the people to have them open up in any way. And when I get tired of being so humble I make fiction.

Q: You don’t have that many interviews in your documentaries, why?

A: No, I don’t interview people, not behind the scenes either. Usually they don’t talk to me, but rather discuss among themselves. For me, in documentary, the biggest thing is to find the person who is in the film. 

A documentary takes a long time, and you have to deal with something you can live with for such a long time. For me, it always starts with a personal question ─ what do I question in life at this moment? Otherwise I will lose interest in the long process of making it. 

Interest grows on real life on film
Jiang Xiaowei / SHINE

Israeli director Yoav Shamir

Yoav Shamir

The Israeli director is known for controversial films “Checkpoint” (2003) and “Defamation” (2009), the first recording the daily interactions of Palestinian civilians and Israeli soldiers and the latter challenging contemporary anti-Semitism.

Q: You have watched all the selections this year. How do you choose the best one?

A: I like films which stand out in the way that they are told ─ good storytelling, good access to stories to the people. When I watch a good documentary especially, I like to feel I am learning something new.

Q: Many will say that your documentaries are controversial in the topics. Are they?

A: Each film is difficult to make. Our challenge is to tell a story which is saying something interesting, new and thought-provoking, to help one look at familiar things from a new perspective. So if people have an opinion about something, my challenge is to make them rethink or to look at it and find more layers, more angles, and more depths in the subject.

Q: Is the storytelling in documentaries different from feature films?

A: For me, I’m more interested in telling stories about things that are happening now than about what has already happened. A lot of time when people make documentaries they are limited to archives as they are working on a subject in the history. For me, I make films about things that are happening today, so I can be there. The storytelling is not so different from a fiction film.

Q: “Defamation” touched the sensitive topic of anti-Semitism, but it is filled with fun and humorous moments, was that a conscious choice?

A: Humor is very powerful. With humor you can really get to people, get it out to the audiences. To me, the most intelligent way of communication is through humor. The topic of “Defamation” is very serious, but I believe in every serious subject there is also humor because we are all human beings. 

Being human means being weak, vulnerable, having weakness and flaws, which unite us all. If you don’t see the human side, you have missed something.

Q: But it’s not common to see such humor in many documentaries.

A: A lot of documentary filmmakers today are making films that need to be very important. So when you are so busy about being important and wanting to change the world, you can’t see the humor. But films are not changing the world. It is a way to observe something about reality, but I don’t think they can change the world. We can look at the situation, observe and feel OK. We are living in this part of history at this time, and that is interesting.

Q: Does streaming sites’ involvement in documentaries make it easier for young filmmakers?

A: For filmmakers, if some of the corporations like Netflix gave me US$1 million to finish a film, which I usually need to get from multiple partners, then it’s easier to do it with Netflix. For audiences, it also makes the world much smaller, because now everybody can find, share and watch the same content much more easily.

But also, if you want to go to Netflix, you still need a lot of money because you are competing with everyone in the world, so it is ultimately more competitive in that sense.

(Iris Chen contributed to this article)

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