Watching over a hundred documentaries at one go may be a chore for some people, but being in the documentary industry myself, I was delighted to have the chance each year to watch documentaries from China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and other regions and to appreciate how each work is influenced by the different cultures and development of their local Chinese communities.
It’s encouraging to see four HK documentaries being screened this year, including two finalists and two recommended entries. The judges were bit concerned that there were no HK entries in the past few years. This year there are four very diverse entries, as diverse as their directors (one is European). I hope there will be more HK documentaries in the Festival next year.
Despite a lot of sensitivity coming from widespread ‘hay fever’ in China, there is no lack of outstanding works this year. Whether they make it to the finals or not, the stamina and efforts of these Chinese directors are admirable.
In comparison, the situation in Taiwan is more stable. We see directors concerned about the underprivileged in society and issues like environment protection. It’s truly heartwarming to see topics about humanitarian care rather than political strife. Of course we also hope that in addition to their quest for a higher GDP, China will also one day become a more tolerant society.
My Good ‘Record’
Watching some 90 documentaries at one go is a personal record; I tell my friends it’s like drug taking. Usually a person may get ‘addicted’ to watching dramas or soap operas, but there’s no such thing as a ‘serial documentary fan’. Moreover, you may also ask, does anybody really get ‘high’ from watching documentaries? In all honesty, my answer is, “Yes”. It’s quite simple really, as documentaries are not avant garde experimental works; they don’t mess with your mind. Based on facts, reality, authenticity and the truth, they’re just as interesting as works of drama.
I’ll tell you a secret. Even when you’re enjoying drama, you should still watch it as you would a documentary. I know I sound like a salesman, but I’ll go back to our drug addiction metaphor.
A young movie buff once told me unapologetically that he never watches documentaries. In his world, drama is all there is to movies. Now this is what I call ‘drama addiction’, when people ‘overdose’ watching a selected kind of movie. This sort of biased attitude towards movie watching is like indulging in junk food. Personally I have no issue with dark circles under eyes and I don’t advise people to work out more; each to his or her own when it comes to personal health. However, what does worry me is mental and intellectual fatigue from ‘overdosing’ on movies. You can immerse yourself day in day out in the works of film masters but just like sticking to an imbalanced diet, the outcome is you’ll become ‘malnourished’ (the melodrama starts to get depressing) and you eventually turn ‘bulimic’ (i.e. totally turned off by movies). I never allow myself to indulge only in drama. I’ll tell you another secret. Documentaries have always been the antidote of drama and its possible self aggrandizement. Exposure to documentaries helps one gain more perspective in differentiating between a good/bad plot; otherwise you’ll never learn to truly appreciate any film.
Having said that, I’m not suggesting people to be skeptical about everything. In fact, documentaries take a dialectical, not skeptical, approach to things.
There are many documentaries that come with a ‘holier than thou’ attitude. Among the 90 entries this year, there are also some that try to ‘play it safe’. Some were rather bland while others turned out to be quite amusing, especially those informative ones. They remind me of those BBC Knowledge documentaries and the NGC channel on eco wild life, Egypt vs Maya and other new scientific discoveries among other things. These documentaries are supposed to be empirical, but you can still tell they have an agenda, be it elimination of global warming, religious advocacy or ‘facts’ and ‘myths’ about the so-called 2012 Armageddon. They don’t really give the audience the space or objectivity to think critically. I remind myself to verify the information on the Internet and journals and not take these documentaries as face value.
Based on what I’ve said, you can pretty much tell what I expect of a good documentary. A good documentary is one based on facts and not political agenda; its facts and message are sound and verifiable and not one-sided. Whether the documentary has got a stance or not, whether it’s clearly or fuzzily executed at one go or at several goes, the creator(s) of a good documentary should not claim to know the truth by manipulating social, ethnic or environmental goodwill in the community. A good documentary is a modest display of reality and facts, no more, no less.
This pretty much sums up the criteria I share with the other two judges in discussing, assessing and selecting the seven featured films in the Chinese Documentary Festival 2011.
This year’s 4th Chinese Documentary Festival has a surprisingly high number of entries. Feeling quite greedy, I watched films from both categories and set an all-time record for time spent on film watching.
Even though you can make a documentary out of any topic, what the audience finds most moving are usually those about people. It can be about an individual, or a collective group or organization. As a result, many less ‘popular’ films often got left out. Due to limited resources, the Festival can only feature a dozen or so films. That’s also one of the reasons why we get into heated debates during the adjudication process. I hope in the future, we will find a way to regularly screen those films that ‘got away’. These films are not only entertaining but also a reflection of the various social and cultural issues in society. For instance, films we didn’t manage to feature include topics on environmental protection, troupes of entertainers in the mainland and “Big River, Big Sea” style of untold stories of 1949 among many others. This will be a more sustainable promotion of documentaries in the long run, but something that requires more hard work and resources.
Cheng Chuen Wai
The categorization of “features” and “shorts” somehow reflects the human tendency to be lazy or utilitarian. This differentiation seems to be telling us it’s more difficult to shoot a long feature film than a short one and by default puts feature films in a higher regard, similar to the preferential treatment given to student leaders during exams. I’ve tried to stay impartial and avoid judging the short films as I would the feature films, but it’s hard I admit.
I’m compelled to voice my criticisms over the short entries. It may seem pathological to see only the negative and I’ll probably step on someone else’s toes by so doing, but it’s important to encourage criticisms, otherwise we’ll be doing a grave injustice to the films we love. Regarding the shorts finalists, I have nothing positive to say about 3.1415…, the title alone is disturbing. Put it simply, despite its claims to be an independent documentary, 3.1415… is merely another CCTV programme masked as a documentary. The reality painted by The Warriors of Qiugang is very worrying, but I do think that had the director been a bit more subtle and spent more time in refining the film, this would have been a much more powerful work. Our Home Beside the River has some moments but its narration is a bit muddled. My Fancy High Heels in comparison is a strong film with a creative concept. Of course such topics also have more mass appeal. Simplicity is well illustrated by The Life and Times of Ho Chung Village but then one may also question, so what’s new? Having said that, I myself wonder too if everything has to be done in an unconventional way; why can’t we go with convention in making a good movie? The Heart of Qin in Hong Kong is not in the same sphere as the other entries. The absurdity in Cop Shop comes across as authentic, but the other non-absurd elements diminish the film’s overall authenticity.
All in all, I’ve tried to be straightforward and concise. Thank you for letting me voice my critique, as inappropriate as it may be.
There’s no shortage of outstanding entries this year. The Warriors of Qiugang, My Fancy High Heels, The Heart of Qin in Hong Kong are rich in content, especially The Heart which is meticulously filmed. Having said that, I’m most impressed with 3.1415… and Cop Shop. The former is clever and shows savvy while managing to stay thought-provoking and angst free at the same time. The latter is about life of the grassroots in society and their interesting trivialities.
There’s one thing documentaries and drama have in common, which is attention to the pace of the film. Dramas have a script as their guide while the sky’s the limit for documentaries. It boils down to the fine line of depth versus breadth during post-production editing. My Fancy High Heels and Our Home Beside the River can benefit from further trimming in this respect.
I’ve been a fan of the Chinese Documentary Festival from the start and have seen many films over the years. At the invitation of Tammy Cheung and Augustine Lam, I became one of the judges this year.
There’s a good mix of entries from the region, but as a Hong Kong viewer, I think our Hong Kong friends can do better. Perhaps due to the size of the population, there aren’t that many documentary filmmakers in Hong Kong and the quality has room for improvement.
Out of this year’s entries, My Fancy High Heels, stands out in its concept and production. It traces the trail from a New York shoe designer, all the way to the shoe manufacturing process, down to the source of the shoes’ raw materials. Cop Shop reveals the absurdity of society, but unfortunately it becomes a bit one-dimensional by skimming the full picture. Our Home Beside the River is a moving and sympathetic portrayal of Taiwan aborigines trying to rebuild their home in Taipei and the director’s compassion for its subject comes through clearly. Hong Kong entry The Life and Times of Ho Chung Village is unique in its delivery but fails to transcend the usual nostalgic tone of heritage conservation. It’d be a much stronger film had the director drilled down into the causes of the changes of the village. Hopefully we’ll get to see the full version of this film in the future.
Leong Ka Tai