Chinese Documentary: Capturing an Era
Since 2012, following the immense popularity of the food documentary A Bite of China across the country, more and more domestic Chinese documentaries have been released.
In April 2018, the Documentary Research Center of Beijing Normal University released the Research Report on China’s Documentary Development 2018 (hereinafter referred to as Report), which stated that the development of the Chinese documentary industry is accelerating and has entered an “era of accelerated growth.”
The Report provided a comprehensive summary of the development of Chinese documentaries in 2017.
It mentioned a Chinese documentary that received a theatrical release last year: Twenty Two directed by Guo Ke, who was born in the 1980s. It is a lengthy documentary recounting the stories of former “comfort women” still living in China. Instead of piling up historical archives, it objectively recorded the current living conditions of the remaining survivors. Its 170-million-yuan box office earnings broke the record for a Chinese documentary film.
Production of historical and cultural documentaries is maturing, as evidenced by Season 3 of Around China—Homesickness, which depicts lives in traditional Chinese villages, and Season 2 of The Tales of Chinese Medicine, which focuses on traditional Chinese medicine. The quantity of national themed documentaries has also risen, with standouts such as Ariel China, using big budgets and advanced production techniques to capture grand spectacles.
Another prime example is Born in China, a Sino-U.S. co-production on rare wild animals. American film critic Owen Gleiberman noted that the documentary movie’s “most progressive effect is to unveil the majestic diversity of Chinese landscapes.” Moreover, Born in China beat every other documentary in box office earnings in the United States in 2017 with US$13.87 million.
Statistics show that the annual revenue of Chinese documentaries in 2017 exceeded 6 billion yuan, an increase of 15 percent over the previous year.
The Report determined that from the perspective of the sources of creation and the channels of broadcast, Chinese documentaries have formed a basic pattern of broadcast mainly on specialized documentary channels and satellite TV channels, with online platforms and cinema chains as supplements. Many satellite TV documentaries, such as The Tales of Chinese Medicine, have gone into syndication and become strong brands.
China has seen great progress in its new media documentaries. Chinese video websites are vying to cultivate the market, and they have invested in the development of original “home-made” documentaries. Documentary short videos are also emerging.
With the advent of the new media era, the Chinese documentary industry is embracing attractive opportunities for development.
Zhang Tongdao, an expert who worked on the Report and director of Beijing Normal University’s Documentary Research Center, believes that not only should documentaries capture a solid market share, but more importantly, they should create a Chinese documentary culture brand.
“Last year, the global documentary industry witnessed an unprecedented prosperity, evidenced by the emergence of a number of masterpieces,” said Zhang. “However, only a handful of phenomenal works ever made an impact big enough to become symbolic of the times. At a new historical precipice, Chinese documentary workers should seize the opportunity to consolidate their expertise and help more outstanding Chinese documentaries go global and win international recognition.”
China Needs Documentaries to Record the Era
——Interview with Zhang Tongdao, director of the Documentary Research Center of Beijing Normal University
China Pictorial (CP): As a documentary film director and researcher, how do you define a good documentary?
Zhang: A good documentary, first of all, must provide a unique humanistic discovery. Second, it needs to explore new expressive ways to form unfamiliar expressions of aesthetics and create a visual feast for the audience. Third, it must be well-made to give viewers a thrilling viewing experience.
CP: In recent years, what breakthroughs have Chinese documentaries made in content?
Zhang: The content of Chinese documentary films has expanded considerably in recent years.
First, cultural themes have expanded significantly, both in breadth and depth. We have seen many new and interesting expressions of traditional Chinese culture. For example, the production designs of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) series such as Herbal China, The Tales of Chinese Medicine and Young TCM Practitioners are very market-oriented and meet the demands of their target demographic. Another example is the program Follow the Trace of the Tang-Dynasty Poetry (2017) by CCTV, which found new ways to express the legacy of ancient Chinese poetry.
Second, documentaries are cutting deeper into their subjects’ lives and emotions. For example, The Mirror (2017) explores emotional issues such as parent-child relationships and how Chinese families function in the current era. Life Matters (2016) takes a deep look at the meaning of life.
Moreover, breakthroughs have been made on historical subjects in works such as The Turning Points of History (2016). Instead of simply telling stories of Chinese history, the documentary TV series interprets it from various perspectives and recreates scenes to illuminate the inherent motivating factors of Chinese historical changes.
It’s worth mentioning that the character configuration of heroes and leaders, who are often flatly depicted in traditional Chinese documentaries as heroic figures, has undergone tremendous changes. The best example might be The Chinese Mayor (2015) by Zhou Hao, which paints a complex portrait of a local politician.
CP: How does China create a cultural brand for documentaries?
Zhang: Cultural brands need stable quality, aesthetic style and strong values.
The Chinese documentary brand is prominent in the A Bite of China series, but works that reinforce it are few and the subject matter is weak compared to productions from Britain and the United States.
We cannot just rely on documentary filmmakers to create a Chinese documentary culture brand. The industry must integrate with finance and marketing to create a cultural brand with real market value and social influence.
CP: The Chinese government advocates the idea of “telling Chinese stories in an international way.” How can Chinese documentaries go global and help enhance China’s international influence?
Zhang: To build Chinese documentaries into a bridge for cross-cultural communication, the fundamental requirement is cultivating people with cross-cultural thinking and sensibilities.
International communication doesn’t mean much without market performance. Unfortunately, China has not yet produced anything very naturally attractive to foreign markets.
China still has relatively limited talent with cross-cultural sensibilities, not to mention a lack of minds with the ability, vision and awareness to tell stories properly.
CP: What is the value of documentaries for China today?
Zhang: Today, China needs documentaries to do what they do: document the era. The documentary not only uses images to truly record current cultural, educational and other social conditions, but it also deeply reflects society through an artist’s observation, thinking and artistic refinement. A good documentary captures a clear picture that viewers want to see.