Thursday, December 9, 2010

dGenerate's Karin Chien in Beijing

dGenerate Films President Karin Chien.

In my last post I mentioned the October visit to Beijing of dGenerate Films President Karin Chien, who was in town meeting many of the directors dGenerate works with, as well as seeking out new talent. I had the pleasure of spending some time with Karin when she was here and was impressed by her quiet eagerness to listen and absorb the views and experiences of people on the ground, from local filmmakers to observers like myself.

Karin's time in Beijing kicked off with a talk at Movie Art China, an exhibition of “China-related” movie posters (unrelated to dGenerate) that took place in the stark surrounds of the recently completed Sanlitun SOHO complex in east Beijing. The exhibition was unfortunately rather underwhelming, but Karin's talk on October 24 provided an informative introduction to dGenerate's activities and the Chinese independent filmmaking scene.

Discussing the founding of dGenerate in 2008, Karin explained that her aim was to bring Chinese perspectives on the People's Republic to US audiences. This sounds like an obvious objective, but if the situation in the US is anything like Australia, local audiences are rarely exposed to Chinese views, despite constant talk of the nation's rise. The language barrier is part of the problem, but the generally dire state of distribution in the US doesn't help. According to Karin, ten major distributors shut up shop in 2008 in the wake of the global financial meltdown, representing around 30 per cent of the total US industry. Ironically this has led to many smaller-scale US filmmakers adopting the DIY methods common in China, including private DVD sales and free downloads.

Karin also made the telling point that US viewers, and even the US press, sometimes have difficulty recognising what actually constitutes a “Chinese” film. Works such as Up the Yangtze and Last Train Home are frequently referred to as “Chinese documentaries,” despite the fact that both are actually Canadian films about China (although as far as I understand, Last Train Home's director Fan Lixin is at least Chinese).

 I haven't seen Last Train Home, but I agree with Karin's assertion that Up the Yangtze offers an outsiders view of China tailored to a Western audience. That's not to say the film is not of value – it's simply to recognise that it looks at China through a foreigner's eyes, with overseas viewers in mind. The result is very different to the perspectives offered in films made by mainland Chinese directors. To put it bluntly, for locals – and even for foreigners based in the PRC – these Western-made films offer a rather obvious and superficial take on life in China.

Conversely, there's no doubt that Chinese-made films represent a challenge for many Western viewers, not least because they often take a certain amount of local knowledge for granted. Karin noted that while American interest in China is at an all time high, many Americans are simply not ready to engage with the radically different approaches to storytelling and confronting content that frequently characterise independent Chinese cinema.

Dgenerate has found that films based on strong characters appeal most to US audiences, while film festival pedigree makes the films much easier to sell. Karin also ruefully admitted the necessity of frequently utilising the “banned in China” tag to attract attention in the US, noting that the wide grey zone Chinese independent filmmakers operate in is not well understood overseas.

Within China itself, Karin said that the key challenge for dGenerate in building relationships with local filmmakers has been a lack of local knowledge when it comes to outside markets. Given the complete lack of a market for these films in China, this ignorance isn't surprising. Almost none of the films in dGenerate's catalogue have been passed by the authorities for theatrical distribution in China, so showing them in commercial spaces is impossible. The documentaries in particular are made in the knowledge they cannot be screened in cinemas or aired on local television. The filmmakers produce these works because they are passionate about their craft and the stories they wish to tell – financial gain, in general, is simply not part of the equation.

As a result there are few real producers working in the independent sector, and little understanding of overseas distribution. This creates problems for a company like dGenerate when, for example, small American festivals approach Chinese filmmakers and offer to show their work. Directors sometimes agree without realising that small-scale screenings will automatically disqualify their work from many major festivals, which often require US or North American premieres.

The flip side of this lack of awareness is the independent sector's freedom from commercial considerations, and Karin noted that independent Chinese directors ironically operate with a greater degree of freedom than their US counterparts, who are subject to massive market-driven pressures. “Independent” in the US has simply become a marketing term, whereas in China it is a designation with real meaning. Some Chinese directors move between the official and unofficial sectors, but many are committed for artistic and/or political reasons to consistently producing work outside the state-sanctioned industry and its censorship apparatus. Karin stressed the need for more producers and financing structures to support these filmmakers.

While these points were valid, I wondered what effects an increased emphasis on financing and overseas markets might have on China's independent sector. Arguably local feature film production has suffered from a degree of insularity and navel gazing in recent years, so increased exposure may encourage more directors to think outside the box. On the other hand, a DIY ethic and the absence of commercialism has been the documentary sector's key strength, and I would hate to see that inspiring sense of freedom constricted by market-driven considerations. The trick, I suppose, is to create structures that better facilitate the probing, critical works that represent the best of Chinese  independent cinema, without generating new strictures.

The willingness of Karin Chien and the rest of the dGenerate team to engage with local conditions, rather than impose an outside way of doing things, is encouraging and bodes well for future cooperation between the company and China's independent sector. I witnessed first hand the time Karin puts into building relationships on the ground here in China, and her belief in the work taking place outside official channels. In an age when art often feels utterly beholden to capital, it was refreshing to meet someone so quietly driven by a passion for work inspired neither by money nor a desire for fame.


  1. Hi Dan, interesting blog post as always.

    Just wondering why you thought the Movie Art China exhibition was so underwhelming? I never got to see the exhibition myself but I would have thought the concept a good one.


    A fellow film lover.

  2. Hi Fellow Film Lover,

    Yeah, I agree the concept for Movie Art China seemed like a good one, but in practice it felt more like a market than an exhibition.

    Firstly the curatorial premise boiled down to a completely random collection of posters with the word "China" (or "Peking" or "Shanghai") written on them. The bulk of the exhibition comprised advertisements for very obscure Hollywood films from the 1930s and 40s (admittedly some of which were pretty funny) with no real connection to China, alongside posters for films like Godard's La Chinoise - a film about French Maoists.

    There were very few real early Chinese movie posters - most of the actual Chinese works were from the Hong Kong cinema of the 1980s & 90s, or mainland Fifth Generation stuff from the same period.

    The second problem was the actual execution of the exhibition - the basement level of Sanlitun SOHO where it was staged felt only half finished, and the posters were mostly sitting on the floor, propped against the walls of empty shop spaces.

    As a result the whole thing felt a bit amateurish - especially after the hype it was given by the organisers in the weeks leading up to the opening.

  3. Thanks for the reply Dan.

    Yeah I imagined the exhibition would require a great deal of narration in order to maintain some level of coherence. Or, for example, a chronological layout which allowed a visitor to walk through multiple generations of Chinese cinema.

    Interesting concept nonetheless.

    Best of luck in 2011 and keep the insightful posts coming.

  4. Thanks for your support and interest. Will definitely be writing more in 2011.