‘Little by little, the truth is being discovered’: the archive rescuing China’s forbidden films

<span>A still from the 2023 documentary Self Portrait-47 km 2020, directed by Zhang Mengqi.</span><span>Photograph: Courtesy of CIFA</span>
A still from the 2023 documentary Self Portrait-47 km 2020, directed by Zhang Mengqi.Photograph: Courtesy of CIFA

On the wall of an unassuming second- floor room in Newcastle University sits a map, Blu-Tacked, unframed. At first glance it looks like any other map of China. But on closer inspection, the cities labelled on the map are not just the major urban centres. They are the places that have hosted important film festivals over the years, the details of which are annotated in colour-coded text.

Covering the final years of the so-called golden era of the scene, the map shows dozens of film festivals that used to be active across China. There was the China Independent Film Festival (Ciff) in Nanjing, the Beijing Independent Film Festival (Biff), and the Yunnan Multiculture Visual Festival (Yunfest), among others. In 2024, China’s film community is a shadow of its former self. All these festivals – and more than a dozen others – have been forced to close in the years after Xi Jinping, China’s ultra-repressive leader, took office in 2012.

Visitors to the archive can access a world of knowledge about China that is nearly impossible to discover within its borders

And so it is that an archive containing nearly 800 indie films and oral interviews with more than 100 film-makers came to be preserved around 5,000 miles away from Beijing. Newcastle’s Chinese Independent Film Archive (Cifa), which opened in September 2023, is the world’s largest publicly accessible archive of independent Chinese films. It is also “the first of its kind outside China that is housed at a university and is accessible”, says Karin Chien, a film producer and the co-founder of dGenerate Films, a distributor of Chinese indie cinema.

The archive is the brainchild of Sabrina Qiong Yu, a film and Chinese studies professor at Newcastle University. The idea came about after she organised a 10th anniversary event for Ciff in Newcastle in 2014. Ciff had started in 2003, and was one of the major independent film festivals to flourish in the years when cheap, digital equipment started to become widely available, empowering indie film-makers in a period of relative openness in the country.

China’s mainstream media has always been subject to strict censorship, including the distribution of films in official cinemas. (In order to be released in China, films must obtain a longbiao, or “dragon seal” from the government-controlled China Film Administration.) A few months after Yu held the Ciff event in Newcastle, its close namesake Biff was forced to close down for good, and its whole archive was seized by the authorities. With no distribution, no festivals and no archive, the indie film movement looked at risk of fading into the past.

After winning a £1m grant from the Arts and Humanities Research Council,Yu made several trips to China during the Covid-19 pandemic to collect the materials and interview film-makers about their work. The centre launched in September last year with a two-week programme of events that included film screenings, panel discussions and a film poster exhibition. About 50 film-makers, archivists and curators from around the world, including China, travelled to Newcastle to participate. But publicity was minimal, because of the fear of attracting unwanted attention from the Chinese authorities. “It is a pity because as an archive we do want to encourage people’s use of it and the launch is the best time to do it,” says Yu.

The archive itself is located in Newcastle University’s Old Library Building. On the wall next to a large window overlooking a courtyard, there is a large montage of photographs. Each picture is from one of the dozens of oral histories that Yu recorded with key figures from China’s indie film movement. The film-makers are captured talking over tea and cigarettes in their apartments across China. One of the people pictured is Ai Xiaoming, a renowned feminist documentarian who has made harrowing films about some of darkest moments in modern Chinese history, such as the Jiabiangou labour camps in which 2,500 inmates starved to death. As a result of her film-making, she is banned from leaving the country.

The film archive itself is stored digitally, and is accessed by two monitors that sit opposite each other on the edge of the small room. Visitors can access a world of knowledge about China that is nearly impossible to discover within its borders. There are films about periods of history that the government would rather people forget, such as the The Epic of the Central Plains, by Ai Xiaoming and Hu Jie, a harrowing documentary about impoverished villagers infected with Aids after selling their blood plasma to unsanitary, but often government-backed, blood banks.

But there are also plenty of films in the archive that do not have a political bent, such as Therapy, a kooky 2019 feature about a depressed film director who decides to stage a love affair with a friend in his apartment as a means of boosting his mood. Film-makers are often “just interested in portraying reality through their own independent lens”, rather than specifically challenging the government, says Yu. Nevertheless, the Chinese Communist party views any kinds of narrative expression with suspicion. Xi has specifically warned of the dangers of “historical nihilism” in undermining the party’s grip on power. And the government is intolerant of any groups – whether it is feminists, students, religious followers or film-makers – who organise themselves outside the auspices of the party.

That means that the grassroots community itself is the topic of many of the documentaries in the archive. Official repression of film-making and festivals has spawned a genre of films that deal with the difficulty of film-making itself. The most notable of these is Wang Wo’s The Filmless Festival. Released in 2015, it documents the preparation and forced cancellation of Biff the year before, a moment described as “the darkest day” in the history of Chinese independent film. A similar theme permeates Our Story, which documents the “guerrilla warfare” approach taken by the organisers of the Beijing queer film festival in 2011.

In recent years small, private screenings have taken the place of official festivals, and many film-makers share their work online. But even that has become more difficult. In 2023, Zhang Mengqi, a Beijing-based film-maker whose Self-Portrait series about returning to her father’s village is stored at Cifa, helped to organise an online film festival about mothers, but the platform that was used to host the videos soon removed films that mentioned sensitive topics. On 14 December, the Shanghai culture and tourism bureau issued a notice saying that there were “many cases” of documentaries being shown in cinemas and art galleries “without the approval of the film authorities”, warning that they would “intensify the crackdown” on rulebreakers.

“There are a lot of unseen topics in China,” says Li Yifan, co-director of Before the Flood, a documentary (viewable at Cifa) about the displacement of villagers during the building of the Three Gorges Dam. “The question of what is real, and what is truth, is a very complicated question. Little by little, the truth is discovered in the film-making process.”

Many of the films in the archive, particularly those made by younger film-makers, focus on their personal lives rather than on society. Some in the industry see that as an unfortunate act of self-censorship, as film-makers internalise the government’s red lines about what stories can and cannot be told.

But Zhang, the director of the Self-Portrait film series, rejects the idea that personal films “cannot represent society”. She is a founding member of the Folk Memory Project, a film initiative that collects oral histories of the famine that ravaged China between 1958 and 1961. “When we are talking about Chinese society, some things are silent. When you put the camera on yourself to involve people in this topic, you can be a key to break that silence.”

Since its opening, Cifa has held an exhibition of indie film posters designed by film-maker Wang Wo and has published bilingual articles about different themes in Chinese film. Yu hopes to host more in-person events, such as panel discussions and film screenings, too. Its significance is already being felt by those interested in learning more about this under-covered corner of cinema. As Yu and I talk in the Cifa space over green tea, a Chinese student arrives; he has travelled from another university, where he is studying film, to watch the works of Hu Jie in Cifa’s collection.

His love of film came from his time as an undergraduate in China, where he was part of the university film society. In April, the group organised a secret screening of The Memo, a 2023 documentary about the extreme Covid-19 lockdown in Shanghai. The film was awarded the best documentary short film at the prestigious Golden Horse Awards in Taiwan. But given its subject matter, it cannot be shown legally in China, and its director’s name has been kept under wraps.

“It was very controversial but it was really worth it,” says the student. “The pandemic generation in university has been through many lockdowns, many depressing times … It might take some time for artists to reflect the trauma,” he says. “The most important thing with the screening is to provide a platform that makes that conversation possible”.

Additional research by Chi Hui Lin.