Sinophone Civic Life and the Chinese Documentary Festival

Since its inception in 2008, CDF has pursued two primary objectives: increasing the appeal of documentaries for a Hong Kong audience, and cultivating young practitioners.38 Its distinctive characteristics are a Chinese-language focus and a proactive approach to documentary culture. Festival preparation takes place in the same office as the nonprofit documentary distributor Visible Record, as both were founded by Hong Kong documentarians Tammy Cheung and Augustine Lam. Cheung founded the Chinese International Film Festival of Montreal in 1986 while studying for her MFA degree in filmmaking at Concordia University, serving as the event’s director for some time. This festival brought China’s Fifth Generation films to a diasporic Chinese audience in Canada. Upon her return to Hong Kong, Cheung began making documentaries of public events using an observational approach influenced by Frederick Wiseman. Her first four observational documentaries (July, Election, Secondary School, and Rice) are about politics, education, and welfare in the city. As Chris Berry has suggested, the director did not intend her films to initiate social movements or a revolution.39 Nevertheless, her work aimed to capture the authentic, spontaneous behavior of her subjects rather than reiterate established views of election campaigns, the secondary school experience, or charitable activities for the elderly. In the same spirit, CDF’s screenings and workshops help young practitioners and students to identify and observe situations where the public and personal spheres intersect.40 The festival has two award categories: Shorts and Features. In 2014, it incorporated a Hong Kong Documentary section into the program. A year later, a two-film Mockumentary section was also added.

Given its identity as a festival built on Chinese-language documentaries by ethnic Chinese directors, CDF connects across ideological barriers. Calling the event “the world’s first annual film festival to focus on PanChinese documentaries,”41 Cheung’s aim is to build a platform for ethnic Chinese documentarians, regardless of their level of experience. I therefore propose that CDF is where Sinophone civic culture and documentary culture come together in Hong Kong. The use of “Sinophone” in this discussion recognizes the symbolic significance of speech and accent in language cultures, and it deemphasizes the evocation of nationality and ethnicity in the word “Chinese.” In documentary films using expository and observational modes, agency and meaning are imparted not just through image, but also through sound-voiceover narration, interviews, and spontaneous speech (hence the phrase “talking heads”).42 As a conceptual trope in film studies, language cultures are richly connotative; Hamid Naficy’s idea of “accented cinema,” for example, encompasses an alternative mode of artisan or collective production based round exilic or migrant makers and audiences, and films with a bilingual or multilingual soundtrack.43 Similarly, Shu-Mei Shih’s concepts, “Sinophone visuality” and “Sinophone studies,” conceive of place-based language cultures and multilingualism unbounded by ethnicity and nationalism.44 Even though CDF uses “Chinese” in its name and makes no mention of “Sinophone” in its materials, this term describes the festival well. Its screenings are not guided by nationalist sentiment; rather, the films are selected to motivate dialogue on issues of public concern, generating a Sinophone-oriented civic culture characterized by multilingualism and nonmainstream documentary modes.

On the question of language cultures alone, CDF has built bilingual and multilingual competencies into the festival experience. While the documentaries are subtitled in Chinese and English, Mandarin/Putonghua is also added to Cantonese and English in the award ceremonies. The documentary soundtracks, however, feature a variety of additional spoken languages and accents. The 2015 festival program alone, for example, lists the dialects of Taiwan (Hokkien), Shanxi province, and Gansu province, along with the Uighur, Tagalog, and Vietnamese languages, as spoken by subjects appearing in the selected documentaries.45 One can call these documentaries “Sinophone” precisely to emphasize that the issues they present are entangled with the language cultures of different places, conditions, and histories. The civic awareness that they cultivate is not about, or limited to, a Han Chinese ethnicity. Instead, the audience gets to view places, situations, and histories that are shaped by the forces of empire and modernity rather than by Chineseness.

To illustrate the orientation of viewers to Sinophone civic culture, I have collated a table of the award-winning CDF documentaries (see Table 8.2). Titles in this table are organized according to subject, to show content that overlaps with hksmff screenings. These subjects include: elections and politics, labor rights and lives, resistance to developmentalism, ecology and environment, gender and sexuality, and local lives. This list shows that although neither Tammy Cheung nor CDF have particular advocacy objectives, the documentaries themselves address key issues in civic culture that are pertinent to people and places in the twenty-first century. These award categories have mostly featured entries from mainland China and Taiwan, with fewer from Hong Kong and elsewhere. Nevertheless, to the festival audience, a documentary’s country of origin is less important than how it exposes viewers to an in-depth consideration of trauma and memory, war-induced separation, domestic abuse, coming out, or buried pasts.

Attentiveness to the presentation of selected films is also a mark of CDF. The latter distinguishes the event from the Hong Kong International Film Festival (HKIFF), and is particularly noticeable when the same documentary film is screened at both events. For example, the documentary Oh, the San Xia received its world premiere at the 37th HKIFF in March 2013, and was screened at CDF in September of the same year. The

Table 8.2 Awareness and activism demonstrated in the awarded titles and special screening of the Chinese Documentary Festival1


Local (HK)

Translocal (mainland China)

Translocal (Taiwan)

Against capitalist globalization

My Fancy Ilujh Fleets (Ho Chao-Ti, 2010) (S) (CH)

Sock’ll Roll (Ho Chao-Ti, 2013 ) (F) (2nd RU)

Politics and election

Days After n Coming (Lo Chun Yip, 2012) (F)'(SS)

Election (Tammy Cheung, 2008) (F) (SS) The District Councillor (Chan Wai-Yi, 2008) (S)(SS)

The Transition Road (Zhou Hao, 2010) (F) (1st RU)

The Cold Winter (Zheng Kuo, 2011) (F) (1st RU)

Petition (Zhao Liang, 2009) (F) (SS)

Labor’s lives and rights Medical care

Brave Father (Li Junhu, 2007) (S) (CH)

Care and Love (Ai Xiaoming, 2007) (F) (1st RU)

Doctor Mah Clinic (Cong Feng, 2007) (F) (CH)

Emergency Room China (Zhou Hao, 2013) (F) (CH)

Money and Honey (Lee Ching-Hui, 2011) (F) (1st RU)

An Exposure of Affected Hospital (Chu Hsien-Jer, 2007) (S) (1st RU) Spring (Huang Shiu-Yi, 2008) (S) (2nd RU)

Resistance against enforced development

Bing’ai (Feng Yan, 2007, China) (F) (CH)

Where Should I Go? (Li Junhu, 2010) (F) (2nd RU)

Life with Happiness (Lin Wan-yu and Hsu Ya-ting 2006) (S) (CH)



Heavy Metal (Jin Huaqing, 2009, China) (S) (1st RU)

Whisper of Minqin (Wang Wenming, 2013, China) (F) (CH)

The Warriors of Oiugang (Ruby Yang, 2009) (S) (2nd RU)

Lake-cleaning People (Huang Mei-Wen, 2007) (S) (2nd RU)

The Poisoned Sky (Chi Wen-Chang, 2009)(F)(SS)

Black (Ke Chin-Yuan, 2013) (S) (1st RU)


Local (HK)

Translocal (mainland China)

Translocal (Taiwan)


KJ(Cheung King-wai, 2008) (F) (SS)

Dream on the Wall (Huang Mingming and Gao Fuli, 2010) (S) (CH)

My Little NaughPies (Jiang Jinlin, 2007) (S) (1st RU)

School on the Road (Kuo Shiao-Yun, 2013) (F) (CH)

If There Is a Reason to Study (Adler Yang, 2013) (F) (2nd RU)

Gender and sexuality

Different Path, Same Way (Yung Chi Man, 2012)(S)(SS)

Wheat Harvest (Xu Tong, 2008, China) (F) (2nd RU)

Dm Here (Choi Ian-Sin, 2012, Macau) (S) (Special Mention) MeiMei (Gao Tian, 2005) (F) (SS)

Testimony of historical trauma

Qarangghu Tagh: The Villages Afar (D) (Saipulla Mutallip, 2014) (F)

Though I Am Gone (Hu Jie, 2006, China) (F) (CH)

Mother Wang Peiying (Hu Jie, 2010) (Б)(SS)

Buried (Wang Libo, 2009) (F) (CH) The Juvenile Laborers- Under- Indoctrination (Xie Yihui, 2013) (F) (SS)

Luo Village: Ken Dingqi and Me (Fuo Bing, 2011)

The Book of Gelagu (Hu Jie, 2013) (F) (2nd RU)

a A selection based on published CDF program content

Key: S Short (less than 60 minutes), FFeature, CH Champion, 1st RU 1st Runner-up, 2nd RU 2nd Runner-up, SS Special Selection, D Award of Merit of Hong Kong Documentary Award

HKIFF program presented this documentary with a brief synopsis, two film stills, and credits. The CDF program brochure presented the same title with a short biography of director Wang Libo, his Director’s Note, a list of Wang’s previous awards and festival screenings, and two pages of background information on the Three Gorges Dam project in China.46 CDF’s presentation does not follow standard practice; instead, it anticipates classroom and other pedagogical uses. While HKIFF premiered the film, the title was unlikely to stand out from the other documentaries screened in a packed festival schedule. In contrast, by situating the same film in relation to both festival culture and civic culture, CDF framed the screening as an act of social pedagogy, while also helping potential viewers to make a well-informed viewing choice, or even do follow-up reading. It is no surprise that such attentiveness has brought about an increase in the number of entries to the festival’s award categories, as well as to its Hong Kong Documentary section.

CDF also holds festival seminars and workshops to educate viewers about documentary form and history. The seminars Documentary Forms and Styles (2008), Documentary Film in Hong Kong (2009), The Styles and Development of Taiwan Documentaries (2010), and The State of Documentaries in Mainland China (2011) provided each year’s attendees with basic information on documentaries. The seminars Creative Freedom and Documentaries in Mainland China (2011), Hong Kong Documentary Film Development (2012), The Prospects for Documentaries in Mainland China (2013), and The Development of Taiwanese Documentaries (2014) provided annual updates on documentary filmmaking in the region. These were complemented by seminars with social themes such as The Next Generation: Becoming and Education (2009), Economic Development and Environmental Protection (2011), Relationships with Foreign Domestic Helpers (2012), and Documentaries and Social Movements (2014). The directors of each year’s award-winning documentaries were funded by the Lee Hysan Foundation to come to Hong Kong and speak at the seminars. These arrangements, in addition to holding major festival events and screenings at the Hong Kong Arts Centre, Hong Kong Space Museum, The Grand Cinema, and Aco Books (an art and culture outreach space), ensure CDF a high degree of recognition among a young and educated audience used to watching literary (known to most as wenyi) films.

The annual Visible Record Master Class is where CDF identifies aspiring practitioners. Initially, in 2012, the festival included a Selection of Student Films from the Academy of Performing Arts; in 2013, it included entries from university students in Hong Kong and from Shenzhen University across the border. Also in 2013, Visible Record received sponsorship to run a Young Talent Training Camp that became a documentary master class co-taught by directors from Taiwan and Hong Kong. The island of Cheung Chau, accessible from Central District by ferry, was chosen as the first site for this camp. Filmmaking was taught through structured workshops and daily practice, with students completing documentary shorts depicting local lives on the well-populated island. An absence of automobile traffic, low-rise residences, cement roads for pedestrians, and a relaxed island lifestyle made Cheung Chau an ideal site for the camp. Many participants developed stories rooted in, and with the consent of, the local community, avoiding tourist attractions such as the island’s annual Bun Festival. The final shorts usually lasted between 6 and 30 minutes; they were collated into a compilation film called Cheung Chau Diary that showed at both the 2013 and 2014 festival. The same shorts were also screened at an island location for Cheung Chau residents. In 2015, the village of Tai O on Lantau Island was selected as the training site. This original arrangement, also supported by the Lee Hysan Foundation, has helped develop “young talent” that has gone on to gain recognition at overseas film festivals.47

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