Documentaries have the potential to reveal truth and transform our
understanding of the controversial. So why not use them as insight into
one of the most complex societies of the 21st century? China holds a
whirlwind of rich history and continues to face a wide range of
contemporary issues – whether economical, environmental or social. The
following films provide candid depictions of both rural and city-life in
modern China, discussing the notion of national identity in the face of
Under the Dome
Under the Dome
(2015) focuses on air pollution – everyone's
worst enemy. After its online release in 2015, this self-funded,
independently produced documentary drew more than 300 million clicks in a
couple of weeks, before it was taken down by the authorities
by former CCTV investigative reporter Chai Jing, the documentary was
inspired by her concerns for her daughter's safety living under China's
heavily polluted skies. Talking TED-style to a studio audience, Chai
reveals not only the main driving forces behind these pollution levels –
namely the overproduction of steel – but also how the absence of
environmental protection legislation, the failure to implement existing
rules and the general public’s lack of awareness in regard to reducing
their carbon footprint all contributed to the heavily polluted skies.
Needless to say, it provides an eye-opening perspective on the state of
natural resources in a country of 1.3 billion people.
Born in China
For children and animal lovers that want to know more about the rare wildlife of this country, Born in China
(2016) journeys through the life of three animal families – the snow
leopard, the monkey, and the panda – charting the struggle for survival
in the wilderness. Filmed by four of the world's top wildlife
cinematographers, the documentary captures raw moments of intimacy and
conflict that remind us of the dangerous repercussions of deforestation
on animal life. With stunning visuals and heartfelt narration, the
documentary offers a macro to micro understanding of the relationships
between animals, their habitat and environmental conservation.
Last Train Home
Every Chinese New Year, migrant workers flood trains stations to
make their way home for the holiday. For them, this holiday isn’t a time
of relaxation, but the only chance they have to see their families that
they left behind in order to seek work in booming coastal cities.
Last Train Home (2009)
follows the Zhangs, who left their remote village in Sichuan province
to work in Guangzhou. Seventeen years later, they still make three
annual journeys back home to see their teenage children. Through an
intimate portrayal of the hardships encountered by this separated
family, Last Train Home provides a window into the experience of migrant workers in China.
Plastic China (2016)
follows Yi Jie's busy days in a plastic-sorting town in China, taking
care of siblings, consolidating plastic and searching for small
‘treasures’ in the waste.
Through Yi Jie's
story, we are exposed to the unsettling impacts of globalisation on
China's labourers. The film sheds light on deteriorating health,
relationships and even family, offering a shocking insight into the
exploitation of labour and its place in the vicious cycles of our global
The Transition Period
The Transition Period (2009) offers an in-depth
and frank look at politics in China. It follows the work of the
Communist Party during the last three months of Guo Yongchang's time as
the Party Chief of Gushi in Henan County.
documentary reveals how Guo deals with various government policies,
manipulates farmers and workers, exploits regulations and more. It may
just be a glimpse of the grand web of Chinese politics, but it's
certainly an eye-opening one.
Please Vote For Me
Set in a small Chinese city, Please Vote For Me (2007)
follows the lives of a few elementary school children as they campaign
for the position of class monitor. What begins as simple debates and
public speeches spirals into an overbearing involvement of parents,
bribery and deceit, thus shedding light on a sensitive topic.
film questions the place of democracy in modern Chinese society and all
the components that hinder it. One Child Policy, the education system,
social values; Please Vote For Me gives us a lesson on their extensive influences.
The Chinese education system is vastly different from that of the West. This is emphatically clear in Senior Year (2005),
which uncovers the rigorous academic lifestyle of 78 high school
students in China. We come to see the strenuous and extensive study
habits of seniors in preparation for their final exam, the infamous gaokao,
and gain perspective on the traditional Chinese notion of success,
which revolves around hard work and academia. With insightful interviews
and accurate subtitles, Senior Year provides shares profound truths about China's education system, as well as the emotional toll on those caught within it.
documents a real-life tragedy that
occurred in 1994, Xinjiang Province, whereby a fire broke out in a
concert hall filled with hundreds of local students and state officials.
The children were told to let the officials evacuate first
, and as a result, almost 300 children lost their lives.
The story of Karamay is heavily censored in the media
thus this documentary provided victims’ families with a way to break
the silence for the first time in nearly two decades. Watch as Karamay
unfolds the experiences of those involved with the devastating event, setting forward a wider comment on government policies.
Falling from the Sky
Suining, a once ordinary Tier-2 city, experienced absolute
catastrophe ever since Xichang Satellite Launching Center was built
nearby. Yet, no one seems to know about it.
Falling from the Sky (2009)
exposes the atrocities endured by the people of Suining: falling
debris, resulting in dilapidated infrastructure and disturbing quality
of life. Even more, whilst China experienced national glory when
launching the Shenzhou 7 spaceship, the people of Suining feared foreign
objects falling from the sky. The documentary highlights the impact of
national successes on invisible local communities.
To Live Is Better Than To Die
Shedding light on a taboo of Chinese culture, To Live is Better Than To Die (2003)
tells us what we never knew about the AIDS in China. The documentary,
which won a Peabody Award, is set in Wenlou village, Henan province,
where 60 percent of residents are HIV-positive due to an unsafe blood
donation incident. It focuses on the Ma family, all of whom have HIV
(except for the eldest daughter). Following the tumultuous journey of
the Ma family, we can see just how unsettling the health crisis can be
in rural areas of China. It's disturbing and shocking but will leave you
thinking for hours.
A Bite of China: Celebrating the Chinese New Year
A full-length feature coming from one of China's top TV series, A Bite of China: Celebrating the Chinese New Year not
only introduces local food culture, but also illustrates how families
across the country celebrate the most important holiday of the year.
This film will fill you with joy, appreciation and (perhaps above all)
The Chinese Mayor
The Chinese Mayor (2015) is about the cultural conflict and
politics that followed the contentious plan of transforming the
pollution-ridden Datong city into a tourist destination. The mayor, Geng
Yanbo, devised a revitalisation project that would require the
relocation of 500,000 homes.
controversial agenda, we can see Geng’s ambitions and struggles as a
B-tier politician, presenting the deep divide between local Chinese
politics and the party elite in their leap of faith towards modernism.
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