#06 Comparing Chinese and Western documentaries


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When prodded to think about documentaries at all, most people imagine features films that are shown in festivals and cinemas. What this picture misses is the fact that the majority of documentary filmmakers make their living producing documentaries for television. Does this mean that documentarians in China are all but guaranteed to make money in the country, with its billion-strong audience?



Steven Seidenberg: Script writer and consultant | 编剧、顾问

Zhang Nan: Director, PANGO Pictures | 张楠:导演,盘古影业

And, as usual, your host, Aladin Farré.

Aladin’s LinkedIn | Aladin’s Twitter

Three main takeaways from this week’s episode:          


1) Documentary storytelling is not the same everywhere.


Chinese documentaries often feature strong narration with impressive visuals, often called the “voice of God” style. Generally, in this style, the narrator will explain the actions of the characters of a film, with interviews and sound bites reduced to a minimum. This approach to documentaries gives filmmakers more control over the message of the film. While Japanese documentaries are frequently shot in this style, it is markedly less popular in other Asian nations, including South Korea and Singapore, where documentarians prefer to directly show conflict and the end product resembles a fiction film. This preference is also shared in most Western nations, suggesting that cultural preferences may be at work.


2) If you want to make TV documentaries in China, you’ve got to call on the big guns.


In China, finding a broadcaster to release your documentary is easy; between CCTV 9, CCTV 10, CGTN, and the plethora of local channels and internet platforms, distribution is hardly a problem. However, many of these platforms will merely post the film and won’t invest in distribution. Funding must come from other sources, such as a local government that wants to advertise the location in which the film is shot, an institution promoting a certain message, a company with a PR angle, or a donor who just wants to support a given project.

有了CCTV 9、CCTV 10、CGTN、许多地方频道和互联网平台,找一个广播公司来播放你的纪录片是相当容易的。但有些平台只是提供一个展示你电影的机会,而不会投资。为了给你的节目制作人投资,你必须找到其他类型的资金。可能是地方政府想宣传拍摄纪录片的地方,想宣传某一主题的机构,愿意参与公关活动的大公司,或者只是想帮助某个项目的慈善家。

3) Filming documentaries is not a path to riches.


Often we see documentary filmmakers as white knights fighting on behalf of the public by reporting on difficult or marginalized issues. However, even if your film is screened at a famous festival or aired on a popular television network, it is still difficult to make a living. Producers, directors, and script writers of documentaries often have to supplement their incomes by doing other work (e.g., corporate videos, teaching, or doing technical jobs in bigger productions).


Recommended watching:

1. Last Train Home (归途列车), a Chinese feature film by Fan Lixin (範立欣), released in 2009.

2. A Bite of China (舌尖上的中国), a Chinese documentary television series on the history of food, eating, and cooking, broadcasted by CCTV 1.

3. The Great Shokunin (了不起的匠人), a Chinese mini-documentary series that tells the stories of craftspeople across Asia. All seasons are available on the internet platform Youku, but you can see the first season on YouTube (with English subtitles) here.