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#06 Comparing Chinese and Western documentaries

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?

当我们谈论纪录片的时候,很多人会想到在节日和电影院放映的故事片。但实际上,大多数纪录片制作人都是以电视纪录片为生的。中国的亿万眼球能给他们带来财富和名誉吗?

Featuring:

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:               

从这期访谈中,我们总结出三个主要观点:

1) Documentary storytelling is not the same everywhere.

纪录片的叙事方式在不同的地方并不一样。

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.

 中国的纪录片通常有很多的旁白,通常被称为“上帝之声”,然后再由漂亮的画面来修饰它。在采访中,片中角色的行为通常由旁白来讲述,同时现场的录音被减小到最低的程度。同样的现象也出现在日本的记录片中。但是西方国家及某些亚洲国家,比如韩国或者新加坡,他们倾向与表现冲突,这看起来更像一部电影。这种分歧可能来自文化差异,也因为对于制片人来说,这样更容易控制出现在影片中的话语。

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

如果你想在中国拍一部电视纪录片,那就去找一些大机构。

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.

做纪录片是不会发财的。

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).

 我们常常把纪录片制片人看作是白衣骑士,为了公众而报道困难的问题或提出有趣的话题。但是,即使你的电影在著名的节日放映,或通过电视播放,以此来谋生也是相当困难的。制作人、导演和编剧必须另找工作(企业宣传片、教学、在大制作中当技术员),以便在做纪录片的同时维持生活的。

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.

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Aladin Farré

With two degrees in movie production and Chinese history, Aladin felt it was only natural to go work as a nonfiction content producer in China. He is now a documentary project manager at LIC China (大陆桥), the largest importer of documentaries into China, where he hopes to uncover the secrets of successful international co-production. Follow him on Twitter @aladin_f.