Towards A Thriving Film Culture

On the occasion of the streaming release of two landmark Chinese independent films – Wen Hai and Zeng Jinyan’s Outcry and Whisper and Hu Bo‘s An Elephant Sitting Still – the good folks at Ovid asked me to share some thoughts. 

If you watch only two Chinese films this year, watch these two. I stand in awe of both films. Taken together, they form as deep, complex and varied a portrait as possible of contemporary China. Neither film should exist. Yet, they do. Beautifully. Miraculously. Brazenly. The producer and writer of Outcry and Whisper survived years of house arrest. The director of An Elephant Sitting Still committed suicide before his film was released. These are films borne out of struggle, and into trauma, yet they found the resilience to challenge narrative form and technique, with the strength of spirit to tell urgent stories not yet told.

The release of these two films on OVID gives occasion to revisit thoughts I shared a year ago in this piece: Why I Had A Hard Time Watching American Factory. I wrote the piece to advocate for a culture where a multiplicity of points of view can thrive. Where audiences in the US and China can participate in a reality that allows them to watch both American Factory and Outcry and Whisper. I wrote the piece to advocate for a diversity of structures of distribution and exhibition, for a platform like OVID.

If not, I explained that corporate consolidation, authoritarian governments, and the capitulation of US business to these governments makes for a reality where films like Outcry and Whisper or An Elephant Sitting Still are being censored out in their own countries, while also locked out of global streaming platforms. It’s a reality where one point of view, acceptable to those that control distribution networks, is privileged above others. 

This leaves filmmakers and audiences to negotiate an increasingly monopolistic global film culture. How do we create space for multiplicity? One answer lies in solidarity. OVID, for example, is powered by 25 independent distributors working together, collectively, to share films and resources in order to create a rich destination for audiences. Another path is for filmmakers with leverage to open the door to filmmakers without. Ava Duvernay’s licensing deal with Netflix is an extraordinary example of this. Thanks to Array Releasing, I watched my favorite US fiction indie of last year, RESIDUE, on Netflix. 

While US movie theaters remain shuttered, China’s cinemas are open and its box office power continues to grow. Hollywood can get by without Chinese financing, but it needs access to China’s market. Bottom lines can no longer be justified without factoring in Chinese consumers. And that access is controlled by the Chinese government.

In the film industry, power is concentrated in the hands of those who control distribution. Outcry and Whisper and An Elephant Sitting Still found ways to exist, in an environment that did everything to deny their existence. These films cannot be seen in China, but they can be seen on OVID, an exhibition platform that stands in solidarity with those who resist and negotiate with power. 

—Karin Chien, Co-Founder dGenerate Films

Outcry and Whisper is released through the dGenerate Films collection of Icarus Films and An Elephant Sitting Still is released by KimStim. 

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