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The art of compromise to pass Chinese film censors

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New censorship laws in China have enforced stricter moral guidelines and nationalistic storytelling at the movies.

Some independent filmmakers are compromising and working with authorities to reach a much larger audience.

Li Yang is one of the stars of Chinese independent film.

He's pushed the boundaries and his films have been banned in China.

But his gritty and realist portrayal of the underbelly of China's rapid rise has earned Li a swag of international awards including a silver bear at the Berlin Film Festival and best feature at Tribeca Film Festival.

His breakthrough film Blind Mountain dealt with corruption and murder in China's coal industry — the biggest and most dangerous in the world.

It was shot on a cheap video camera, all hand-held long takes because of a limited budget.

His latest movie, Blind Way, has a bigger budget but is equally confronting.

A screenshot from a film shows a confrontation on the side of a dark road.

It explores child exploitation, kidnap and sexual abuse — topics still largely taboo in China.

"I want to tell people, through this movie, to pay attention to the fate of the weak people living at the bottom of the society," Li says.

"China has become too cold and uncaring. I want to say the bottom line of being a human being is you can't lose your conscience.

"This is what I want to pass on, because we have lost these things in China."

Film 'disappears' as censors get to work

Li made the decision to work with Chinese censors so his film would get a mainstream release next month.

It meant a year of recuts and rewrites.

"About 40 per cent of my film disappeared," he says.

"Unfortunately at the end of this movie I had to delete a one-and-a-half-minute scene, when the main character, the child, was crying for help after her protector was murdered in the street.

"People are indifferent, people are using mobiles to take pictures, no-one stepped forward to help, this is what I want to say."

A screenshot from a film shows a man holding a religious cross.

Li says cooperating with the censors has been a frustrating experience but believes it's a price he had to pay so he can reach a much larger Chinese audience.

Everyday in China, 22 new movie screens open and within two years China will be the world's biggest box office.

Not doing the cuts would have relegated Li's film to the arthouse markets in Europe and America.

"We [filmmakers] survive in a narrow gap, we are dancing with shackles, but we still want to dance, want to express ourselves," he says.

"In China, there is a special situation, the censors don't regard the movies as a complete artwork, they believe the movie has the propaganda function, an educational function."

Xi Jinping leads crackdown on arts and dissent

A screenshot from a film shows two children kneeling on the ground looking worried.

But prominent Chinese cultural commentators like Ye Kuangzheng say the situation will only get worse.

Since Xi Jinping came to power in 2012,there has been a systematic crackdown on the arts and dissent.

"Any movies which are against the current ideology are not going to be passed," Mr Ye says.

"And movies that may cause social instability will be limited.

"The space for China's movie makers to create will become very tiny."

To ensure control, China's film censorship committee has three stages.

The script first has to be approved before any film can go into production, then on-location authorities can direct, and lastly the censors have the final say in the edit.

"In the past four years, the freedom of speech is seriously shrinking," Ye says.

"If the political environment doesn't change then the freedom of speech in the movies will become less and less.

"It would damage China's movie reputation, in particular those idealist and ambitious moviemakers."

More creativity needed to deliver hidden messages

A screenshot from a film shows a man and child sitting.

It's something Li Yang feels acutely.

"As an artist, I want to fully express myself, not to be interfered by the political or money reasons," Li says.

"We can't fully express what we want to say, this is what I didn't want to see.

"People doing art works in China always try to find a balance. We have to widen the gap to have more freedoms."

Li says his next project is about boxing in China but is not sure where he will release it.

He believes Chinese independent filmmakers will have to become more creative to ensure their message can still be heard inside China, much like Iranian filmmakers who inject layers of hidden meaning into their films.

Original Article

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