With the annual International Film Festival Rotterdam (January 25th – February 5th, 2017) comes a plethora of independent Chinese directors whose films provide potent commentary on China’s contentious political and social landscapes. Wen Hai, the pen name of the Hunan-born Huang Wenhai, is the latest Chinese documentary filmmaker to present a work at Rotterdam. His film We, the Workers, exposes the exploitation of millions of Chinese laborers by thugs, bureaucrats, police, and government officials.
Huang has been living in “self-imposed exile” in Hong Kong since 2013, after years of living under the watchful eye of Chinese security officials. Huang became a target of government censors after the Venice premiere of his politically-charged 2008 film We (我们), in which he collaborated with and interviewed outspoken government critic, writer, human rights activist, and Nobel Peace Prize winner-turned political prisoner Liu Xiaobo.
In Hong Kong, Huang, along with a coterie of independent Chinese journalist-filmmakers, have found temporary relief from the tight grip grip of Chinese censors who maintain absolute control over all aspects of the film industry. A subculture of underground filmmaking has allowed directors like Huang to voice and share their views in relative obscurity from government authorities. The realities of economic struggle, human rights violations, and political dissent depicted by their films are diametric to the patina of civility and success espoused by the government.
However, now that Xi’s administration has proven its resolve to crack down on dissenting political voices (whether they manifest in think tanks, books, or films), it appears inevitable that independent filmmakers must begin to toe the Party line. Huang, along with many others who have sought freedom of speech and expression in Hong Kong, have stood and struggled valiantly to expose the harsher realities of life in China. Yet, despite their relative creative autonomy, they too should fear a fate worse than that of the missing booksellers’.