New stream of well-crafted Chinese documentaries wins applause at home and overseas
By Li Qing  ·  2020-11-10  ·   Source: NO.46 NOVEMBER 12, 2020
A still from an episode of The Firsts in Life featuring Shi Yingsuo, a 12-year-old student in a remote town in Yunnan Province, southwest China (COURTESY PHOTO)

When I close my eyes,

I see green wind.

Its touch turns the woods green,

gilds my calf gold,

kisses the white walls of the house,

dyes dad's corns yellow.

But I won't tell the secret why the wind changes color.

This is the first poem written by Shi Yingsuo, a 12-year-old in Yunnan Province, southwest China. Last year, Shi became a first grader at the Mangshui Middle School in a remote town in the province. The school has a compulsory poetry class. Like Shi, its students are mostly left-behind children—children of migrant workers who have been left home in the care of grandparents, other relatives or even on their own while their parents work elsewhere.

These children are more sensitive than others of the same age. Lacking parental presence, they tend to be introverts but in their poems, they can give free rein to their emotions, dreams and thoughts of their parents.

Shi's encounter with poetry was recorded in The Firsts in Life, a 12-episode documentary series produced by and SMG Documentary Center. The episode is titled Love, Sorrow and Dreams in Poems.

"I liked the story. It was the first time I saw a video about left-behind children from such a perspective. Their poems not only express their feelings about growing up but also take us into their world," a netizen said on entertainment reviewing platform Douban, where the documentary has been given 9.2 out of 10.

The 12 episodes are on 12 groups, including people with Alzheimer's, the differently abled, and migrant workers. Their experiences cover 12 firsts that resonate with almost everyone, related to birth, employment and farewell. One common element is the tenacity and optimism of the Chinese they show and pay tribute to.

Zhang Hao, executive producer of the series, told Beijing Review the team spent almost three years in preparation. After they decided on the 12 stories, they began to build connections with the protagonists, camping in the places where the latter lived. The left-behind children were the most challenging group. It took over a year to gain their trust.

The Firsts in Life, aired in January, has been viewed over 500 million times in China. The number indicates the public has accepted documentaries, a genre not as popular as films and serials.

In recent years, the domestic documentary industry has produced many well-crafted works with significant social influence. They have become a new highlight in the development of China's film and television industry.

Wunier works on a documentary on the ancient Silk Road in Qinghai Province, northwest China, on June 12, 2019 (COURTESY PHOTO)

A family album

Wunier, a documentary director, describes the genre as an audiovisual source of information: "They are easier to understand than books, so more people are willing to watch documentaries."

He attributed the progress of the industry to the diverse topics covered by documentaries. "We can tell stories about China's profound history, the 56 ethnic groups, various customs and traditions, and characteristics of different areas," he told Beijing Review.

His latest work is a documentary about the development of ice sports in Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region in north China. Its release was delayed due to the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) epidemic.

The epidemic also became an important topic of documentaries. For instance, COVID-19: Battling the Devil, produced by Bilibili, a video-sharing platform, and China Intercontinental Communication Center, is about the efforts by people from all walks of life to battle the virus, embodying the country's united response to the epidemic.

With this year being the deadline for eradicating absolute poverty, poverty alleviation is also another predominant theme.

"Documentaries are like the family album of a country," Chen Xiaoqing, creator of the hit food documentary series Flavorful Origins and A Bite of China, told Time magazine.

A new height

According to a report on the development of the Chinese documentary industry by the Documentary Center of Beijing Normal University, in 2019, the industry had an investment of 5.04 billion yuan ($710 million) as documentary production capacity in China reached a new height.

In recent years, the government's support and better connection with the markets have invigorated the Chinese documentary industry, Zhang said. "As the industry integrates into the market, more and more outstanding young talents with inspiration and passion are joining the industry. Their contributions have led to significant progress in the subjects and varieties of documentaries."

More creative forces are now involved in documentary direction and production, which once used to be dominated by the state and was dependent on television stations, he said. Internet platforms have played a significant role in this. Major Internet platforms are seeking to develop the domestic documentary industry and the media's attention to the industry has increased.

The report says new media platforms are reshaping China's documentary industry, ushering in a new era of vigorous development. There is a rapid growth of new media companies in the documentary market. More and more documentaries are broadcast on the Internet, even only on Internet media.

This progress is inseparable from the production companies' efforts, Li Xiaowei, chief production supervisor of The Firsts in Life, told Beijing Review. "They have dispelled our stereotype of them being involved only in producing documentaries. Today, they also undertake intellectual property research and development of new stories to build brands and attract more viewers."

Advanced technologies have also promoted the progress of domestic documentaries. Immersive, interactive and other new varieties have enriched traditional documentaries, she added.

Though Chinese documentary makers still need more experience in some production aspects, such as special effects, Zhang said an excellent documentary is not just about hi-tech. "It's not an assembly line product with a uniform standard," he said. "They are the fruits of unique and beautiful thoughts, the rich cultural heritage of a country and the passion of the documentary makers."

However, although the domestic documentaries are getting better and of higher quality, most cannot make as much money as films, TV dramas and variety shows do, Wunier said. It usually takes three to five years to finish a documentary. The production cycle restrains investment and the lack of investment makes the work more difficult for producers.

"There are many people who are passionate about creating an excellent documentary. How to help them achieve the balance between art and profit is a problem the industry needs to solve in the future," he said.

Speaking for China

Documentaries have become an important channel for the international community to understand Chinese society, Zhu Lexian, deputy director of documentary content management at Tencent Video, told Southern Metropolis Daily. Tencent is the producer of Flavorful Origins, the first documentary produced by a Chinese team for Netflix.

Chen wants to help the world better understand China and the Chinese through food. The series spotlighted the Chaoshan cuisine in the coastal province of Guangdong in south China, followed by the fresh, fragrant Yunnan Province spices in southwest China. The third season, set in Gansu Province in northwest China, will debut on Netflix soon.

The documentary has been broadcast in over 190 countries and regions on the platform with subtitles in 20 languages.

To create more documentaries that will taste success in the international market, their creators need to adhere to reality, Liu Changying, a producer with China Global Television Network, said in a forum during the Beijing Documentary Week in September. "Real people and their stories resonate with all people regardless of nationalities."

(Print Edition Title: The Art of Reality)

Copyedited by Sudeshna Sarkar

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