the dGenerate ecology: a talk with Kevin Lee

dGenerate Films is by far the most influential company distributing contemporary Chinese independent films. Kevin Lee, Vice President of Programming and Education of dGenerate Films, talked about the company’s history, scale and target audience; the filmmakers’ strengths and exposures in the U.S., and his take on some Chinese independent films in IFFR 2013.

How many films has dGenerate already distributed?

We’ve been around since 2008: that’s five years now. At the time, we have a little over 40 movies. We started off with 10 films and just wanted to build our catalogue aggressively. Now we are more selective, just really trying to pick the best films of each year that we discover. So maybe five movies a year.

Do you actually go to a lot of film festivals as a programmer?

Not that many for dGenerate, because there are not that many film festivals that you can discover Chinese independent films. The best place, of course, is in China: so go to Beijing or go to CIFF in Nanjing. But then another problem is: it’s not easy for those festivals to operate. Last year was really really bad.

Rotterdam is nice because it’s one of the best film festivals, outside China, for Chinese independent films. They usually have maybe around five to ten films, sometimes even more than that. This year, I’d say half of the Chinese films I haven’t seen before. And also, they bring several Chinese filmmakers here so it’s a good chance to meet them. The environment is very different from being inside China. So people could be more relaxed, outspoken and freer. And also they appreciate it when they see someone who is Chinese. (Laughs) So you can have one more special connection. I’ve had really good experience with Chinese directors here.

And then, as far as other festivals, Vancouver is really good. I’ve never been in Vancouver but, of course, Shelly Kraicer is the programmer of Chinese films there and he always does an excellent job. Festivals like Venice and Locarno, they do a good job programming Chinese films but really the festivals in China are the best place. It’s just a pity that it’s become difficult for them to operate freely, without any problems.

How about we start with the first ten films you chose?

I can tell you the story about how we began the operations. The idea really came from Karin Chien, who is the founder of the company. And it emerged from our background working in film in America, particularly in independent films. We both had experience with independent films. Karin was primarily a film producer, and me, more of a film critic. And I think both of us were also familiar with Chinese cinema and I think we were a little frustrated with the independent films in America because they didn’t feel that independent. They felt more like commercial movies with unusual or off-beat stories, but they usually still had a famous actor and they get distributed by Hollywood. Without that kind of support system, it’s hard to make or distribute your film.

So we encountered these Chinese independent films, firstly, through the 6th generation movies by Jia Zhangke, Wang Xiaoshuai. We were very impressed with those films; but then, a few years later, we started watching those films by younger directors or more experimental filmmakers. So the first one we both encountered was Ou Ning, a curator himself, he’s also a filmmaker and artist; he presented his works in 2008 in New York, his films Mei Shi Jie and San Yuan Li. Karin and I saw these films around the same time and we were both quite taken by them, just the sense of do-it-yourself and the sense of giving the camera to ordinary people and inviting them to film experiences – it was taking that independent filmmaking spirit and really trying to put it into useful practice. That, in a way, you don’t see as much in America.

So we were interested in these films and we asked them “how these films are distributed; is it easy for people to access them and watch them?” And he said: No, not really. They are mostly distributed in some film festivals, and also art galleries and museums because his background is in the art world. So that got us thinking: Are there other films that are like this, too? He said: Yeah, sure, because this explosion of filmmaking because of DV technology makes it easy for people to make movies now so there are a lot of quite good films and there’s been a lot of production but there’s no system and place to distribute them, both in and outside China. So we became more interested in that and Karin really thought: ”These films are what independent movies mean to me and they match the definition of what independent films should really be about, so I want to support these movies.”

To do that, she went on a trip to China in 2008, stayed there for a month, and she didn’t really know that many people at the time there. She only knew, I think, Shelly – I introduced her to Shelly, but then Shelly introduced her to some other people that he knew and those other people introduced her to more people. In just one month, she met maybe 50 people and they were all interested in her plan: we wanted these movies to have some exposure outside China so anything they do to help us would be great. So they kept giving her DVDs of people’s works, she brought back about 50 DVDs when she came back from her first trip to China.

After traveling for a month, she was exhausted and had to take care of things back in America so she asked: “Kevin, do you want to look at these DVDs?” I said: “Of course, I’m a film critic. I’m a cinephile. I haven’t had the opportunity to see these movies before.” It was a special opportunity for me to watch these movies. It was great. So of course, I watched all of them.

And from there, we had a conversation, and talked about which films would be the best ones to start with. So we picked Ou Ning’s films of course, because he was very supportive and really helped introduce us to other filmmakers. And also, Jian Yi, who’s working with Wu Wenguang making documentaries, also with a democratic sense of a purpose, empower ordinary people to use filmmaking and video to document their lives and capture social issues. So this film he made is called Super, Girls! (Chao Ji Nv sheng) about those girls who wanted to become pop stars on a Chinese American Idol program.

It was an equal mix of fiction and documentary. Ying Liang, we distributed The Other Half. We met him as well and were very impressed with his work. I think we also started with Liu Jiayin’s Oxhide, but maybe that came later. Cui Zi’en. He was very supportive: Queer China and Enter the Clowns. So we actually had some quite good filmmakers to start with and I think that really helped to establish a good reputation and identity that we work with the best Chinese independent filmmakers and the audience we market to, is primarily the educational  community because these films are most valuable educational tools for students and the general public to learn about China, so for them to feel that these films are of real good quality and also very illuminating as far as showing some insight into Chinese society. And that really helps to build a reputation for what we stand for.

Maybe some libraries and museums?

That was our primary audience. And then from there, we start to expand more into home video and private purchasing and rental.

How are the sales?

Well, I don’t have those numbers. I will say that it has really gone up a lot, ever since our partnership with Icarus Films. We started to partner with Icarus Films late last year and since then, our sales have really gone up a lot, because they have a much larger database, a much larger network. We had to build our network all by ourselves, starting from zero in just four years. So basically we were looking at every major university and college in America and looking up their library contacts: Asian Studies contacts, Chinese Studies contacts, Film Department contacts.

Just building up all those contacts, and sending emails to them. I was going to academic conferences to try to meet film scholars and let them know about our company, so it was really a lot of ground work, just to make people be more aware of us. And it’s funny because we built up several thousand names of database but then when we partner with Icarus, they have tens of thousands of names and they’ve been around for twenty years. So obviously, their networks are much more established. Since we began to partner with them, it really broadened the exposure of the films and the filmmakers. So it was definitely good. A good decision.

Did you get any feedback from the audience?

Oh, sure. Feedback we got has always been surprising. Their perspectives. And what these films mean. Invariably, these are larger conversations about issues in China, because it’s not just about watching movies: it’s creating a whole context of culture, history, society and politics: all these things that really inform and really enrich the understanding of these movies and why these movies are interesting and good. So you can’t just watch it like a Hollywood movie. You are already a part of American society and culture and you become familiarize with it so you don’t even have to think about what the movie means.

I think this is more instructive and it’s more productive, because you actually have to challenge someone, not just to think about the movie, but to think beyond the movie, think about a world that is beyond their normal experience where the movie comes from. It really gets them out of their box, being in a specific culture. So people who watch these kind movies get really excited to have this window to think that there is other space.

So what interesting films you have seen this time?

Sure. I’m really excited about films like Four Way to Die in My Hometown, Memories Look at Me, and also the film made by Hao Jie (The Love Songs of Tiedan). These are excellent movies. So I’ll go back and recommend them, not just to dGenerate, but also to some film festivals and other screenings. Even if we don’t distribute these movies, I still want them to get the exposure so I’ll try to get them to schools, to film festivals in the United States who might be interested in showing them.

Have you seen Emperor Visits the Hell?

Li Luo is a very talented filmmaker. He really takes full advantage of the resources that he has, which are not that many. He has limited budgets so he’s not going to try to make a costume drama based on ancient Chinese history, but to take that story and try to apply it to a contemporary setting and make it relate to contemporary social issues is very clever, very resourceful. And it actually means more.

Would you like to make a SWOT analysis of the Chinese indie filmmakers, say, their strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats?

(Laughs) Well, I think we did a SWOT analysis at one point. So I mean I can’t SWOT analysis Chinese films at this point, but I will say that strengths and opportunities are tremendous. I mean I am not that interested in film as a business per se, but more interested in art, in seeing things.

You know, I want to challenge the status quo. Even though the status quo’s changing because of the increasing influence of Chinese cinema; at the same time, Chinese cinema’s being influenced by Hollywood and in many ways: it’s becoming very banal, very boring and commercialized film. I feel it’s more important to promote people who really have original ways of making movies and looking at the world. I’d say independent films are always necessary and always in danger because they never make enough money as those main-stream films but they always have a more sense of purpose, energy, vitality and originality so they’d always be necessary. There will always be someone who needs to invent something new and they can’t do that in the dominant system. And there’ll always be a place for them even if they have to create it for themselves.

So I just hope people are aware of that and are aware of filmmakers like that. Keep an open eye for them because the system doesn’t promote them; the system is just interested in promoting itself. You have to look outside the system. You can’t just listen to what mainstream media tell you what you should be watching. You’ll never find original stuff that way, especially in China.

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