Non-fiction fare makes waves at theaters

Documentaries are making major waves in Asian cinema as local filmmakers choose to take advantage of growing demand in the U.S. and elsewhere for high quality non-fiction fare from Asia to screen in theaters and on TV.

The growth in the market for docs is driven by increased demand for Asian product, especially about China and India, but also by greater interest in the continent for quality docs about Asian issues.

Like Europe and America, theaters are becoming a new network for doc distribution and exposure. It is already the case in Hong Kong and Taiwan. And it could become a new market in China, Korea, Japan and Southeast Asia with the digital screens,” says Pierre-Yves Lochon, CEO of Sinapses Asia and co-organizer of Asian Side of the Doc.

This French fest has been largely confined to Europe until now but this year an Asian version ran at Filmart in Hong Kong, a potent sign of Asia’s growing importance as a docu center.

Lochon points out how within Asia, strong differences exist between the various countries.

We have to understand, to share, these differences. Mainly, we can say that in Asia more and more opportunities are opened for independent producers. And it opens new opportunities for co-production, co-financing and long term cooperation,” said Lochon.

One of the driving factors behind the rise of the docu market has been the birth of an independent television production industry and the creation of regional, national fully dedicated documentary channels in Malaysia, China, India and Thailand.

China is playing a central role, just as it does in other areas of filmmaking these days, and despite strong censorship. The profile of Asian documentaries was boosted by Ruby Yang’s AIDS orphan documentary short “The Blood of Yingzhou District,” which won an Oscar in 2007.

This year’s Hong Kong Film Festival screened a five-hour version of “Petition” by Zhao Liang, which won the Gold prize in the humanitarian documentary competition. Zhao’s harrowing take on the lives of those cast aside by China’s economic miracle caused a stir in Cannes last year and brought attention to bear on a remarkable new talent from China.

Petition” is too critical to be shown in China but it is at the crest of a wave of new documentaries from the growing China market which deal with dramatic change in that country.

Much of this happens outside the mainstream film biz in China. Zhao describes the biz as “abnormal,” saying the result is that “it becomes a tool of the ruling class tool to fool the public.”

Asian producers still have a lot to learn about how to produce, finance, distribute and market their documentary content, but the strong turnout at the ASD at Filmart showed that they are keen to learn from their U.S. and European peers, and the future for docs in Asia looks bright.

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