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When Chinese indie documentarian Rikun Zhu set about chronicling the struggles of a young Maoist true believer artist, who dreams of a new life in New York, he knew he was taking on a puzzling contradiction, he says.

“It interested me a lot,” the filmmaker says, “because he always says he is a communist and loves China and Mao Zedong.”

As Zhu’s subject frets and plans, his efforts take him through long nights of lecturing and teasing his girlfriend and eventually to Beijing and beyond, all in the confused fits and starts only a youthful, restless painter in a system that censors unorthodox work could manage.

The doc, “No Desire to Hide,” screening in the Opus Bonum main competition at the Ji.hlava International Documentary Film Festival, is itself an unorthodox work that would be all but impossible to see in a cinema in China, says Zhu, who also runs the DOChina indie film fest.

The idea for “No Desire to Hide” landed on his lap when his subject, whose ego often gets the better of him, asked the filmmaker for help.

“I have known Wu Haohao for a long time, when he was still a college student,” says Zhu. “He asked me to help him get famous as I was a film curator at that time and he started to make video.”

Zhu selected one or two of Haohao’s films for his festival, he says, “Then in 2017 he told me he wanted to immigrate to the U.S. and asked me for some information about it as I am living partly in New York.”

He began chronicling his life, often in surprising intimacy, along with his subject’s friends and parents in the summer of 2017, and continued till the outbreak of the COVID pandemic, funding the project himself as best he could.

Throughout the process, the inherent contradiction in Haohao’s ambitions drove events to some unexpected places, the director says.

“Obviously it is a very controversial act that a Chinese nationalist wants to move to the capitalism of the U.S.A. I filmed him because I want to know why he made such a decision and all the forces behind him. He is the newer generation to me and I try to understand them.”

Haohao and his cohorts share attitudes toward personal relationships that, despite Maoist beliefs, are hardly traditional.

“Some of them have a more open mind about something like sexual relationships and family,” Zhu says. “On the other hand, some things haven’t changed, like their political views and attitudes. It is a big change when they can try a new lifestyle or even try to live in another country.”

The resulting tension is one of the elements Zhu set out to capture on camera.

“There is contradiction between living in the Chinese tradition and longing for freedom. It is difficult for someone to find the right balance between them. The tradition in China is very patriarchal and the conflict is inevitable when it comes to relationships.”

To be sure, Zhu knows the hazards of documenting stories that lie outside officially approved narratives.

He founded DOChina in 2003 in Beijing “but it was forbidden in about 2015,” he says. “Most films on sensitive topics in China cannot be shown in public. Most of my films were not shown in public in China. I think my works represent the status of independent films in China.”

At first, he says, “the festival didn’t call for submissions but tried to find the films in other ways. An open call could cause trouble if the government paid attention to it.”

The fest later found ways to publicize events discreetly but still found few Chinese independent films to feature. “More and more came out after 2005,” Zhu says.

“We had more choice then and organized special programs and retrospectives. It was an important platform for filmmakers and the discussion and debates really helped filmmakers to do a better job.”

Because such work still has little chance of finding audiences at home, he says, support from abroad goes a long way.

“Even getting information about them is not possible,” Zhu adds. “International film festivals like Ji.hlava are important for Chinese independent films. An international audience will make sense for these films and it encourages filmmakers to continue their job because there is someone who cares about it.”

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“No Desire to Hide” Courtesy of Rikun Zhu