Democracy-Wary China Does 'American Idol'

A new documentary called Supergirls! shows how a Chinese TV-singing contest is more than a chance for aspiring singers to get famous — it's also brought one of the biggest spasms of voting and campaigning for votes modern China's ever seen.

Independent filmmaker and Supergirls! director Jian Yi says the object of his project, the Super Girl Singing Contest, started in 2004 in the provinces, and was so popular that by 2005, it went national. "Four hundred million people watched," Jian Yi says. Moreover, he says, it was one of the largest examples of democratic voting, ever, for modern China.

"Never before had we seen people rallying for votes in the street," Jian Yi says. "Never before did we feel like we could make a difference . . . that your vote counts."

Supergirls! is one of the rare films that actually show modern life in China, says Karin Chien, President of dGenerate Films, an American-based distributor of independent Chinese films such as Jian Yi's newest work.

That role — of showing an authentic mainland China — when it is fulfilled at all for Western audiences, is often left up to the country's independent filmmakers. But isn't film-making under tough censorship laws difficult? Yes, and no, Chien and Jian Yi say.

"The act of making a film has to be approved at each step," Chien says, confirming what one would expect for directors in China. "If it's a sensitive film, it's difficult to get that approval."

But there's a catch, Jian Yi says. "The government thinks people don't watch documentaries anyway . . . They don't monitor as much."

Chien says there's a whole underground film-making industry in China that's totally under the radar. She says films often don't make it out of the country — not because of censorship — but for lack of interest. Except for festival programmers, visiting scholars and cultural institutions, she says that most Western markets — especially the United States — are to blame for ignoring work from mainland China. She says many U.S. gatekeepers point to accepted work from Hong Kong, Japan and South Korea when they turn down Chinese work.

"It's very new, there's very little infrastructure," Chien says. "There's maybe a mental obstacle?"

But she says audiences are really missing out. "When you watch a martial arts movie, what do you learn about modern China?"

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