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Microfilms May Be Small, But They’re Having A Big Impact

My home city of Nottingham recently hosted its first International Microfilm Festival, and through my day job, I was involved with one of the winning shorts from the documentary category. To be honest, before the festival, I hadn’t really heard of microfilm, so I was definitely curious to find out more. In this article, I'll explore what microfilm is, and what makes

A Simple Life

My home city of Nottingham recently hosted its first International Microfilm Festival, and through my day job, I was involved with one of the winning shorts from the documentary category. To be honest, before the festival, I hadn’t really heard of microfilm, so I was definitely curious to find out more. In this article, I’ll explore what microfilm is, and what makes them different to short films. In part 2, I’ll explore some of the microfilms I watched during the festival!

Giving China a voice

Microfilms originated in China, as short, low-budget videos made by amateur filmmakers. Crucially, they were made solely for watching online, usually on your mobile phone, and promoted via social media. It’s this that makes them different to short films. As Youku, China’s equivalent of YouTube and the country’s leading internet television site says, microfilm is a ‘web-native storytelling format that emerged alongside online new media platforms’.

Given China’s strict film censorship, it makes perfect sense that microfilm sprung up in the People’s Republic, as a way for people to enjoy more artistic and cultural freedom.

Award winning film and microfilm director, Ann Hui: source: easternkicks.com

Award winning Chinese film and microfilm director, Ann Hui: source: easternkicks.com

Freedom of entertainment

Sometimes, this means tackling controversial subjects, something that’s often tricky to do through mainstream film in China, but equally, microfilms are simply about entertainment. Through researching this article, I’ve realised that this is an important point in itself, as entertainment produced by mainstream film and television studios in China often has to reflect the state’s agenda. For example, by encouraging ‘moral’ behaviour.

Microfilms give China’s internet generation the chance to consume entertainment made to appeal to them. And that’s a really key point about microfilms. They’re published directly for audiences by filmmakers, through China’s video sites, so, to a large extent, they bypass the influence of the state.

A sign of the times

Another reason why microfilms are short is because they’re designed to help people fill fragments of time, while commuting to work for example. This is another aspect that’s culturally significant to China, and, of course, many other countries around the world. It ties into the way we consume culture these days, not just as a leisure activity, but online, on the go, in short bursts, at work, on the bus, sharing it with our friends and potentially millions of others.

If microfilmmakers have more to say, they can simply create micro web serials like China’s Hip Hop Office Quartet, a sitcom about four friends working in an office. Either way, the best microfilms tell a story.

Old Boys

China’s microfilm craze took off in 2010, when a 40 minute amateur video called Old Boys got over 80 million views. The film told the story of two men struggling to realise their dreams in a rapidly changing China, and it set the scene for microfilm as a form of self-expression.

The film’s director, Xiao Yang, is quoted as saying that the internet has given filmmakers a way of showing their work to audiences directly, without having to get approval from government agencies and officials first, underlining the value of microfilm in countries with strict artistic and cultural controls.

Microfilm today

So what’s happened to microfilm since Old Boys? Well, for a start, it’s gone global as the UK’s Nottingham International Microfilm Festival shows. When the festival put a call out for microfilms, it received nearly 2,000 submissions from over 90 countries. In China, microfilms are now big business, with video sites like Youku investing in microfilms to produce their own original content.

Merging new and traditional

The film credited with starting the genre, Old Boys, has also gotten bigger, after being made into a feature-length film called Old Boys: The Way of the Dragon in 2014, with investment from Youku.

Old Boys: The Way of the Dragon (2014) - source: Beijing Ruyi Xinxin Film Investment, Le Vision Pictures, Youku Original

Old Boys: The Way of the Dragon (2014) – source: Beijing Ruyi Xinxin Film Investment, Le Vision Pictures, Youku Original

Microfilm is influencing China’s traditional film sector, with many professional production studios investing in them. It’s hardly surprising, when microfilms attract and reach such huge audiences. In turn, that means microfilm is also giving up-and-coming filmmakers the chance to catch the eye of production studios, as well as reaching audiences directly.

Pros and cons

The rise of microfilm in China seems to be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, some commentators feel the ‘grassroots’ art form is being watered down as it becomes big business, and in turn, offers increased rewards to filmmakers. Sponsorship and advertising provides finance to make films, but with the vast numbers of microfilms being produced, competition for investment is fierce, leading many filmmakers to cater for a mass audience.

That isn’t necessarily a bad thing in itself of course, but I can see why some people feel that things like product placement, or gratuitous elements with no real artistic relevance, are a world away from the early days of microfilms as a form of self-expression. Those gratuitous elements are also making it easier for the authorities to justify tightening up the control over microfilms, on ‘moral’ grounds.

It’s great that microfilm is making it easier for filmmakers to access finance and professional production studios, but I wonder if that also takes the format away from its low-budget ‘homemade’ roots?

On the other hand, microfilms are still giving both amateur and professional filmmakers a way to push artistic and cultural boundaries in a country with strict film censorship. The government may have stepped up its control over microfilm, requiring video sites to censor microfilms before publishing them since 2012, and filmmakers to use their real names (or officially approved production companies) since 2014, but in reality, it’s not easy to police the internet, so publishing online still offers filmmakers more freedom than traditional film distribution channels.

My Way

For example, a short film called My Way, exploring transgenderism, reached the whole of China via Youku. It was shown at the Hong Kong International Film Festival in 2012, but Hong Kong still has more relaxed artistic and press freedom compared to the rest of the People’s Republic.

My Way (2012) – source: Youku.com

As a result of being published online, the film has had millions of views (it had two million views in its first week), triggered debate and raised awareness of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) issues throughout China.

It was the sympathetic treatment of the film’s transgender central character that made the impact, underlining the power of stories to inspire social change, and I think that’s what is truly important about microfilms – their ability to give people a voice and reach audiences that may not be reached otherwise.

A new way of doing things

There are lots of reasons why people don’t have a voice, or why audiences can’t be reached through traditional means, it’s not just about strict censorship or regulation. So I can see microfilms could make a real impact around the world, not just in countries like China.

Interestingly, sidestepping the censors doesn’t seem to be the only reason why China’s filmmakers are choosing to make microfilms. Ann Hui, My Way’s director and a well-established, award-winning, professional filmmaker, said showing the film online freed her from the burden of having to sell it to a distributor and worrying about the turn out at the box office, which meant she could be more sincere about her subject. That’s interesting, as it’s equally relevant to filmmakers in other countries.

Working together

It’s also interesting to see the link between microfilm and traditional cinema. My Way was commissioned by the Hong Kong International Film Festival and produced by Youku, as part of Beautiful 2012, a collection of four microfilms by award-winning Asian directors, exploring ‘what is beautiful’. Plus, of course, it was shown at both the festival and published online.

Beautiful 2012

Beautiful 2012 (2012) – source: Youku.com

The microfilms I saw in Nottingham were shown at the cinema too, underlining the fact that microfilms aren’t about replacing traditional film, more about creating new opportunities for filmmakers and audiences.

Microfilms as ‘advertising’

Microfilms haven’t just become big business for internet companies. They’re also being used by big business itself, as brands move away from traditional advertising and media, towards content marketing, online and through social media. Content marketing is about producing content that’s genuinely interesting and relevant to a specific audience, engaging rather than interrupting them, so it’s easy to see how microfilm lends itself to this trend.

In conclusion

As I’ve tried to cover in this article, microfilm is making waves, not just in China, but increasingly around the world too. It’s giving amateur and professional filmmakers the chance to have a voice, largely freeing them from many of the constraints associated with traditional filmmaking, whether that’s censorship and regulation or the need to be ‘commercially’ successful and make money at the box office, as Ann Hui, director of My Way, found.

It’s also fuelled the rise of original online content too, through internet companies like Youku, and prompted professional production companies to invest in a new digital genre, opening fresh doors for filmmakers to get their work published, and a way for aspiring filmmakers to get their foot in the door. Interestingly, it’s bringing traditional cinema and ‘analogue’ ways of consuming culture, such as visiting museums and exhibitions, together with the digital world, as Youku’s collaboration with the Hong Kong International Film Festival shows.

Plus, of course, it’s become big business for big business, with brands embracing microfilm in their quest for eye-catching, engaging content marketing, which in turn, opens up more doors for filmmakers.

Can microfilm stay true to its roots?

As I’ve mentioned, I hope microfilm’s increasing popularity, especially as a commercial tool, doesn’t water down its power in terms of giving anyone, professional or amateur, a way to tell their story and reach out to audiences, especially an audience they may not be able to reach otherwise.

It would be a shame for example, if big-budget, professionally produced microfilms pushed out the ones with an amazing story to tell, made by an amateur filmmaker on a mobile phone. There’s room for both, so hopefully, that won’t happen. After all, the internet is a big place and as sites like Facebook and Twitter show, social media is still a tool for social change, as well as a marketing medium.

There’s no reason why microfilm can’t continue to push cultural and artistic boundaries, as well as technological and commercial ones, especially as the digital world continues to evolve and finds new ways to interact with the ‘analogue’ world. They say necessity is the mother of invention and the birth of microfilm in China seems to reflect that, as filmmakers found a new way to reach audiences and stay true to the stories they wanted to tell. I hope it never loses that sense of meritocracy, originality and artisanship.

What’s next?

In part 2 of this article, I’m hopefully going to show how diverse microfilms can be, in terms of the subjects they tackle, the way they’re made and the people who make them.

Have you seen any microfilms? Does the idea inspire you to get out with your mobile phone or video camera and make your own mini movie?

(top image: A Simple Life by Ann Hui – source: Youku.com)

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Opinions expressed in our articles are those of the authors and not of the Film Inquiry magazine.

I'm a copywriter with a passion for film and screenwriting. I love most film genres but especially thrillers, science fiction, movies based on classic literature and films that can't be pigeon-holed.

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