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Light and Salt—The two-year journey of iDOCS
by Coraline Zou(Executive Director of iDOCS)
Why did we even start doing iDOCS? We often ask ourselves this question. We have been lucky enough to watch some outstanding international documentaries – heartwarming documentaries that make us realize there are whole different worlds other than the one we are familiar with. It has nothing to do with power or materialistic pursuit. Instead, it is about life, faith, and love. In hopes of bringing this world closer to our ordinary country fellows, we took the first steps on the tough journey of iDOCS at the beginning of 2009.
IDOCS is a sharing platform. Its purpose is to expand our experiences with life and love from cliques to the public. The first year’s preparation was particularly hard. It was not a minor issue to obtain permissions, funding and many other things in China for a public art event. The first opportunity came from Tianya Club ( at the end of August 2009. A journalist Mr. Li Guosheng interviewed Cherelle(Founder of iDOCS)  and wrote an extensive article titled We Have No Access to Many Spiritual Treasures in the World. This article helped people understand what we are doing. And God never fails: we received the long-waited permission from the government in November.
At the early preparation stage of iDOCS in 2009, we received donations from several personal friends. Mr. Xu Xiaoping (director of New Oriental Education & Technology Group) donated RMB100, 000, which made it possible for us to continue developing this project. Ms. Tan Zewei has made donations to iDOCS for two years in a row. Mr. Wang Ren of Shanghai Documentary Channel kindly donated his bonus worth RMB10, 000 in early December 2009. With the aforementioned help and participation of more than 100 volunteers over the past two years, the 2009 Beijing International Documentary Forum was able to celebrate its success at the Beijing Film Academy, and accomplished what had been regarded by many as impossible.
The success of the first iDOCS in 2009 was hard earned notwithstanding the “utterly impossible” judgments and numerous vexed obstacles. In 2010, iDOCS took place rather smoothly, but there were still twists and turns. It was almost cancelled at the last minute because of certain small problems. Fortunately, it was eventually held as scheduled and was even given more praise than the first one. Our hard work of an entire year did not go in vain.
Even today, China still has not developed a sound market for documentaries. A true documentary industry does not yet exist in China: There are no government, public or private funding dedicated to documentaries; real professional producers and production systems have not been established in this country; network television, the sole broadcasting channel of documentaries, belongs to the state. Thus, production and broadcast are integrated, purchase is prohibited, and broadcast content is censored.
Back to the beginning stage of the journey, to organize a documentary film festival in such an environment, by the Channel Zero, we were warned that it is impossible. First of all, Channel Zero is a private company, which is not eligible for official approval of holding international public events. Secondly, “documentary” is a sensitive word in the eyes of our government, and there has always been controls over such events. Thirdly, without government grants and foundation support, without the slightest possibility of commercial sponsorship, how could we obtain the enormous money needed to fund this event? Last but not the least, the entire team of Channel Zero at that time consisted of only five or six people. Did we have the capability to manage such a big festival?  
Luckily, at the end of February 2009, we made a breakthrough in our grant application to the Jan Vrijman Fund of IDFA (International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam). We jumped for joy, but not for long. Where would the rest of the money come from? We were still deeply worried. A week later, Mr. Xu Xiaoping donated the RMB100, 000 to us, which significantly boosted our confidence. Prior to iDOCS, I had been organizing the Documentary Film Saloon and Documentary Producer Workshop at the Channel Zero for 5 years. These first-hand experiences also gave me confidence in planning the iDOCS. I always had faith that this was not a “mission impossible”. (Nevertheless, it turned out we seriously underestimated the budget and our ambition to do an excellent job.)
To obtain the official permission from the government was the hardest part in this journey, which was the 10 months from March to November in 2009. At the very beginning, many friends did not understand why we were bothered to apply for a government approval. The reason is simple: only legal and lawful organizations can last long in China. Otherwise, it will just be a flash in the pan. Although we were fully prepared for the termination of this iDOCS endeavour at anytime, we never stopped building a solid foundation for it. Many incidences afterwards have proved that we had made a wise decision.
Nonetheless, there was no short cut. We explained to relatives and friends what we intended to achieve and how difficult the situation was, urging them to keep their eyes open to all kinds of resources and opportunities. After our application was declined by various government departments, a friend suggested we “find a sugar daddy”, to cooperate with some state enterprise and apply in their name, which is supposed to have higher probability of success. Yet what state enterprises would be interested in such a project? Or, even if they were interested, what conditions would they demand for cooperation? We tried and tried, and finally, Central Newsreel and Documentary Film Studio returned a friendly response to our request. They expressed absolute certainty, understanding and full commitment. Just when we thought victory was secure and we were about to submit report to SARFT, they informed us that we must first pay a RMB500, 000 deposit, which according to them had always been a rule of their external cooperation. At that time, we had only raised RMB170, 000 and our event budget was RMB700, 000. There was no way we could pay that kind of deposit. We had to give up the cooperation in the end.
2009 was the 60th anniversary of The People’s Republic of China. Beijing kept very tight control over all kinds of activities. We had been rejected so many times that we began to doubt whether it was a right decision to host iDOCS in Beijing. The risks and difficulties were beyond our imagination. During that time, we continually got inside information from many well-intentioned people: no activity would be approved because of the National Day celebration in October; titles like Documentary Film Festival or Documentary Forum would not be approved; the word “documentary” was prohibited; the word “international” was censored; even if our application was approved, the forum or seminar would not be allowed to open to the public; we could not have the media involved, etc. 
At this point, a friend who was working for the government suggested that we take “environment” as the theme of iDOCS. He said it would be more likely to obtain permission and maybe even sponsorship from national environment foundations. Funding had always been our top concern and we would not let go even the smallest possible source of money! For three months, we were preparing documents and presentations for them. Unfortunately, after reviewing our submitted reports and listening to our presentations, the environment foundation to which we applied replied that they would neither cooperate with nor sponsor us, because they were uncertain of the impact of this unprecedented event. They preferred to choose a garbage classification project and get instant results than environmental documentary screenings.
Government permission and funding, these were the two Swords of Damocles that were driving us into anxiety. We sought advice and help from everyone we knew. Things had become extremely difficult in Beijing, so we then decided to try the second-tier cities such as Chengdu, Nanning and Hefei. A good friend of Cherelle who was negotiating a cooperation project with the Government of Beihai City, recommended iDOCS. It happened that Beihai recently hosted a Miss International Beauty Pageant and the government was interested in film and art related activities. Soon we met with the Assistant to the City Mayor and had a delightful discussion. We thought things would turn around; however, months passed and nothing was done. They offered a vain promise without real progress, constantly saying they needed further consideration. We gradually let down our expectations and gave up.
Meanwhile, we did not give up on Beijing. A departmental chief of Central Newsreel and Documentary Film Studio, who had a better understanding of us, was sympathetic with our situation. He suggested that we directly contact the official in charge of the Overseas Department of SARFT, and he kindly gave us the official’s contact and their decision-making details.
It requires tremendous social skills to deal with the Overseas Department of SARFT. Once you fail, you will fail forever. Before meeting with the official, we tried to let him know what we are doing, so I faxed him the We Have No Access to Many Spiritual Treasures of the World interview, and emailed him all the news coverage on us in addition to Cherelle’s articles about the international film festivals she attended. I hoped that he would know that we are good-natured people, and what we are doing is a good thing. Luckily enough, he seemed to be able to react to beautiful things, whether it was because the files we provided dispelled his doubts or that he was by nature a good person in spite of being a bureaucracy. After several correspondences, he unexpectedly accepted our invitation to see Peony Pavilion, a Kun Opera played at the Imperial Granary. He enjoyed the show a lot, and we had much to share and talk about.
With his instruction, we went to Beijing Film Academy, proposing to them to be the host party, whereas the Channel Zero would only act as a cooperation partner. The event would be held at the Academy. Channel Zero would merely appear as an organizer, and our company name would not appear in any important publicity; nevertheless, we would do all the work. The time was moved from the sensitive October to December. Of course, iDOCS still was not allowed to bear the name of Film Festival, but the words “Forum”, “International” and “Documentary” could be included. Having come this far, the event was then named as “iDOCS International Documentary Forum”. On November 1, 2009, we received the long-waited permission from SARFT. The document stated that although we were allowed to hold this event, the number of films screened should not exceed 20.   
By then we had raised over RMB300, 000 through some cultural sectors of foreign embassies and several private donations, but still short of RMB400, 000 to cover the expenses of international air tickets, food and accommodation for guests, translation and subtitling of over half of the films, and expensive conference interpretation. 
To make things even worse, H1N1 was wreaking havoc at the end of 2009. Rumors had it that public aggregations were being cancelled. Only twenty days left before the opening ceremony of iDOCS, the Beijing Film Academy finally informed us that the event could be held as scheduled.
When we thought we were down to the bottom, worse things kept coming up. On November 2, the second day we received the permission, Cherelle and I went on a business trip to Sichuan. The minute we got off the plane, I received a call from the teacher in the Beijing Film Academy who was coordinating the collaboration between our two parties. She said: “I saw your opening film Forever. It is too depressing. Our professors and students will not like this type of films. We have already regretted to cooperate with you. If you do not change the opening film, I’m afraid we cannot continue this project.” I was enraged upon hearing this.
Forever is the film that motivated us on this journey. For the past few years, it continually provided us the strength and guts to keep fighting for the cause of documentary. It is also a major film in the international documentary community. Putting it as the opening film of the first iDOCS was an irreplaceable choice. If we were forced to choose another film, we would rather cancel this forum. Yet, having already come so far, we could not simply give up.
I printed out a pile of documents after we came back to Beijing. I explained to the teacher the artistic value and professional status of Forever. I also introduced other films to be screened and every guest who were going to attend the forum. I made it clear to her that the Academy would not regret of taking this project. They did not have to do anything other than provide venues. All praises and achievements would be attributed to the Academy. She had doubts, but she decided to continue the collaboration. Later on, when the opening film finished, an audience of 800 people applauded warmly for over 1 minute, which proved that I was right.
Yet we still had to face a massive funding gap. We decided to charge a fee to the participants of professional activities. Network television, media companies, academies and independent producers responded positively, and many showed their support by registering to our forum. The 2009 iDOCS attracted 150 registrations, sales revenue generated amounted to RMB200,000. Though not a big figure, we saw the hope that iDOCS has the potential to become self-sufficient some day.
On December 10, 2009, two days before the opening, we received a telephone call that the National Security Agency had contacted the Beijing Film Academy regarding a film named A Delicate Balance which had been scheduled to screen at iDOCS. We were told that the film was once used by an evil cult group, and it might cause cancellation of the forum. But there was nothing we could do except wait and wait… A few hours later, we were informed that the problem was solved. Since we had the permission already from SARFT, NSA could not question the SARFT's judgment. Things moved ahead as planned; NSA was concerned but not involved. 
2009 was a long year, yet it also felt short with all these hardships. The first iDOCS finally opened as scheduled. As what you might have already read in the feedback report, for many Chinese audiences, it was their first time to find out that documentary films can be so fascinating and so diverse in its styles. Many Chinese documentary film makers learnt for the first time what the international documentary industry is like, how international documentary film makers conduct their work, and how a true masterpiece is created. We were told by many Chinese filmmakers that among so many television festivals and events, iDOCS was the only one “without nonsense”. These praises gave us tremendous confidence to continue developing iDOCS.
With the experience from the first year, it was supposed to be easy in the second year. But God has his own way. We had to endure hard work, tribulations, blessings, kindness, and everything there got to be. We must grow and be strong.
We started to prepare for the 2010 iDOCS in the joy of the first year’s success. However, after we returned to work from the Chinese New Year holiday, our team of six decreased to three. We understood the reason they chose to leave, because the work was simply too hard, but where could we find the new co-workers who would cherish the same ideal and take the same course as we did? In 2010, each of us would have to take up to 8 persons’ work, almost twice the workload of the year before.
For the 2nd edition of the forum, government permission was not the top difficulty and was issued soon by SARFT. The venue was still in Beijing Film Academy. Funding was still the biggest problem. Besides, we had to think deeply about the programming. The first iDOCS was like opening a door to a secret garden never found before; after the excitement arose by a fresh feeling and enjoyment, the second year should be more about gardening! We should provide more practical and useful information. Taking the weaknesses of the Chinese filmmakers into consideration, we started planning some new professional activities.
Our funding came entirely from personal donations, overseas documentary foundations, as well as contributions from some foreign embassies in China. We are grateful to these institutions and individuals who had faith in our effort in the first year. You have brought us confidence and courage. However, it became even harder to “look for money” in the second year. Our first application to Jan Vrijman Fund of IDFA was turned down. Although it was approved in the second round, we were shuddering and terrified by each failure. More embassies showed interest in iDOCS, but their budget were also tight budgets for all kinds of reasons. On top of that, most institutions still did not know us well enough; we had to spend a lot of time explaining what we were doing. As a matter of fact, they even doubted that someone would do something like iDOCS in today’s China, a fast paced materialistic nation. Therefore, we had to spend more time to win people’s trust.
Overworking, constantly being misunderstood and upset, all kinds of troubles…sometimes, we started to doubt our own sanities, because no sane person would like to undergo all this hardship! But most often, we were deeply moved by all the personal donations.
No words can really describe the hardship; at one point, I even thought of giving up. Ms. Ye Xin, a friend at Shenzhen, heard about my decision. She immediately sent RMB1, 000 to our bank account and said, “Go to buy yourself a drink. Don’t give up.” Tears rolled down my face, and it helped to pull myself together and continue. The money was not much, but gave us the strength and courage. We will not regret what we are doing, even if it costs our sanity.
In fact, the second year’s iDOCS did receive more awareness and understanding. After reviewing our opening film Babies, the aforementioned SARFT official called me to say he was deeply moved. He highly praised the film from the aspects of its image and storytelling, acclaiming that he liked it very much. He then sent us a text message saying that they will definitely support an event as meaningful as iDOCS. We were touched. Cherelle sent everyone a message:  “Last night we submitted the last film for review. This morning we received a call from the SARFT official in charge. He praised this film from different aspects and expressed his liking for it. We are excited and happy. A loving heart knows about love, beauty and kindness. We are grateful to every loving heart that offers us sympathy, appreciation and encouragement. Hope our message reaches more and more people!”
Moreover, the teacher who disliked Forever also showed her strong willingness to work with us on the 2nd iDOCS. She helped to move our screening venue from the medium projection hall to a bigger standard movie theatre. She also asked us to save 350 sets of tickets for teachers and students of the school. These tickets ran out within one day.
On November 15, 2010, a horrible fire happened in the teachers’ dormitory building in Shanghai, which caused 53 causalities and 78 were injured. I saw flowers and mourning crowds via web videos; I grieved but didn't expect this disaster would eventually affect iDOCS. One week before the opening, we received a call from the Beijing Film Academy: “The government is conducting spot checks on fire fighting facilities in all national universities and colleges. We need to reinstall fire-fighting equipments in the two theaters that iDOCS is going to use. The installation is scheduled to take place at the same time as that of the iDOCS...”
Where could we possibly relocate iDOCS when its opening was so drawing near? If it were possible, we would have to go through the trouble again to reapply for the permission. Should we simply cancel the event? But we had already bought airline tickets and booked hotel rooms for the 13 foreign guests. We had already spent all the money, and the iDOCS advertisements were already placed in papers and on the websites. It was like a devastating blow. I broke into tears when I got back home.  
But crying would not help. Time was tight and we had to solve the problem overnight. We urged all our relatives and friends to take action. Our liaison teacher also looked for help high and low. Cherelle begged her old friend at Legal Daily to have a word with the official in charge at the Beijing Fire Department. My father who was working for the government asked an old friend he had not seen for many years for connections in the Fire Department and Public Security Bureau. The bustle went on until midnight; the teacher in charge of fire department at the Academy finally told us that we could continue the advertising and venue decoration. We were relieved.
This year the Beijing Film Academy took the initiative and put up huge advertisements on two school buildings. The Academy also played an LED-advertising of iDOCS in their theater free of charge.  
In spite of all these ups and downs, 2010 iDOCS took place as scheduled. Thanks to last year’s success, this year, the event attracted more attention. However, on the second day of the opening, someone left us a message on our twitter. He seriously questioned our honesty and integrity as a non-profit activity for charging the ticket of the opening film – he thought it would be free. Not only him, there were a lot of people who thought the same. Many questioned why we required registration fees for professional activities.
These doubts hurt our feelings badly. The fact is: we printed 800 sets of tickets; most tickets were given out to colleges, filmmakers, and professionals, and only a few tickets were sold to the audience. The price of each package is RMB200, and each ticket costs RMB10. Even if we could sell all the 300 sets, the income was not enough to even cover the expense of Chinese subtitling of the films.
The enormous expenses of the 13 foreign guests, including the international flight tickets, food and accommodation, as well as the conference interpreting and screening facilities were covered bit by bit by personal donations, foundation grant, and the registrations fees. As a matter of fact, without the donation and funding, even if we charged twice of the price of the registration fee, this forum could not have been possible. 
Mr. Pepe Danquart, the German director and honored guest at the last year’s iDOCS, once said, “A thing not paid for is not valued.” Too many people want to take advantage of other people's toil, and they go on to question other people’s honesty and integrity when their desires are not being satisfied. The purpose of the iDOCS is to introduce true quality and true value at a professional level. If it is not paid for, it will not be cherished.
Deep in our hearts, we know clearly that iDOCS is an event worth paying for. Now we are unable to offer a free chance to everyone. Nevertheless, we believe that our professional efforts and devotion deserve respect. In the future, we wish to be able to create more free events for independent filmmakers. We are even considering setting up a foundation for the filmmakers in difficult situations to be able to take part in iDOCS.
The 2010 iDOCS owes its success to the three-woman team who worked so hard in spite of bad colds and high fevers, to the help of two interns, and to the selfless support of six volunteers. Considering the fact that we did not have enough staff, and our new team members were unfamiliar with the procedure, the five-day professional activities, six-day documentary film screenings, and an entire week of busy works and a few accidents and problems, the event won a lot praise, more than last year. Especially at the end of our new program, The Trailer Park, the audience showed such excitement and appreciation. At that moment, I knew all the hardships and all the efforts were worth it.
The iDOCS has been successfully held for two years. Till this day, I still cannot believe it has actually happened. Everything went by like a dream, but the anxiety, disappointment, tense, bitter and bits of joy have been engraved into my memory. In the last week of 2010, my colleagues and I started to prepare for the 2011iDOCS in our office. We constantly received encouraging phone calls from our friends all over the country. However, I know clearly that the feeling of walking on the thin ice will always follow us. Perhaps dreams are forever obscure and indefinite; one feels at ease only when they are down to the earth.
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