Marina Svensson
Marina Svensson

The Sichuan Earthquake on Chinese Documentary film

Marina Svensson is professor of Modern China Studies at Lund University. Her research covers human rights issues, legal and social developments, cultural heritage issues, journalism, documentary film and different aspects of China's digital society. For further information see

Civic Engagement and Witnessing: The Sichuan Earthquake on Chinese Documentary film
In 2008, a devastating earthquake hit Sichuan province in China, resulting in the loss of almost 90,000 lives. For the first time, a natural disaster in China was extensively covered in traditional media and spontaneous support groups were formed. However, the freedom to report came to a halt when people started demanding justice and voicing criticism of the poor quality of schools that had led to the death of many children. After the media was forced to stop reporting independent documentary filmmakers and activists joined forces with families to bear witness to the devastating effects of the earthquake and to the parents’ trauma and struggles for justice.

This lecture discusses the emergence of socially engaged documentary filmmaking in China and the wide range of documentary films that focused on the Sichuan earthquake. It engages with recent works on citizen journalism, digital and video activism, media engagement and witnessing, and the role of documentary film. It discusses whether and how independent documentary filmmaking in China can bypass traditional gatekeepers and constitute a new form of media engagement, and whether it also may break down old boundaries between citizens and filmmakers. Censorship and difficulties to circulate and screen these films in China however serve to alert us to the limits of media engagement and witnessing through documentary film in the Chinese context.