A few years ago I produced a short film in Beijing with my friend Mike, who was also the director.
We planned to shoot around Xihai and Houhai for two weekends, and though we could have made the film guerilla-style, Mike wanted to do things by the book. We’d be setting up lights and rigging equipment, which would draw attention. In case something went wrong, Mike wanted proof that we were allowed to be there.
Mike and I had gone to film school together and we had both worked on films in China, but neither of us had produced a movie here, certainly not from scratch. After doing some research, we realized the first thing we needed was a shooting permit.
So one day we took the subway out to the Shichahai Public Security Bureau, just north of the Beihaibei subway station.
We expected to be rejected or told to get this and that form, but instead the officers said they weren’t responsible for issuing permits and directed us to a different office up north, near the entrance to Xihai.
Using Mike’s phone to locate the address, we walked up a narrow hutong with no signs and into a bland concrete building.
The place looked abandoned and we had to go to the second floor to find an office with someone inside. When we told the startled woman we were here to get a film permit, she looked at us like we had just asked for a shot of bourbon in a mosque.
The woman said we were in the wrong place and directed us to the Shichahai PSB. We told her we had just come from there.
“Then I don’t know where else you can go,” she shrugged.
Like the officers at Shichahai, she didn’t know whose responsibility it was to issue film permits, she just knew it wasn’t hers.
Mike and I walked all the way back down to the Shichahai PSB but they insisted that they weren’t responsible. When pressed, they recommended we try the larger PSB branch at Di’anmen. The princess was in another castle.
So we took a cab to Di’anmen but got the same answer there. Although no one knew where we were supposed to get a permit or how the process worked, they were sure it would be illegal for us to shoot without one.
We were told to wait for the ranking officer to come back from lunch. He would know.
“When will he be back?” I asked one officer. It was already the afternoon.
“I don’t know, could be a few hours.”
As we walked to the subway, I told Mike that we should just film the thing as quietly as we could. It seemed easier to ask forgiveness than to obtain permission. But Mike, who had a larger responsibility as director, wanted to make sure the production was protected.
So we did a little more research and returned to the Di’anmen branch a few days later with a permission request a friend had helped us draft. The guy in charge was again absent so another officer took our request and told us to come back in three days.
When we went back three days later, we found our request was rejected. Again, no one could tell us how to actually secure a permit – all they knew was the way we had pursued wasn’t it.
At this point even Mike gave up.
When we began our quest, I believed that the answer to who could issue a film permit at least lay somewhere. But now I realized that there was no answer. There was no answer because no one cared. We were just two guys; we weren’t important enough to deserve an answer.
Maybe if we’d had an eight-figure budget, someone would have materialized to issue a permit and collect a fee for their trouble. But a small film like ours wasn’t worth it.
Sometimes, asking for forgiveness isn’t just easier – it’s the only way.
In the end, we shot the film with no permits and no problems. Except for a man who claimed to be a government official and tried to shut us down. But that’s for next time.
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