From the outside, the actions of Chinese state security can often read like an absurdist black comedy. For those living under its jurisdiction, however, it can create a Kafkaeque nightmare. As several Chinese filmmakers have recently found, alleged offences are often unclear and punitive restrictions can be imposed without notice or warning.

Chinese documentary maker Hu Jie, for example, was prevented from leaving China last month. As recently as late last year, he was able to visit the Special Administrative Region of Hong Kong, which mainland Chinese need a permit to enter. However, when he applied for a visa to attend a screening of one of his films at Nepal’s Film Southasia festival, mysterious obstacles appeared in his path.

“The application got delayed repeatedly,” claimed La Frances Hui of the New York Asia Society, who curated the Chinese program in Nepal. “The travel agent came up with many explanations including a typhoon somewhere, Nepal’s holiday schedule, and consulate delays.”

Hu Jie’s documentary at the festival, Searching for Lin Zhao’s Soul, tells the story of a little-known dissident writer in Mao’s China, who was executed in 1968. As a result of this and other documentaries delving into the repression of the Maoist era, Hu Jie routinely experiences phone taps and visits from security personnel. So although he had not been informed of any travel ban, the delays to his Nepalese visa aroused suspicion.

Making inquiries with the Nepalese consulates in China, La Frances Hui says festival organisers found the travel agent had never lodged Hu’s visa application. “The travel agent conspired with hidden forces to hold Hu Jie’s passport and make sure he went nowhere,” Hui said from New York. “We are not sure if it’s anything he did recently, a small bureaucrat’s random decision, or the sensitivity of Nepal that triggered this.” Chinese influence is strong in Nepal, which has been dominated by the Maoist Unified Communist Party since elections in 2008.

Feature film director Ying Liang has the opposite problem to Hu Jie. He has been threatened with arrest if he sets foot back in mainland China. The threat is the result of his drama When Night Falls, unveiled at South Korea’s Jeonju International Film Festival on April 28.

Ying’s film tells the story of Wang Jingmei, the mother of Yang Jia, a young man executed in November 2008. Yang Jia was allegedly beaten after being wrongfully detained in Shanghai in late 2007 on suspicion of riding a stolen bicycle. After failing to obtain an apology or compensation for the alleged beating, he entered a police station on July 1, 2008 — the anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party — and stabbed nine unarmed officers. Six subsequently died. Yang was sentenced to death in August 2008 and executed less than a month later. Yang’s mother was forcibly detained in a mental hospital throughout her son’s trial and execution.

When Shanghai authorities learnt of Ying Liang’s film, the director claims his family was approached by police and pressured to encourage Ying not to screen it. The Korean festival was also approached by a figure claiming to represent “a Chinese film company”, who offered to purchase Ying’s movie.

Following the festival’s debut of When Night Falls, Ying’s family in Shanghai was informed that if the director returned to mainland China he would be arrested. Ying is currently in Hong Kong, but says his permit for the Special Administrative Region expires in November. He is unsure what he will do when his visa runs out.

So who are these filmmakers, and why do their works so disturb the authorities? Official Chinese film production is under the censorial supervision of the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television. Without SARFT’s approval, no film can screen in mainland Chinese cinemas. Since the early 1990s, however, an independent sector has developed, making work outside these official structures. The sector exploded with the arrival of consumer DV cameras in the late 1990s.

Although the very existence of independent cinema challenges the Communist Party’s control of public discourse, many works avoid sensitive topics or overt criticism. Films that do question the CCP’s version of history, or highlight abuses of power, are frequently targeted for suppression. Hu Jie’s historical documentaries, and Ying Liang’s drama about the Yang Jia case, fall into these categories.

Alongside independent filmmaking, a vibrant alternative screening culture showing this work has grown up in major cities such as Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou. Attitudes towards this unofficial screening culture, based on digital projections in informal spaces such as cafes and galleries, also appear to be hardening.

On August 18, the opening film of the Beijing Independent Film Festival was interrupted by a mysterious power cut. Last year’s festival was also disrupted by authorities.

Despite the unexplained blackout and the clear presence of plain-clothed security personnel at the festival opening, the state-owned Global Times newspaper quoted a local police officer saying: “We don’t know about this and have never taken any action toward this festival.”

Therein lies the difficulty for China’s independent film culture. Existing in a legal grey zone, the sector has no legal recourse when security forces arbitrarily intervene in its activities. Authorities frequently deny they are taking action, even as they move to shut down screenings and restrict the movement of filmmakers. Exactly who makes these decisions and who carries them out is also often unclear.

The recent moves against the independent film sector are part of a broader tightening of social controls that has been taking place in China since early 2011. Uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East unnerved the Chinese government last year, provoking the arrest or disappearance of 52 individuals across the nation. An estimated 200 more were placed under various forms of soft detention. Since then, a slowing economy, a looming leadership change, and a seemingly endless string of scandals involving government personnel has only intensified the Communist Party’s obsession with control.

Meanwhile, the independent film sector soldiers on, working in the cracks left open by an intrusive state. The Beijing Independent Film Festival managed to stage screenings in offices and private residences after its opening was shut down. Hu Jie is working on future films despite his apparent travel ban.

Ying Liang, musing on his possible return to the mainland in November, told Crikey: “If I can exchange my personal freedom to achieve a small change, it will be worth it.”

*Thanks to Wang Yi for her assistance with the translation of interviews. Video reports from the Beijing Independent Film Festival can be viewed here and hereHu Jie’s public statement sent to Film Southasia after he was prevented from leaving China can be read here. Ying Liang’s public statement regarding his threatened arrest if he returns to mainland China can be read here.