Exceptions such as Supersize Me or An Inconvenient Truth aside, documentaries seldom garner much public attention - or earnings - anywhere. Even so, the dearth of documentary makers in Hong Kong is remarkable for a city that has yielded generations of talented directors, albeit in mainstream cinema. That may improve, however, with the rise of filmmakers such as Cheung King-wai. A former music teacher, Cheung switched careers after completing a film degree at the City University of New York in 2002 and has produced two acclaimed feature-length documentaries in the past two years. Cheung, 40, is better known in the movie business as a scriptwriter (he wrote Night and Fog, director Ann Hui On-wah's drama about the struggles of working-class families in Tin Shui Wai) but says documentaries make better vehicles for expressing his views. 'After Night and Fog, I received many offers to write scripts, but I turned them down because I want to make my own movies,' he says. 'I have strong ideas about filmmaking and I don't want to compromise.' His productions are also gaining a wider audience, despite cinema chains' reluctance to screen documentaries. All's Right with the World, his debut film, which follows the Lunar New Year celebrations of five families on welfare, has become a popular choice in school, campus and community programmes, buoyed by positive word-of-mouth support following its premiere at last year's Hong Kong International Film Festival. Cheung's spirits have been boosted further by the enthusiastic response to KJ, his new film, which played to full houses at this year's festival. It follows the struggles of young pianist Wong Ka-jeng (KJ) as he grows from an 11-year-old child prodigy into a rebellious teenager frustrated by pressure from his family and elite school. The project is dear to Cheung, a cellist who once dreamed of becoming 'the next Yo-Yo Ma'. It's as much a study of tortured genius as an exploration of Hong Kong attitudes towards music education, which he says is so utilitarian that the purpose of playing music has become 'twisted'. 'KJ's school is a powerhouse in music competitions, and every year they aim to make a clean sweep of awards. But KJ challenges the idea. He thinks one should play music for the sake of it rather than for winning competitions, just as he thinks life shouldn't just be about pursuing fame and fortune but learning to be human,' says Cheung. The documentary maker hopes his film will resonate with all those who care about education. 'Hong Kong has been stuck in a bottleneck for many years and the city has yet to transform itself. We should ask ourselves where all the creative talent has gone. To nurture creativity we must first respect and accommodate people with alternative views. But KJ is labelled a joke and people marginalise him.' Both films were made for less than HK$80,000 and funded by regional film foundation Cnex. Short for Chinese Next, Cnex aims to produce and promote films documenting communities and changes on the mainland and in Taiwan and Hong Kong. The organisation is now in the third year of a decade-long project that funds the production of 10 documentaries annually, based on a different theme each year. KJ was so well received at documentary film festivals in Taiwan and Yunnan in recent months that Cnex is now trying to arrange for its release on Taiwan's commercial circuit. The film will also feature at the Chinese Documentary Festival organised by Hong Kong collective Visible Record next month. Cnex chief executive Ben Tsiang says Cheung shows the potential of Hong Kong documentary makers when it comes to capturing the dilemmas of Chinese societies undergoing rapid change. 'Hong Kong is a very interesting Chinese society. It is a conjunction not just of east and west but also of Greater China. It can capture what's happening to Chinese societies amid globalisation,' says Tsiang. KJ is a timely reminder to many star-struck mainland parents who are making their children take classical music and learn the piano in the hope they will emulate Lang Lang's international success, he says. 'This [phenomenon] is common among Chinese. It also happens in Taiwan, where many parents spend a lot of money to make their kids practise the piano.' To cultivate Hongkongers' interest in documentaries and to nurture filmmaking talent, Cnex plans to hold its first festival in the city at the end of the year. As Tsiang sees it, Hong Kong has the conditions to become a hub for independent Chinese documentary makers from around the world. 'Cnex is registered in Hong Kong for a reason: the city has an edge in commerce. It's also politically very inclusive, which allows for the discussion of crucial social issues in the Greater China region,' he says. 'And I am sure Hong Kong will produce more outstanding [documentary] filmmakers.' Cnex's newly-hired local marketing associate, Nicole Chan Wai-yee, may be among the new filmmakers to watch. Aged just 22, she drew attention five years ago with Gay or Not, a short made as part of a project to promote documentary making among young people. Chan followed that with The District Councillor, which tracks the fluctuating fortunes of a social worker turned politician from 2003 to last year. 'Through the story of an individual we can look into many social issues, such as the political system,' she says. Funded under a Cnex student programme, The District Councillor will also be screened at the Chinese Documentary Festival. Although it's unlikely to be a lucrative career, Chan, a comparative literature student at the University of Hong Kong, hopes to become a full-time documentary maker. 'Documentaries can play a role in bringing people of different classes together to discuss a social issue,' says Chan, citing community screenings of All's Right with the World as an example. 'Social awareness in Hong Kong has increased in recent years and I believe that if there are good documentaries people will go to see them and discuss them.' As part of Cnex's campaign to build an audience for documentaries among students and young intellectuals, Chan will hold screenings of KJ and The District Councillor at universities, secondary schools and cafes throughout the year. Cheung, who has started on a new production about a mainland immigrant, is delighted more channels are emerging where his documentaries can be seen, even if he isn't making any money. When All's Right was screened at a community centre in Tin Shui Wai earlier this year, residents in the audience were torn between laughter and tears as they saw vignettes that mirrored their own lives. 'Many NGOs and schools call to ask if they can screen the film. That makes me happier than winning any film award,' says Cheung. 'I made a movie about these people's lives and I'm touched to see they are enjoying it. It's important for a documentary to connect with ordinary people and play a role in society because what I am dealing with is not fiction but stories of flesh and blood.' He adds: 'It's a pity that Hong Kong has the environment but lacks the spirit for independent documentary making. We enjoy a lot of freedom culturally, and to filmmakers this is a very big advantage.'