Surviving in the Shadows: the Beijing Indie Festival Shutdown in Context

In the website The China Story, film scholar Ying Qian offers an account of this year’s Beijing Independent Film Festival, placing it within a larger context of the emergence of the Chinese independent filmmaking scene in the Beijing artist district of Songzhuang. An excerpt:

I first visited Song Zhuang in 2009, when I was pursuing my work on independent Chinese documentary films. At the time, I noted the advantageous location of Song Zhuang. Traditionally, provincial border areas served as a refuge for people who wished to avoid the authorities. The situation of Song Zhuang on the periphery of Hebei province and the municipality of Beijing meant that at first neither Beijing nor Hebei had much interest in regulating the area.

After some two decades of surviving and fitful growth it was now in Song Zhuang that independent filmmaking began to articulate and transmit its legacies and design a curriculum for socially engaged and responsible filmmaking. The Li Xianting Film School was founded in 2009, and I was among the few observers at its inaugural sessions. The young aspiring filmmakers at the school were an amazing group that wanted to make films not because it was fashionable or ‘cool’, but because they felt film had a mission to reveal, redeem and even change reality.

Yet within a few short years, this rare independent zone is under threat. Last October, the eighth BIFF had to shift venue three times as the authorities pressured hotels and galleries to renege on their agreements to host it. In the end, the Festival retreated to Li Xianting home where two lounges were transformed into crowded screening rooms. Even then, the police broke in the middle of the first film screening, dispersed viewers and only allowed the Festival to resume after hours of negotiation between the organizers and the local government. I was at the Festival and witnessed the stressful negotiations the organizers had undertake with the police stationed outside Li Xianting’s courtyard on an almost daily basis. This year, I visited Song Zhuang about two weeks before the Festival began where I spoke to Zhang Qi, the capable, calm and compassionate artistic director of the Festival. Exhausted from working around the clock, Zhang told me that she had been in difficult negotiations with various local authorities. On occasions, more than ten cadres from various branches of the government would come to the Film Fund at once to speak with the organisers.

Read the full article here.

Read further coverage of the festival from the New York Times.

Additional coverage of the Beijing Independent Film Festival, including video footage, can be found here.