Sundance Institute Holds Film Forward Program in China

By Isabella Tianzi Cai

Advisors Cara Mertes and Lixin Fan listen to a filmmaker in a small group at CNEX/DFP workshops. (Photo: Meredith Lavitt)

From April 13 to 16, 2011, Sundance Institute held its Film Forward Program in China to showcase ten excellent independent films as part of its international outreach project to promote intercultural exchange. Film Forward was initiated by the Sundance Institute and the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, and organized in partnership with the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Institute of Museum and Library Services. The program coincided with the Sundance Institute – CNEX Documentary Film Workshop, in which eleven Chinese documentary project teams had the privilege to interact directly with the foreign talents and industry experts brought on by the collaboration.

CNEX is currently one of the world’s most active players in terms of bringing attention and assistance to Chinese documentary filmmaking. It is a non-governmental organization based in Beijing with staff members working in Taiwan and North America. Founded in 2006, it has grown consistently over the years and continued to help produce and promote Chinese documentary cinema internationally.

The responses to both the Film Forward Program and the workshop were incredibly enthused. Audiences and participants eagerly sought answers to their own questions about the films screened as well as about general filmmaking practices.

Kate Dean, the producer of Winter’s Bone, wrote that she was pleasantly surprised by the first question she got after her film’s screening in Xi’an. Instead of the usual trite questions we hear at every film festival, an audience member asked her if the search for a father figure in the film could be interpreted as the search for spirituality, because in the English language, “Father” is synonymous with God. Coming from a Chinese-speaking person, this question impressed Kate.

Stanley Nelson, the director of Freedom Riders, was equally impressed by the quality of audience response when he showed his film to students at Tsinghua University and the Beijing Film Academy. He was worried at first that they would have a hard time understanding the context of his story, but the first question he received turned out to be identical to the one he received in the United States. Additionally, in exchange for trying to explain racial segregation in US history, he got to hear Chinese people’s will to strive for freedom. It made the Q&A meaningful to him at many levels.

Fan Lixin’s Last Train Home, a Canadian-produced television documentary about China’s migrant workers, had its premiere in China during the program. According to Meredith Lavitt in her blog article, the film aroused hot debates each time it was played. From his interactions with audiences in Beijing, Xi’an, and his hometown Wuhan, Fan wrote that he repeatedly sensed “confused patriotism.” He sincerely hoped that his film could expose Chinese people to a new way of loving their country. Instead of saving face by covering its problems up, more good can be done by openly discussing these problems.

As for the advisers working side-by-side with the invited Chinese documentary filmmakers, the three-day workshop was physically exhausting; however, it paid off with a string of accomplishments. As Cara Mertes observed:

By the closing reception, it was clear that a new community of filmmakers had connected across China, and a common goal of telling authentic stories had been reached. All of the filmmakers made tangible strides conceptually, from developing plans for refining their films’ structure to creating materials for gaining funding to decisions to work with editing and producing advisors.

Indeed, by the end of the programs, not only the filmmakers involved but also the organizers realized that they were in the right direction of promoting cross-cultural dialogue. As the world becomes more connected through such programs, helping people tell and show their own stories through films is an ever more worthy cause.

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