Shelly on Film: An Inside Tour of The Chinese Independent Film Circuit

The Iberia Center for Contemporary Art, Home of the Chinese Independent Film Archive (Photo courtesy of Iberia Center of Contemporary Art)

The Iberia Center for Contemporary Art, Home of the Chinese Independent Film Archive (Photo courtesy of Iberia Center of Contemporary Art)

By Shelly Kraicer

Whenever I am interviewed about Chinese independent cinema, the question that comes up more often than anything else is “Can these kind of films be shown in China?”

The situation is changing, rapidly, and in substantial ways. The answer used to be “Yes, sort of”. Now, it’s “Yes, most definitely”.

Independent films, i.e. films made outside the government censorship system, can’t be shown in regular commercial movie theatres. When I arrived in Beijing back in 2003, one had to do a bit of investigative work to find screenings; at art galleries, a few bars and cafes, and occasionally on university campuses: all low- to zero-profile events. Now, though, there is, if not exactly a profusion, then something like a blossoming of screening opportunities for “unauthorized” Chinese indie films.

One such event, which I attended in early April, provides a handy opportunity to sketch out a provisional, though hopefully not too superficial overview of the Chinese independent film scene.

The Chinese Independent Film Archive (CIFA) organized their first annual film festival from 29 March to 19 April this year. Called “What Has Been Happening Here”, the festival took place in the CIFA’s headquarters at the Iberia Center for Contemporary Art, in Beijing’s 798 Art District.

The comprehensive exhibition was well organized and impressively curated. There were several sections: one featured screenings of new Chinese independent DV films; one provided a smartly chosen and extremely useful overview of the history of Chinese DV films from its origins in the 1990s to now; one provided a retrospective of films made by Jia Zhangke’s company XStream Films, and the directors associated with it (Jia himself, his regular d.p. Yu Lik-wai, Emily Tang, and Han Jie); and a final section offered selections from the last ten years of experimental/avant garde DV work. Accompanying these screenings, which ran morning to evenings daily for 21 days, was an exhibit in the Iberia Center capacious gallery space that surveyed the indie film scene in China today. It highlighted the six key organizations involved in producing, distributing, and exhibiting the films, with supporting documentation, videos, artifacts, and a rich selection of materials. The institutions featured were:

  • Chinese Independent Film Festival (CIFF)
  • Fanhall Films
  • Li Xianting’s Film Fund
  • Beijing Indie Workshop
  • Caochangdi Workstation
  • Yunnan Multi Culture Visual Festival (Yunfest)

First, a word about CIFA itself. It is a non-profit academic institution, founded in 2008, devoted to “sorting, collecting, and promoting” contemporary Chinese independent films. The CIFA underlines that it is a non-governmental film archive, in implicit distinction to the PRC’s China Film Archive, the very official, bureaucratic national institution devoted to safeguarding official, approved Chinese cinema. The CIFA’s director, Zhang Yaxuan, is an expert on Chinese independent documentaries and a film maker and producer herself. The facilities of CIFA within the Iberia Art Centre at 798 include a spanking new screening room of 79 comfortable seats. The excellent projection and sound equipment — the finest yet that I’ve encountered in a Chinese non-commercial venue — suggests that the CIFA is well enough funded not to skimp on necessities. The screenings themselves were well-run (though there was occasional trouble getting the projection ratios right, necessitating your correspondent dashing to the projection booth to discuss the accuracy of the watermelon-shaped heads on screen).

The Chinese Independent Film Festival was founded in 2003. It is located in elegantly livable, gracious Nanjing, one of China’s most important intellectual centres, and features an annual festival of all genres of Chinese independent cinema (features, documentaries, shorts). CIFF has since 2007 instituted a juried competition section. Run in conjunction with the Nanjing RCM Art Museum, the CIFF uses a variety of venues around Nanjing to show an excellent selection of what their programmers (including Zhang Xianmin and Cao Kai) consider to be the year’s best Chinese indie films, based on their mission to support “independent spirit, openness, inventive in form, forward thinking” cinema. I’ve attended the 2007 edition, which offered a relatively low-key but well-attended series of concurrent screenings over about a week (in 2008 the festival took place in late September). The discussions after the films, and among the filmmakers, though, were anything but low key: the festival cultivates a real sense of intellectual energy and ferment.

Fanhall Films, run by Zhu Rikun, is a multi-faceted indie film support organization based in Songzhuang Arts District, a distant eastern suburb of Beijing. Fanhall started as a website and online discussion forum and has broadened into film production and distribution. They have produced a series of indie films, released (authorized) DVDs in China of unauthorized films (a neat trick, and a good subject for a later post), and sponsor the China Documentary Film Festival and the Beijing Independent Film Festival (each annually, in Songzhuang). They also constructed, last year, a comfortable medium-sized screening room, above which is a spacious cafe and small exhibition space. The trip out to Songzhuang is long (a grueling 2 hours plus by bus from the centre of Beijing), but Zhu Rikun and his staff take advantage of the community feel provided by the artists village at Songzhuang, and invite directors to spend the week during their festivals. Community-building is a vital part of their agenda. For more detail on the 2008 version, see my first blog entry.

Also based at Songzhuang, and closely supporting Fanhall’s film exhibition events, is the Li Xianting Film Fund. The fund was started in 2006 by the famous art critic Li Xianting, who raises funds from artists, now outrageously prosperous in the international art market, whom he supported in the 1980s and 90s. The fund is building an archive of independent films to support the work of researchers and filmmakers, publishes a journal, and provides grants for the development, production, and post-production of new film projects. It also co-presents the Beijing Independent Film Festival and the China Documentary Film Festival with Fanhall Films.

Beijing Indie Workshop was founded by Beijing Film Academy professor Zhang Xianmin in 2005. A non-profit organization supporting indie filmmakers, Indie Workshop provides equipment and post-production facilities for impecunious filmmakers, produces films, and organizes a continuing series of informal screenings and rigorous discussions of recent works (I’ve been fortunate to attend a few, which combine an intellectual salon flavour with organized film appreciation — participants are encouraged to fill out scorecards and give ratings for each film screened). It also works to connect new filmmakers and films with foreign festivals, curators, and researchers.

Caochangdi Workstation was founded in 2005 by documentary filmmaker and theoretician Wu Wenguang. It is made up of his Documentary Studio, the Living Dance Studio, and the Beijing Storm Company. It provides a space for video and performance art, supports the work of filmmakers, and hosts a series of film, video, and performance exhibitions and festivals at its space in Caochangdi, a suburb of Beijing close to the 798 Arts District. This year, CCD are hosting a May Festival of performance (works from their 2009 Young Choreographers’ Project) and film (a Documentary Forum). CCD’s workshops include support for an ongoing series of films called the Villager Documentary Project (documentaries made by people living in Chinese villages, provided with technical and organizational support by CCD Workstation).

The Yunnan Multi Culture Visual Festival was launched in 2003, and is bi-annual. It’s a documentary film festival based in Kunming, Yunnan, featuring screenings of Chinese and foreign documentaries, a documentary competition, and seminars bringing together Chinese and foreign documentary filmmakers. Yunfest was founded with a strong anthropological-documentary film bent, and still has a section devoted to these films.

I’m tempted to try to compare the programming philosophies of the various festivals, but hesitate to generalize without enough data. So I only offer this as a very tentative, provisional sketch, and really invite comment or correction (see the comment link below). BIFF/CDFF tend, I’d say, to emphasize the political role of cinema, film as social critique and as agent for social/political change. They are willing to push the edge, sometimes quite a bit, on political content, though are savvy about keeping a low enough profile to get away with some programming risks. CIFF in Nanjing, while supporting these films too, seems to put equal or greater emphasis on film as art, and championing films that are formally innovative and aesthetically risky. CIFA, at least in its first incarnation, builds a historical context, and has an interest in defining something like a canon of Chinese independent cinema. But I’m really reluctant to over-generalize, and genuinely welcome suggestions on how to clarify the above suggestions.

Chinese film events are obsessively self-documenting: there’s always at least one person from the organization filming everything that goes on. So that’s good news if you are doing research in the field; there should be resources available if you want to follow Q&As, panel discussions, and directors’ comments from any of the events. It’s not quite like being there, though. One does have to attend these festivals to really get a sense of the ferment, energy, seriousness (lots of seriousness) and dedication that the small communities of Chinese filmmakers and their supporters bring to their activities. Which, in this time of slumps (both economic and creative, cinematically speaking), is a terrifically encouraging thing.

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