No Apologies: Ai Weiwei Makes Surprise Visit to BIFF Closing Night

By Lydia Wu

Beijing Independent Film Festival organizer Li Xianting introduces surprise guest Ai Weiwei at the 10th BIFF closing ceremonies.

Beijing Independent Film Festival organizer Li Xianting introduces surprise guest Ai Weiwei at the 10th BIFF closing ceremonies. (Photo: Chen Yanzi)

On August 31st in the secluded courtyard of the Li Xianting Film Fund in Beijing’s suburb of Songzhuang, the 10th Beijing Independent Film Festival closed on a high note, and with an unexpected guest. Like last year a BBQ closing party brought the Chinese independent filmmaking and contemporary art circles back together. Chatting, beer and roasted kebabs created an atmosphere of ease contrary to the stress of the opening. Into this scene walked icon of Chinese contemporary art Ai Weiwei, accompanied by BIFF organizer Li Xianting. Since his release from prison last year, Ai has been mostly restricted to his quarters in Caochangdi, an urban village and arts community on the northeastern suburbs of Beijing. His behavior has been closely monitored by local authorities, who forbade him to enter Songzhuang. Although the Ai Weiwei documentary biography Never Sorry was selected by the 9th BIFF last year, he was unable to show up. There was no expectation that Ai would visit, and it immediately caused a stir among the attendees.

The ceremony officially started around eight o’clock with Li Xianting’s remarks:

‘The festival went very well this year, even better than we thought. This is exactly what we expected. Actually we don’t have many requirements. The only thing we require is a platform for a minority of people including artists, scholars and audiences who are interested in independent filmmaking and who care for humanity and reality to discuss and exchange ideas. But in reality, we constantly encounter interference. We need to consistently emphasize independence, freedom and individual expression as a normal mentality. It needs everyone’s effort to change the anomaly into normality’.

Then the festival announced all the awards which were decided by documentary, fiction and experimental film jury committees:

– Stratum 1: The Visitors (Cong Feng) won the Jury Award for his experimental spirit in documentary filmmaking. The film adopts the styles of fiction, documentary and experimental film to depict a story happening in an abandoned building and record its final demolition in a way to portray destroyed buildings and cityscapes as the main characters of the film.

– The Outstanding Documentary Film Award went to Jia Zhitan’s Investigate Jia Zhixiu. As a peasant filmmaker, Jia excavates grassroots memories of the Cultural Revolution in 1970 when villagers in Jia’s hometown persecuted each other.

– The winner of Jury Special Award is Chen Changqing’s The Son of Adam. Through the lens of a Christian, the lives of both homeless people and Christians are revealed within China’s ‘legend of urbanization’.

– Wu Jie’s Hutoushan Village won a Special Mention Award of Outstanding Film. When Wu Jie heard of the extremely high lung cancer rate in Hutoushan village, he decided to visit the place with his camera and find out what happened. He wished to raise the public awareness on environmental pollution in the village and create a better living condition for local villagers.

–  Two awards for Outstanding Fiction Film went to Ma Xiang’s Hooligan and Dai Zong’s A Lost Way.

– The Jury Award for Fiction was given to Guo Zhen’s Downstream, which portrays an Indian Hong Konger and reflects the heterogeneity of Hong Kong culture.

– In the competition for experimental films, Yumen co-directed by J.P. Sniadecki, Huang Xiang and Xu Ruotao and Wu Chao’s Happen won Experimental Innovation Awards. Yumen is an ethnographic documentary visit by the directors to the ghost city of Yumen which once was a thriving and oil rich place in Gausu province. It’s a film about roaming in an abandoned city and its past. Happen is an experimental animation which tries to generate a viewer-stimulating site where multi-panel animation, sound effects and reconstruction of viewers’ interpretation are used to arouse the original sensibility and imagination to daily life.

– The festival culminated in awarding Ai Weiwei the Independent Spirit Prize for Ping’an Yueqing produced by Ai Weiwei studio. Mr. Li Xianting presented the award to Ai Weiwei and delivered the comments of the committee.

‘The film explores the meaning of truth, life and fear under our current circumstances. The filmmaker use his own way to witness our times, which pushes us to re-examine ourselves. Who are we? What are we doing? What should we do? Ai Weiwei brings Chinese independent documentary to a wider platform where he engages in Chinese social change through activism’.

Ping’an Yueqing is one of the projects of citizen investigation produced by Ai Weiwei Studio, investigating the death of Qian Yunhui, who was a dissident and a popular village leader.  He was crushed by a construction truck, an event which was widely interpreted as a government sanctioned assassination, though officials deny it. Instead of objectively recording what happens in the town, the filmmaker and his camera are bound together in activism to investigate the accident by interviewing Qian’s family, villager and officials trying to reveal the truth hidden behind government obstruction and the fear of the villagers.

Independent film in China itself faces increasing danger and difficulty. In the time since last year’s Beijing Independent Film Festival, the 9th China Independent Film Festival in Nanjing, the 3rd Beijing New Youth Film Festival and 2013 Yunfest have all been shut down. Some media even use the term ‘the death of independent cinema in China’ to describe the situation. Awarding Ai Weiwei the Independent Spirit Prize doesn’t just encourage his work but also makes a powerful counterstatement to the crack-down.

The BIFF also brings much hope that Chinese independent cinema would struggle to survive no matter what kind of pressure they might suffer.

Lydia Wu is a doctoral candidate in film studies at Newcastle University, currently researching independent film festivals in China.