By Shelly Kraicer
I’m often asked how it is that I keep track of new Chinese independent films. One answer: just be in China for a few weeks in October and November. The film festival season here is packed right now. Two major indie film festivals have just concluded: the 6th Beijing Independent Film Festival (BIFF, in the Beijing exurb of Songzhuang) and the 8th China Independent Film Festival (in Nanjing). In Beijing itself, we’ve had the 4th First Film Festival (an international festival for films by first-time directors) at various campuses in China including Peking University, and the 6th Chinese Young Generation Film Forum. Coming up is the 5th Chongqing Independent Film and Video Festival (CIFVF).
That’s a lot of films and festivals. Of course there is substantial overlap, especially between the three main indie film festivals (BIFF, CIFF, CIFVF). BIFF and CIFF each had its own issues this year: external and internal conflict that showed just how much pressure independent filmmakers are under in China at the moment. These conflicts, which I’ll describe below, also demonstrated the urgency with which these filmmakers conceive of their practice, their autonomy, their mission, and their very existence.
The Beijing Independent Film Festival’s (15-22 October 2011) opening night adventures have already been reported here and in a few English language media outlets. I think it’s worth going into some detail here to set the record straight: several of the published accounts got some key details wrong, and it’s important to be precise.
The organizers of the BIFF, the Li Xianting Film Fund, spent the weeks before the festival searching for a workable venue. An increasingly tough regime of political control here in China – concurrent with events such as Liu Xiaobo’s Nobel Prize and the Arab Spring revolts, and non-events like the so-called “Jasmine Revolution” — has severely restricted the space available for non-official public organized activities. The venues BIFF used in the past, the independent Fanhall theatre complex and Songzhuang Art Museum, were this time both off limits, due to pressure from local government officials. A week before BIFF was to start, it looked like the organizers arrived at a clever solution: to go just outside the Beijing Municipality limits to an international hotel complex in Yanjiao, Hebei province (effectively still the Beijing exurbs, but outside of the purview of the Beijing government). But that was also cancelled by the local government there, according to the organizers.
So, back to Songzhuang. In three days, the interior of the Li Xianting Film Fund headquarters, a small, charming courtyard complex, was completely remodeled into two screening rooms; offices were shunted into side buildings. The new screening spaces were modest in size but superbly equipped, with the highest quality projectors, sound, and computer-driven projection available.
So the opening night show did happen at Film Fund – that is until the cops showed up just at the conclusion of the opening ceremonies, before the screening of the opening film, Lee Yong’s Embracing Not Sleep. This led to more delays, with lots of negotiation, until the proceedings resumed, this time unofficially re-branded as a series of “private screenings” in exactly the same space. The opening film, which detailed, in fairly direct fashion, an erotic triangle between two male miners and the mistress of their exploitive boss, was not screened until the closing day of BIFF. The next two screenings scheduled for opening night did go ahead, but were delayed in the middle. This was a bit farcical: advance word of the cops return was received, whereupon the screenings stopped and the audiences trooped out to the open air courtyard where a spontaneous “party” was created, with lots of beer, roast lamb, and singing, all for show. The cops looked around, saw a party and left, and the screenings resumed.
I don’t want to make light of the official interruption of BIFF. This is the first time I’ve experienced something like this (though police raids on indie Chinese cinema events such as the first two editions of the Beijing Queer Film Festival are well documented). And there were serious consequences: the door to the Li Xianting compound was locked for a couple of days, to preserve the appearance of private screenings (all you had to do was knock to get in, though); press and publicity activities were severely curtailed. This had a definite effect on the size and makeup of the audience who did show. A black unmarked gongbao (Security Police) car parked just outside on the lane, maintaining a kind of lazy quasi-surveillance presence (a plainclothed secret police guy would leave for lunches and dinners, and sometimes chatted amiably enough with BIFF’s manager, who checked up on him each day). But after a few days the door was unlocked again, the car eventually left, and things continued undisturbed.
If this year’s BIFF was compelled to sacrifice audience size and broader public access (each room held at most 50 people, though more could be jammed in for particularly “hot” screenings), it didn’t sacrifice its program. Every film scheduled to be screened was shown, including controversial works like Wang Bing’s The Ditch, a fiction film about so-called rightists who were starved to death in Maoist labor camps in the early 1960s (this drew an absolutely packed house, and occasioned a very heated debate between audience members and Wang Bing himself, who came to defend his first work of fiction that night).
The degree of interference and surveillance was dependent on which level of government and police agency was involved. Local Songzhuang cops, apparently quite respectful of Li Xianting, stayed on that first evening but didn’t get involved (they drank a lot of beer in the courtyard while SMSing their superiors that all was well). The uniformed policemen from the raid took people’s names, because that was the bureaucratic thing to do. Gongbao (the secret police) watched from a distance. A district government cultural cadre did his pathetic best to fill the role of an official bully, yelling at the audiences (“What are you doing here?” “Everyone disperse!”) to no apparent effect. The overall result was to let the organizers and attendees feel a certain limited pressure. “We can make things difficult for you (but we’re not going to go as far as to shut you down)” was the mixed message most of us picked up.
One notable and very exciting new piece of infrastructure (though its construction was not related to BIFF’s last minute location scramble) is the Film Fund’s new digital film archive. Under the Fund’s manager Zhang Qi, substantial resources have been expended to design and equip this brilliant new resource on independent Chinese cinema. One can visit the Fund’s headquarters, sit at one of six newly equipped viewing stations and watch films streaming from their server. Most of this year’s BIFF films were available, with English subtitles; so are many films from past editions of BIFF and other works collected at the archive. Additional bilingual information is also available about the films and filmmakers. This works brilliantly as a festival video centre, and is also available for researchers who visit Songzhuang.
The story continues with the next installment: the China Independent Film Festival from Nanjing, where controversy emerged from within, rather than being imposed from the outside.