Shelly on Film: Fall Festival Report, Part Two: Under Safe Cover, a Fierce Debate

By Shelly Kraicer

Shu Haolun's "No. 89 Shimen Road" won the top prize at CIFF, but wasn't shown on Awards Night.

The Nanjing-based China Independent Film Festival (28 October-1 November 2011), unlike the Beijing Independent Film Festival described previously, benefited from a substantial degree of official and semi-official “cover”. Unlike BIFF, there is a certain amount of practical compromise with official bodies and officially approved cinema: purity isn’t such an issue. Co-sponsors include the Nanjing University School of Journalism and Communication, The Communication University of China (Nanjing) and the RCM Museum of Modern Art. The second day of CIFF includes a forum attended by local propaganda department officials. A sidebar of the festival (nicknamed the “Longbiao Section” for the dragon-headed insignia that appears at the beginning of all officially approved film prints in China) included screenings in a luxurious commercial cinema of several films that that are strictly speaking non-independent (i.e. censor-approved) but are made in a spirit of independence. These films would not appear at BIFF, for example, but might show later in official venues like Beijing’s Broadway Cinematheque MOMA, where approved “arthouse cinema” (i.e. non-commercial) finds a refuge in Beijing.

The core of CIFF, though, consists of four sections of new “unapproved” films: the feature film competition; a carefully curated set of documentary features — split in two, a “Top 10 Documentaries of the Year” section, and a set of new documentaries (the next ten best?); 2 sets of short fiction films; and two programmes of experimental films. Other sidebars included four films from Caochangdi Workstation’s Folk Memory Project and a Goethe Institute-sponsored set of films from the Oberhausen International Short Film Festival.

Pema Tseden's "Old Dog" was screened in place of "No. 89 Shimen Road"

As with BIFF, CIFF’s selection of new features was problematic: there has been a worrying dearth of excellent, festival-worthy new Chinese indie fiction features the past year and a half (with a few notable exceptions: in particular a mini flowering of Tibetan language features led by Pema Tseden and Sonthar Gyal). And I think the awards reflected this. The jury (directors Wu Wenguang & Zhang Ming, NYU professor Angela Zito, novelist Sun Ganlu, and curator/critic Li Xianting) gave their Grand Prize to Shanghai director Shu Haolun’s bold first fiction feature No. 89 Shimen Road. That film’s direct evocation of the June 4 1989 Tiananmen protest movement, however, may have caused a slight programming hitch. The winning competition film is usually given a final prominent screening following the awards ceremony. This time, CIFF replaced it, for “technical reasons”, with one of the Jury Prize winners: Pema Tseden’s very fine Old Dog. The other jury prize winner was Wang Chao’s welcome return to independent filmmaking Celestial Kingdom, a rather conceptual work of fiction infused with a kind of cold moral fury at Chinese society’s moral collapse.

Though there were some stunning experimental features (expect to see a few at prominent international film festivals coming soon), most of the action and controversy revolved around the new documentaries. This is where heart and soul of Chinese indie filmmaking lives today. There is what one could call a mainstream school of Chinese “realistic” documentaries — let’s call them ultra-realistic docs — that dominates today, both in film festivals in China and overseas, and that preoccupies the academic, theoretical, critical discussion that has flourished around Chinese documentary filmmaking.

Briefly (and I know I’m oversimplifying, but I plan to write more extensively on this later), this school is derived from direct cinema, under the aegis of the cinemas of Frederick Wiseman and Ogawa Shinsuke. These filmmakers strive for a seemingly transparent, so-called direct representation of “truth” and “reality”, unmediated by authorial (i.e subjective) intervention. Their inspiration can be historical, archival or ethnographic, with filmmakers immersing themselves for months or even years in the lives of their subjects, then emerging with often very long documentaries that transform their experiences into cinema with minimal “subjective” distortions. Issues of ethics then emerge: the relative positions of the filmmaker and subject (are filmmakers intellectuals looking down on grassroots subjects from a position of “superiority”?); issues of consent and (mutual, explicit, endorsed) exploitation; the ethics of representation of the other; and the rights of audiences, directors, subjects, and so-called experts to challenge all these things. A refreshingly different school, recently activated in Chinese indie doc circles and in evidence at this year’s CIFF, takes documentaries as strictly personal, autobiographical, even prima facie solipsistic texts, and films and edits accordingly, highlighting the presence of the filmmaker and the interaction between what’s in front of and who’s behind the camera. This obviates a host of problems outlined above, but introduces its own very different issues of aesthetic criteria, social relevance, and moral obligation.

The filmmakers' declaration posted at CIFF (photo: Cinemascope Magazine)

These issues boiled over in a striking way at CIFF. As I reported in Cinemascope, a seminar on documentary ethics, attended by theoreticians, critics, and filmmakers, drew the lines, as directors struck back (verbally, though forcefully) at the academics for attempting to control the discourse around their films. The next day, we had something like a dazibao moment: dazibao are literally “big character posters”, like the kind Chinese Maoist youth used to use to denounce their counterrevolutionary elders 40 years ago or, perhaps more to the point, like the posters that appeared denouncing lack of democratic progress at the Democracy Wall during the so-called “Beijing Spring” in late December 1978. Many of the documentary directors, along with festival staff and audience members, worked to produce a two page declaration rebutting what they saw as an unwelcome academic hegemony over their art. The manifesto (titled Shamans ∑ Animals) was posted outside the closing ceremony hall and distributed by hand (I translated the document into English at Cinemascope). And the controversy continues: someone else will have to summarize the final chapter of this continuing debate. Those of us attending the CIFF closing ceremony cum late-night party could see, through a glass door, an intense meeting taking place in an adjacent room, where the filmmakers and critics were still at it, continuing to hash out and perhaps resolve some of their differences.

It’s striking to see how critically engaged cinematic discourse is with Chinese politics and culture at the present moment: when nervous, insecure officials feel the need to interfere; and where practitioners and analysts engage with anger and passion. After just a month watching movies in China, it’s hard to imagine a national cinema where the stakes are higher right now.

Tags: , , , , , , , ,