Shelly on Film: The Film Festival That Wasn’t

By Shelly Kraicer

Since the story made various international news outlets late last month, you may already have heard of the cancellation of this year’s DOChina, the independent documentary film festival scheduled for May 1 to May 7 in Songzhuang, an artists’ village in the suburb of Beijing. Well, it was cancelled, but a number of us still made the one and a half hour trek to Songzhuang, whether out of habit or hope that there would be some films waiting for us.

DOChina was supposed to have screened 26 films to its usual audience of Beijingers, filmmakers, Songzhuang residents, and a number of foreign guests (programmers, researchers, film institute reps) who come to form a regular audience. Alas, this was not to be. Several levels of government, represented at a surprisingly high level, made it clear to the sponsoring organisation of the festival, Li Xianting’s Film Fund that this was not the right time for an independent organization to screen Chinese films that the state has not authorized. The Film Fund organizers, unwilling to have their films vetted in advance, chose to call off the festival.

Various reasons were given for why this was precisely the “wrong time” to hold the festival. There are of course the Arab popular democratic uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Libya, Oman, and Syria, which the Chinese government can’t help but find relevant to their own situation. There are the recent sporadic, low-key Sunday afternoon “walks” in crowded districts of major cities, which so far seem only to have inspired large contingents of security agents and foreign reporters to congregate and observe each other (or interact in less friendly ways). There is the detention and disappearance of Ai Weiwei, some of his staff, and subsequent detention of five Songzhuang performance artists in the weeks before DOChina was to start.

And there was the coincidental timing of the 1st annual Beijing International Film Festival (April 23-28), in many ways the opposite of DOChina. The BIFF bestrode the capital with glossy, state-sponsored, high-budget and high profile media-driven events, attended by a galaxy of prominent foreign representatives from overseas film festivals and other organizations. (Apparently even a few film screenings, though these were more or less buried amidst the hoopla). Add to that the fact that DOChina, always good at keeping just the right kind of low profile to function the way it wanted, had been on the radar of the national government since an incident from two years ago, when two American film makers scheduled to attend were denied visas, prompting an inquiry from a foreign reporter at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs press conference. In light of so many bad bellwethers, organizers said they were in fact not surprised that this edition of their festival had to be called off.

What happened instead? An opening banquet, attended by the festival staff, filmmakers associated with past editions of the festival and foreign guests. In a strange twist, graciously footing the bill were jovial representatives of the local government (including a table of heavyset guys in the corner, whose serious mien didn’t exactly fit the profile of a Songzhuang artist type). Our host officials had a slightly less charming follow-up act. Starting the next day, some foreign guests staying in the Songzhuang guesthouse had a none-too-discreet escort in the form of plainclothes cops following them through the town. Impressively (from the point of view of the manpower available for a trivial surveillance duty like this one), one of the cops spoke English well enough to have a brief chat with one of my colleagues who was out for a stroll.

Over the next few days, we could meet several of the filmmakers whose films had been scheduled, and we could watch a few of their films on DVDs on a TV set. (The screening rooms were strictly off limits.) There were opportunities to talk with the director afterwards, usually around meals. So on a makeshift scale, something like the standard festival “screening + Q&A” format materialized. These small gatherings were good for the directors to receive feedback and for visitors to learn more about the directors’ work. But this was not a film festival by any means.

DOChina was neither revolutionary nor radical. The organizers are savvy, and know when it’s time to press forward, and when it’s time to take a temporary step back. A very similar event might reappear later in a somewhat different incarnation, in a less sensitive location (i.e. one far from the capital), with a different name. For now, I hope this step back will lead to a stronger, more vibrant, even more independent China Documentary Film Festival in the future.

Tags: , , , , ,