Opening Ceremony of the 7th China Independent Film Festival in Nanjing (photo courtesy of CIFF)
By Shelly Kraicer
While attending the China Independent Film Festival last month in Nanjing (October 2010), I was invited to give a talk the next morning at the International Youth Art Film Summit Forum, a symposium for young directors organized by the Festival and Nanjing University. I couldn’t really decline, especially since I was benefiting from the CIFF’s generous hospitality and its wonderful programming. The problem: “forums” like these in the Chinese film festival context are rather more like formal ceremonies, featuring a series of presiding officials who drone out banal speeches welcoming the scholars and celebrating young Chinese directors’ unbridled creativity.
Various foreign guests are typically invited to give what (is hoped) are equally generic talks outlining their respective institutions and their wholesome and uncomplicated eagerness to cooperate with China, Chinese directors, and Chinese cinema institutions. I was advised to do likewise. I came up with something that I hoped might interest or at least not bore some of these young filmmakers who were supposed to be in the audience. My talk was called “The Use and Abuse of Chinese Cinema (in the West)”. Since it was to be an eight minute speech (including translation, I think I went a bit over), I boiled it down to a list of seven abuses.
What follows below is a recreation from memory of the speech I gave, somewhat expanded from the original version. I’ve also added various clarifications (and complications), and the examples not included in the speech itself (as I was advised not to name specific films in front of officials). I’ve set off these extra sections by italicizing them, so what I hope results is something like a text that alternates between more formal discourse and a parallel informal stream of commentary that supplements, qualifies and even challenges my main argument.
I start with a question: why do western film festivals need Chinese cinema? Films from the People’s Republic of China are eagerly sought after by festivals around the world, enjoy a generous portion of festivals’ programming slots, and receive a substantial share of prestigious competition prizes. This doesn’t happen by accident. The international festival system does not privilege films on the basis of “excellence” alone. Complex questions of power, commercial viability, and national self-representation come into play. So, phrased another way, the question becomes: What functions — political, commercial, and cultural — does Chinese cinema serve in the western festival and distribution system? How are these films used, what interests does programming them serve?