Leading Chinese indie film figure shares a sobering outlook

Zhang Xianmin

Zhang Xianmin

By Maya E. Rudolph

Zhang Xianmin, seminal figure of Chinese independent film, is getting ready to pass the torch. On a rare visit to New York City, Zhang spoke at Brooklyn’s Ran Tea House about the conditions that shaped Chinese independent cinema since its earliest days and the uncertain climb that lies ahead. One of the founders of the China Independent Film Festival in Nanjing and a preeminent driving force in the indie film scene since the 1990s, Zhang provided an account of the challenges facing CIFF, involving technology, artistry, and strategies for survival. Since 2003, CIFF has served as a rare bastion of discourse and growth for independent cinema in China, but recent government pressure has pushed the festival into a new phase. Skies—and screens—may be dark, but the forecast according to Zhang is one of decentralization of media and space, and a surge of fresh energy from a new generation of programmers and critics.

As one of the founding fathers of CIFF, producer of such films as Raised from Dust, Fujian Blue and Old Dog, a professor at Beijing Film Academy, actor, scholar, and critic, Zhang’s experience is a unique nexus of erudition and creativity. The event at Ran Tea House came off the heels of his participation in a conference at NYU entitled “Media & Asian Globalization: China and India, 1977-Present,” organized by Arvind Rajagopal of NYU’s Media, Culture, and Communication Department and Zhang Zhen of NYU’s Cinema Studies. Speaking alongside scholars of the Chinese Cinema community such as Chris Berry, Zhang engaged the room in a paperless presentation—preferring to riff, improvise, and tell the story of CIFF in his own vernacular.  “He didn’t need to refer to a paper,” said Zhou Xin, who organized the Ran Tea House event and is a masters student in NYU Cinema Studies, “it was fascinating.”

At his Ran Tea House lecture, Zhang remarked that CIFF owed much to the relatively brief but dense period of activity of indie film communities in China. Zhang described the roots of the indie film movement from the late 1980s when the demise of a poetry and literature movement among Chinese underground intellectuals gave birth to the first inklings of a film community. Working around their jobs at CCTV, burgeoning filmmakers such as Wu Wengguang, Wang Guangli and Shi Jian began to co-opt CCTV cameras and editing equipment for their own use, effectively initiating Chinese independent cinema as we know it today. Zhang spoke of the isolation experienced by filmmakers in those days, cut off from society and working at night, sometimes in remote locations, to bring untold stories to light.

According to Zhang, the first attempts to screen independent documentaries in China are not unlike the stutter steps of any maverick artist’s early career. There were quixotic attempts to promote work shunted by authorities (i.e. Shi Jian’s unsuccessful proposal to screen documentaries at Beijing’s Communications University in the early 90s) and engagements with international artists that effectively marginalized local filmmakers (In 1997, Frederick Wiseman was able to organize a documentary screening series in Beijing, but no Chinese works were included.). But by the 2000s, the fate of indie film in China was forever changed by DVD piracy and the subsequent widespread proliferation of international cinema in the country. The internet became a platform for discussion and promotion of films, while the expansion of digital cinema technology and a fast-growing university culture ushered in a “new situation of image creation.” In 2003, CIFF was founded as a discussion forum for filmmakers and grew over the course of nearly a decade to reach audiences of over 20,000 people and a worldwide reputation as a stronghold of independent voices in Chinese cinema. The story of CIFF is one of growth and promise, but it has also become a battleground in recent years—a place where cinema has come head-to-head with restrictions on “collective gathering” and ominous warnings from authorities.

Chinese indie film has come a long way from surreptitious CCTV editing sessions, but today it seems to find itself in a moment of crisis. Escalated government pressure and censure of events like CIFF, the Beijing Independent Film Festival, and the works of individual filmmakers like Ying Liang have placed creators and critics in a debilitated position.  “Many curators and filmmakers are a little tired,” Zhang admitted.  Producer and curator Zhu Rikun wrote in October 2012, “Although it seems that more people are interested in the country’s independent films and the critical reception is positive, they are misguided – the current state of independent cinema in China is far from ideal.” Both Zhu and Zhang express frustrations with self-censorship, the appropriation of the “independent” brand by those hoping to turn controversy into profit, and the increasingly sinister murkiness of risk and reward in the film community. “The crowd is the issue,” Zhang said, but also spoke of a messy confluence of “bullshitting businessmen” financing projects without integrity and distracting audiences from truly audacious filmmaking.

Still, there is a new wave afoot. Zhang speaks of the future of CIFF in terms of the audience and discussed a network of restructured festivals—with films distributed online and in smaller gatherings—and galvanizing a younger generation of curators and filmmakers to write the next chapter and seek future possibilities. Zhang emphasizes the importance of bolstering of domestic festivals for Chinese film communities and cultivating a strong domestic film community without overreliance on international festivals. “An international festival is like an exotic restaurant,” said Zhang, laying down his self-described “food metaphor,” “we need to learn to cook at home, to develop our own ‘food identity.’ We can’t just eat out at restaurants all the time. We need to cook for our own family.”

The future of Chinese indie cinema—and of Zhang’s involvement therein—may be fraught with challenges, but Zhang is looking ever forward, opening the question to a crowd of creative heirs. “Me and my colleagues are old fashioned and cinema was re-created after 2000,” Zhang told the audience at Ran. “We have now to ask ourselves now if the audience is the main purpose or not.” Responding to a question of future initiatives posed by event co-organizer Lesley Yiping Qin, Zhang addressed Qin, Zhou, and the young crowd of film students and aspiring film professionals gathered to hear him speak. “You will find the answer,” Zhang affirmed, “Not me. You will find the answer.”

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