No Turning Back: A Report from The Flaherty Seminar at the Bishan Harvest Festival

By Mary Kerr

Teng Hai’s LCD installation helps light the darkness at the Bishan Harvest Festival (photo: Ou Ning)

Mary Kerr is the former Executive Director of the Robert Flaherty Film Seminar, one of the most longstanding institutions supporting non-fiction filmmaking around the world, primarily through its annual seminar held in upstate New York. Mary recently returned from a trip to China, where she organized a Flaherty Seminar in partnership with the Bishan Harvest Festival, only to witness the Festival’s cancellation under unclear circumstances. The following is Mary’s report on her experiences.

The Flaherty Film Seminar had been researching the idea of producing a mini-Flaherty Seminar in China ever since Chinese documentarian Zhao Dayong (Street Life, Ghost Town) presented at the 2010 Robert Flaherty Film Seminar and told his US distributor Karin Chien, that it was an inspiring and informative event, unlike any other he had experienced in China. I went to China in October 2011 with Karin to look into the possibility of doing a Seminar and struck up a partnership with curator, academic, and documentary producer Zhang Xianmin, who was determined to help us. After realizing how difficult it would be to produce our own documentary event in the midst of a politically sensitive environment in China, we happily accepted an invitation to screen Seminar works within the confines of the Bishan Harvest Festival.

The first Bishan Harvest Festival took place last year in Bishan Village in Anhui Province, an area famous for its rural village architecture, which has all but disappeared elsewhere in China. The festival highlights documentary films and other art forms, which focus on traditional rural culture in China. Ou Ning, filmmaker, artist, and the festival’s curator, requested that the Flaherty bring several American films to China which revolve around agriculture. I had the perfect films in mind – Sweetgrass, by Lisa Barbash and Lucien Castaing-Taylor, about sheep ranching in the American west, and Cotton Road, a work-in-progress by Laura Kissel, which traces the production of cotton from the fields of the Southern US to the clothing factories of China. We would also screen Robert Flaherty’s Louisiana Story and The Land, which was originally commissioned by the US Department of Agriculture.

Hurricane Sandy almost got in the way of our mission, but Lisa, Laura, and I all managed to fly from the East Coast on Oct. 31 with only slight delays and met up for one night’s stay in Shanghai before traveling together to Huangshan for the festival. At the Shanghai airport, I was told that my ticket for the single daily flight to Huangshan had been cancelled, but eventually I ran to the gate with boarding pass in hand, and found Lisa and Laura anxiously awaiting my arrival. It was not until we were safely buckled in our seats that I finally was able to reach our China contact by phone – and who informed me that the Bishan Harvest Festival (and the concurrent Yixian International Photo Festival) were cancelled! No other information was available except that we would still be picked up at the Huangshan airport. At this point, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry – I chose to laugh, but only on the inside.

Even though it was upsetting news for us, I had to believe that there was some sort of serendipity in the fact that we didn’t find out about the cancellation until there was no turning back. We hesitantly embraced our adventure into the unknown. As promised, we were met at the airport, taken to our hotel to drop our bags off, and then driven to Ou Ning’s house in Bishan. We were told that because of the 18th Chinese National Congress, no gatherings of more than 50 people were allowed – this is actually a permanent law in China, although it’s rarely enforced. There was also news of a journalist from Anhui Province who died a few nights before of apparent overdrinking. This had many people wondering what the real story could have been behind the cancellation.

The Harvest Festival is part of the Bishan Commune project started by Ou Ning and writer/curator Zuo Jing. It is a group of artists and intellectuals who devote themselves to the rural reconstruction movement in China, a movement not necessarily welcomed by the local governments, as there is very little money to be made in slow growth and preservation efforts. The central government in China however, is a bit more supportive knowing that if cities keep expanding, encroaching on land from the countryside, it will lead to social unrest, as farmers today are more aware of their rights than they were in the past.

Bishan is one of several small villages in Yixian County; not too long ago, UNESCO added two of these villages to the World Cultural Heritage site. Now all villages except for Bishan charge an admission fee to enter (100 RMB/about $15). That is why Ou Ning chose Bishan as his base – he does not believe in the type of tourism model which ultimately creates a voyeuristic society. The artists and intellectuals that Ou Ning invited to the festival, he hoped, might be able to develop better models for economic development in Bishan, rather than just tourism. “Cities are enticing more and more people to move there for a better life and they are not only depleting the villages of their labor force, but also of their intellectual pool,” Ou Ning said. Bishan will soon open its first book shop, and one of its largest businesses to date is the newly renovated Pig’s Inn, a beautiful old village home converted into a restaurant and hotel; the only problem is that it’s run by outsiders. What Ou Ning wants to do is engage local people to move back home after they leave for university and open up businesses like these on their own. Ou Ning himself is an outsider, not from Bishan, and though he has not set up any money-making businesses of his own, his not-for-profit is based there, and helps and encourages locals to start their own enterprises.

In lieu of the festival, we were able to more closely and profoundly experience many of the exhibitions that had already been installed, and thankfully, were a little slow to be dismantled. We learned about one spontaneous project from Teng Hai, a Taiwanese architect who came to Bishan a month before to install an exhibition; he noticed the need for lighting throughout the very dark and narrow streets of the village. He had gone to a local official to say he had fallen and hurt his knee due to the darkness, and wondered if there was something that could be done before the arrival of many important international artists. He came back to the official with a plan to install a string of LED lights encased in plastic tubing and even did a test run for the villagers to gain their support and approval. And so it was agreed upon – the lights would be installed and plugged into homes of the villagers, who would be compensated for their electricity. What I had first thought was just a beautiful art installation leading the way from one festival venue to another turned out to be a functional solution to a long-running problem in Bishan. Teng Hai’s hope was that the 4-5 km. of lighting would be the first step to getting better, more permanent lighting throughout the streets of Bishan, and he hoped they would remain in place at least until they were naturally destroyed by the elements.

Another spontaneous occurrence was that we were able to screen Lisa Barbash’s film Sweetgrass after all – in the courtyard of Ou Ning’s house. About 25 interns, villagers, and other “stranded” artists turned out for the screening and the questions continued for days for Lisa after the official Q&A was over; she had many great exchanges about the disappearing occupation of sheep herding, as well as the art of filmmaking. There are other accounts of our amazing Bishan experiences outlined in reports written by Lisa and Laura on the Flaherty website.

Before we left Bishan, I wanted to ask Ou Ning about how much we could make public about what went on at the “non-festival,” and I wanted to get a clearer picture of why the festival was cancelled, or at least what his thoughts or interpretations were, as nothing is as it seems in China. He said that there are no secrets, nothing to hide. The cancellation of the two festivals is just part of the Chinese reality and that’s why he moved back to the countryside in the first place – to create change. “If you want to do something, create an event, especially an ongoing event, you need to take care to build at least some kind of relationship with the government, and not to be the enemy,” Ou Ning said. “If you can handle the relationship with the local officials, you can get more space to do what you set out to do. To protest actually makes no sense. If you protest and fight against them, you totally lose your space.” He continued, “Today, China does not need a revolution; the social cost of a revolution would be too high. If a lot of people do the small things, it would become a big thing. It would cause an evolution, instead of revolution.”

When asked if he would take on the challenge again for next year for the Bishan Harvest Festival, he thought hard and said, “I won’t stop. I will continue to stay here and communicate with the local government to change their ideas step by step. Some of them live in these streets, and actually some local leaders like us and appreciate our work very much.” He pointed out that even though the festival was cancelled, he was able to organize several unofficial gatherings instead.

As for Ou Ning’s thoughts on why the festival was really cancelled, he stated it was because the local officials were afraid for the safety of the hundreds or thousands that would descend upon Bishan and the other surrounding villages. Concern for media attention on the death of the journalist was apparently not an issue. They were more worried that more people would be injured from excessive drinking or from the safety of the venues, as many of the exhibition sites were in old houses or family temples; and then of course there are the dark streets where people were known to fall. Unfortunately, the lighting tubes lining the streets were soon dismantled along with the exhibitions, and in doing so, gave us a firsthand look at how truly dark and dangerous the streets were without them.

It is my perception that the cancelled version of the Bishan Harvest Festival turned out to be much more akin to a real Flaherty Seminar experience than had the festival taken place in its intended form. What we witnessed was the deep and intimate sharing of ideas similar to what happens at the Seminar during the meals, parties, and walks between venues, i.e. outside of the formal schedule. I even imagine it might have been comparable to the first few Flaherty Seminars held over 55 years ago at the Flaherty farm in Vermont, which gathered not just filmmakers, but also artists, writers and musicians. Though I wonder how amazing the festival might have been if it had been allowed to happen, I also can’t imagine having a more wonderful experience than we did. I look forward to returning to Bishan for the next edition of the Harvest Festival and will no longer fear the thought of cancellation.

  • berger, a

    i wish i had been there. sounds like it was really interesting.

  • Jill Orschel

    What an adventure! And, I love Ou Ning’s approach of “evolution, instead of revolution” in China.

  • Dan

    Thanks for the account of your visit! It’s a great shame the festival was cancelled, but Ou Ning is a great thinker and facilitator who will no doubt continue to make things happen.