Seeing “China Now”: An interview with Shelly Kraicer on Chinese female directors at the Udine Far East Film Festival

The Udine Far East Film Festival (FEFF) kicked off its twentieth edition this past April, bringing a diverse spectrum of Asian cinema and cultural events to the small city of Udine, Italy. With events ranging from screening of thrillers still sizzling at the Korean box office to Cosplay competitions, the festival was energized by the rallying call of its co-director Sabrina Baracetti: “Viva all cultura libera!” In the midst of a rich program of Asian genre cinema and hot-ticket blockbusters, the festival was proud to feature a wholly non-commercial sidebar: an independent selection of Chinese independent films curated by Shelly Kraicer and featuring work from some of Chinese independent film’s strongest female voices.

Zhang Mengqi's "Self-Portrait: Birth at 47KM"

Zhang Mengqi’s “Self-Portrait: Birth at 47KM”

Borne out of the 2015-16 Cinema on the Edge screening series co-organized by dGenerate Films, the series “China Now: Not For Commercial Use” sought a rare opportunity to showcase four often difficult, sometimes experimental, boldly independent Chinese films. As curator Shelly Kraicer wrote of the program “China Now: Not For Commercial Use”, “Chinese films of ‘no commercial value’, like the four we are featuring in this little sidebar, help complement a fuller, richer picture of what Chinese filmmakers are capable of. And they give us, in the West, a richer view of the fabulous energy, creativity, and innovation that’s still pulsing through the Chinese cinema world.”

“China Now” featured films exclusively by women directors telling the stories of China’s women and girls. In the documentary Self-Portrait: Birth in 47km by Zhang Mengqi, the seventh in a series of “self-portraits” Zhang has completed since 2010 as part of the Wu Wengguang-mentored Caochangdi Workstation Folk Memory Project, Zhang returns again to her rural Hubei hometown village to capture the oral histories of survivors of the Great Famine of 1959-1961. Self-Portrait: Birth in 47km, which made its US premiere at the 2018 True/False Film Festival, is a deeply personal investigation into the labor that extends far beyond the trauma of childbirth and the enduring pain of generations of women still hollowed by memories of famine and the brutish indifference of history. The program featured the latest narrative feature by director Huang Ji (Egg and Stone). The 2017 coming-of-age narrative Foolish Bird tells the story of sideways survival and dead-ends as two teenage girls “left behind” try to forge a future in a Zhuhai village. Finally, the narrative short film Canton Novelty by Fang Lu and Xiao Yu‘s experimental short 25, brought audiences closer to the lives of young Chinese women coping with friendship, illness, and the uncertain future. Speaking to the decision to program a full slate of works by female filmmakers, Kraicer wrote,”For this spotlight on Chinese non-commercial cinema, why not show women holding up not just half, but the entire cinematic sky? Amidst the continuing impressive creative activity of Chinese art/indie/non-commercial filmmakers, it’s arguable that films by women have been in the vanguard in the past few years.”

Huang Ji's "Foolish Bird"

Huang Ji’s “Foolish Bird”

dGenerate Film’s Karin Chien chatted with Shelly Kraicer about the challenges of introducing independent films to a devoted genre audience, and the gradual shift of genre films from “midnight” sidebars to mainstream festival fare.

Karin Chien: This is the third year you’ve programmed a sidebar program for the Far East Film Festival in Udine, Italy. Can you talk about the films you chose for “China Now: Not For Commercial Use”? Why these films, for example, what drew you as a curator to these films?

Shelly Kraicer: This year, we followed the “sampler” model for “China Now: Not For Commercial Use” that the Far East Film Festival head Sabrina Baracetti originally suggested when I started in 2016. She wanted me to bring a small, carefully chosen, representative selection of recent Chinese independent films to Udine to feature them in a sidebar, for Udine FEFF audiences who are genre film devotees but may also be interested in Chinese indies, or for hard core “Asian genre film” fans who just feel like taking advantage of the increasingly broad palette of films FEFF has been featuring in recent years, and would like to try experimenting with a bit of the independent Chinese cinema space. As a “sampler”, we thought I should model the selection on a kind of menu approach, to represent different kinds of Chinese independent film work. So, I offer one fiction feature, one documentary feature, one live action short, and one experimental short. Huang Ji’s Foolish Bird is an outstanding fiction film from China that, after its premiere at the Berlinale last year, was temporarily not available for screenings, due to a complicated situation securing the necessary authorization to be screened abroad and at home. That situation was resolved enough to let us show it, and I was thrilled that we could bring her intensely personal voice and brave, vital commitment to socially engaged story telling to Udine.

Zhang Mengqi’s brilliant documentary Self-Portrait: Birth at 47KM grows out of vitally important Caochangdi Workstation Folk Memory Project. But Zhang brings her own control of image design, a really fundamental commitment to beautiful cinematography as well as honest realistic documentary filmmaking to all her work, and especially this one. So it’s a natural choice to bring her voice, and that of the FMP to Far East Film Festival audiences.

Canton Novelty is an extraordinary short narrative fantasy film from an artist Fang Lu whose works have only shown in galleries before, but this story of three women dissolving and re-creating nighttime Guangzhou with their magic iPhones is subversive, funny, and very accessible. Finally, Xiao Yao’s experimental short piece 25 won the best experimental film prize at the China Independent Film Festival in 2016, and brings semi-abstract images together with a searingly emotional theme of inter-generational mourning. Four utterly different films by for independent Chinese women artist/filmmakers I think makes at the same time a very provocative and attractive package to present at the Far East Film Festival.

KC: At a film festival celebrating genre filmmaking, can you talk about this special sidebar of films “not for commercial use?” How did it come to be? Are there other festivals or venues where can we find this kind of cinema from mainland China?

SK: It’s interesting to find this kind of sidebar at Udine, which was founded and original designed to be a platform for the kinds of commercial and genre films from East Asian countries that didn’t used to find places in international film festivals, 20 years ago and more. The landscape of festivals’ selections, and in particular the major “art film” festivals’ attitudes towards genre cinema from Hong Kong, South Korea, and Japan in particular has undergone a significant change since then. First in “midnight extreme” sidebars (not without a certain unfortunate aroma of exorcized orientalizing ghettoization) these kind of films started infiltrating Toronto, Cannes, Venice, and Berlin. And then migrated to the “main selections” and competitions of these festivals, as fences these gatekeeping festivals had erected around films from these countries became gradually more permeable.

And, I think in response to these changes in the festival landscape, the Udine Far East Film Festival also sought ways to broaden their programming, finding space for documentaries, more research-oriented retrospectives of arthouse and commercial directors, and the like. In this context, it seemed natural that Sabrina Baracetti and Thomas Bertache were also willing to make room for me to offer them a small sidebar of Chinese indies. I had worked for several years previously at FEFF as one of their consultants for China, while I lived in Beijing. And Thomas and Sabrina were both very interested in the work I did as part of Cinema On The Edge, with you Karin and J.P. Sniadecki, arranging a substantial screening series in 2015-2016 of recent Chinese cinema in New York and then touring it to many cities around the world. So it was a very happy circumstance that brought me back to FEFF as a curator of this “non-commercial” cinema sidebar, and I’m thrilled to have had the opportunity to offer it to Far East audiences for the past three years.