Chinese independent cinema as a film movement has been regenerated at various socio-historical conjunctures throughout the past twenty years. Nowadays, some independent filmmakers take the trouble to obtain the official screening permit from the Film Bureau of the SARFT (State Administration of Radio, Film and Television). Interestingly, such manoeuvres render almost obsolete the controversies of “moving-above-ground”, triggered by Jia Zhangke, Wang Xiaoshuai, and Lou Ye’s first legitimised films around 2004-05. At the same time, it is no longer surprising that grassroots level, independent cinema-oriented film festivals have been held in major cities in Mainland China, though they cannot actually include words such as dianyingjie (literally meaning “film festival”) in their titles, a situation Chris Berry in his 2009 coverage of Nanjing’s China Independent Film Festival rhetorically questioned as “When is a Film Festival not a Film Festival?” (1) While the municipalities of Shanghai and Beijing rival to treat the world with their state-sanctioned, pompously staged, star-studded film festivals of international magnitude, grassroots indie festivals constitute a separate network, exhibiting gems of Chinese indie cinema. Additionally, these festivals have provided vital platforms for indie filmmakers to directly engage with the domestic audience as well as critics, programmers, potential buyers etc. Tricks of naming help to dodge troublesome censorship procedures for a “film festival”, but pressure from the Party-state still haunts, if not pervades, these semi-underground film events.
Power On, Power Off
Geopolitical imbalance somehow exists among China’s indie festivals. For instance, festivals in Western China such as Chongqing (Chongqing Independent Film & Video Festival) and Kunming (the biennial Yunnan Multi Culture Visual Festival) have experienced less political interference. Evidently, the festival organisers have their own tactics for dealing with the local governments. Both based at Songzhuang, Beijing’s largest artist commune located in the eastern suburban area of Tongzhou, the Beijing Independent Film Festival (BiFF, since 2006) and the China Documentary Film Festival (DOChina, since 2003) were forced to cancel their events in the wake of Ai Weiwei’s arrest in April 2011.
Merging programs of both BiFF and DOChina, the 9th Beijing Independent Film Festival (BIFF) has been regarded as a refreshing start rather than the makeshift format coping with the official’s heavy-handed interference, according to the festival’s newly-appointed art director Dong Bingfeng. BIFF is funded and organised by the non-profit Li Xianting’s Film Fund (LFF), with art critic Li Xianting its head. Li’s “godfather” status in Chinese contemporary art and his connection with various bureaucratic bodies have, to a great extent, facilitated the realisation of BIFF this year.
Before its commencement, the festival publicised its screening schedule mainly via social networks, such as Weibo (a microblog, the so-called Chinese Twitter), and media websites, such as the liberal Southern Weekly, which gestured to the authorities that the event was by no means an “underground” one. The line-up had three major competition sections: Fiction (29 films), Experimental Film (31 films) and Documentary (15 films); also another 14 documentaries are selected for exhibition. Though a considerable number of titles are from Mainland China, which is common practice for such indie festivals, there were also works from Taiwan, Japan, France, Georgia and the USA. This year, a special section was dedicated to documentary filmmaker J.P. Sniadecki aka Shi Jiepeng, a PhD student of Anthropology from Harvard University. Meanwhile, cinema forums and talks covering topics from aesthetics and ethics to productions were scheduled; presenters included film scholars, journalists, curators/programmers as well as filmmakers from home and abroad. Again, permission was not sought from the Film Bureau, with festival organisers arguing that they don’t believe only government officials can determine the destiny of such an indie film event. Li Xianting believes that the festival presents films that are essentially different from the mainstream, the commercial films shown at movie theatres with state approval, and that the personal works favoured by festivals should not have to be sanctioned to exist.
On the Opening Night, on 18 August, at the Songzhuang Art Museum, Li Xianting and festival director Wang Hongwei walked barefoot onto the borrowed red carpet to deliver their opening speech to around 500 attendees. The opening film was Egg and Stone, which had won a Tiger Award at this year’s Rotterdam film festival. Huang Ji’s debut feature deals with the “left behind” children in rural China: with her parents migrating to work in the city, protagonist Honggui is forced to live with her relatives; reticent and feeling isolated, she also has to cope with the fear of sexual assault.
However, the screening was abruptly interrupted by a power shutdown. Local officials later denied that they cut the power, but on the Weibo-sphere, it was naturally assumed that the national security bureau was behind the outage “accident”. Festival organisers also confirmed prior to the opening that they had received calls suggesting the event be cancelled. Beijing Film Academy’s professor Hao Jian complained on Weibo that, even before the opening ceremony, the gate to the Art Museum had been blocked by plain-clothes representatives of the “relevant bureaus”, who stopped more people from entering.
Following the power shutdown, all screenings were moved to the LFF office, housing two temporarily converted screening rooms (capacity 20 and 40, respectively). Owned by Li Xianting, the office is a courtyard house with several connecting brick rooms; pond, trees and garden included. Although guests and attendees felt things were “business as usual” at the new venues, the festival had to demonstrate to Big Brother that the screenings had become internal and private. In the Foreword of the festival catalogue, Li proposes that, by holding such festivals, Chinese independent cinema should shift its agenda from building up a “small circle” (xiaoquanzi) to nurturing a “micro-environment” (xiaohuanjing), by breaking away from isolationism and positively engaging with society. Yet one can’t help but observe that the forced option of watching indie films in the walled and gated courtyard also mirrors the dilemma that such an independent-meant-for-public film event is enmeshed in.
Made in Caochangdi: Documentaries of the Folk Memory Project
Three documentaries from Caochangdi Station’s Folk Memory Project were presented at the festival. Apart from Wen Hui, filmmakers Zou Xueping and Luo Bing both had their works in competition. Initiated in 2010 by leading independent documentary filmmaker Wu Wenguang, the Folk Memory Project could be considered a participatory art project in which around 20 participants (age range 19-60) revisit their home villages to carry out interviews with senior villagers in order to create an oral history on the Great Chinese Famine of 1958-61. According to Wu, most participants are the “post-‘80 generation” who have a vision for documentary filmmaking, though are not necessarily professionally trained. Armed with digital video cameras throughout their village stay, these young participants have to decode a history they haven’t actually experienced, while for the individual villagers who bore witness to the traumas, the history is convoluted and ferocious, and must be kept silent. Based on accumulated and archived data and documents, the Project draws on various art forms such as documentary, contemporary dance, theatre and installation to engage with the somewhat evasive subject. Even nowadays, considerable numbers of village interviewees still consider it a taboo to touch on the mistakes and failures in the mass movements mobilised by the communist party in the Mao Era.
In Listening to Third Grandmother’s Stories, Wen Hui visits one of her distant relatives, the Third Grandmother (san’nainai) in a remote southwestern Chinese village. What is as gripping as the 83 year-old reminiscences about the ups-and-downs of her once-prominent family during the Land Reform is how Wen juxtaposes segments, for instance where she improvises to interact with the old lady via bodily performance. Contrary to most people’s expectation that an illiterate grandma would resist the camera and Wen’s bizarre artistic impulses, she oozes confidence of an innocent type: talking, smiling, posing and performing. In fact, she is almost fearless. As the documentary implies, the old lady finds that to be remembered is the happiest thing, after all.
A sequel to her previous documentary Hungry Village (2010), Zou Xueping’s Satiated Village is, in a sense, a meta-project. In her third documentary, Zou returns to her home village in Shandong province, proposing a screening of Hungry Villagefor the village folk and asks for their permission to show the documentary abroad. She has to, on the one hand, resist the pressure from unsupportive parents regarding her career path, and on the other hand, negotiate the self-doubt triggered by the older generation’s strong opposition to her decision to screen the film abroad, either because of political reasons, or for fear of “disgracing the motherland”. Interestingly, in her confrontations within and outside the family, Zou’s most steadfast supporter is her 8 year-old niece. Highly conscious of and somehow entertaining her multihyphenate director /camera operator / editor, Zou knows all too well how to make full use of the DIY methodology. She holds her DVcam in anticipation of the touching moments when the aging villagers try to recognise their own faces printed on the Memory Project’s pamphlets. The camera also captures the lively moments of the filmmaker encouraging young village kids to participate in the post-screening discussion. By engaging several generations of villagers with the controversy of screening Hungry Village abroad (which means the foreign world would come to know about the peasants’ sufferings and humiliations in the Great Famine), Zou perceptively parallels layered opinions and arguments between opposing sides. As her screening plan progresses, she further teases out her fellow villagers’ unstated motivations and ideological blind spots, indicating somewhat what the filmmaker finds most problematic with their thoughts and spirits. While refraining from endorsing either opinion or jumping to judgment, Zou’s self-reflexive techniques of exposing tense discussions with her parents and laying bare her conflicting and hesitant moments have opened up, rather than limited possibilities to wrestle with the thorny, weighty subjects of memory and trauma.
In his documentary debut Luo Village: Ren Dingqi and Me, Luo Bing is curious about the fact that his neighbour Ren Dingqi, a villager in his late 70s who received little education, has written a memoir about his whole life. Whereas other villagers are hesitant or no longer capable of offering oral accounts of the famine years, Ren backs up Luo and introduces him to key witnesses for the interview. Obviously, Luo relies on Ren to get access to the past and a muted history, but the neighbour wavers in his determination. Why does Ren hesitate to show the filmmaker his memoir? Does this memoir even exist? Obsessed with these questions and lost in contradictory beliefs, Luo repeatedly reconstructs and deconstructs his doubts via the voiceover. The camera sometimes assumes the subjective point-of-view to sneak into Ren’s dusty, somehow dilapidated attic to search for him and his memoir, a search that ends up in vain, suggesting the phantasmal nature of the repressed, elusive historical truth.
In the Q&A sessions for the Caochangdi documentaries some people in the audience expressed concern regarding the relationship between the young filmmakers (among themselves as well) and their mentors — especially Wu Wenguang — in terms of the collective/authority’s influence upon the individual’s artistic practice. Partially it is because that throughout the filmmaking process, the participants were required to actively engage with each other, exchange ideas and offer constructive feedback on each project. What is as fascinating as the works themselves is the working methods of the participating artists, helping to redefine and rethink the individuality of an auteur in such a long-term collaborative project. It may be flattering to conclude that both Zou and Luo’s documentary films present something new and refreshing compared to those who are already “rotten and stale”, to quote one commentator at the Q&A, however their practices, as guided by Caochangdi’s motto of “Take Action First”, has added new dimensions in the activist impulses in Chinese indie documentaries. Days later at BIFF’s cinema forum, film scholar Zhang Zhen from NYU also considered the Folk Memory Project documentaries a prominent embodiment of the Chinese activist documentaries.
L’Enfant Terrible II
On the sixth day of the festival, 23 August, a notice was posted on the wooden gate of the LFF Office, formally announcing the closing of BIFF. All screenings at the LFF Office were terminated, and only forums and talks were held there. Confused by the tactics of the festival, we were told later on that the organisers moved the screenings to secret venues, access to which was only through word of mouth or text message. It turned out that one of the alternative venues was heavyweight Fang Lijun’s Chintsao Studio, a two-story, grey-coloured concrete complex facing the pond in northern Songzhuang. Not far away from Chintsao, we found another screening space at an art dealer’s designed residence — his personal screening room with a capacity of around 10-15 people. The guerilla screenings enhanced a feeling of collaboration and abetment in such underground cinephiliac adventures. From time to time, one would be very wary of folks or cars passing by, assuming that they were sent by the Security Bureau for surveillance.
Based on their trips to China’s indie festivals, Chris Berry, Shelly Kraicer and Mark Nornes have discussed the creative inertia around choice of subject and aesthetic tendencies observed in Chinese indie cinema. (2) Passionate advocates, such as the Beijing-based Kraicer, would not miss events such as BIFF, anticipating new discoveries, something not always immediate and often incidental and small. Of course the introduction of Digital Video cameras (DV) into Mainland China has redefined filmmaking and facilitated indie cinema’s evolvement by allowing more “nonprofessional” filmmakers onto the stage. Interestingly however, after a quick glance through the festival brochure, I realise that most filmmakers are either trained in highly relevant fields at colleges or have obtained experience in visual production, usually at a television station or advertising agency. Without a market or any pitching projects tailored to young filmmakers, grassroots festivals like BIFF are still considered the ideal launching pad for the future enfants terribles of Chinese indie.
Before Burned Wings (Nanfeng), his first attempt at genre, Zheng Kuo made two documentaries, 798 Station (2011) and Cold Winter (2010), both concerned with the power relations behind the development of art districts such as the successful self-generated 798 Art Zone and recent imitations in Beijing. By following the artists’ anti-eviction efforts, in these films Zheng deepens the discussion about how Chinese contemporary art negotiates politics and capital and can be co-opted by both. Shot in northeastern China’s coastal city Huludao, Burned Wings traces the doomed bond between triad leader Yang Xiaoming and his underlings. Compared to his arch enemies – a fierce, powerful real estate boss and a greedy, corrupt police officer — a character setting obviously referencing the dark side of China’s neo-liberalist / authoritarian control hybridity, Brother Yang seems too self-righteous and old-fashioned to win the dirty game. The gangsters’ instilled idealistic aspirations are more than they can bear. Or perhaps, as the filmmaker himself argues, the work itself bids farewell to an age of innocence: he simply wishes that Yang exists. Despite the gorgeously choreographed action shots of a bloody bathhouse slaughter and erotic S&M foreplay between the policeman and his lover, the triad scenes are not actually that original. Rather, it is the perceived “Chinese characteristics” of the sociopolitical conditions that better contextualise the significance of defying the boundaries between evil and good. On the other hand, I understand the jury’s decision to bestow the film with one of the Best Film awards. Working within a shoestring budget (for a genre film) of about 220,000 RMB and encountering a lot of unexpected difficulties with cast and other internal conflicts, Zheng Kuo boldly explores the possibility of making a Chinese gangster film as an outside-of-the-system undertaking. And by unapologetically arousing the audience’s attention with sex and violence, the film also attempts to enrich the spectrum of Chinese indie as something other than cinema-vérité style arthouse realism.
25 year-old filmmaker Yang Mingming bravely stars in her own debut film, Women Directors (Nvdaoyan), which received a Special Mention for a feature. The film commences with small talk between an off-screen director, namely Ming (Yang), and her best friend Yue (Guo Yue). However the seemingly mindless, wild and intimate conversation encounters a dramatic turn when the women work out that they have fallen for the same married man. The narrative dynamic derives from the consciousness that the filmmaker and her partner have of the dialectics of “looking” vis-à-vis “to be-looked-at”: with DV cam at hand, the position between the “interviewer” and “interviewee” is constantly switched and subverted, while the focus of pinning down the truth is recurrently lost and readjusted. Those intense moments of Ming and Yue’s explosive emotional confrontations are captured as if they were documentations of a theatre rehearsal, something greatly highlighted by the editing and camerawork. Despite its melodramatic twists towards the ending, Women Directors convincingly intertwines poetics of narcissistic youth, wild cinephilic self-reflexivity and imaginative, sympathetic storytelling.
Another documentary by an emerging filmmaker worthy of attention is New York-based Bo Wang’s 50-minute China Concerto (Zhongguo Xiezouqu), a Chris Marker-esque cinema essay pondering the visual spectacle and mass movement of the controversial Red Capital campaign in the Southwestern Municipality of Chongqing, just before the scandals of the city’s former Party chief Bo Xilai became headlines worldwide. The remarkable collage and found footage editing, the insightful commentary on the absurdity of the power construction, and the allure of the spectacle, greatly facilitated by the female voiceover reading out a letter in undefined accented English, have earmarked Bo Wang as an exciting documentary filmmaker approaching sociopolitical subjects in contemporary China.
With most of his works dealing with urban China, documentary filmmaker J.P. Sniadecki rightly deserves a special program such as the one he enjoyed at BIFF. In People’s Park (Renmin Gongyuan), a film co-directed with Libbie D. Cohn, the camera eye relishes the quotidian as spectacle at a park in the Southwestern city Chengdu. The documentary was filmed in one 78-minute long shot, accomplished by Cohn holding the camera on a wheelchair, pushed at an even speed by Sniadecki following designed routes, during which the flâneur gaze wanders, pauses, examines, avoids and even flirts. Though a documentary, it is full of drama and narrative, with each and every stranger-spectator part of its real-time rehearsal. Rather than merely ethnographic, it is overwhelmingly poetic and conceptually closer to contemporary art in its experimentation with the cinematic language.
On 26 August, the 9th BIFF for the third time drew its curtain. Usually I regret that there are always interesting films one is going to miss at any festival. However, everyday at Songzhuang, I was overjoyed by the encounters with so many like-minded folks who could talk about Chinese indie cinema in such an open-minded and illuminating way. In discussing the aesthetics and production methods characterising Chinese indie, Wu Wenguang uses the term “on the scene” or xianchang, a “present tense” by virtue of ‘”being present on the scene”. Zhang Zhen argues for the urgency of its “temporality of the here and the now”. I would like to alter this a bit in the case of grassroots indie film festivals: xianchang indicates that a milieu permeated with various discourses, debates and perspectives must be configured and experienced in real-time. The significance of xianchang for this festival partially lies in its core programming of single screenings, its spontaneity of guerrilla exhibitions and other “on-the-spot” tactics against unpredictable interference. Xianchang also means participation and engaging with the public. Therefore, xianchang is at the heart of what Li Xianting has proposed as a “micro-environment”, as mentioned earlier. An indie film festival in Mainland China, though often stereotyped as a highly politicised initiative because of official interference, is essentially related to the community building of indie cinema, a community not self-ghettoised, but one that demonstrates a healthy, sustainable connection with society. The 9th BIFF extended exactly such an effort, through and throughout its three closings.
Many thanks to John Berra and Chris Berry for their advice in revising this piece.
Beijing Independent Film festival
18-26 August 2012
- Chris Berry, “When Is A Film Festival Not A Festival?: The 6th China Independent Film Festival”, Senses of Cinema, Issue 53, 2009-10.
- Refer to Shelly Kraicer “Pushing Beyond Indie Conventions”, dGenerate Films, 12 October 2009; Mark Nornes, “Bulldozers, Bibles, and very Sharp Knives: The Chinese Independent Documentary Scene”, Film Quarterly, vol. 63, no. 1, 2009.