In late 2011, when I was about to start my PhD research on Chinese independent film festivals, I paid my first visit to the Li Xianting Film Fund located in Xiaopu Village of Songzhuang, miles away from downtown Beijing. Transferring from metro to an unlicensed taxi it took me two hours to get to a typical Chinese village where the traffic is always chaotic and construction and rubbish are everywhere. I couldn’t imagine what kind of film festival could take place here. Working as an interpreter and shuttle car driver at the 9th Beijing Independent Film Festival (BIFF) I experienced some bizarre situations such as a power outage and venue relocation which actually piqued my interest to find out what happen behind the scenes instead of focusing on films presented at the festival. This report is based on my observation of the 9th and 10th BIFFs and my interview with Li Xianting. (1) It endeavours to uncover the myth of BIFF in terms of its relation to the authorities and to give a sense of the cultural and political scenario of contemporary China.

Artistic director Wang Hongwei, Li Xianting and technology director Diao Zhong at the opening of BIFF

Artistic director Wang Hongwei, Li Xianting and technology director Diao Zhong at the opening of BIFF

It Survives

Since the forced cancellation of the 9th China Independent Film Festival in Nanjing, the 3rd Beijing New Youth Film Festival and the 6th Yunnan Multicultural Visual Festival from November 2012 to April 2013, there has been discussion in the international media about the demise of Chinese independent filmmaking and the fraught relationship between Chinese independent film festivals and the authorities under the new leadership. It is true that independent film festivals in China face increasing suppression as the control of freedom of speech intensifies under the new leadership. This control has also pervaded the internet sphere. State media recently publicised the detention of several activists and outspoken people like Wu Hongfei and Qin Huohuo for “fabricating and spreading rumours and improper speech” on Weibo, the most vibrant and least fettered Twitter-like social network in China. Chinese independent filmmaking, which pursues freedom of individual expression, and represents the lesser-known issues in contemporary China compared to the flashy image of China constructed by mainstream media, has become the target of official surveillance. There is little surprise in the fact that an independent film festival that facilitates the gathering of indie filmmakers, activists and intellectuals for discussion and exchange of indie films and relevant issues, would fall victim to the rampant speech regulations.

So there was not much hope for the occurrence of the Beijing Independent Film Festival under such circumstances. This year, one week before its commencement on 23 August, the festival started publicising their event on Weibo and Douban, highlighting their collaborations with several cinephile clubs in different cities to hold the festival simultaneously. This is the first year that the BIFF attempted to expand the activities of the festival on a national level, through collaboration with cinephile clubs in downtown Beijing, Chengdu, Shenzhen and Tianjin. This plan would undoubtedly help the BIFF reach a greater audience in urban area across China as such film clubs have nurtured particular fans for indie cinema. Meanwhile it would also redistribute the weight of the festival by dispersing the potential gathering in Songzhuang across several locations, thus addressing the unease of local police over public assembly. Unfortunately this plan was disrupted by local authorities who wouldn’t allow any unapproved collective cultural events to happen. Except Tianjin’s Theatre Joker and Shenzhen’s Art De Vivre, all the other cinephile clubs announced the cancellation of their screenings the day before BIFF was due to start.

However the opening of BIFF in Songzhuang appeared to go smoothly at the beginning. The festival and the local authorities had finally reached an agreement, after time-consuming negotiations, that the festival could take place in Fanhall, a café with a well-equipped auditorium. There was no power cut and no policemen showing up to restrict the numbers of attendees, as occurred last year. Before an audience of over 200 participants including directors, programmers, scholars and public audiences, the guest registration, opening speech and the gathering of directors and guests went very well. But the programmed opening screening didn’t proceed. The festival didn’t give a clear explanation and announcement of what would happen next. All the participants went back to the Li Xianting (LXT) Film Fund and waited outside the newly built video hall, with the hope that the screening could take place. In the meantime, festival operations director Zhang Qi tried to negotiate the possibility of a screening with several policemen who were gathered around the LXT foundation, while only one policeman in plain-clothes entered the foundation to persuade Li Xianting to dismiss the gathering.

Wang Hongwei explaining the cancellation of the opening to invited guests and filmmakers at the brand new screening hall at the LXTFF

Wang Hongwei explaining the cancellation of the opening to invited guests and filmmakers at the brand new screening hall at the LXTFF

Artistic director Wang Hongwei received a phone call from the police who told him there were two coach buses waiting outside. These were the buses that took away the Li Xianting Film School students who were briefly detained by local authorities a month earlier. In consideration of the safety of all the participants and the safekeeping of DVDs and documents at the archive of the LXT Film Fund, the organisers decided not to continue with the public screenings. Some filmmakers were disappointed as they were not given a clear explanation why the screenings were cancelled. Local authorities didn’t turn up on the opening day, giving the impression to participants that there was no official interference at all. It is possible that local authorities have changed their strategy from heavy-handed on site intervention to a more discreet form of threat.

Last year the presence of the police and the power outage were unable to dismiss the crowd. On the contrary, these occurrences triggered public anger. After the outage, festival-goers waited together while Zhang Qi and Wang Hongwei took part in a public conversation with the present directors (in front of the local authorities) to ascertain whether they would accept their works being exhibited publicly only after passing through a level of censorship. In response, many directors decided to boycott rather than pass through censorship. Thus, an interrupted film festival was converted into a public sphere where discussions took place and opinions formed. The internet too became a public sphere as festival-goers used Weibo to disseminate news of the official interference and the clamp-down on freedom of speech while they waited. Based on his observation of Yunfest Luke Robinson has noted film festivals could serve to create a public discourse through post-screening discussions in which historical or contemporary issues reflected in a given film could be discussed across generations and geographic boundaries and raise awareness of such issues. (2) In the case of the 9th BIFF in 2012, by virtue of the social network, such discourse could go beyond a post-screening discussion. The official shutdown and the festival’s assertion together served to constitute an environment where the public could directly face local authorities and openly discuss the restriction on freedom of expression they were suffering. In this sense, BIFF is a feat of activism, as it has moved beyond the boundary of cinema into socio-political spheres. The festival still somehow continued with well-attended audiences last year. Indeed it is Li Xianting’s viewpoint that official interference plays a part in propelling the development of Chinese independent film festivals.

A Film Festival for Filmmakers

As previously stated, all the official harassments took place behind the scenes this year. On the surface it appeared that the festival itself cancelled the screenings, an impression that could be easily taken as a compromise on their part. However the organisers didn’t reach consent about the cancellation. One of them insisted on showing films even though they knew the police would cut the power off like they did last year. But such a course of action would also trigger public discontent, which would mean more public attention through information dissemination on Weibo. Another organiser was more anxious about the safety of the LXT Film Fund and attendees considering the recent arrest of activists and the detention of Li Xianting Film School students a month earlier. Although the festival continued without any interruptions over the remaining days there was no public audience gathering in large numbers. Some filmmakers decided to leave when they were told there would be no public screenings, and only small audiences were in attendance after the opening night: only about 20 attendees, most of who were invited directors and guests, for each screening. But Li Xianting seems satisfied with this result. At the closing ceremony he stated:

The festival went smoothly this year, even better than we thought. This is exactly what we expected. We only require a platform for a minority of people including artists, scholars and audiences who are interested in independent films and care for humanity and reality to discuss and exchange ideas […].

Li Xianting at the closing ceremony of BIFF

Li Xianting at the closing ceremony of BIFF

He had also emphasised at the closing ceremony of the 9th BIFF that the independent film festival is a small-scale environment that endeavours to create a space for idea exchange within a small circuit. It so appears that BIFF doesn’t have an ambition to nurture greater public audiences for Chinese indie films. It is true that either the government’s interferences or its location far away from the urban area of Beijing restricts the capacity of greater outreach in terms of audiences. As a permanent law in China, no gatherings of more than 50 people are allowed at any unapproved event. This enables the officials to make a case for shutting down the festival. In my interview with Zhang Qi, she said their argument with the authorities focused on the participant numbers. If the numbers are beyond 50 at the festival, all the films presented should be submitted for approval in advance, which is apparently unacceptable to all the festival participants. To restrict attendee numbers and continue on, the 9th edition ultimately only allowed approved directors and guests to attend screenings and moved to the LXT offices and then to artist studios. This year, as the opening night screenings were cancelled, some media outlets reported the end of the BIFF soon after. It resulted in a weak turnout.

Besides, BIFF concentrates on communication among directors much more than public engagement. (3) BIFF has been dedicated to providing a platform for filmmakers to make their voices heard and to facilitating the conversation between filmmaking (film auteur/grassroot) and film theory (critics/elite). At the 9th BIFF, documentary scholar Professor Brian Winston was invited to give two lectures on reality and ethics of documentary. The lectures aimed to introduce the techniques and styles of its western counterpart to the Chinese indie documentary community who were used to observational documentary, and to explore the relationship between documentary filmmakers and their participants, a relationship that has haunted Chinese indie documentaries. (4) At the documentary forum in the last few festival editions, film criticism and research has no long been an intellectual-dominant domain, instead, a panel consisting of two filmmakers and two film scholars discuss their thoughts on documentary, thus balancing the partisan comments that has been hitherto prevalent in film discourse in China. This year one forum was devoted to an online journal known as Film Auteur that was founded and edited by several indie filmmakers. It is an independent journal whose dissemination entirely relies on the internet and whose aim is to provide a vital space for filmmakers to represent their voice. The forum discussion explored the journal’s possible extension of transmission media such as social networks like WeChat to establish an interactive reader community, and its online multimedia capability (for example, embedding trailer videos in the journal), thus to give concrete presentation of the films discussed in texts. It could also allow readers to comment on the journal, facilitating an interaction between the reader/audience and filmmakers. In a nutshell, as an online journal, the inherent attributes of the internet provide more possibilities for the journal’s communication methods and interactive multimedia presentations.

The Ways of Survival

As several independent film festivals have been shut down successively, I am curious to consider how BIFF could survive. In fact, a complex of factors has made its survival possible. Generously speaking, the geopolitics of BIFF is the main factor and an in-depth analysis of Songzhuang, where the Li Xianting Film Fund and BIFF are located, is necessary.

Songzhuang, as the biggest artist commune in Beijing, provides a fertile and vibrant ground for independent filmmaking with its bonding and free thinking community. Apart from the 4000+ artists living in Songzhuang, a large number of independent filmmakers, such as Xu Tong, Wang Bing and Feng Yan, are settled down here or in nearby locales. The community-based ecology has been nurtured by Li Xianting who unflaggingly supported contemporary art in the 1980s and ‘90s. Some artists, such as Fang Lijun and Yue Minjun, gained an international reputation as well as economic success. The Li Xianting Film Fund entirely depends on private financial support. For instance, the 10th BIFF was bankrolled by artists Mao Tongqiang and Wang Zixuan. Without relying on any official institutions, the film fund’s economic reliance cannot be easily cut off by local authorities. (5) This ecology also enables the BIFF to adapt immediately to changing circumstances. Last year when it received the official notice of shutdown, all equipment and the audience was moved to Fang Lijun’s studio in Songzhuang to keep the festival going. This year they also had an artist studio (accommodating nearly 70 people) as a back-up venue in the event of a potential shutdown or power cut. Therefore, BIFF enjoys exceptional advantages in SZ as it can take advantage of artists’ private studios to avoid official interruption.

The symbiotic relationship between the local authorities and the LXT Film Fund has been established within the intricate power relations of Songzhuang. In the late 1990s the artists who used to convene in the Yuanminyuan art zone began to move to Songzhuang, as Beijing authorities dismantled the art zone and arrested several artists. Once a bunch of artists were settled down the Beijing authorities ordered Songzhuang authorities to dispel them. But the immediate benefits stopped the Songzhuang authorities from following the order. The local peasants gained extra income from renting their houses to artists. Additionally, artists donated money to help build infrastructure. In order to safeguard their interests, Songzhuang authorities have undertaken the work of mediating the conflict between higher-up authorities and artists to make way for their settlement.

Up until 2006 when the Songzhuang Cultural and Creative Industry Cluster (SCCIC) was officially launched, the Beijing municipal authorities had appeared to reduce their control over artist gatherings on the surface. Actually the SCCIC, which relies on culture and individual creativity as a way to develop the economy and rebranding of Songzhuang, was proposed by Li Xianting who has been negotiating with different levels of government for a long time. When Li found most artists were living in poor conditions and couldn’t find any outlet for their works he suggested to the local authorities the construction of a cultural and creative cluster where artists could exhibit works and exchange ideas. In the meantime the politically savvy Li emphasised that the improvement in livelihood of the burgeoning community of young Chinese artists also solved a problem for the government. Since the launch of the SCCIC the authorities have provided financial support to boost the cluster, for example the establishment of the Songzhuang Art Festival and building infrastructure. Not surprisingly, the development of the cluster gradually increased the local land value, which propelled the government to allow big property enterprises to invest in Songzhuang. At face value, the SCCIC aims to develop cultural industry and improve the lives of artists. But in reality local authorities increased land value because of the cluster, and thus relied on land sales as an important revenue source. In other words, local authorities take advantage of cultural project to attract more real estate projects in order to make government revenue. I should note that this unfortunate situation is common the world over, and is not just specific to Songzhuang. Still, the introduction of these real estate projects resulted in forced evictions – a number of artists were forced to give up their studios and leave Songzhuang. Li Xianting regrets his initial suggestion nowadays. He was involved in the planning of SCCIC, for example, by inviting architects to build the Songzhuang Art museum to contain a screening hall specifically designed for screenings of independent films. However, since the government intensified its control of cultural events in 2008, some contemporary art exhibitions and independent film festivals have been interrupted and shut down.

BIFF and China Documentary Exchange Week, which used to take place at the Songzhuang Art Museum, have been forced to retreat to the Li Xianting Film Fund. Finally, the China Documentary Exchange Week is permanently closed. Li is disappointed about the current situation and even considers moving to some other place if circumstances worsen. In fact, authorities in other provinces want to invite Li Xianting to develop cultural and creative clusters to boost their local economies. His departure is very likely to trigger the disintegration of artist gatherings in Songzhuang. If so, the local government would lose their ready source of money. Basically, there are four levels of government involved in the management of SCCIC, namely, Beijing municipal government, Tongzhou district government, Songzhuang township government and Xiaopu village government. The order of shutting down the film festival usually comes from the higher level of government. In order to safeguard their interests, the Songzhuang township government and Xiaopu village government are implicitly on the side of Li Xianting Film Fund (BIFF). Usually they would ask Li Xianting to close down the festival on the surface, which would enable them to report to their leadership that they’ve done their duty. This is how the 9th and 10th BIFF could happen in more covert venues, with a small number of participants, in the dark.

Beijing Independent Film Festival
23-28 August 2013

Endnotes

  1. Li Xianting is considered the father of Chinese contemporary art. He founded the Li Xianting Film Fund to support the development of Chinese independent filmmaking. The fund also initiated Beijing Independent Film Festival.
  2. Luke Robinson and Jenny Chio, “Making Space for Chinese Independent Documentary: The case of Yunfest 2011”, Journal of Chinese Cinemas vol. 7, issue 1, 2013, pp. 21–40
  3. Beijing Queer Film Festival pays more attention to public engagement. Since 2011 BQFF has “recruited” audiences who would be provided travel fees and accommodation in Beijing.
  4. For further discussion of this and reporting on the 9th BIFF, see Ma Ran, “Truth, Myths and Clichés: The 9th Beijing Independent Film Festival” [http://sensesofcinema.com/2012/festival-reports/truth-myths-and-cliches-the-9th-beijing-independent-film-festival/], Senses of Cinema, Issue 65, December 2012.
  5. Both the China Independent Film Festival and Yunfest cooperated with official institutions such as the municipal library and the university. Once the institutions withdraw under political pressure, it was impossible for these film festivals to continue.