When is a film festival not a film festival? In China the answer is, when it’s an exhibition. The Chinese title of the China Independent Film Festival (CIFF) is “Zhongguo Duli Yingxiang Niandu Zhan”. That translates more literally as “Annual Exhibition of Chinese Independent Film and Video.” This is important because the Film Bureau of the State Administration for Radio, Film and Television (SARFT) claims jurisdiction over any film “festival”. But in China an “independent” film festival or film is usually understood as one not submitted to SARFT for approval. Calling the event an “exhibition” in Chinese apparently enables it to skirt the problem. But calling it a “festival” in English clearly signifies its ambition.
Despite this ambition, by international standards CIFF is a relatively small and under-resourced event. Screenings are scattered across a range of minor colleges, art galleries and museums in Nanjing, a former capital up the Yangtze from Shanghai. This year, approximately 70 experimental films, documentaries and dramatic features, almost all of them low-budget Chinese films, were included. Lou Ye’s Chunfeng Chenzui de Yewan (Spring Fever) won the Best Film award, and Ying Liang’s Hao Mao (Good Cats) and Zhang Jianchi’s Bai Qingting (Take Me to Vietnam) shared the Jury Prize. Anywhere else in the world, such an event would be a minor festival attracting little if any international coverage. But the very particular circumstances of China mean that CIFF can claim to be the most important film festival in the country.
I made my first visit to CIFF this year. I was impressed by everyone’s hospitality, the quality of the films on show, and the organisation of an event whose official existence remains ambiguous at best. In this report I want to try and explain how a small event like CIFF can be so important, and also reflect on the state of China’s indie scene. Despite their shadowy regulatory status, independent events like CIFF are well-established now and crucial to the artistic health of China’s film industry, which is otherwise hobbled by censorship and commercial oligopolies. However, the success and stability of the indie scene is also beginning to make it predictable. As the aura of risk associated with being “banned in Beijing” begins to fade, the biggest challenge is the search for originality. Yet the continued illicit status of independent films leaves them, I will argue, little room to move.
CIFF is one of a number of independent film festivals on the Chinese film scene. These include specialised events like the Yunnan Multicultural Visual Festival (Yunfest), a documentary event held every two years in Kunming in Southwest China, and the China Documentary Film Festival, held at Songzhuang art village of on the northeast outskirts of Beijing. Abé Mark Nornes recently reported on those events for Film Quarterly (1). Another comprehensive event, The Beijing Independent Film Festival, is also held in Songzhuang.
These indie festivals are now regular features of the Chinese film scene. Meanwhile, the only well established mainstream festival remains the Shanghai International Film Festival. SIFF’s staff members feel their event is under-resourced. But the contrast between their red carpet splendour and CIFF’s minimal-budget improvisations are striking. SIFF always opens at a premier venue in the heart of Shanghai, with a global star such as Sharon Stone or Juliette Binoche in attendance. This year, CIFF opened at the Nanjing Institute of Visual Arts, a former agricultural college marooned in a sea of muddy fields 45 minutes drive outside the city. Students – the stars of tomorrow, perhaps – provided the entertainment. It was not covered by CNN.
However, the other important difference between SIFF and CIFF is that CIFF has the films people want to see. As I have discussed in reports elsewhere at Senses of Cinema, a combination of local sensitivities and the regulations associated with being an A-list festival have hobbled SIFF’s selection of films. In particular, all independent Chinese films are excluded. Most of the Chinese films that attract international film festival interest – rightly or wrongly – are precisely those independent films. The vast majority of international guests do not go to SIFF for the films, and the few that do often leave disappointed. In contrast, I do not think there was a single film at CIFF that I did not want to see. If you can get there, it is the quickest way to get a round-up of the Chinese indie scene.
The screening and awarding of Lou Ye’s Spring Fever is a good illustration of what makes CIFF the festival to watch. Such a film could never be shown in SIFF. Lou Ye’s previous film, Yihe yuan (Summer Palace, 2006), combined plenty of sex with the taboo Tiananmen Incident of 1989, and landed him a five-year ban. Spring Fever is his way of giving the finger to the Film Bureau, not only because it defies the ban but also because of its contents. By screening it, CIFF was taking a risk, but a calculated risk. Rumour has it Spring Fever was originally scheduled to open the festival, but the organisers were tipped off that such a move might be too provocative. Instead that honour went to Sheng Zhimin’s rock’n’roll documentary, Zaijian Wutuobang (Night of an Era). Conventional but relatively slickly made, it recalls the difficult beginnings of China’s big time music stars, including Cui Jian, and included its fair share of politically sensitive material, too.
Shot in CIFF host city Nanjing, Spring Fever is a mood piece that links panic to hot sex by way of frantic camerawork and paranoia. A married man is having an affair, but the twist is that his lover is another man. The stakes are high if they get found out, for although homosexuality is no longer an offence in China, you can lose your job, your apartment, everything. When the wife puts a private eye onto her husband, the backwards glances, the anger accelerate and the lust goes into overdrive. It would be a contender in any competition for Best Chinese Feature, but inside China itself, Spring Fever can only screen at an independent event like CIFF.
Unfortunately, I did not know CIFF was on until my trip to China was already planned. So, I had to squeeze in a 48-hour flying visit and could not stay for the entire week. At most international film festivals that would be fine: guests drop in and out for a few days all the time. But as I was being driven around Nanjing’s outer ring road system searching for the Institute of Visual Arts, I began to realise CIFF did not operate that way. Indeed, I should have joined everyone else in Nanjing to be bussed out together. “Everyone else” included a smattering of foreigners, but was mostly the filmmakers and producers. It quickly became apparent that CIFF was a rare opportunity for the filmmakers to meet each other in a culture where independent film, while not underground or dangerous, has at best a shadowy presence in public culture. There was a strong sense of camaraderie, and I felt bad that I could only dip in and out.
The fact that this was the 6th edition of CIFF and that 60-plus films were assembled shows how well-established the Chinese independent film is. However, as Beijing-based critic and supporter of the Chinese indies Shelly Kraicer has recently noted, this has resulted in a dangerous predictability for Chinese indies:
The daydream, or perhaps it’s a fantasy, is this. There exists, down some dusty grey hutong alleyway of Beijing, a Chinese Indie Director’s Discount Emporium. You want to make a film? Step right in and assemble your movie at bargain prices. The shelving on the left is stocked with cast members: long-haired village boys, out of school, drifting aimlessly. At the back is a set of grainy, dusty, brown-grey village-scapes, ready to be populated by said drifters. To the right, useful equipment. Some tripods, but with a restriction: they must be set up at least 50 metres from the subjects being filmed. Right beside is a very long long shelf, holding 3 minute, 10 minute, even 20 minute-long takes, offered for a steal at family-sized package prices. Alternatively, you could go for deep discount on little DV cams, with the proviso that, held close to the subjects, they be shaken as vigorously as possible. The dialogue shelves in the centre are threadbare: screenplays for rent are all dialogue-light. And, off in a corner, is a shelf labelled ‘Prostitutes’. (2)
Similarly, although impressed by the two independent documentary festivals he attended, Mark Abé Nornes ends his report with the comment: “Having tired of their conservative devotion to direct cinema, not to mention roughshod camerawork and sound for otherwise amazing films, I look forward to something new.” (p. 55)
Although I enjoyed all the small number of films I was able to see at Nanjing, they made me worry in the same way. In the documentary Tongxue (Classmates), director Lin Xin goes home to the coal mining county of Tongchuan outside Xi’an city and finds all the people he graduated from high school with in 1978. 1978 is the year in which Deng Xiaoping launched the Reforms that led to the “marketisation” and globalisation of China’s economy, so the film speaks to the fate of a generation and the transformation of the country. Each of his classmates gets their 15 minutes of fame, and it is indeed moving to see how some have prospered but others are literally sweeping the streets. The film has great inherent value. But it is shot in the cinema vérité mode that is becoming a little tired in China. And if you happen to have heard of Michael Apted’s 7-Up series the idea itself is not so fresh. Similarly, Zhou Xun’s Liang ge Jijie (Two Seasons) is an excellent direct cinema account of high school life. But if you have seen Tammy Cheung’s Secondary School (2003) or Frederick Wiseman’s High School (1968), it is hardly news. Listening to a forum of documentary filmmakers, it was clear that observational cinema still predominates in Chinese independent documentary
Turning to feature films, at least Lou Ye’s Spring Fever is not the kind of Jia Zhangke-wannabe film that Shelly Kraicer is understandably tiring of. Both of the jury award films were also outside the Jia mould, and indicate that the jury was also aware of the need for new directions. However, other attempts to break out of the Jia mould were also commendable, but less successful. For example, Peng Lei’s Xiongmao Naitang (Panda Candy) is about a lesbian relationship, but it is directed by a man and features cute girls in what many viewers will perceive as a sleazy fantasy shot in MTV mode. And so far, the experimental films, although certainly different, have yet to achieve more than confirm my suspicion that most experimental cinema is indulgent, obscure and too long.
Among this year’s selection at CIFF, one relatively new and growing trend does deserve a bit more highlighting. This is the penchant in documentary for going beyond films about social marginality and towards uncovering scandals. This may be inspired in part by the continuing anger over the death of so many children in sub-standard schools during the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, and the failure to investigate and assign blame. Du Haibin’s 1428, which won Best Documentary at Venice, does not face this issue head on, but rather follows the struggle to survive in the aftermath of the quake in the by now well-known observational mode, returning to the same people months later to find out how they are doing. Other films screened at CIFF are more direct. Ai Xiaoming’s Women de Wawa (Our Children) focuses directly on the parents, teachers and others who knew the students in Sichuan. And Wang Libo’s Yanmai (Buried) returns to the Tangshan earthquake of 1976 to accuse the authorities of having been warned it was going to happen but failing to evacuate. At least a quarter of a million people died.
Other films put the spotlight on other scandals. Xu Xin’s Karamay is six hours long. (Various people muttered that Wang Bing, whose nine-hour epic Tiexiqu [West of the Tracks, 2003] made him famous, had a lot to answer for.) It is named after a town in Xinjiang, in Chinese Central Asia, where a theatre caught fire in 1994 during a children’s performance. Because everyone was made to wait while VIPs were led out first, hundreds of children burnt to death. The film interviews survivors and relatives at length, allowing them to air their grievances. Zhang Zanbo’s Tianluo (Falling from the Sky) shows the consequences of launching rockets over land rather than water, as is the practice of China’s space program. As various “stages” of the rocket are released, they drop back to earth, into farmer’s fields, sometimes killing people. Finally, a director masquerading as “I Am Savage” contributed Diaomin (University City Savages), a film about the expulsion of farmers from their land and their refusal to accept the homes allotted for resettlement in the process of building new campuses near Guangzhou in Southern China. The title refers to an insult delivered against the farmers, and the director’s choice of pseudonym makes their sympathies clear.
Taken together, these films show a growing sense of social and political conscience and a determination to take risks among young Chinese filmmakers. However, the decision to screen most of these films at unannounced times deep in the night indicates that neither the filmmakers nor an independent festival like CIFF can operate with impunity. For foreigners, the situation can be hard to understand. Surely, the event is either legal or it is not. But that is not how power operates in China. Although there is much rhetoric about the rule of law, the law has no effective status independent of the state. And although since 1978 “reform” has meant allowing ordinary citizens to take the initiative in matters from economic ventures to setting up independent film festivals, they do so at the pleasure of the state. At no point has the state ever ceded its right to decide what is permitted.
It is these circumstances that create great difficulties for Chinese independent cinema just at the point when it is both poised for take-off and needs new trajectories. Outside China, the heaps of awards at festivals and the growing numbers of experienced directors with one or two films behind them would lead to investment from producers in the case of feature filmmakers and commissions from television stations for documentary makers. But in China, indie directors can only move into those circles if they renounce being independent and submit their work to the Film Bureau. So far, only Jia Zhangke has survived that transition artistically, and it has been a struggle even for him. So, for everyone else, they must continue with tiny budgets, no access to established stars (who could not take the risk of working for them), and so on. Digital filmmaking with handheld cameras and natural lighting is the established low-cost way of getting by for Chinese indies, and such films continue to dominate the schedule at events like CIFF. But as audiences begin to tire of them, what are the alternatives? With no budget and no access to mainstream culture, there is not much room to move, but let’s hope that future editions of CIFF will prove the continued inventiveness of Chinese filmmakers and their ability to fine new ways forward.
- “Bulldozers, Bibles, and very Sharp Knives: The Chinese Independent Documentary Scene”, Film Quarterly, vol. 63, no. 1, 2009.
- “Shelly on Film: Pushing Beyond Indie Conventions”, dGenerate Films website, 12 October 2009.
China Independent Film Festival
12-16 October, 2009
Festival website: http://www.chinaiff.org/html/EN/