My summer back in China was marked by two film events, the Beijing Independent Film Festival (BIFF) and the China Independent Film Festival (CIFF), two influential and important independent film events in this country. Being a Chinese film school graduate, studying documentary in Europe the last two years, I was eagerly getting to know this still fuzzy, but emerging and tenacious wave. From what I had been exposed to, it seemed to me that the Chinese independent cinema is witnessing a golden period, with increasing profile and audience reception.

My optimism was soon diminished by the shutting-down of BIFF, and the police confiscating the cinema collection of the Li Xianting Film Fund, the festival’s backing foundation. A week later I met the Executive Director Ms Fan Rong at a café in Songzhuang, a remote two-hour bus ride from central Beijing, where it was supposed to have been happening. She took out several festival brochures from her backpack, joking that she’s now working like a guerrilla. “If you go up to the sealed foundation” she pointed to the courtyard where we had passed on the way, “immediately the disguised police will corner you and question you.” With her calm and light-hearted tone, it’s hard to believe she had just been released from illegal detention. At the end of our discussion she handed me a small USB drive with most of the competition films stored, an offering made only to the related film authors by pre-agreement. On the bumpy bus ride back, I couldn’t wait to text my friends to schedule a private screening (and of course collection sharing). Despite the unfortunate fact of the festival’s shutdown, I was feeling the impulse of independent cinema on this land, resistant and aspiring.

This was the second time an independent festival was shut down as I was about to take part with my films. Last time was at the Yunnan Multi Culture Visual Festival, located in the far south with its rich visual anthropology influence, but still the event was suspended under authority command in 2013 as it developed a reputation for showcasing independent films. So when I received the final screening schedule for CIFF, the most important indie festival in mainland China, I was literally jumping for joy. That was only 5 days before its anticipated opening on 15 November. I can understand why the program schedule could not be released any earlier. One of the many delicate issues happened to be my short documentary, selected for the short competition. It was on a “special tension” list, along with three other films, as it touched on the topic of Tibet (to be precise: Tibetans-in-exile). The other films focused on the touchy subjects of Tiananmen Square, street protests of the sent-down youth; (1) and the third was a mysterious film, presented with a black shape hiding both the film title and the director’s name in the festival’s “Top 10 documentaries of the year” section. It’s only later at the dining table with the curator, that I heard the author’s name, Wang Wo, uttered in a low voice, and the film’s title, Dialogue. (2) The film is a record of an internet video conversation among Chinese intellectuals, Tibetans, Uighur human right fighters and the Dalai Lama, a daring confidential effort under an atmosphere of government surveillance. The final arrangement for these films was that those with the directors present would be screened in a different location with notice given to accredited filmmakers only. Such a decision to not confront politically sensitive zones directly is a common strategy for independent events who know to do otherwise would only lead to total shut down. I accept the festival’s decision, knowing that it may be the best they can do to keep the platform visible and not betray the festival’s free soul.

CIFF screening

CIFF screening

The five-day festival, which in its Chinese name is actually “exhibition” (“festival” is also a formal word to be avoided as it can arouse the officials’ attention) took place in Nanjing, a city rich in culture and history down the Yangtze River. Its recent appearance as a turbulent space is found in director Lou Ye’s most recent film, Tui na (Blind Massage). It affectionately portrays the little-known world of the blind masseurs, with real characters’ participation. Listed as the opening film of CIFF, it was the only one screened in a standard theatre. Otherwise the main (and only practical) locations for the festival are the auditorium, classroom and gallery of the Nanjing Art institute. In the main venue, the projection is no more than a comparatively small 4:3 screen. In China, only films that survive the relevant state administration censorship can be screened in a commercial theatre; otherwise they can only screen in cultural events. But the situation is getting tougher, as Professor Zhang Xian Min, the most influential scholar and film curator in the field, stated once, “The censor board has switched the strategy from precise targeting to collective banning.”  Therefore, regardless of such crude facilities, most participants I met wholeheartedly enjoyed this precious event.

Film Panorama

Officially 54 films were presented across 11 sections, including competition (fiction, documentary and shorts), exhibition (same as above) and a special section for the “memory” project, villagers’ first-person DV works. (3) In the documentary section, one finds highly respected directors such as Zhou Hao, Gu Tao, or Xu Tong, whose works have been presented internationally. Their films are acknowledged to be among the most powerful contemporary Chinese documentaries (alongside the films of Wang Bing). With a sharp sense and deep social concern, their works fulfill the mandate of, what Zhang Xian Min suggests is the most powerful function of current Chinese documentaries, “reflecting the changing society”. In addition to presenting these “classics”, the stance of the documentary section still remains more or less to show the films as social records with a traditional treatment, and with topics including demolition, rural churches, folk craft decline, etc. Few attempts to search for a new cinematic language and voice are to be found here. It’s disappointing but not surprising for me, as the notion of an artistic or cinematic documentary is still relatively new in China. However a film by Zhou Hao demonstrates how documentary in the traditional form can still offer the best of cinema. His work-in-progress film, The Fastest Mayor in China (working title, since renamed The Chinese Mayor), was secretly screened following a filmmakers salon. It has remarkable (read: very scarce) access to the mayor of Datong City. Being diligent and ambitious, the mayor launched massive city constructions sacrificing millions’ homes. Without judgment, the director shows the mayor’s daily work, citizens’ demonstration, the city council meeting and the mayor’s worried wife… the whole film vividly captures the politics farce in Chinese society. But it’s another “invisible” film, currently not “suitable” for public screenings and discussions in mainland China, as the main character has since been promoted to a higher position and another politician in the film has been jailed for corruption.

The fiction section presented a more diverse picture.  With an enchanting plot and delicate structure, Xin Yukun’s Binguan (The Coffin in the Mountain) was very well received, and had come off the back of a premiere in Venice. Though most of the acting was a bit stiff and the dialogue felt like it belonged in a television series, it is still a fresh and promising work and is certain to be one of the few independent productions that could enter the domestic commercial market next year. Both feature debuts, Dance with Me (by Hu Jia) and Auditor (by Wang Qi), came with directors who have had overseas film educations and acclaimed shorts. They showed ambition and were able to depict strong and realistic stories with a rich film language, however both films ultimately appeared unbalanced and somewhat superficial.

The Night

The Night

The most controversial film was Ye (The Night), a low budget debut directed, written and performed by a young talent, Zhou Hao (aged 21 when he finished the film). This sensual and courageous piece explores sexuality and intimacy between a gay sex worker, a female prostitute and a closeted queer man. Despite its precious endeavour and being crowned at international festivals, (4) it failed to impress me due to its crude and unconvincing mise en scène and characterization, and old-fashioned treatment (many overexploited symbols, the Narcissus tale, the melting ice-cream, even the first person narration came across as a clumsy Wong Kar-wai). But I still hold respect and future expectations for this filmmaker; at his same age I was only making standard school television news. Maybe he will be the next Xavier Dolan, who knows.

Lake August

Lake August

Of the fictions I saw, the most inspiring film is Na pian hu shui (Lake August). The film is extraordinarily slow but justifiably so: the desperate quotidian ennui of its young adults in an anonymous small Chinese town has never been so well depicted, without any redundant sensations. There was a moment in the film that almost forced me to walk out the classroom, as I was near offended by being forced to look at a porn film for a very long time, which a character in the film was watching while smoking. The shot lasted for minutes, long enough for the viewer to check every detail in the character’s room then left with no choice but to join him in watching the porn, until suddenly the cigarette butt fell out from the character’s finger. He was bored to sleep! Of course! The minimalistic way Yang Heng, the director, treats such images is daring. Some people left during the screening and one jury in the short film section sitting in front of me didn’t stop looking at his mobile phone. Together with Yang Heng’s two prior films (Betelnut and Sun Spots) it makes up a sort of lost youth trilogy, and the director seems determined to devote his filmmaking to this lost youth, detached but still sympathetic. There is a warmth hidden inbetween his shots, he allows time to let his characters be lost and wondering, and the director shares, transfers and reflects these experiences, like the symbolic lake in the film’s first scene. The director himself is as quiet as his film, giving almost no explanation in response to sharp questions from the audience. His CV presents a path shared by many successful independent Chinese filmmakers. He graduated with a cinematography major at the Beijing Film Academy, entered television and the commercial field but soon got bored and decided to make a film for himself. With 30,000 RMB (about US$5000) he bought a DV cam and made the successful debut Betelnut.(5) Later he made two films with funding from Rotterdam’s Hubert Bals Fund. When interviewed by a fellow filmmaker, he stated that he could easily find commercial investment for his works, but then his films would be limited in so many ways, so he would rather make a low budget but free and personal film. Yang’s choice is not unique. Though the Chinese film market is booming more than ever, very little of the investment will flow to independent productions. Many good filmmakers choose to be independent, and in order to save budget, they usually set films in their hometown, inviting friends and relatives to be their acting crew, which also has the felicitous result of often producing authentic performances.

Survival Mode

Beyond the screenings, one of the highlights of my first visit to CIFF was the spontaneous gatherings in a somewhat disorderly barbecue restaurant near the institute. Every night after the screenings, filmmakers young and old, curators from all parts of China and festival organisers joined together around tables of roast mutton and beer. Soon I came to know everyone as we launched the “radar” function in the wechat mobile app (currently most popular Chinese social app). At the end of the festival it was wonderful to find that I had around 40 new friends added on wechat, spreading all over China, almost mapping the independent film scene. A film director from Taiwan later posted on her Facebook, “Went to a very underground Film Fest in Nanjing, totally the opposite of my ideal cinema dream, but what I learned is beyond words can express…” I couldn’t agree more.

CIFF screening

CIFF screening

At the BBQ table, topics about funding, festivals, jobs besides filmmaking were also popular, as most of the independent filmmakers are also producers of their own films. They have to worry about finding money for the film project and their daily living expenses. Some have jobs in the media field, as photojournalists, editors, etc, with flexible in their time; some are artists in other disciplines. And many younger filmmakers, newly graduated from college, are more inclined to be freelancers; some have their own video production studios, shooting advertisements, weddings and all kinds of commissions to fund their own projects. A filmmaker sitting next to me gave training classes in painting, editing, performing to pre-college art students (as art exam fever in China heats up, the difficulty and level of competition is secondary only to the famous Gaokao). (6) In recent years, foreign-educated emerging filmmakers enter the scene bringing diverse works and new resources. A young producer, Guo Xiaodong, told me about his successful pitch at the FIDLab (part of the prestigious FIDMarseille film festival), getting funds and screening invitations. After completing film school in Switzerland, he has acted as producer to bring Chinese independent films to an international platform. As for distribution, apart from the few films sold to international buyers, most will be welcomed by domestic screening organisers, like Piao Chong (Ladybug) or Qi Fang (Cinephile Collective). They are open screening clusters initiated by cinephiles, later expanding all over Chinese cities, organising projections in bookstores, cafes, art galleries, etc. Though sometimes these activities will receive official notice from the authorities, and in such cases the films and screening locations will be changed. For films with the “Dragon Head”, (7) which have usually won awards at international festivals but have not been supported by the domestic commercial market, a small organisation called Rare Window is trying to bring them into standard cinemas, usually in the form of a small screening hall at a big commercial cinema, which is a breakthrough for supporting mainland arthouse cinema.

To Be Continued

The first thing I did after coming back from the festival was to upload my film Lovers in a Hotpot and post the link in the CIFF wechat group for those who couldn’t come to my screening. I received a lot of feedback from fellow directors, which has lead to future project discussions, cooperation plans, etc. Meanwhile in the CIFF chat group, postings about screenings, bannings and dealing with the bans were rolling. There’s a famous saying inside the Chinese independent film circle that they are dancing with chains. Now feeling the iron-cold restrictions, touching the fire-burning bodies and souls myself, I will say with chains we dance, towards a freer cinema. My once defeated optimism is back.

China Independent Film Festival
15 –19 November 2014


1. Between 1950s and 1970s, between 12 and 18 million educated young people were motivated or forced to go to rural areas from the urban, later when they returned to the cities, they can’t have normal social welfares.More information on the “sent-down youth” can be found here.

2. The whole film is available on YouTube uploaded by the filmmaker Wang Wo.

3. Launched by Wu Wen Guang, a pioneer of Chinese independent film, in 2005, this project gathers grass roots villagers or young students from villages, to go back and interview villagers about the Great Famine (1958-61); this was later expanded to encompass a more personal style of documentary in rural China.

4. The Night won the Berlinale’s Teddy award (best LGTBIQ film), and was also nominated for Best First Feature there. It won the Best First Feature award at 11th CIFF.

5. Betelnut won the New Currents Award at the Pusan (now Busan) International Film Festival in 2006.

6. The National Higher Education Entrance Examination of China, a prerequisite for entrance into almost all higher education institutions at undergraduate level. Many students study more than 14 hours a day for a year to compete in it.

7. Films that have the State Broadcast permission will have a leader with a dragon figure, commonly referred as “Dragon Head”.