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A Report on the Jacob Burns Film Center “Hidden China” Series

By Maya E. Rudolph

So Sorry (dir. Ai Weiwei)

The Hidden China Series at the Jacob Burns Film Center last October merged two very different worlds. Set in the idyllic downtown of Pleasantville, New York, a short distance north of New York City, the JBFC boasts a state-of-the-art film education facility and a beautiful three-auditorium movie theater, the latter of which hosted a roster of some of Chinese independent cinema’s most compelling offerings.

With films like Xu Xin’s six-hour Karamay and Ai Weiwei’s documentaries So Sorry and Disturbing the Peace, Urania Messing, a frequent patron of the JBFC and the Hidden China series, declared “all the films have been very powerful. Very worthwhile.” With the series’ conclusion, it’s clear that Hidden China has made an impact, allowing a remarkable roster of films and discussions with filmmakers to open a gateway to an active cultural exchange.

The JBFC’s Kathryn W. David Fellowship For International Understanding Through Film, a program that has hosted the likes of Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Romanian critic and curator Mihai Chirilov, recently welcomed two seminal figures of Chinese independent cinema: producer and programmer Zhu Rikun and director Wang Wo.

“We were put in touch with Zhu Rikun through [dGenerate Films President] Karin Chien,” said Gina Duncan, JBFC’s Administrator in charge of Programming and Special Guests, “and were able to check out the series Rikun had helped put together for the International Film Festival in Rotterdam. We were very impressed. He knows everything there is to know about this. Basically, we just gave him carte blanche when it came to determining the series.”

“Hidden China” focused on documentaries both overtly political—in the case of Ai Weiwei’s four works included in the program—and aesthetically and socially provocative, as with the films of Wang Wo, Hai Bo, and JP Snaidecki. Zhu’s one concession to narrative filmmaking is in the films of Li Hongqi, whose deadpan features So Much Rice and Winter Vacation amused and baffled Pleasantville audiences, most of whom had rarely come into contact with Chinese cinema that didn’t involve martial arts or feuding royalty. Despite the series title, Duncan is adamant that the JBFC was careful not to hype the films as inaccessible or underground anomalies, but simply as great films concerned with compelling Chinese cultural and historical narratives.

It is this receptive and straightforward presentation of a country that can be anything but, it seems, that has provoked JBFC audiences’ healthy curiosity about Chinese cinema and society at large. Knowing that many audience members would approach the series with limited knowledge of contemporary China, the JBFC emphasized the visiting filmmakers and films, many of which had not previously screened in the US. The Center succeeded in reaching out to both JBFC members and non-members via social media and Chinese-language media.

“As a series funded by a donor with a keen interest in demystifying world cultures, we felt that it was essential for us to gather a critical mass so that conversations would evolve more organically,” said Duncan, “we invited our members to sample these rather difficult films as a benefit of membership. [This] spawned extremely exciting interactions between Rikun, Wo and our audiences.” This focused approach—coupled with the JBFC’s established reputation as one of Westchester County’s few venues for independent and global cinema—seems to have helped pique the interest of a sophisticated audience eager to experience a wide range of global cinema and engage firsthand with filmmakers.

“This series has definitely brought out a more diverse crowd than usual,” said Duncan, “and the audience numbers are high. We sold out for Disturbing the Peace. We had 107 people for So Sorry. Our smallest audience was around twenty-one people for Karamay, but they almost all stayed and it’s six hours long.”

For many audience members, seeing Chinese cinema has been a way to open up unexpected portals to Chinese culture, to facets of China not accessible in mainstream film or media. Having Zhu Rikun and Wang Wo, as well as a diverse range of visiting directors and Chinese cinema experts, available to converse with audiences and shed light on the films and their social contexts has been a particular draw for audience members coming back throughout the month-long series.

“The exchange with the audience has been really good,” said Zhu , who has introduced almost all of the films and given Q&As with Wang Wo and other participating filmmakers, “This community seems to have a very specific kind of audience in that they appreciate all different kinds of films. They like to discuss the films, ask questions, really try to understand the films and understand China through the films.”

Wang Wo, whom Zhu Rikun asked to share in the Davis Fellowship because “he’s a good friend, a big help, and a fascinating filmmaker,” agreed.

“The audiences have been great, “ Wang said, “they don’t just leave right after the film ends. They have a lot of questions. There’s a lot about Chinese cinema and society they don’t understand, so they ask. Until now, all they’ve known of Chinese cinema is Zhang Yimou, but now they’ve begun to have a new kind of understanding.” While the JBCF was mindful not to politicize the screenings, the fact that these largely topical films have been jumping-off points for inquiries about Chinese culture and society has been a critical one to the audiences’ continued interest in the series and exchange with each film. “The films were the trigger that [allowed] our audiences to ask questions they didn’t know they had,” said Dominick Balletta, Managing Director of the JBFC.

For Zhu, his selection of films for the audience was born of a simple ideology. “I picked films I like, plain and simple,” said Zhu, “I didn’t choose films that served some specific purpose, I just chose good films. If you choose to show something you believe in, people will respond to it. People stayed and watched Karamy for six hours because it’s such a compelling work.”

While audiences relished the opportunity to experience Chinese cinema in the hands of some of Chinese indie film’s most knowledgeable and dedicated stewards, Zhu and Wang have also appreciated their time in Pleasantville, taking advantage of the JBFC’s editing and post-production facilities to finish up projects begun in China and making sojourns to New York City to shoot new material. The stay has been an opportunity to get to know a new audience and spend time with their families. “It’s been a nice stay,” said Zhu, who spent a month living in JBCF’s Fellowship housing with Wang, their wives and children, “This town lives up to its name.”


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