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Beijing Indie Film Festival Goes Dark After Record Turnout, Heads Underground

By Kevin B. Lee

originally published on Indiewire.

One of China’s indie film showcases fell dark on Saturday, as electrical power was cut during the opening screening of the 9th Beijing Independent Film Festival.

Held in the Songzhuang arts district in the outskirts of Beijing, the festival’s opening ceremony drew about 500 attendees by organizers’ estimates, more than double the single day attendance record from past editions of the festival.

The ceremony commenced Saturday afternoon, with artistic director Wang Hongwei welcoming filmmakers and guests, followed by a screening of “Egg and Stone” directed by Huang Ji. Winner of a Tiger Award at this year’s Rotterdam International Film Festival, the film is a candid portrait of sexual abuse in a rural Chinese family.

The screening was interrupted at midpoint by a power failure that affected the entire residential block surrounding the venue. Organizers say that prior to the outage local authorities had asked them not to screen the film following the ceremony.

“[The authorities] called me and told me that there was a power failure, and that they would try to fix it soon,” said art critic and curator Li Xianting, who heads the film fund that runs the festival. “But nothing happened, and when we tried to contact them back, they wouldn’t answer.”

Festival attendees waited outside for several hours for the power to come back on. After sunset, the remaining screenings scheduled for the day were held at a private location.

Organized by the Li Xianting Film Fund, the festival is a leading venue for Chinese films made outside of the official state apparatus. These films include arthouse, experimental and documentary films, sometimes dealing with mature content or socially sensitive topics.

“The festival is critically important for three reasons,” said international festival programmer Shelly Kraicer. “It allows a community of independent artists in China to gather and support each other’s work; it allows them to watch films from and interact with filmmakers from abroad; and it’s a crucial outlet for people from around the world to access Chinese independent films.”

In recent years the Film Fund has encountered increasing difficulties with local authorities concerning the events it organizes. Last year both the Beijing Independent Film Festival and the Beijing Independent Documentary Festival were prevented from screening films publicly. This year the festival organizers tried in advance to reach an understanding with local officials.

During their discussions, the authorities cited regulations made by the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television (SARFT) stipulating that films and screenings in China are subject to official approval. The festival organizers counter-argued that independently produced works should not be subject to regulations intended to govern mainstream commercial films; instead they should be categorized as works of art, which typically are not subject to government approval.

“We told them that they would be contributing to the development of progressive thinking and the advancement of our society and culture,” said Zhang Qi, the Film Fund’s director of operations. “Some of the officials could appreciate that and are supportive of our efforts.”

According to a report in the Global Times, a state-approved Chinese newspaper, district security officials denied sending police to the festival or taking action against it.

The event triggered a wave of responses on the Chinese microblog Weibo. One commenter called for a boycott of officially approved Chinese films in response to the shutdown. Other comments were more cryptic, a quality endemic to Chinese social media, which is monitored by authorities. Filmmaker Jia Zhangke posted, “Rumor has it the Film Bureau and Power Supply Bureau have merged. Perhaps I should take up the art of shadow puppetry.”

The Beijing Independent Film Festival does not have an official website, as the Li Xianting Film Fund website was shut down last year. Online promotion via social networks and microblogs may have contributed to the strong opening turnout.

Slated to run through August 26, the festival is presently continuing its planned activities in non-public venues, with participants being notified of event details via word of mouth.


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