CinemaTalk: A Conversation with Shelly Kraicer
Shelly Kraicer is a Beijing-based writer, critic, and film curator. Born in Toronto, Canada, and educated at Yale University, he has written film criticism in Cinema Scope, Positions, Cineaste, the Village Voice, and Screen International. Since 2007, he has been a programmer of East Asian films for the Vancouver International Film Festival, and has consulted for the Venice, Udine, Dubai, and Rotterdam International Film Festivals.
Shelly has regularly contributed informative and insightful pieces on contemporary Chinese cinema for the dGenerate blog. This time we are pleased to present a lengthier, more casual and free-flowing conversation with Shelly. The conversation touches on the current state of independent film in China, the official and unofficial systems of film production and distribution, and the relationship between Chinese films and international audiences. The interview was conducted by Christen Cornell of Art Space China.
Christen Cornell: What’s the system which allows certain films in China to be shown in commercial cinemas and others not? In other words, what is an âˆšÂ¢â€šÃ‡Â¨Ã€Ãºunauthorised’ film?
Shelly Kraicer: The classic system for feature fiction films is that there are at least two stages of censorship. One submits a summary of the film, and then when that is OKed you shoot your film, and then you submit a final cut. Then there’s typically a process of negotiation, where it’s not that the thing is banned or the thing can go through – which was the old system, and that’s still how I think a lot of, maybe Western media people who aren’t so specialised think of it. You know, like the old Soviet system? We ban; we pass.
CC: Even the word âˆšÂ¢â€šÃ‡Â¨Ã€Ãºban’, I think, is a really Western idea.
SK: Right. And it doesn’t work that way. The film bureau will typically give a list of comments and objections and, quite often, specific scenes or shots, or sometimes it can be a slightly more general objection. And then a filmmaker will get back to them with changes, plus, and/or negotiation about it, and depending on how good you are at schmoozing, you get close to your original cut or you have to do a lot of changes.
The films that the film bureau would say no to just aren’t submitted. So I guess that’s one reason there isn’t a lot of flat banning. You know independent filmmakers, filmmakers that work out of places like Song Zhuang – a film community in Beijing – most of them don’t even submit.
CC: So these are people who have decided to be âˆšÂ¢â€šÃ‡Â¨Ã€Ãºindependent filmmakers’, as they would call themselves.
SK: Yes. And as long as you keep yourself out of the system, functionally there are no restrictions on what you can do, on what you can film. Of course you can’t show your film in official, commercial cinemas. But there are more and more alternative venues now, and there are people even working on trying to set up … âˆšÂ¢â€šÃ‡Â¨Ã€Ãºnetwork’ is probably a little too tangible a word. But they’re working towards a network of non-official screening spaces / cinemas to support filmmakers who choose to stay totally out of the system.
When I moved to China in 2003, if you wanted to see these films outside of the system, in public, it tended to be in cafes which projected DVDs from computers or DVD players or something like that. And maybe some art galleries. But now it’s much more institutionalised. There are screening rooms, there are festivals. There are four festivals at least – there are more every year – that show unofficial films, that show them openly and publicly, but they are aware of the limits that they can publicise themselves. So they tend to be rather low key, these festivals, but not secretive. They just don’t make a big splash.
CC: Just under the radar.
SK: Yes. They do things like publish the festival catalogue very late, like before the festival starts, and rather than put it online to be caught and searchable they put it in a pdf and make the pdf downloadable. So it’s accessible but sort of … nicely one level removed from somewhere where officials could do a search and stumble upon the information and then have to do something about it.
CC: I’ve worked with Chinese publishing and it reminds me of that, and even the visual arts. From the outside the West has this idea that there are these hardcore infrastructures of censorship in China but actually it’s not a case of artists banging their head up against a wall. They’re very subtle in the way they get things done and they manage to develop these alternatives. Maybe like you say, âˆšÂ¢â€šÃ‡Â¨Ã€Ãºnetwork’ is too strong a word, but maybe eventually this independent scene will become a kind of independent network.
It does seem that you can get to a point of critical mass, like with the Beijing Art District, 798. Originally their festivals were similar, they never really knew if they were going to be able to go ahead with one and so they publicised them late, and now a few years on it has become an institution that is recognised and even promoted by the government because it’s got the retail angle, amongst other things.
SK: Yeah, so for visual arts … well that’s all set up now, it’s even over-institutionalised. It’s like a shopping mall now. [laughs]
CC: Do you imagine there might come a point where it would be more worthwhile for the independent film scene to be recognised and promoted by Chinese authorities?
SK: That seems to be the general direction, but who knows what the timeline is. And it’s not a steady progressive opening up. It’s a graph that goes up and down. If you take a statistical analysis and draw a straight line through the graph it’s heading in the right direction. But there are closings and openings. But I think out of all culture, all media, film is the most controlled, the most policed, because classically it was the most useful for propaganda. You know, the mass medium that communicates with everyone in China. So that will be the last place to be opened. The last field.
CC: Who’s the audience for the independent films? Within China or more broadly speaking.
SK: Within China: young people, very young people; other filmmakers. It’s hard to know. At screenings you tend to get students, artists, young people like that. The Ullens Centre for Contemporary Art screenings in the 798 Art District seem to attract … slightly more like patrons from a modern art museum in America and maybe in Australia. Certainly more upper middle class, conspicuous arts consumption people. [laughs] That’s what they look like to me. They’re better dressed. Which is interesting. I mean, that’s a good thing.
There’s also DVD distribution, and although that’s not how any independent filmmakers make money, because they’re all ripped off, that is how people see the films. A lot of the films. And a lot of the films that don’t even try to get permission to be shown in theatres end up being pirated on DVDs.
CC: So they’re distributed in a more mainstream market through pirated DVDs.
SK: Yes. People can buy them online, I see them in stores. If pirates are spending their money on printing these things then people must be buying them.
CC: Does your research focus on documentary or are you looking more broadly at independent Chinese film?
SK: I’m looking more broadly but it just so happens that, on the independent side, the most creative and ambitious young filmmakers are making documentaries. So my work is just naturally focussing on documentaries because that’s where the good stuff is right now.
There are a lot of reasons that documentaries are striving now in China. For one there’s so much to document, and there are a few genres forming to cover this.
There’s the Look at Urban Life Today – so trying to catch change as it’s happening. That’s pretty standard. And since China changes so quickly it’s throwing up fresh material for urban ethnographers and documentary makers all the time.
There’s also a very strong archival movement, or stream, in Chinese documentary making which has to do with the urgency of how fast stuff is disappearing. So you’ve got to catch things before they’re gone, chewed up and swallowed up – old architecture, old ways of living that are being destroyed by cities. So there’s a real struggle to get things down on film while there’s still time.
Films like Nostalgia which is about Shanghai architecture are sort of a sub-branch of this, which is much more political documentary filmmaking. It’s political archival, alternative histories of China. Talking to old people about history that the Communist Party doesn’t allow to be openly discussed in film and doesn’t allow to be written about. So people like Hu Jie are trying to get real history down on film, really working on building up archives, through interviewing people who have gone through various traumas associated with the early history of the People’s Republic.
So you can look back and find material disappearing really quickly, and you’ve got to get it on your movie. You can look at right now and find new material. It’s coming at them from every direction.
CC: The relative inexpensiveness of camera equipment these days must be a kind of liberating force.
SK: I guess you could say there was a revolution in Chinese independent filmmaking having to do with digital cameras, and the sixth generation of Chinese filmmakers which was the last professionally trained generation that had to go through Beijing Film Academy: you would do your professional training and then you’re a filmmaker – people like Jia Zhangke, Lou Ye, Zhang Yuan. But since those guys there are no professional credentials and training one needs to go through to become a filmmaker. You get a camera, and if you’re good, you make films. So that’s the huge change.
CC: And I guess distribution changes in that era as well, because you have DVDs and downloads.
SK: Distribution can, if it hasn’t already, open up so many possibilities for these people to get films out, at least in low-profile small-scale ways.
CC: I’d like to talk about the boundary on which you sit between China and the international. The contemporary Chinese arts industries are growing in an international context and so often there’s crucial involvement from people from overseas. Do you ever feel like you’re translating cultures for each other, or is it more like playing hostess at a party, making introductions?
SK: This is something I think about all the time. And I think there are problems with both of those ways. One wants to avoid the old model, which is: Western explorer âˆšÂ¢â€šÃ‡Â¨Ã€Ãºdiscovering’ Chinese filmmakers and introducing them to the West. Which is just ridiculous, and old fashioned. It’s one where you define yourself as an expert and become a portal through which exotic, oriental culture is allowed to pass into the West. There are some film festivals that still work that way, but I hope that model is one I’m subverting, if I’m doing well.
The party … that’s a little bit too much like the portal model. It’s partly translation but partly it’s the opposite of translation. I hate boundaries, but obviously they exist. And the goal of the work I do is to punch holes through boundaries, and allow difference and strangeness; for culturally different works to slot through and get to the other side without a lot of massaging, or a lot of translation or filtering.
As a programmer and as a writer, if I feel really successful, what I’ve done is I’ve helped Western audiences or readers to confront something that they maybe haven’t thought about, or some kind of film that they weren’t aware of, and just make them see that there are different ways of seeing things, that could be provocative or fascinating.
Thinking about translation makes me think of some programmers I know who could say to a filmmaker: oh well I’ll show that to you in my festival but you’ve got to change the ending and redo the music because for Western audiences this won’t work. That’s translation and I never want to do that. Writing the subtitles on the other hand is fine [laughs], and that’s part of the work I try to do.
CC: Have Western audience’s expectations changed with their understanding of, or maybe their relation to, China?
SK: It depends. On the commercial side, sadly, since it’s distributor-run, Western audience’s expectations are shaped by what large Western corporations decide to feed them. [laughs] It still seems like markets are for large costume dramas, swords, that sort of thing.
On the independent side, there’s been a little bit of a trend these last few years. Things have congealed a little for a while, where the standard, long-take, urban ennui film of young, Chinese drifter guys – maybe getting involved with prostitutes, maybe getting messed up with the law and getting killed – seems to be kind of a template. Western festivals seem to find these films easy to show their audiences, and it’s what their audiences kind of expect. And sometimes I wonder if directors don’t produce that kind of work because they know they have a chance to get it out there.
CC: And then where does the âˆšÂ¢â€šÃ‡Â¨Ã€Ãºbanned film’ sit within those expectations?
SK: Well it’s a marketing word, really. It’s something that people put on posters. There was a famous story of a filmmaker sticking the word âˆšÂ¢â€šÃ‡Â¨Ã€Ãºbanned’ on a poster – you know the film wasn’t banned – for distribution in the West. Because that’s a sexy label, right?
CC: The same thing happens with books that Chinese publishers chose to never publish. They get called banned but they never encountered the censorship system.
SK: So it works for things like Lou Ye’s last film in Cannes Film Festival, [Spring Fever] – the one after Summer Palace. Since he was banned because of Summer Palace, âˆšÂ¢â€šÃ‡Â¨Ã€ÃºFilmed by Banned Chinese Filmmaker’ was the way it was presented at Cannes. And you know media, because they like to tell stories they’ve already told over and over, that’s how it was picked up. But I’m not sure that’s helpful, it’s certainly not imaginative, and it forces a kind of non-mainstream filmmaking into a âˆšÂ¢â€šÃ‡Â¨Ã€Ãºbanned’, adversarial, political kind of a straight jacket. Some people are doing that work and I admire them, I think it’s great work, but there’s a lot of really interesting work that isn’t like that.