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Independents Day at the 2011 China Independent Film Festival

By Chris Hawke

"Shattered" (dir. Xu Tong)

(Originally published in the China Global Times)

A convicted bordello madam who once dabbled in illegal coal mining played a starring role at the 8th China Independent Film Festival (CIFF), accepting an award during the opening ceremony at Nanjing University and breathing life into an otherwise-dull forum on filmmaking.

Tang Caifeng won the True Character award for Xu Tong’s Shattered, which followed Tang back to her hometown to reunite with her irascible father, a former engineer educated under Japanese rule.

Subplots involve Tang’s efforts to get into mining and her efforts to “assist” a young prostitute who later turned her in to authorities, leading to a prison term.

The 600-seat auditorium was packed for the ceremony, with 200 left standing in the aisles to watch a high-octane preview of the 24 documentaries, 10 feature films and 20 shorts that screened from October 28 to November 1.

Organizers emphasized their independence and a clenched fist thrust upward in a gesture of empowerment served as their icon.

CIFF is the most important event on China’s indie film circuit, drawing buyers and festival programmers from the US and Europe. It is also one of the few opportunities for independent filmmakers to show to large audiences.

Only films that have received the “dragon seal” after clearing the State Administration of Radio Film and Television approval process can normally be shown in commercial theaters, sold or broadcast on television. The approval process is both cumbersome and often entails compromise.

But the commercial and cultural potential of independent filmmakers has not escaped the notice of government officials, several of whom attended for the second year in a row, albeit at a subdued second ceremony held early next day, featuring flowers instead of a former madam.

There, the deputy publicity director of propaganda for Jiangsu Province called for more cultural communication platforms to connect with people from other parts of the world, supporting works with international promise that can spread “traditional Chinese values.”

Organizer Zhang Xianmin later joked that this year’s festival had been “dragon sealed,” but admitted he never knows if CIFF can take place from one year to the next, adding, “I hope my followers can take it from my hands.” Earlier this year, authorities forced the Beijing Independent Film Festival’s venue from a museum into a small, private office space.

Zhang said commercialism and regulation made the watering-down of creativity inevitable but noted that China’s independent film scene was still at the beginning of this process.

Innovation was abundant, although there were, inevitably, some mediocrity: Chinese independent films are usually low budget and often feature slow pacing, long takes and primitive editing, making some difficult to enjoy.

The strongest offerings were in documentaries. Qiu Jiongjiong’s My Mother’s Rhapsody focuses on his willful grandmother, who married a stage actor against her family wishes and spent her life regretting it. Warm humor surrounds the large family’s attempt to find a home for her, after a previous one is demolished by authorities.

God Bless You by Li Miao and Seven Days in a Year by Wang Hao both feature remarkably candid footage of officials in their day-to-day work.

Seven Days focuses on an Internet monitoring department in a Chongqing county trying to deal with a series of mandates: mostly training wumaodang (“50-center”) commentators, sending propaganda by SMS and erecting pro-government banners in public places. Humor comes from the innovative, often dubious schemes staff devise to meet their sometimes-impossible targets.

God Bless You focuses on relations between villagers near Qinling Mountain trying to rebuild a church and officials. Director Li Miao said he was able to capture the footage because of his close ties to the villagers. He added that some of the questionable behavior would “surprise no one” in China.

Shu Haolun’s No. 89 Shimen Road (aka Black and White Photos), set in late-1980s Shanghai, won Best Narrative Film for its story of a teenage boy’s relationship with two women, one secretly a prostitute and the other who shares his political interests.

Wang Chao took the Special Prize for Celestial Kingdom, about a sinister crime surrounding a Minghum (“ghost bride”) ritual, an outlawed northeastern rural tradition which stipulates that men who die early must take a “bride” to the afterlife – no matter how the deceased female arrives at that state.

Wang’s film shines an embarrassing spotlight on the kind of social ill cadres would much rather not be discussed publicly – a problem that has blighted documentary filmmaking here since Antonioni’s Chung Kuo, Cina (1972) was denounced by Chairman Mao as “anti-Chinese,” simply for depicting poverty.

Such difficult subject matter proved the catalyst for an unexpected festival highlight. As a theoretical discussion about objectivity degenerated into analyses of relative social classes of prostitutes and intellectuals, Shattered’s Tang Caifeng finally had enough.

“If you are so afraid of filming people like me, you won’t make a good documentary!” she snapped.

“If others are so afraid of shooting interviewees, who will know what’s happening in society?”

(Originally published in the China Global Times)


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