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The Beijing Independent Film Festival Survives

Guests register in the Fanhall Cafe at the opening day of the 10th Beijing Independent Film Festival

Guests register in the Fanhall Cafe at the opening day of the 10th Beijing Independent Film Festival (photo: BIFF)

By Lydia Wu

Note: The following report was written at the request of the Li Xianting Film Fund, organizers of the Beijing Independent Film Festival, as a statement of record on the proceedings of this year’s Festival.

The 10th Beijing Independent Film Festival opened on August 23, 2013, with nearly 300 participants, including an assemblage of directors, journalists, audiences, programmers and film scholars who are interested in the Chinese independent filmmaking circle. Before the opening of the BIFF, the organizers had been negotiating with local authorities who would not allow any unsanctioned collective cultural events to happen. The authorities had given notice to the organizers that there was no possibility to hold their festival in Beijing. After a tedious and time-consuming negotiation, both the police and the organizers finally reached an agreement that the opening ceremony could take place in Fanhall (a cafe and multipurpose cultural space run by the Li Xianting Film Fund, which is also the sponsor of the BIFF).

On the surface, the opening was different from the scene last year, when policemen in plainclothes showed up to restrict the numbers of attendees and a mysterious power cut disrupted the opening screening, leaving festivalgoers outside waiting for several hours.  The opening ceremony went smoothly this year, from the guest registration and opening speech to the gathering of directors and guests. But the opening screening didn’t proceed. Under pressure from authorities, the festival couldn’t give a clear announcement of what would happen next.

BIFF Artistic Director Wang Hongwei addresses audience in the newly built screening room of the Li Xianting Film Fund. (Photo courtesy BIFF)

BIFF Artistic Director Wang Hongwei addresses the opening day audience in Fanhall. (Photo courtesy BIFF)

Attendees went from Fanhall to Li Xianting (LXT) Film Fund, waiting outside the Film Fund’s brand new three-story office and screening complex for nearly two hours, hoping that the opening screening could happen. In the meantime, Festival Operations Director Zhang Qi took one last chance with police to negotiate the possibility of showing the opening film, while another plain-clothes policeman came into the LXT Film Fund to persuade Li Xianting to dismiss the festival attendees. Festival Artistic Director Wang Hongwei received a phone call from the police who told him there were two coach buses waiting outside the Foundation. They were the same buses that took away the students of the Li Xianting Film School when authorities briefly detained students and shut down the school a month ago.

Considering the safety of all the attendees, as well as the safekeeping of media kept within the Li Xianting Film Fund, the organizers decided not to continue with screenings, which might provoke the police and trigger unwanted trouble. To address the emergency and give an explanation to attendees, the festival handed out DVDs of all the films on the programme to the approved directors and invited guests, suggested that they watch the films in groups, and that they would organize post-screening discussions as scheduled. Although this alternative plan guaranteed that all the directors could watch films, exchange ideas and support each other, it excluded public audiences who came all the way to the outskirts of Beijing to watch independent films. As the scheduled public screenings could not take place, festivalgoers gradually left. The following day some media outlets started spreading the news of the shutdown or cancellation of BIFF online.

This is the first year that the BIFF attempted to expand the activities of the festival on a national level, through collaboration with cinephile clubs in downtown Beijing, Chengdu, Tianjin and Shenzhen to hold the festival simultaneously. These cinephile clubs have nurtured their own audiences, which would enable the BIFF to reach a greater public audience in urban areas across China.  The venues could also share the weight of the festival by dispersing the potential gathering in Songzhuang, thus addressing the unease of local police over public assembly. Unfortunately, this attempt was also disrupted, as the cinephile clubs were threatened by their local police, except for the ones in Shenzhen and Tianjin. On the day before BIFF was due to start, three cinephile clubs cooperating with BIFF in Beijing announced the cancellation of their screenings. The screenings in Shenzhen considered dropping the BIFF label from their event.

"Don't Expect Praises" director Yang Jin (right) and "Around That Winter" actress Zhou Qing and director Wang Xiaozhen address the audience of the 10th Beijing Independent Film Festival.

“Don’t Expect Praises” director Yang Jin (right) and “Around That Winter” actress Zhou Qing and director Wang Xiaozhen address the audience of the 10th Beijing Independent Film Festival. (photo: BIFF)

BIFF never stopped trying other strategies to make the festival run smoothly despite the potential danger they might suffer. The festival’s second day coincided with a retrospective of films by Yang Jin, organized by Fanhall. The festival’s would-be attendees were told to attend the screening of Yang Jin’s Don’t Expect Praises in Fanhall. Then BIFF organizers then decided to use Yang’s film (which is an official state-approved production) in Fanhall as a cover to simultaneously screen the festival’s opening film Around That Winter (directed by Wang Xiaozhen) in the LXT Film Fund’s brand new video hall.  The opening screening and discussion ran successfully both in Fanhall and LXT without any official intervention. During the post-screening discussion Yang Jin announced to the audience, “A film festival cannot be called film festival if there’s no screenings at all. This is the opening film Around That Winter which was supposed to be seen yesterday.” In other words, the festival was not shut down; it had officially rolled out.

It is difficult to fathom the bottom line of the authorities. The backup plan at the opening screening and the screenings on the next day serve to test the degree of official tolerance. Although the cancellation of the opening screening on the first day resulted in a weak turnout over the remaining days of the festival, it definitely relieved the tension from the authorities, which helped all the screenings, discussions and forums run smoothly as scheduled.

The line-up of this year’s edition consisted of 22 fictions, 30 experimental films, 35 documentaries, the special program “Inside Iran,” and a special program of films from Indonesia. The pan-Asian programming vision is one of the highlights of the festival. The Iranian director Nahid Persson and curator Amirali Gassemi were both present to exchange ideas with Chinese indie filmmakers, and the forum “The Cross-Asian Independent Film” focused on communication between Asian independent cinemas. The other three forums were: “The Work of the Film Auteur”; “Future Cinema: Moving Image in Contemporary Asia”; and “From Film to Contemporary Art: The Publication Plan of Li Xianting Film Fund”, which announced the launch of new books edited by Li Xianting Film Fund.

The awards of the 10th Beijing Independent film Festival will be announced at a gala ceremony on August 31st.

Lydia Wu is a doctoral candidate in film studies at Newcastle University, currently researching independent film festivals in China.


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