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What China Doesn’t Want You to See: The Beijing Film Festival Comes to New York

Yang Mingming, ‘Female Directors (女导演)’, 2012, (video still) digital, 43 min. In Mandarin with English subtitles. Image courtesy the artist, BIFF and Cinema on the Edge.
Yang Mingming, ‘Female Directors (女导演)’ (2012), video still, digital, 43 min. (image courtesy the artist, BIFF, and Cinema on the Edge)

The Beijing Independent Film Festival, organized and supported by the Li Xianting Film Fund, has been chugging along in fits and starts since its humble beginnings in 2004. The festival usually takes place in Songzhuang, a scrappy artists village 40 kilometers outside of Beijing, and has become a real fly in the ointment for Chinese authorities. Instead of holding up the Li Xianting Independent Film School and Independent Film Festival as models of creativity and innovation — which most developed countries would to showcase cutting-edge talent and originality on the world stage — in 2012, governmental authorities cut the festival’s power on opening night and harassed artistic director Wang Hongwei. In 2013, the festival was forced to issue contracts limiting screenings to no more than two people. In 2014, the authorities finally shut the entire festival down, detained the organizers, and barricaded screening rooms. The Film Fund’s headquarters, computers, files, and irreplaceable archive of Chinese independent films were confiscated, and both filmmakers and festival attendees were left harassed and intimidated.

That same year, 2014, the Fourth Annual Beijing Film Festival (not the independent one) rang up more than 1.4 billion dollars from the total value of contracts signed. Attendees included American Motion Pictures Association President Chris Dodd, Johnny Depp, and Oliver Stone, among others. This specially tailored cash cow was allowed to roar ahead by showcasing inoffensive crowd pleasers like Beauty and the Beast, and hosting an animation panel on the movie Frozen’s visual effects. In a surreal twist — for the first time in public in China — the festival screened James Dean in Nicholas Ray’s 1955 masterpiece Rebel Without a Cause. Go figure the logic behind that one — a big, blingy event held up the classic cinematic model of the archetypal rebel while the real thing was being crushed in the festival’s own backyard.

Li Xianting, head of BIFF being interviewed during 9th BIFF (2012) (image courtesy BIFF)

Fortunately, for New Yorkers, China’s loss is now New York’s gain. With the full cooperation of BIFF, Cinema on the Edge: the Best of the Beijing Independent Film Festival 2012–2014 will present a version of the BIFF festival in North America. Seven locations — including Anthology Film Archives, the Asia Society, Maysles Cinema, the Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA), Made in NY Media Center by IFP, UnionDocs, and the Weatherhead East Asian Institute at Columbia University, which will screen The Last Moose of Aoluguya on September 9 — have signed on to host at least 18 films from the festival. Producer/distributor Karin Chien, critic/curator Shelly Kraicer, and filmmaker/anthropologist J.P. Sniadecki launched a Kickstarter campaign to bring these previously banned films of fiction, documentary, and animation to the general public.

“These films have a lot to show us, not only about China, but about storytelling freed from marketplace demands,” said Karin Chien, president and founder of dGenerate Films, a leading distributor of Chinese independent film. “These groundbreaking films deserve an audience.” This is especially true as China is currently engaged in the largest crackdown since the Cultural Revolution and is stamping out anything not officially sanctioned by the Communist Party.

Poster of The 10th Beijing Independent Film Festival, 2013. Image courtesy BIFF.
Poster of the 10th Beijing Independent Film Festival, 2013 (image courtesy BIFF) (click to enlarge)

The ideological roots of this political poltergeist derive from Document No 9, also titled “Concerning the Situation in the Ideological Sphere,” laid out in a 2012 article in People’s Daily, accusing the West of using the poor and disenfranchised, dissidents, online opinion leaders, besieged religious followers, and human rights lawyers to insert their ideas and destabilize the one-party rule of the Chinese government. The document especially targeted dangerous liberal ideas such as human rights and freedom of the press. The Beijing Independent Film Festival ties right into this list of targets, with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) taking such draconian steps like locking up elderly foreign tourists in Inner Mongolia for viewing “terrorist” propaganda in the privacy of their hotel room — which turned out to be a documentary on the life of Genghis Khan.

La Frances Hui, film curator of the Asia Society, said:

It is evident that the Communist leadership has substantially tightened its control over the media, expression, and civil society in the past two years. Independent filmmakers and festivals like Beijing Independent Film Festival, already operating on the margin, are finding even less room to create and present works. We hope to celebrate and highlight the role BIFF has played for over a decade in nurturing a creative spirit and providing a platform for films both artistically and politically provocative.

Christopher Allen of UnionDocs explained his organization’s involvement saying:

I’ve been told by many that the scale, approach, and ambition of the documentary community in Beijing is on parallel with what we are doing and that and filmmakers will feel very much at home at an engaged and thoughtful place like UnionDocs. This is an incredible opportunity for exchange and exposure to new work and new voices.

Films include artist Ai Weiwei’s investigative documentary Ping’an Xueqing (2011) about the mysterious death of a village leader, Qian Yunhui from Zhejiang province, who protested when a villager’s land was confiscated without compensation by the local government. The award-winning feature Emperor Visits the Hell (2012) by Li Luo, winner of the 2012 Vancouver International Film Festival’s Dragons & Tigers Prize, revisits the famous story of the Tang Dynasty Emperor Taizong’s journey to the underworld. Also showcased is the musical documentary People’s Park (2012) by J.P. Sniadecki and Libbie Cohn. Another focus is on Chinese women filmmakers, including Yang Mingming (Female Directors, 2012) and Wen Hui, who, in Listening to Third Grandmother’s Stories (2012), tells the story of her 83-year-old great-aunt being tortured as a “class enemy” during Mao’s China.

Ai Weiwei, ‘Ping’an Yueqing (平安乐清)’, 2011, (video still), digital, 142 min, in Mandarin with English subtitles. Image courtesy the artist, BIFF and Cinema on the Edge.
Ai Weiwei, ‘Ping’an Yueqing (平安乐清)’ (2011), video still, digital, 142 min (image courtesy the artist, BIFF, and Cinema on the Edge)

The Dossier (2014), directed by Zhu Rikun, is a film about the political awakening of Tsering Woeser, a Tibetan writer now based in Beijing. The River Of Life (2014) by Yang Pingdao is an extended family chronicle that ties in with national history, and was the opening film and prize-winner of BIFF 2014. SPARK (2014), by Hu Jie, chronicles the underground magazine SPARK published in 1960 by four young people who exposed the devastating famine caused by Mao’s Great Leap Forward. Jia Zhitan Jia presents I Want To Be A People’s Representative (2014), which is about a villager from Beijing’s Caochangdi’s district who wants to run for the National People’s Congress. He wins the first round, but is deemed unqualified by officials for reasons they keep to themselves, but the mystery makes for great documentary material.

Though it is now the dog days of summer, this is the way to not only beat the heat, but to show support and give it up for compadres who dare to be original and different in an increasingly repressive scene.

Cinema On the Edge: The Best of the Beijing Independent Film Festival will run August 7 — September 13 at various venues throught the city including Anthology Film Archives (32 2nd Ave, Lower East Side, Manhattan), the Asia Society (725 Park Ave, Upper East Side, Manhattan), Maysles Cinema (343 Malcolm X Blvd, Harlem, Manhattan), the Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA) (215 Centre St, Chinatown, Manhattan), Made in NY Media Center by IFP(30 John St, Dumbo, Brooklyn), UnionDocs (322 Union Ave, Williamsburg, Brooklyn), and the Weatherhead East Asian Institute at Columbia University (420 W. 118th Street, #9, Morningside Heights, Manhattan ). 

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