The 11th Beijing Independent Film Festival was not held last weekend as planned. The modest but increasingly vital festival, a rare incubator for a burgeoning Chinese independent film scene, was shut down on Saturday, August 23, by government authorities, the Associated Press (AP) reported. Roads and alleyways leading to Songzhuang, an artist-filled suburb of Beijing where the festival was to be held, were blocked by police and other “men claiming to be villagers.” At the venue, the office of festival organizer Li Xianting Film Fund, dozens of men roughly turned away and threatened filmmakers, attendees, and members of the press, breaking the camera of Hélène Franchineau, a video journalist for the AP, and confronting anyone who attempted to film the shutdown.
On the same day, festival founder Li Xianting, a well-known critic and supporter of Chinese contemporary art, as well as artistic director Wang Hongwei and co-organizer Fan Rong were detained for hours by the police, who also dragged away in bags thousands of files, documents, and computers from the Li Xianting Film Fund, including what the Wall Street Journal reported to be “1,500 films collected by the film fund over the past decade.” The state of this key archive of independent Chinese cinema, an indispensable channel to the rest of the film world, is uncertain.
In response to the crackdown and seizure, a growing number of over 20 international film festival figures and staff have signed a statement in support of the Beijing Independent Film Festival and the Li Xianting Film Fund. It reads in part:
We call upon the relevant Chinese authorities to permit the Beijing Independent Film Festival to pursue its mission to nurture and exhibit a full range of alternative cinematic voices in China, to allow the festival to operate without interference, and to allow the Li Xianting Film Fund to continue its vital mission of archiving and supporting independent Chinese filmmakers.
Current signers include directors and heads of the Film Society of Lincoln Center, the International Film Festival Rotterdam, the Berlinale Forum, the New York Film Festival, and Tokyo Filmex, among others.
The Beijing festival has often been harassed and intimidated over the years: past editions were forced to relocate, and in 2012 the power was cut off. (Writing for Senses of Cinema last year about these frequent interruptions, Lydia Wu somewhat ominously entitled her article “How Does it Survive?: The 10th Beijing Independent Film Festival.”) Weeks before this year’s event, government personnel pressed Li to cancel. In Kafkaesque fashion, a compromise to hold the festival at a hotel in nearby Yanjiao County was reached, before it quickly wasn’t — the hotel owner informed the organizer that local authorities prohibited him from hosting the event.
But even Li was surprised by this weekend’s shutdown. “In the past few years, when they forced us to cancel the festival, we just moved it to other places, or delayed the screenings,” he told the AP. “But this year, we cannot carry on with the festival. It is completely forbidden.”
What this represents to the state of independent cinema in China is of grave concern. President Xi Jinping has presided over an enormous rise in state repression of freedoms and civil society. “This most recent crackdown may suggest authorities are no longer willing to tolerate the emergence of independent film voices (and the social networks growing around them) — even if they are already effectively marginalized,” David Bandurski, a researcher with the University of Hong Kong’s China Media Project, told the New York Times. Films of all levels of production are subject to intense state scrutiny; censors regularly suppress movies that even approach sensitive subjects. Time will tell what will come of the festival and the community it sustained. Hopefully a decade of important film history and a platform for growth and exposure in a country with so many stories have not been lost.