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Chinese TV Execs Balk at Inclusion of 'Ai Weiwei' Film as Sheffield Doc/Fest Gets Underway

Photo of Nigel M Smith By Nigel M Smith | Indiewire June 13, 2012 at 5:25PM

What's a film festival opening day without a little controversy?
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Sundance Selects "Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry"

What's a film festival opening day without a little controversy?

The 2012 Sheffield Doc/Fest got off to its usual start Wednesday afternoon by introducing attending filmmakers and industry players to some of this year's Decision Makers. During the annual "Who's Who: What's New" session, invited executives, producers, distributors and the like each got five minutes to tell the crowd where they see documentary filmmaking going in the future. BBC "Storyville" editor Nick Fraser made his five minutes count by dropping a bombshell that had not yet been made public by the festival (it has since by realscreen): A delegation of 10 Chinese commissioning editors had pulled out of attending the event at the last minute after the festival refused to drop the Sundance award-winner "Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry" from its competition program.

The 10 no-shows were supposed to take part in Thursday's "Meet China's Documentary Commissioners" session, an event touted by the festival in its program as "the first time executives of the four key documentary and factual channels [in China] are coming to an international festival." Those execs included the head of documentary channel China Education Television (CETV); the controller of CCTV Channel 9; the head of production at CCTV Channel 9; and the controller of Chongqing Science and Education Channel.

The film that reportedly caused the Chinese reps to back out profiles Ai Weiwei, China's most famous international artist and an outspoken domestic critic. According to realscreen, the Chinese embassy in London contacted Doc/Fest directly after learning that the documentary, directed by Alison Klayman, was included in the program, demanding that it be taken out only a day before the festival's launch. Doc/Fest refused.

"Editorial independence is critical to the Sheffield Doc/Fest program, so allowing any delegation of any kind to have influence on the film program is an idea that we could never contemplate," Hussain Currimbhoy, film programmer at Sheffield Doc/Fest, told realscreen. "We air documentaries which turn the lens on the Chinese way of life, just as we have films which examine the American, British, Russian and Canadian establishments. Examining different world cultures is a key part of any documentary film festival."

In place of the panel, Fraser will discuss his latest book, "Why Documentaries Matter."

"It may be a tough act to follow," Fraser told the crowd.

This article is related to: Sheffield Doc/Fest, Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry