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How the Chinese Government Tried to Stop a Film Festival in Beijing

How the Chinese Government Tried to Stop a Film Festival in Beijing

It’s hard to say whether the 2014 Beijing Independent Film Festival really happened. The last BIFF was 2012, when the government cut off electricity during the opening of Huang Ji’s award-winning “Egg and Stone.” Songzhuang is a growing artist village on the outskirts of Beijing, but its struggles with a number of difficulties from the local and city security councils prevented the 2013 edition.

This year, the festival was scheduled to open on the afternoon of August 23, and continue until the end of the month.

However, save for a few off-site screenings at artists and filmmakers’ homes, no official screening took place in the Songzhuang village, or in the city. In the early hours of the first day, uniformed and plainclothes police started to block the road to the Li Xianting Film Fund office, preventing filmmakers from checking in at the festival headquarters.

Suppressing the Truth

According to festival staffer Wang Shu, most of the staff left the office for safety reasons during the day, except Li Xianting, the festival’s organizer and a prominent art critic in China, as well as Wang Hongwei, actor, producer, and the artistic director of BIFF.

Li and Wang — both temporarily detained on the festival’s first day — continued posting images of developments on their wechat, China’s prominent mobile social media app, and documented the process of the police confiscating the festival’s documents, films, and computers of the festival, including up to 1,500 DVDs of Chinese independent films accumulated by the film fund throughout the past few years.

Outside the office on the same day, participants occupied a nearby street, trying to get into the office, but found themselves pushed back by the police. Around 5 p.m., a villager approached standing participants, yelling, “The festival is already over.” As I took pictures and video, another local snatched my phone out of my hands. Filmmaker Geng Jun ran toward them to take the phone back; 10 minutes later, a plainclothes officer returned the phone. All the images I took that afternoon were deleted, except one that I failed to upload on Instagram but saved in the cache, a picture of a police car marked with characters for “Wenhua Zhifa,” or the Cultural Law Enforcement Agency of Beijing.

Finding New Turf

Five panel discussions were scheduled to take place throughout the festival at the Li Xianting Film Fund office, but were forced to relocate to the city, in the name of each moderator. The participants included academics like Zhang Zhen (NYU Cinema Studies) and Kuo Li-Hsin (National Cheng-chi University, Taiwan), organizers like Zhang Xianmin (Beijing Film Academy and the China Independent Film Festival), Dong Bingfeng (OCAT Institute), and Zhang Haitao (critic, curator). 
The festival also contained a section dedicated to recent Filipino independent films, with an introduction by programmer Gertjan Zuilhof from the International Film Festival Rotterdam, as well as the recent two films by Japanese director Kazuhiro Soda.

On August 31, filmmaker Wang Wo led a ongoing campaign of an “eyes” closing ceremony of BIFF on a variety of social media websites, and also started a Facebook event page, asking people to post selfies of their closed-eyes face (the original Chinese for “closing ceremony” replaces one character [curtain] with the homophone “eye”).

The Bigger Picture

This festival was founded to showcase movie production in and out of China, but for the past few years has dealt with the absence of cinema. Each year the festival faces the same government hurdles. The organizers have been surprisingly defiant, partly because Li has 30 years of experience dealing with the authorities, being the co-curator (with Fei Dawei and Gao Minlu) of the landmark China/Avant-Garde (1989) exhibition at the China Art Gallery in Beijing.

Reality quickly set in. The exhibition was shut down only a few hours after it opened when artist Xiao Lu and Tang Song performed their piece “Dialogue,” which involved firing two unannounced gunshots at their installation. Due to the current political and social ecology in China, the future of BIFF remains unknown, but it’s reasonable to assume that BIFF faces no easy path forward in the coming years. 

Facing the impossibility of autonomous gathering of independent filmmakers, there have been discussions about creating new media platforms for the digital materials, as well as organizing small-scale screenings in a number of microcinema spaces throughout China and abroad. 

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