China’s biggest independent film festival forced to suspend operations indefinitely

Guo Rui

China’s largest independent film festival has suspended its operations after the organisers said it was now “impossible” to maintain an “independent spirit”.

The China Independent Film Festival (CIFF), which provided a platform for films covering a range of sensitive topics that were not covered by mainstream festivals, released a statement on its official WeChat account on Thursday announcing that it would be suspended indefinitely after 17 years.

“We believe it is impossible to locally organise a film festival with a purely independent spirit, and even film festivals as a mechanism need to be reflected on,” it said.

“For those local film festivals that try to encourage the spirit of independence under the cloak of safety, we express our respect.”

Chinese-language film world split as Taiwan counts down to Golden Horse awards

The statement went on to say the festival had finished its historic mission of “films for freedom”.

“The CIFF will be forgotten, but we hope that the films we've chosen can be remembered,” it said.

The CIFF was seen as one of the largest platforms for Chinese independent works. It was founded by film commentator and curator Zhang Yaxuan and artist Cao Kai in the eastern city of Nanjing in 2003. It has been staged 14 times since then, showing around 1,000 films including features and documentaries.

Most films focused on sensitive issues not seen in mainstream events, including bloody land reforms in the 1950s, the 1959-61 Great Famine, the Cultural Revolution, HIV patients, LGBT people, migrants from the Three Gorges area and profiles of local Communist Party cadres.

Zhang Xianmin, a professor from Beijing Film Academy, has been its core organiser for 16 years.

“The closure is normal. We are just back to the usual rule under the party. We just went back to 20 years ago, when there was no room and opportunity for independent films.” Zhang told the South China Morning Post.

“If we had promoted the commercialisation of CIFF, that might have made it safer and we could have had the chance to survive.”

Chinese war film The Eight Hundred’s release cancelled

The period between 2003 to 2012 was the golden era for Chinese independent films, which won a string of international awards for works that focused on the stories of invisible and marginalised people.

But 2012 marked a turning point.

The Beijing Independent Film Festival, another large event based in the capital’s Songzhuang district – which became known as the Garden of Eden for Chinese artists – was forced to close when local authorities cut off power supplies.

There are not enough radical independent films now

Since then, hosting an independent film festival has become nearly impossible.

One of curators of the CIFF, who is known as Shuiguai, said: “There are not enough radical independent films now, so what’s the meaning of an independent festival’s existence?

“Now there are more government-oriented festivals and commercial festivals, offering more choices for young filmmakers. We cannot ask everyone to live like an ascetic monk, as the independent filmmakers did 10 years ago.”

One previous entrant at the festival, who asked to remain anonymous for safety reasons, said the room for independent film in China was getting smaller and it was unlikely the country would have another festival like the CIFF.

Could the Chinese film industry be the biggest loser from Beijing’s ban on Taiwan’s Golden Horse Awards?

The filmmaker recalled that when his film entered the festival in 2015, he found that getting a public screening was like “a guerilla fight” with all the movies being screened in different locations.

He also described the secrecy organisers had to adopt, deliberately putting the wrong address on fliers to avoid censorship.

When one of his films was first entered in the competition he was told to go to an address on the East Third Ring Road in Beijing but found there was nobody there when he arrived.

He called the organisers, who told him to go to a different floor, where he found a crowded conference room waiting to see the film.

These people want to leave a mark on history

The following year when his second film– about a severe nationwide police crackdown in the 1980s – was screened he was told to go to a burger restaurant in the capital and crawl into a storage area on the second floor, where his film was shown on a laptop.

He said there were still some groups or directors trying to hold independent film screenings on university campuses, and sharing information through WeChat.

But he said filmmakers were getting fewer chances to screen their work.

“These people want to leave a mark on history, that's their only utilitarian purpose. No matter what happens, they've recorded it,” the filmmaker said.

Sign up now for our 50% early bird offer from SCMP Research: China AI Report. The all new SCMP China AI Report gives you exclusive first-hand insights and analysis into the latest industry developments, and actionable and objective intelligence about China AI that you should be equipped with.

This article China’s biggest independent film festival forced to suspend operations indefinitely first appeared on South China Morning Post

For the latest news from the South China Morning Post download our mobile app. Copyright 2020.