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Beijing Independent Film Festival cancelled. Kind of...

Bad news from the beleaguered film fest

Photo: James Wilkinson
For our Film editor's thoughts on these events, see this blog post.

In a move that will shock those who dwell under rocks/on the moon, the tenth Beijing Independent Film Festival (BIFF) has been cancelled by the powers that be. Well, kind of.

Last year, of course, the event suffered a mysterious power cut during its opening film that the authorities ascribed to a completely coincidental accident. This year, however, there was no uncertainty as to where the disruption came from. Immediately after the opening ceremony (pictured) in a Songzhuang cafe-cinema, which was attended by directors from as far afield as Iran and Sweden, the assembled crowd were informed that the planned screenings would not be taking place as scheduled.

In a repeat of last year's event, the crowd dutifully filed over to the nearby Li Xianting Film Foundation, newly rebuilt with a three-storey screen, for what most assumed would be a private screening. Unfortunately, any plans for such an event were scuppered when police followed the procession to the Film Foundation, and authorities sent notice that the festival could not go ahead in Beijing.

After several hours of beers, cigarettes and chatter, festival director Wang Hongwei (film fans will recognise him from his appearances in numerous Jia Zhangke films, including Platform and The Pickpocket), a man who had found himself in a unique configuration of rock, hard place and s**t creek, called a meeting to announce that he had agreed to certain concessions that would allow the festival to go ahead, just not in a way actually recognisable as a festival.

Approved persons - directors, jury, invited guests - can sign up to take away DVDs of all the films that were to be screened at the fest, to watch in their own time. They can then return to Songzhuang to take part in the already scheduled discussions and lectures. However, the DVDs may not be watched by fewer than two people or more than five. The movies can also be watched on individual computers at the Li Xianting Film Foundation (presumably while a staff member hovers in the background, meeting the 'minimum two people' quota).

This is, of course, a triumph for the authorities, for whom BIFF always looked too much like an uncontrollable hotbed of potential sedition: unapproved talk about unapproved films by unapproved persons. Last year's mysterious power cut could theoretically have had the double result of breaking up the community while - being an act of god - ensuring that nobody could be blamed. The result, however, was that that same community pulled together, spreading the weight of the festival by screening films in homes, studios and other private spaces.

This year the organisers were prepared, with a newly built private screen, a generator and a stockpile of torches and batteries. And this year closure came in the form of an official order, threatening Wang Hongwei with imprisonment. The subsequent 'solution', while allowing the festival to go ahead in name, has the desired effect of fragmenting the community, forcing it to exist as a sofa-bound diaspora rather than a living, organic whole.

The result is the inevitable conclusion of years of pressure that had already reduced the festival's audience to a core of directors, journalists, screenwriters and others able to penetrate the inner circle of independent Chinese cinema - excluding those without the knowledge or connections to find out exactly where and when screenings would be available (when we tried to promote the festival ourselves we were unable to prise screening dates or details from the organisers, instead relying on Weibo and Douban pages that were subsequently retired).

This, of course, raises the question of whether it's even worth persevering with a festival that cannot actively promote itself, much less the films it was set up to support. Or, some might argue, this makes the need for such events - however compromised - even more urgent.

It remains to be seen whether the festival will return next year, and if so what form it will take. Regardless, this is a sad time for Beijing's film community, and for Chinese creative culture as a whole.

For updated information see the Li Xianting Film Fund’s Weibo account (Mandarin only); for the planned screening schedule click here, and for discussion info click here.

This article was amended on Saturday August 31 to change a reference to the police handing over notice to the organisers that the festival would not go ahead. In fact, police were present at the 'event', but the method of delivery of the notice has not been confirmed. The Li Xianting Film Foundation also claims that undercover screenings were held after the event, but this could not be confirmed at the time of writing.
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