Last year, on an unusually bright Saturday afternoon, more than 500 people descended upon the remote town of Songzhuang for the Beijing Independent Film Festival. Those who got there early took shelter from the oppressive heat by clustering under the shade of the locust trees, but soon their number had become so great that those still arriving had nowhere to stand but the dusty countryside road.
The organisers of the festival had informed the authorities about their plans some months previously, but received only silence in response. When the projector was permitted to murmur to life, and the first images of Huang Ji’s Egg and Stone flickered timorously out from the darkness, they breathed a collective sigh of relief. It was shor t-lived. Barely had they had time to collect their next breath than the theatre was again plunged into darkness. The electricity for the building, and the entire residential block, had been cut.
Jia Zhangke, perhaps the most critically beloved director working in China today, took to microblogging site Weibo. ‘Rumour has it that the Film Bureau and the Power Bureau have merged,’ he wrote. ‘Perhaps I should take up shadow puppetry.’ Another microblogger mused, ‘The shortest film festival in history ended just after it began.’ But the festival had not ended; the 500-plus people crammed into the small theatre did not leave. They lit candles and told stories, shared jianbing and liquor, whilst on the other side of Songzhuang, the organisers of the festival frantically shuffled desks out of their offices to set up a projection screen. Several hours later, and some miles away from where they had begun the film, those who had come to the remote town for the festival finally finished it. Over the following week, the remaining 100 films ran on time, relying on the generosity of those who offered their homes as makeshift screening rooms to stay one step ahead of the perceived threat.
‘This year we have our own power generator,’ Dong Bingfeng tells us, smiling. As the artistic director of Li Xianting Film Foundation – the organisation behind the Beijing Independent Film Festival – Dong was one of the individuals who had spent that fateful afternoon dragging desks and hoisting chairs. ‘Film has always been regarded as something dangerous,’ he explains. ‘[It] is the medium that is subjected to the most stringent cultural regulation, because of its ability to speak to, and influence, the masses. Even the illiterate can watch and understand films. This is why it is such an effective tool for propaganda. Films are not merely films, they’re capable of inciting social change. It’s no wonder our film festival has gotten on the authorities’ nerves.’ He pauses, pondering his next words carefully, and then another smile crinkles his lips. ‘Of course, the official reason that was given for the power cut [last year] was that it was an accident.’
Despite the events of the previous year, the festival, Dong insists, has never been about political upheaval. ‘All of the information about our festival is posted on the internet, on Weibo and Douban. It’s all freely accessible, even to the police and the censorship bureau.’ The Beijing Independent Film Festival, Dong says, has always been about the rather more mundane activity of amassing, and preserving, an archive. ‘Chinese history only has one narrative – the official narrative, which deprives and denies all alternative interpretations,’ says Dong. ‘Archives – the systematic preservation of the past – have an utmost importance in China’s continued social and historical development. We believe that the experiences of ordinary folk and of everyday life, which are often omitted from the official narrative, are equally important.’
The medium of film was chosen because of its ability to ‘document’ Chinese society ‘in its diversity, vividly and with nuance, the lives of those most privileged, as well as the most underprivileged’. While Dong admits that many of the films are ‘radical’ or ‘transgressive’, what they transgress isn’t necessarily the political, but the ‘language’ of cinema, and ‘cinema’s relationship with reality’. ‘For instance,’ says Dong, ‘[The filmmaker] Wu Wenguang is doing a project where he has given video cameras to farmers and rural peasants, allowing them to tell their own stories.’ If offical supicion exists, says Dong, it exists because ‘the authorities’ understanding of film remains rather backward’.
This year, the festival once again intends to show over 100 films, in addition to lectures, workshops, and discussions. There will be films from the Mainland and abroad. ‘I don’t think the situation this year can be any worse than last,’ Dong says. ‘But in any case, we’ve renovated the courtyard of the Li Xianting Film Foundation into a three storey space with two screening rooms. And if they cut the electricity again, we’ll put our own generator to use.’
The 10th Beijing Independent Film Festival runs from Mon 23-Mon 30. Check 北京独立电影展(Beijing duli dianying zhan) on Douban and Weibo, and the Time Out Beijing website one week before the event for details.