Jane Hsu (徐蓁), a Taiwanese-American curator in New York, knew the odds were pretty good that the Chinese government would disrupt this year’s Beijing Independent Film Festival. What she did not know was that she would be holed up in a contemporary artist’s basement out in the countryside, clandestinely screening films with other jurors, after authorities ran them out of the festival’s film archive in Songzhuang (宋庄).
“We actually got the cushiest jurors’ job,” joked Hsu, who in 1999 served as a personal assistant to Li Xianting (栗憲庭), the famed avant-garde film critic whose organization, the Li Xian Film Fund, has sponsored the festival for the last 10 years. “There’s a secret network of these contemporary artists who offer their homes when the lights go out.”
Inspired by her experiences as a first-time juror, Hsu returned to New York in August and held her own four-day film event at the School of Visual Arts as a kick-off to this year’s festival. There, she said, participants had a chance not only to view Chinese independent films but also to learn about China’s burgeoning independent film scene as well as the Chinese government’s increasing distaste for it.
And then, on the last night, the bleak news arrived from China. “We found out that it was not happening,” said Hsu, whose event was also attended by film festival participants in China who joined in by Skype.
Though not entirely cancelled, this year’s Beijing Independent Film Festival was considerably scaled back. Large group screenings were scrapped, and filmmakers were told to burn their films on DVDs distributed by police. They could show them on laptops to no more than three people in a room and discuss them with groups no larger than 25, Hsu said.
“It’s not about the films,” Hsu added. “It’s about the banding together of people, the grouping of people. Film festivals make no money. There’s no application fee for the festival, and there is no entrance fee. So I suppose it’s probably very confusing for the government why people are doing this.”
In western culture, independent film usually refers to movies professionally made outside of the major film industry. For China, it reflects a break from state control and film studios that were all government owned until the 1990s, Chris Berry, a professor of film studies at King’s College in London, explained in an e-mail.
With the proliferation of mini-DV cameras, Chinese independent filmmaking took off during the late 1990s, though because such films are not submitted for government censoring, they cannot be shown commercially in movie theaters, Berry said.
While independent films tend to address issues facing those on the margins of society, “filmmakers steer clear of anything that would provoke active pursuit by the authorities,” Berry added.
For Fan Popo (范坡坡), a filmmaker in Beijing, the Beijing Independent Film Festival is an opportunity not just to submit for screening his own films, which deal with sexual minorities and the rights of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community, but also to view and discuss other underground films from which he might draw inspiration.
“Making an independent film is an expression of freedom,” Fan said. “Moreover, with this kind of independent creativity comes a creative spirit that I personally like.”