Last year, Fan submitted his 80-minute film Mama Rainbow (彩虹伴我心), but after police cut power to the festival, it took Fan some asking around to eventually find out where his film was being screened.
“It was difficult to find the location,” Fan said, which turned out to be someone’s house. “You had to pass a test to gain entry. It made the whole thing feel underground.”
Despite this, the Chinese government has still managed to keep a close eye on the film festival.
“So long as such events are below the radar, the government doesn’t care,” Berry explained. “But once they become established and start to attract wide publicity, any sort of gathering of people outside state oversight makes the government very nervous. The ‘independent’ word is one that gets them jumpy, too.”
By 2011 and 2012, jumpy government officials had already grown wary of the festival screenings and responded by cutting electricity, a move to prevent filmmakers from showing their films, Hsu said.
This year, however, the Chinese government went one step further. “Before the film festival, there is always a workshop for students who want to learn how to make indie Chinese films,” Hsu said. “That is where the trouble started.”
The police, Hsu said, surrounded the hotel where the workshop was being held and placed everyone under house arrest, informing students and organizers that they were breaking the law ostensibly because they did not have a permit.
“So they sent the students home with their parents,” Hsu said. “Then the students, through social media, banded together, and they went four hours beyond county lines and had the workshop in the country.”
Authorities, meanwhile, had no idea that the student filmmakers had been using their cellphones to videotape the entire episode, which they later turned into a rough-cut documentary that they screened at Hsu’s New York event.
“It was amazing,” Hsu said. “As we were watching it, we were getting news from Beijing about how they were getting ready for the film festival.”
In a gesture of solidarity, Hsu and those in attendance held up the official 2013 film festival poster, featuring a notice Li handwrote the year before explaining to 2012 participants that the festival had been cancelled, and took photos that they sent to this year’s festival-goers in China, Hsu said.
“And when I woke up the next day, no screenings had happened,” Hsu added.
While the film festival was never officially cancelled, participants were not permitted to gather in groups, as they once were, to discuss the films, Hsu said. “At the end of the day, the directors were not able to screen their works and have a live audience,” she said.
“That’s the shame of it.”
Berry said it is difficult to predict what is in store for independent film and film festivals in China. But unless it becomes easier for independent filmmakers to earn a living, he said, the independent film movement will continue to revolve around short clips posted on the Internet.
“There are huge numbers of these now,” Berry said, “and they are used for all kinds of purposes, although they are rarely very cinematic or highly stylistically sophisticated.