Academic journal article Film Criticism

Closed and Open Screens: The 9th Beijing Independent Film Festival

Academic journal article Film Criticism

Closed and Open Screens: The 9th Beijing Independent Film Festival

Article excerpt

The 9th Beijing Independent Film Festival (BIFF) opened on the 18th of August 2012 as planned. Almost.

Although advertised as a Beijing event, the festival actually took place in Songzhuang, an exurb of Beijing that lies about twenty miles east of the center of the capital. The current cultural "upscaling" of Songzhuang had started in 1994 when the town's dusty soil saw the first settlement of famous figures such as painter Fang Lijun and art critic Li Xianting. In the course of about two decades, an increasing number of artists, writers, and, more recently, independent filmmakers propelled Songzhuang's growth into a major off-center of contemporary Chinese art.

The 9th BIFF confirmed its unique status as being an occasion not only for watching and discussing independent films but also for experiencing the exceptionally live connections the festival shares with contemporary Chinese reality. Ranging across fiction, nonfiction, experimental film, and more saliently in recent years, animation, independent cinema often presents subjects considered dark, raw, and unflattering to the nation's flashy image of success conjured from its dazzling economic progress. Among some of the best-known representatives of the spirit of critical independence of independent cinema are Jia Zhangke, Wang Bing, Wu Wenguang, and, more recently, Ying Liang.

The BIFF has been one of the few most important exhibition occasions within China for the fruits of independent filmmaking. Behind this effort to create a sustainable space for the growth of independent cinema is the Li Xianting Film Fund, a non-profit and non-governmental organization that the titular famous art critic initiated with generous financial support from established artists such as Fang Lijun. Besides the festival, the fund also runs an independent film archive (open for viewing and research) as well as a compact film school that enables its students recruited from all walks of life to study directly with experienced filmmakers such as Cui Zi'en, Ying Liang, and Yang Jin. Zheng Kuo, once a student at the Li Xianting Film School, brought an-adrenaline-shot-of-a-film this year, Burned Wings, which, with its unwavering depiction of power abuse prevalent in society, sustains the independent cinema's political defiance.

Doubtless, the political critique and artistic unruliness of Chinese independent cinema again caused the 9th BIFF unwanted attention from the authorities. Whereas the official request was that any collective cultural activity need be registered with and endorsed like the State Administration of Radio Film and Television (SARFT), the organizers of the BIFF defied the request by emphasizing the noncommercial, non-official (minjian, rather than unofficial), merely-among-friends character of this "film exhibition" (yingzhan, which is in the Chinese name of the BIFF without using the higher-profile word dianying jie or "film festival"). Communications were apparently ongoing between the authorities and the BIFF staff while the show was kept on miraculously despite two major "closings."

The first of these interruptions came right after the opening ceremony on the afternoon of August 18 when a suspicious power outage, interrupted the opening film, Egg and Stone, an exquisite and powerful fiction feature by woman director Huang Ji. Following the disappointing blackout, organizers, filmmakers, scholars, and many other members of the audience--between perhaps 100 and 150--chose not to leave and instead waited for whatever the rest of day might promise. People stayed until late night in the spacious courtyard outside the exhibition hall, sitting, standing, conversing, drinking, and eating some posting on-the-spot reportage of what was (not) happening on weibo ("micro-blog," China's equivalent of twitter) through cellphones. At one point, a filmmaker even brought a guitar and sang a few songs, creating a small entr'act between the scenes of waiting. …

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