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Closed and open screens: the 9th Beijing Independent Film Festival.

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.

Although the screening never re-started that day, three things that strongly suggest cinema--not as a projected moving image but as a way of imagining and understanding reality hovered on the waiting scene: the presence of cameras; the intense awareness of passing time; and the element of performance that transformed the setting into something surreal and representational. In addition to the aforementioned weibo reporters and various people with cameras, on the festival site that day, name badges were randomly handed to awaiting audience members, indicating them as "special guests," many with what seemed to be invented names. Earlier as we entered the exhibition hall to see Egg and Stone (which was soon interrupted), a few unexplained handheld cameras were at the entrance welcoming the audience, possibly creating video records of festival participants. Whatever the real reasons for the cameras were, the sight of people wearing the badges that carried invented names seemed strange, funny, and subtly heartening, and the guests' patient waiting for the unknown fate of the festival gradually turned into a performance of resilience, faith, and protest.

Starting the next day, the screenings were secretly relocated to the courtyard office of Li Xianting Film Fund. Two offices were temporarily converted into screening rooms, each accommodating about fifty people and allowing BIFF to screen films as originally programed.

The second interruption came on the fifth day when Mr. Li Xianting, under further official pressures, posted a reluctantly handwritten notice on the courtyard wall announcing the "end" of the festival. After that, however, the festival continued at a further reduced scale: the remaining guests, now only fifty or so, were secretly escorted to the residences of a supportive artist and finished watching the rest of the program.

Despite its claim of being a relaxed occasion for exchange among makers and friends of independent films, the BIFF was ambitious in terms of the scale of presented works: around 100 pieces, from feature length to short experimental pieces, were selected from a pool of 300 applications. In total, 15 documentaries, 29 fiction films, and 31 experimental films were entered in competition for awards decided by jury committees each composed of three filmmakers, critics, and/or scholars. In addition, 32 documentaries, each running at least an hour long and some by American and Taiwanese filmmakers, were shown for noncompetitive exhibition.

The opening film, Egg and Stone, is an extraordinarily intimate, powerful debut feature by woman director Huang Ji. Working with her husband (Otsuka Ryuji) as the D.P. and her uncle in a leading role, Huang presents the quiet suffering of Honggui, a teenage girl who has suffered sexual abuse from her guardian--the uncle--and now finds herself pregnant. (Huang's uncle, the nonprofessional actor, was not the guilty one.) Embodying a deeply lonesome experience of silent endurance, the teenage protagonist finally breaks through to establish her own existence in a carefully removed yet independent feminine environment. Benefitting from a Rembrandt-influenced sensibility to lighting and frame composition, the film relies on available lighting and makes the best of the pictorial qualities of its photogenic protagonist, crafting symbolic relationship between character and space. In the process, Egg and Stone masterfully mobilizes elements that are generally associated with female or comparably counter-hegemonic experiences: interiority, liquids, and the body, resulting in a deeply engaging personal presentation of women's experience. Egg and Stone has already won a Tiger Award for Best Feature Film at the Rotterdam International Film Festival earlier this year.

Women Directors, a 42-minute-long fiction film by Yang Mingming, also invites the spectator to imagine the unfolding cinematic space as experienced by two young women. Setting out to wonder about what kind of story might happen between "a camera and two women," Yang creates a quasi-documentary in which two young women, both film directors and also friends (played by Yang and her friend Guo Yue), film each other, pose and answer questions, and discover that they have been dating the same man. Although the subject of the story might sound cliche and the absence of the male figure reminds one of a famous and elaborate precedent in Zhang Yimou's Raise the Red Lantern, Women Directors is not a whiny indictment of gender imbalance. Rather, the two women stand out as subjects of their own, insistent on communication and critical thinking. Disbelief, hate, nonchalance, curiosity, jealousy, insecurity, anger, empathy, understanding, reconciliation, and resolution--the friends work through this rich range of emotions and reactions together, even when they fight, exchanging perspectives as they take turns to handle the camera.

Both Egg and Stone and Women Directors won two of the three Jury Awards for Outstanding Dramatic Films; the third award went to The Hunter and the Skeleton, a 26-minute-long animation piece by Gyatso Gentsu, who, despite never having been formally trained in animation, spent three years on this extremely humorous and charming rendition of a famous Tibetan folktale. The resulting film fully realizes the spectacular beauty and aesthetic inspiration found in the exaggerated (and goofy) figures, bright colors, shallow spaces, and imaginative disproportions of Tibetan Buddhism's thangka paintings and embroideries, all of which are supported with a lively sound track mixing traditional Tibetan music and rock.

As an expected feature of independent cinema, subjects of social significance were certainly not missing from this festival. Burned Wings, a winner of the Award(s) for Outstanding Dramatic Film, is a hormone-infused gangster movie that both pays homage to the genre in the spirit of John Woo and indicts rampant power corruption and general moral collapse. Woven around the fates of a heroic gang of four and a corrupt yet pitiable policeman, the film certainly would not have passed any official censorship. Besides many graphic sex scenes Burned Wings presents an unflinching depiction of a scarily lawless and thoroughly corrupt Chinese society run by officials who employ gangsters to take care of uncooperative citizens in order to make way for real estate projects.

Another critic of contemporary reality, Chai Chunya, a former photo journalist novelist, brought an astonishingly beautiful and impressively executed debut film in search of a past that was once filled with magic, spirits, animals, and a deep respect for nature. Practically a cinematic poem composed of four stanzas, Chai's Four Ways to Die in My Hometown is inspired by the life experiences of real people (at least three of them playing themselves) as well as by his own Tibetan Buddhist belief. The film features four characters--a dreamer, a young woman in search of a legendary lake, a master of shadow puppetry, and a witch--who share a deep connection with spiritual tradition. Each character evokes in turn the symbolic significance of earth, water, fire, and wind, which Tibetan Buddhism considers as the four basic components of human existence.

Part of the festival's overall achievement can be attributed to the organizers' rather unusual practice of not differentiating among genres and lengths. Such drastic unevenness among films that run from two minutes to two hours may account for why the jurors for the fiction competition were divided in opinions and ended by adding an extra award section (Jury Awards for Outstanding Dramatic Films) to more fully represent the diverse works. On a less pleasant note, the shockingly poor quality of some entries--e.g. an unbearably affected Elsablue, and the noisily failed attempt of The Empire to construct a parable about the loss of cultural heritage--suggests the need for greater strictness with the festival's selection standards.

With a majority of the fiction films on contemporary subjects--almost none of which is a happy picture--and half of the program being documentaries (also mostly on contemporary matters), the 9th BIFF doubtless evidences independent Chinese cinema's deep interest in encouraging critical engagement with the problems of contemporary reality. This interest is also reflected in its programming of works by filmmakers from Hong Kong, Taiwan, and the United States. For example, Taiwanese documentaries such as Li Jinghui's Money and Honey and Susa Chen's Lesbian Factory provide lively portraits of the living conditions of Filipino migrant workers in Taiwan, exploiting the power of documentary as an effective tool for social change. Having taken Li Jinghui thirteen years to finish as she chronicled her subjects' journeys between Taiwan and the Philippines, Money and Honey raised awareness of the issue of migrant labor, before going into theatrical release across Taiwan in early October. American filmmaker J.P. Sniadecki, with a background in anthropology at Harvard University, brought works characterized by both social concern and bold experimentalism. His Foreign Parts shows the deplorable conditions of Willets Point, Queens, a neglected neighborhood filled with scrapyards and auto salvage shops. The Yellow Bank and People's Park, about the renowned titular sites in Shanghai and Chengdu, rely on carefully calculated long takes--four for the former (27 m.) and one for the latter (78 m.)--to encourage an active experience of public spaces that are filled with richly evocative details.

Subjects of social significance are certainly not missing from the documentaries by Chinese filmmakers. Tian Bo and Wang Miaoxia, a documentarian couple, direct their contemplative gaze in The Lost River at a village in north Shanxi Province whose spectacular landscape, rich history, colorful inhabitants, and current problems (embezzlement of state agricultural support money; cheating in local elections) suggest the place as a sample cell of contemporary rural China. Born in Beijing, winner of the Jury Documentary Prize, reprises a subject made famous by Petition, a 2009 documentary by independent filmmaker Zhao Liang. This four-hour-long documentary by woman filmmaker Ma Li presents the borrowed lives of the petitioners, people who travel to Beijing to seek redress for injustices unsolvable at the local level (most often because of corruption). While the weighty subject matter certainly warrants humanistic concern and social justice, the director introduces a contemplative and critical subjectivity--presenting the whole film in black and white--through which the audience is encouraged to view the phenomenon of petitioners as existing in a more-complicated-than-simply-indicting relationship with the contemporary social and historical space of China.

As might be already apparent, women filmmakers contributed an amazing body of formally innovative works at the 9th BIFF. Definitely worth mention is Satiated Village, refreshing and though-provoking documentary by Zou Xueping as a sequel to Hungry Village, her previous record of senior villagers' memoirs of the infamous famine of 1958-1961, the result of Mao's destructive economic policy. Highlighting the process of filmmaking, Satiated Village includes many rounds of the director's communication and negotiation with her disapproving parents, various other elders, and the supportive young children of the village. The propaganda-inflected concerns expressed by Zou's skeptical elders remain as scary vestiges of the political mechanism that once shaped people's fate and still, scarily, influence their opinions about how to remember the past. Personal memory and national history are thus revealed to be much more than objective information to be excavated. What emerges is not a securely sealed project of inquiry. Rather, the spectator is left with an unsettling awareness that what caused the past is perhaps not yet that far away.

Both Satiated Village and Wen Hui's Listening to Third Grandmother's Stories, the latter participating in the BIFF as a non-competitive piece, are contributions to the Folk Memory Project, an independent documentary collective targeted at excavating grassroots memories of the "three-year famine" in socialist Chinese history. Zou's provocative foregrounding of the role of filmmaker as performative elicitor of multi-faceted truths of the past might be also indicative of theoretical as well as practical influences of the Caochangdi Workstation, the organizer of the Folk Memory Project and also a platform for the production and distribution of independent documentary and dance theater works that renowned documentary filmmaker Wu Wenguang operates together with his wife as well as creative partner Wen Hui.

In Listening to the Third Grandmother's Stories, Wen Hui, herself a famous dancer and choreographer, interviews her Third Grandmother about the vicissitudes on both national and personal life. The documentary, born out of a dancer's sensibility, stages performances composed of deliberately mirrored behaviors: Wen Hui frequently appears in front of the camera and copies what the camera records her grandmother doing, such as taking a nap while sitting on a stool or combing her long gray hair. The spirit of performance and creativity proves contagious: the grandmother moves out of the conventional role of a filmed subject and initiates performances of her own such as copying Wen Hui's lying on the ground or, as illustrated by the film's hauntingly beautiful ending, becoming herself a director of the onscreen performance. These bold moments of performance--mostly silent except for the last scene in which the two repeat a round of question and answer--evoke the invisible and intangible aspects of remembrance, question the extent of sharing, and suggest the humbling vastness of historical time. Expanding and enlivening screen time and space to include the many dimensions that both cinema and memory contain, Wen Hui's documentary invites the spectator to imagine the repercussions of Third Grandmother's stories thatr all of us seem to share.

The lingering presence of China's not-so-distant past meets a phantasmagoric depiction in Wang Bo's China Concerto, a mesmerizing essay film a la Chris Marker on Chongqing when the growing western metropolis on the Yangtze was caught in a tide of revitalizing "red classics" that reminded many of the rhetoric of the Cultural Revolution. In light of the ongoing worldwide media coverage this year of the scandals surrounding the city's recently expelled head officials, Wang's film, shot in December 2011, leaves a time record of not only Chongqing's street life and popular media but also the strange relationship between political ideology and social reality at a peculiar moment in contemporary Chinese history. That role of being an attentive, critical witness to currents of the contemporary world certainly confirms the most valuable function of independent filmmaking in China today.
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Title Annotation:Festivals
Author:Wang, Qi
Publication:Film Criticism
Geographic Code:9CHIN
Date:Sep 22, 2012
Words:2882
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