Cinema on the Edge: Beijing Independent Film Festival travels to New York

The best Chinese independent films of recent years arrive in New York.

The Beijing Independent Film Festival (BIFF) met with aggressive opposition by the authorities in 2014 and was forced to cancel its screenings. This year, Cinema on the Edge in collaboration with BIFF is presenting a version of the Festival with some of its most acclaimed films being screened at leading New York venues.

Bi Gan, 'The Poet and The Singer (金刚经), 2012, (video still) digital, 26m:00s. Image courtesy the artist, BIFF and Cinema on Edge.

Bi Gan, ‘The Poet and The Singer (金刚经)’, 2012, (video still) digital, 26 min. Image courtesy the artist, BIFF and Cinema on Edge.

“Cinema on the Edge: the Best of the Beijing Independent Film Festival 2012-2015” is the result of a cooperation between the Beijing Independent Film Festival (BIFF) and a group of film industry professionals who have been promoting and working with Chinese cinema for many years.

The series features some of the “best and most representative films” from BIFF in a version of the Festival in North America, taking place at six top venues in New York City from 7 August to 13 September 2015 – including the Anthology Film Archives, The Asia Society, Maysles Cinema at the Maysles Documentary Center, Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA), Made in NY Media Center by IFP and UnionDocs.

Cinema on the Edge is made possible by the volunteer efforts of three of Chinese independent cinema’s most committed supporters. As the organisers write in the press release, the series:

celebrates the daring spirit and creative innovation of independent filmmakers and festival organisers in mainland China. The Beijing Independent Film Festival (BIFF) has been at the forefront of presenting these groundbreaking films in China, but for the last three years the festival has met substantial official resistance. Several of these films will now be brought to the United States for the first time, to be screened in some of the best museums and cinemas in New York City.

Jia Zhitan, 'I want to be a people's representative (我要当人民代表), 2014, (video still) digital, 78 min. In Hunanese with English subtitles. Image courtesy the artist, BIFF and Cinema on the Edge.

Jia Zhitan, ‘I Want to be a People’s Representative (我要当人民代表)’, 2014, (video still) digital, 78 min. In Hunanese with English subtitles. Image courtesy the artist, BIFF and Cinema on the Edge.

The forces behind Cinema on the Edge

The three professionals behind the New York series are:

  • Karin Chien, producer and distributor
  • Shelly Kraicer, film critic and curator
  • J.P. Sniadecki, independent filmmaker and anthropologist

The three met and became friends while in Beijing and were connected thanks to their passion for independent cinema and BIFF. The Beijing Festival was also the catalyst for Chien’s funding of a distribution company in North America dedicated to releasing independent cinema from mainland China, as well as Kraicer’s bringing Chinese cinema to several Western film festivals, including Rotterdam, Dubai and Vancouver, while Sniadecki screened several of his works in a special programme at BIFF.

Click here to watch an introduction to Cinema on the Edge and its Kickstarter Campaign on Vimeo

The organisers have also set up a Kickstarter Campaign to be able to fund two key elements of the New York series, with a target of at least USD8,888 to be reached by 6 August. The majority of the Kickstarter budget will be used for travel expenses for filmmakers and organisers to New York City, without whom the series would miss one of its core components: discussion, dialogue and engagement. The remaining funds will go towards the publishing of a programme booklet to accompany the screenings.

Poster of The 6th Beijing Independent Film Festival, 2011. Image courtesy BIFF.

Poster of The 6th Beijing Independent Film Festival, 2011. Image courtesy BIFF.

The Beijing Independent Film Festival

The BIFF was founded in 2004 and has run in China for a decade, showing the innovative works of some of the best Chinese independent filmmakers. According to the organisers, China is one of the cradles for the most exciting independent filmmaking today. Due to the country’s rapid development, modernisation and transformation, Chinese filmmakers have had to invent “radical new film languages”.

Shelly Kraicer, a veteran critic and programmer of Chinese cinema, is quoted in the press release as saying:

The independent films coming out of China continue to be at the forefront of aesthetic cinematic innovation. Responding to the crazy, unpredictable changes in Chinese society and politics, these fearless directors are challenged to create sounds and images that stretch and enrich our imaginations.

However, the independent films are not allowed to be shown in China, as they are made without the approval of censors and are not screened in regular theatres. Independent film festivals are the only places where such works can appear and filmmakers can engage in dialogue with the audience. BIFF was one of such places, but since 2012 the Festival has met with ever-stronger opposition from the authorities, who have repeatedly disrupted its programme.

Ding Shiwei, 'Double Act (双簧)', 2013, animation, 5min. Image courtesy the artist, BIFF and Cinema on the Edge.

Ding Shiwei, ‘Double Act (双簧)’, 2013, animation, 5 min. Image courtesy the artist, BIFF and Cinema on the Edge.

In 2012, a power cut on opening night disrupted the premiere night, but finally the Festival managed to screen some remarkable films, as Kevin Lee, a friend and colleague of the organisers and Editor and Video Essayist at Fandor, reported on BFI at the time.

The 10th edition of BIFF in 2013 managed to hold its opening ceremony, but the opening screening didn’t proceed as programmed. As SBS reported at the time of the incident, police moved in on the Songzhuang hotel that was hosting the festival and issued ‘contracts’ to the organisers, including festival director Wang Hongwei. The authorities banned all screenings to more than two people and said that any attempt at holding underground screenings would also see Wang detained and the entire district’s power cut. Then in 2014, as reported by The Guardian, the BIFF was forced to cancel its programme of screenings after police prevented its opening from taking place.

Wen Hui, 'Listening to Third Grandmother's Stories (听三奶奶讲过去的事情), 2012, (video still) digital, black and white, colour, 75 min. In Mandarin with English subtitles. Image courtesy the artist, BIFF and Cinema on the Edge.

Wen Hui, ‘Listening to Third Grandmother’s Stories (听三奶奶讲过去的事情)’, 2012, (video still) digital, black and white, colour, 75 min. In Mandarin with English subtitles. Image courtesy the artist, BIFF and Cinema on the Edge.

Cinema on the Edge: Chinese independent films in New York

As a result of the efforts of this small group dedicated to Chinese independent filmmaking and the collaboration of five top locations in New York, the BIFF is showing a selection of its best films from 2012 to 2015. The programme includes feature films, experimental shorts, documentaries and an animation series by some of the best directors and artists coming out of China.

Award-winning filmmaker Sniadecki (director ofthe musical documentary People’s Park to be screened in New York) considers BIFF “the nexus for the most exciting filmmaking in China.” He recalls, as quoted in the press release:

My first time there, I felt I had found my tribe: filmmakers, cinephiles, artists, scholars, and students gathering together to dive into a week of screenings, discussions, dinners, parties, music performances and, inevitably, various encounters with the authorities. Yet BIFF remains a grassroots affair: everyone pitches and interactions flow easily. Our series [in New York] is trying to keep that ethos alive.

Ai Weiwei, 'Ping'an Yueqing (平安乐清)', 2011, (video still), digital, 142 min, in Mandarin with English subtitles. Image courtesy the artist, BIFF and Cinema on the Edge.

Ai Weiwei, ‘Ping’an Yueqing (平安乐清)’, 2011, (video still), digital, 142 min, in Mandarin with English subtitles. Image courtesy the artist, BIFF and Cinema on the Edge.

Among the highlights are Ai Weiwei’s bold investigative documentary Ping’an Yueqing (2011), a documentary work that investigates the mysterious “road accident” of a village leader, Qian Yunhui from Zhejiang province. Qian was an activist who stood up for his fellow villagers when their land was confiscated without compensation by the local government.

Li Luo, 'Emperor Visits the Hell (唐皇游地府), 2012, (video still) digital, 67 min. In Mandarin with English subtitles. Image courtesy the artist, BIFF and Cinema on The Edge.

Li Luo, ‘Emperor Visits the Hell (唐皇游地府), 2012, (video still) digital, 67 min. In Mandarin with English subtitles. Image courtesy the artist, BIFF and Cinema on The Edge.

Li Luo’s featured film Emperor Visits the Hell (2012) relocates to the present day the famous story of the Tang dynasty Emperor Taizong’s visit to the underworld. It won the 2012 Vancouver International Film Festival’s Dragons & Tigers Prize.

Cong Feng, 'Stratum I: The Visitors (底层 1:来客)', 2013 (video still) digital, 71 min. In Mandarin with English subtitles. Image courtesy the artist, BIFF and Cinema on the Edge.

Cong Feng, ‘Stratum I: The Visitors (底层 1:来客)’, 2013 (video still) digital, 71 min. In Mandarin with English subtitles. Image courtesy the artist, BIFF and Cinema on the Edge.

The programme also includes some eye-opening documentaries that reveal China’s hidden past and present, such as China’s most important unofficial historian-filmmaker Hu Jie’s Spark (2014)Jia Zhitan’s I Want To Be a People’s Representative (2014), Cong Feng‘s Stratum I: The Visitors (2013), a documentary about urban demolition in the Beijing suburb of Tongzhou, and Zou Xueping’s Satiated Village (2011), a documentary discussing the villagers’ reactions to her first documentary The Hungry Village, made up of first-person testimonies about the effects of the Great Famine of 1960 on her home village in Shandong.

Yang Mingming, 'Female Directors (女导演), 2012, (video still) digital, 43 min. In Mandarin with English subtitles. Image courtesy the artist, BIFF and Cinema on the Edge.

Yang Mingming, ‘Female Directors (女导演)’, 2012, (video still) digital, 43 min. In Mandarin with English subtitles. Image courtesy the artist, BIFF and Cinema on the Edge.

A bold, new generation of Chinese women filmmakers will also take part in the series. Yang Mingming’s Female Directors (2012) blurs the boundaries between documentary and fiction in a story about two brilliant young art school female graduates using profane vocabulary and talking with supreme confidence about sex, cinema and power. Dancer, choreographer and filmmaker Wen Hui’s experimental documentary Listening to Third Grandmother’s Stories (2012) draws from the stories that her old great-aunt told her of being tortured as a “class enemy” during Mao’s China.

Bai Bin, 'The Hunter and the Skeleton (猎人与骷髅怪 Bai Bin), 2012, 26min. Image courtesy the artist, BIFF and Cinema on the Edge.

Bai Bin, ‘The Hunter and the Skeleton (猎人与骷髅怪 Bai Bin)’, 2012, 26 min. Image courtesy the artist, BIFF and Cinema on the Edge.

In the animation series, Bai Bin’s The Hunter and the Skeleton (2012) – winner of the Grand Award at the First Shenzhen Independent Animation Biennale in 2013 – and An Apple Tree (2013) recount Tibetan fables and folk tales. Perfect Conjugal Bliss (2014) by Zhong Su is a 3D animation ‘unscrolling’ through Chinese history, “from grey urban collapse to ultra-coloured consumer dystopia”, while Qiu Anxiong’s iconic animated ink and pen drawings The New Book of Mountains and Seas Part 2 (2007-2012) suggest “a world under ecological collapse, where genetically tampered animal forms expire on earth and colonize the stars.”

C. A. Xuan Mai Ardia

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Related Topics: Chinese artists, film, animation, documentary, festivals, events in Beijing, events in New York

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