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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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’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.
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.
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.
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
- “Ink Remix”: Contemporary ink art from China, Taiwan and Hong Kong – in pictures – July 2015 – contemporary ink art from Greater China takes centre stage in a major touring exhibition in Australia
- Karima: A Day In The Life Of A Henna Girl – Interview with Hassan Hajjaj – July 2015 – London-based Moroccan artist Hassan Hajjaj talks about his photography and filmmaking, and his characteristic swagger, escapism and the theatre of life
- “China 8″: Germany’s largest show of contemporary Chinese art – June 2015 – an exhibition San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum features iconic works of some of the best contemporary artists from China today from the Rubell Collection
- Ai Weiwei’s first-ever solo exhibition(s) in China take over Beijing – in pictures – June 2015 – Ai Weiwei has taken over Beijing this month with three simultaneous solo exhibitions, marking his first-ever solo shows in the mainland and a wave of subtle, new works
- Yang Fudong’s ‘Filmscapes’ in Australia – in pictures – January 2015 – Yang Fudong’s first-ever survey exhibition in Australasia at ACMI provides an immersive experience into the artist’s lyrical and dreamlike repertoire
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