MCLC: CIFF report

Denton, Kirk denton.2 at
Sat Dec 10 10:35:12 EST 2011

From: Kevin B Lee <kevin at>
Subject: CIFF report

Source: dGenerate Films:

Shelly on Film: Fall Festival Report, Part Two: Under Safe Cover, a
Fierce Debate
By Shelly Kraicer

The Nanjing-based China Independent Film Festival (28 October-1
November 2011), unlike the Beijing Independent Film Festival described
previously, benefited from a substantial degree of official and
semi-official ³cover². Unlike BIFF, there is a certain amount of
practical compromise with official bodies and officially approved
cinema: purity isn¹t such an issue.  Co-sponsors include the Nanjing
University School of Journalism and Communication, The Communication
University of China (Nanjing) and the RCM Museum of Modern Art. The
second day of CIFF includes a forum attended by local propaganda
department officials. A sidebar of the festival (nicknamed the
³Longbiao Section² for the dragon-headed insignia that appears at the
beginning of all officially approved film prints in China) included
screenings in a luxurious commercial cinema of several films that that
are strictly speaking non-independent (i.e. censor-approved) but are
made in a spirit of independence. These films would not appear at
BIFF, for example, but might show later in official venues like
Beijing¹s Broadway Cinematheque MOMA, where approved ³arthouse cinema²
(i.e. non-commercial) finds a refuge in Beijing.

The core of CIFF, though, consists of four sections of new
³unapproved² films: the feature film competition; a carefully curated
set of documentary features ‹ split in two, a ³Top 10 Documentaries of
the Year² section, and a set of new documentaries (the next ten
best?); 2 sets of short fiction films; and two programmes of
experimental films. Other sidebars included four films from Caochangdi
Workstation¹s Folk Memory Project and a Goethe Institute-sponsored set
of films from the Oberhausen International Short Film Festival.

Pema Tseden's "Old Dog" was screened in place of "No. 89 Shimen Road"
As with BIFF, CIFF¹s selection of new features was problematic: there
has been a worrying dearth of excellent, festival-worthy new Chinese
indie fiction features the past year and a half (with a few notable
exceptions: in particular a mini flowering of Tibetan language
features led by Pema Tseden and Sonthar Gyal). And I think the awards
reflected this. The jury (directors Wu Wenguang & Zhang Ming, NYU
professor Angela Zito, novelist Sun Ganlu, and curator/critic Li
Xianting) gave their Grand Prize to Shanghai director Shu Haolun¹s
bold first fiction feature No. 89 Shimen Road. That film¹s direct
evocation of the June 4 1989 Tiananmen protest movement, however, may
have caused a slight programming hitch. The winning competition film
is usually given a final prominent screening following the awards
ceremony. This time, CIFF replaced it, for ³technical reasons², with
one of the Jury Prize winners: Pema Tseden¹s very fine Old Dog. The
other jury prize winner was Wang Chao¹s welcome return to independent
filmmaking Celestial Kingdom, a rather conceptual work of fiction
infused with a kind of cold moral fury at Chinese society¹s moral

Though there were some stunning experimental features (expect to see a
few at prominent international film festivals coming soon), most of
the action and controversy revolved around the new documentaries. This
is where heart and soul of Chinese indie filmmaking lives today. There
is what one could call a mainstream school of Chinese ³realistic²
documentaries ‹ let¹s call them ultra-realistic docs ‹ that dominates
today, both in film festivals in China and overseas, and that
preoccupies the academic, theoretical, critical discussion that has
flourished around Chinese documentary filmmaking.

Briefly (and I know I¹m oversimplifying, but I plan to write more
extensively on this later), this school is derived from direct cinema,
under the aegis of the cinemas of Frederick Wiseman and Ogawa
Shinsuke. These filmmakers strive for a seemingly transparent,
so-called direct representation of ³truth² and ³reality², unmediated
by authorial (i.e subjective) intervention. Their inspiration can be
historical, archival or ethnographic, with filmmakers immersing
themselves for months or even years in the lives of their subjects,
then emerging with often very long documentaries that transform their
experiences into cinema with minimal ³subjective² distortions. Issues
of ethics then emerge: the relative positions of the filmmaker and
subject (are filmmakers intellectuals looking down on grassroots
subjects from a position of ³superiority²?); issues of consent and
(mutual, explicit, endorsed) exploitation; the ethics of
representation of the other; and the rights of audiences, directors,
subjects, and so-called experts to challenge all these things. A
refreshingly different school, recently activated in Chinese indie doc
circles and in evidence at this year¹s CIFF, takes documentaries as
strictly personal, autobiographical, even prima facie solipsistic
texts, and films and edits accordingly, highlighting the presence of
the filmmaker and the interaction between what¹s in front of and who¹s
behind the camera. This obviates a host of problems outlined above,
but introduces its own very different issues of aesthetic criteria,
social relevance, and moral obligation.

These issues boiled over in a striking way at CIFF. As I reported in
Cinemascope, a seminar on documentary ethics, attended by
theoreticians, critics, and filmmakers, drew the lines, as directors
struck back (verbally, though forcefully) at the academics for
attempting to control the discourse around their films. The next day,
we had something like a dazibao moment: dazibao are literally ³big
character posters², like the kind Chinese Maoist youth used to use to
denounce their counterrevolutionary elders 40 years ago or, perhaps
more to the point, like the posters that appeared denouncing lack of
democratic progress at the Democracy Wall during the so-called
³Beijing Spring² in late December 1978. Many of the documentary
directors, along with festival staff and audience members, worked to
produce a two page declaration rebutting what they saw as an unwelcome
academic hegemony over their art. The manifesto (titled Shamans ·
Animals) was posted outside the closing ceremony hall and distributed
by hand (I translated the document into English at Cinemascope). And
the controversy continues: someone else will have to summarize the
final chapter of this continuing debate. Those of us attending the
CIFF closing ceremony cum late-night party could see, through a glass
door, an intense meeting taking place in an adjacent room, where the
filmmakers and critics were still at it, continuing to hash out and
perhaps resolve some of their differences.

It¹s striking to see how critically engaged cinematic discourse is
with Chinese politics and culture at the present moment: when nervous,
insecure officials feel the need to interfere; and where practitioners
and analysts engage with anger and passion. After just a month
watching movies in China, it¹s hard to imagine a national cinema where
the stakes are higher right now.

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