After a Shutdown, an Audience and Dialogue for Chinese Independent Film – Interview with Karin Chien

Closing of 2012 BIFF Opening

On August 7, Cinema on the Edge opened at Anthology Film Archives in the Lower East Side and began a showcase of selected films from the 2012 – 2014 Beijing Independent Film Festivals (BIFF).  The 28-film series in New York was prompted by interference by officials encountered at the BIFF last year.  With hired goons preventing access to the screening venues, the festival, at the last minute, was not permitted to occur.  While the difficulty of reaching an audience exists everywhere for independent films, the situation is particularly tenuous in China due to censorship and the lack of freedom of assembly.  Fortunately, some filmmakers are able to show their films abroad.  It is not uncommon to see Chinese independent films at international festivals, such as the Locarno International Film Festival which has become a champion of Asian films, and in here in New York, at art house cinemas.

Cinema on the Edge program guide.

Cinema on the Edge program guide

Some of the institutional obstacles that the Chinese independent filmmaking community faces can be seen in A Filmless Festival, which will will be screened on Wednesday, August 19 at Maysles Cinema at the Maysles Documentary Center in Harlem, with an introduction by Cinema on the Edge curator Shelly Kraicer and organizers Karin Chien and J.P Sniadecki and followed by a Q&A with filmmaker Wang Wo.   The documentary captured the process from the initial preparation through the final shutdown of the BIFF in 2014 with footage taken by professional filmmakers, media, as well as the general public who attended the festival at Songzhuang, outside of Beijing.

Beyond Chinatown had the opportunity to talk to Karin, who is also the founder of dGenerate Films, a global distributor of Chinese independent film, about what it means to be independent film in China, the state of Chinese independent cinema, bringing the films to New York, and what she hopes will result from this unique series.

I believe “independent film” implies something different in China than here in the US.  Could you explain a little bit what independent film means in China, and how it is different in the US?

That’s right.  So, here in the US, “independent” has a very vague meaning, and it’s featured as a marketing term that you see in studios even.  In China, “independent” has a very specific meaning.  In order to make a film in China, you need to apply a permit from SAPPRFT (State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television), and that is a two-part process.  You need to obtain a permit in order to shoot the film, and that basically gives them censorship approval over your script.  When the film is done, you then need another permit to distribute the film in commercial cinemas.  So, again, that’s in essence submitting your film for approval, by the censors.  If they don’t approve your film, they won’t issue a permit, and then you won’t be able to show the film in commercial cinemas.

Independent films in China are usually films made by filmmakers who choose not to submit to the censorship process.  And it’s not even necessarily that their content is controversial, or provocative — a lot of it is not.  But, it’s their choice in the way that they want to work.

So, these are films that do not have permits to be distributed in commercial theaters, which makes it very difficult for the films to be seen.  The primary venue for these films has been independent film festivals, which you know, there were only about half a dozen in China.

Now every one of those has either been disrupted, or closed, or shut down in one way or another, over the last three years, which takes away the primary way that these independent films found an audience in China.  So, we created Cinema on the Edge as a way to offer the films in the independent film festivals a way to find an audience, or to connect with audience. Even though it’s outside of China, we hope to bring more attention and awareness to what is happening to independent films and independent film festivals in China.

Who are the audience for independent films in China?  Are they lovers of arthouse films?  Where can these films be seen outside of festivals?

That’s a good question.  None of the independent films that we are showing at Cinema on the Edge can show at an arthouse cinema in China.  Well, first of all, there are very few arthouse cinemas.  Even the arthouse cinemas are considered commercial exhibition spaces; so, they are not allowed to show these films that we’re showing in Cinema on the Edge.

The only way for these independent films to be shown in China are at people’s homes, maybe a university context, sometimes at a bar or a café, and they’re already kind of informal screening networks that have come up in the last few years.  There are cafés, like Trainspotting, which is one of the first venues for independent film in Beijing.

Bookshop Screening

Screening and Q&A at bookshop of Songzhuang Art Museum at 2012 BIFF. Onscreen and to the left of screen is Brian Winston, British scholar of documentary, author of “Claiming The Real.”

So, it’s not the same as it is here.  Here, you have independent cinemas; you have micro cinemas; you have arthouse cinemas.  There’s a proliferation of places where you can watch independent films.  There are thousands of independent film festivals just in the US.  None of that exists in China.

Can you tell us a little bit about shutdowns of other similar kind of independent film festivals in China?

Yes.  Basically, every independent film festival in China has been shut down.  Some festivals are shut down permanently, and some shut down for one year, and then they try again next year.  As far as I know, in the last three years, the only film festival — the only independent film festival that was allowed to happen without disruption, is the China Independent Film Festival of 2014. But you know, even they shut down in 2012 and 2013.  They saw what was happening to the other festivals, and they decided not to organize a full festival.  So, they shut themselves down in a way.  But you know, the China Independent Film Festival shows a lot of independent films, but they don’t take as many risks, in terms of the films they show as the Beijing Independent Film Festival.  So, through very careful negotiation and navigation, they were able to avoid the shutdown last year.

Do you think the intervention of the independent film festivals from the authority in China will be less this year?

Honestly, no.  I wish I could say yes.  The environment has been steadily growing worse since 2012.

I’m wondering why the threat of shutdown is so persistent there since you mentioned that the content of those films is not always provocative.

Here in the US, a lot of people see this a freedom of speech or freedom of expression issue, which it is.  But, it’s even more so a freedom of assembly issue.  In China, you don’t have freedom of assembly.  That is the primary reason.  If you think about film festivals, it’s hundreds of people who gather together, to watch films and debate about them and talk, and have conversations.  That is the part that the government is trying to prevent, the free assembly. There’s no free assembly allowed, basically.  The authorities who shut down the film festivals, usually have not seen any of the films, right?  Because that’s not necessarily what they’re after.

L-R, Karin Chien, Shelly Kraicer, Lisa Roosen-Runge, director Xu Tong

L-R, Karin Chien, Shelly Kraicer, Lisa Roosen-Runge, director Xu Tong

After the shutdown, were these films able to be shown anywhere else?

They were shown at a lot of prestigious film festivals around the world, outside of China, even in Hong Kong and in Taiwan.  A lot of the films that we show have won major film festival prizes, and a few of them have distribution.  Some of them, like Ai Weiwei, they put the films on YouTube for free so that everybody could watch them.

How did the directors react when you approached them with this idea of bringing the unshown films of BIFF to the New York City?

We were lucky to be met with a lot of enthusiasm and excitement.  We approached the Beijing Independent Film Festival for their permission, and they were really excited and offered to cooperate with us fully and provide us with materials.  They helped us with a lot of the communication with the directors.

By bringing these films to New York, what kind of dialogue are you anticipating that comes along with the screening?

We hope to have a dialogue really around the filmmaking that we’re showing.  I think that sometimes the policy tends to overshadow the films.  But, the films themselves are amazing, groundbreaking pieces of cinema.  A lot of the filmmakers are not making films for political reasons.  They just want to make interesting work.  Filmmaking is really risky, and it’s really tough.  No matter what country you’re in.

I think that the practice of filmmaking can only be sustained within a community.  So, we hope to create a community of other filmmakers to have dialogue with the Chinese filmmakers. And, we hope to create a community of audience who can engage with and give feedback to the directors.  We hope to create a professional community that can offer collaboration or opportunities for the Chinese directors.

Have you encountered any particular challenges during this project?

Yes, some of the major institutions that we first approached declined participating in the series because of political reasons.  I would say that’s maybe naïve of me, but I didn’t anticipate that challenge because we are in the US.  But of course, you know, everything is global.  Everything is connected.  Beyond that, so far we haven’t had too many major challenges.

It is mentioned on the Kickstarter page that if the program gets more funding it will travel to other cities in the US and beyond. Where might be the next stop?

Most likely the next stop may actually be in Boston, at Harvard. And then, after that, it most likely will go to San Francisco.  I think we’ll get to those two cities before the end of this year. And then next year, we are taking it to Toronto, Vancouver, Chicago, and a few other cities.

Will you consider making an annual event of bringing the films from BIFF to New York and other cities?

That’s a great question.  Yes, if we can get the support and build the infrastructure that we need, that’s definitely something that we’ve already started thinking about, yeah.  The more press and the more audience we have at the New York screenings, the more likely that something like that can happen.

Learn more about the BIFF and see its organizers’ and attendees’ determination and optimism:

With the current controversy, it is easy for attention to be diverted from the filmmaking itself.  However, the films shown at Cinema on the Edge are powerful works thematically and aesthetically regardless of the political footnote.  The program covers a wide range of original voices and underrepresented community in today’s commercial cinema.  Cinema on the Edge continues through September 13.  For schedule and more information, visit Cinema on the Edge.

The interview was edited for clarity.