Most film festival reports follow a fairly established formula: a brief history of the event, followed by a run-through of the highlights of that year, with some concluding thoughts on its position in festival culture and consideration of how it might develop in the future. However, this report of the 9th China Independent Film Festival breaks from critical formula by being a report of a festival that did not happen, and may not happen again due to official intervention. As such, this is perhaps less of a report than an obituary, but one which will try to celebrate the significant achievements of CIFF while bemoaning its sudden demise.
CIFF was founded in 2003 with the intention of providing a platform for Chinese filmmakers whose work was unlikely to receive a mainstream release in their home territory due to strict media censorship. It soon became a vital event for anyone with a genuine interest in features or documentaries that combined formal innovation with unflinching social observation. Although most of the organisation team was based in Beijing, the hub of China’s independent film scene, CIFF was held in Nanjing, the South-East former capital, away from the watchful eye of the State Administration for Radio, Film and Television (SARFT). As with most events of this type, the audience for CIFF was comprised of academics, cineastes, critics, distributors, programmers from other festivals, and students, with attendance gradually increasing to the point that many were standing throughout last year’s screenings in the allocated classrooms at the Communication School of Nanjing University.
To say that 2012 has been a difficult year for festival organisers in mainland China would be an understatement, as the government has reacted decisively upon realising the cultural capital that such events have gradually built up by keeping their activities under the popular radar. In August, the Beijing Independent Film Festival was interrupted when the power was cut mid-way through the opening screening, prompting organisers to implement their back-up plan and relocate to the less public venue of Songzhuang Art District on the outskirts of the city. Considering the tense political climate in a year of government leadership change, the programme planned for CIFF was certainly ambitious. In addition to the usual 10 narrative features and 10 documentaries, the 2012 Asian Experimental Film and Video Festival would have run alongside the main event, with more than 30 films scheduled in conjunction with talks from leading academics in the field. This correspondent was concerned that CIFF would struggle to go ahead around the same time as the 18th National Communist Party Congress. Internet reports stated that handles to open the windows of Beijing taxis had been removed to prevent demonstrators from spreading anti-Party propaganda on the streets of the capital, while the cancellations of the Yixian International Photo Festival and Bishan Harvestival suggested a severe clamp-down on all arts-related activities. CIFF had defied the odds before, running relatively smoothly in 2011 despite the cancellation of several Beijing events a few months earlier, so I remained hopeful and cleared my schedule for a week of screenings.
Sadly, the day before CIFF was due to start, I received a phone call informing me of the festival’s cancellation, then watched a television report on the appointment of China’s new cabinet while waiting on a subway platform. With the planned venues and back-up options falling through due to political pressure, CIFF was unable to go underground. Organisers, filmmakers, and attendees who had already made the journey to Nanjing prior to the cancellation announcement were left to socialise for a few days around the university district, with festival founder Zhang Xianmin of Beijing Film Academy proving to be a truly gracious and good-humoured host under difficult circumstances by arranging these activities. The ‘opening up’ of China is often discussed in relation to its national cinema, with Jia Zhangke’s state-approved productions The World (2004), Still Life (2006), and I Wish I Knew (2010) cited as examples of SARFT’s gradual acceptance of art-house cinema with social ideologies that do not exactly toe the party line. However, the situation is actually more complicated, with the degree of official tolerance shifting annually, meaning that windows of opportunity for provocative filmmakers can open when the state sees the benefits of cooperation with the independent sector, only to be slammed shut again if the political climate becomes too sensitive. CIFF succeeded admirably in providing a forum for the kind of filmmakers who do not want to wait for script approval, and will hopefully rise again, probably under a new banner and in a different city, but with the same unwavering sense of purpose.