“I’m only talking to you because you are a friend and I know you will not use my name.”
Discussing independent cinema in China is a cloak-and-dagger activity, perhaps a dangerous one.
China’s film industry has boomed in the past 14 years since reform meant that state-owned studios were no longer the only legal film producers in the world’s most populous nation. Film production has mushroomed to an officially recognized 600-700 films per year and box office this year will exceed $6 billion.
Particularly in the past three years, Chinese filmmakers have made real connections with mass-market audiences and found that popular, contemporary entertainment can generate hundreds of millions of dollars. “Monster Hunt,” a fantasy from Raman Hui, the co-creator of “Shrek,” this year grossed $385 million and overtook “Furious 7” as the all-time box office record holder.
As the potential rewards have increased and as films’ genre boundaries have expanded, a number of filmmakers who previously operated outside the official system have come in from the cold.
Directors who have at one time been banned but are now industry insiders include Jiang Wen and Lou Ye, while others including Zhang Yimou and Ning Hao have had individual films banned only for their careers to rebound.
Jia Zhangke, an icon of the independent movement and a chronicler of 15 years of China’s bruising transformation, secured funding for his previous two films from Shanghai Film Group, a powerful state-owned enterprise, alongside cash from Office Kitano in Japan and sales representation from MK2 in France.
That was not enough to earn his caustic “A Touch of Sin” a release in China, but his most recent, gentler “Mountains May Depart” (pictured) is getting a two-step release this fall. Jia even believed the film had a chance of being China’s foreign-language Oscar entry.
But not every Chinese filmmaker sets out to court the mass market. Many who seek to make political, social or simply personal points through features and documentaries make up a class of independent or underground filmmakers. They know that, even if they can raise finance, their films will not pass China’s censorship system. As film productions in China require government approval at script stage and again before release, that fate spins them into an alternative universe.
Completed films also need permission for screening at overseas festivals.
Within China, independent film festivals have been held, but most have closed since the beginning of the Xi Jinping presidency. The Yunnan Multicultural Visual Festival closed in March 2013, while the Nanjing Independent Film Festival shuttered in November 2013. And in August 2014, the highest-profile event, the Beijing Independent Film Festival, was broken up as it began its 11th edition in a far-flung suburb outside Beijing city limits. Local police shut off the electricity, removed equipment, and briefly detained three organizers, including founder Li Xianting and creator Zhu Rikun. None have been charged.
The clampdown sparked a reaction from international festival heads including Rotterdam’s Rutger Wolfson and Berlin’s Dieter Kosslick, who signed a petition in protest.
Particularly damaging to the indie movement may have been the police confiscation of the archives of the Li Xianting Film Fund, which has documented the indie movement and funded some productions. Li’s contacts and archives had acted as an unofficial source of information and programming for overseas festivals, such as Rotterdam, Vancouver and Hong Kong, interested in showing Chinese independent cinema.
In the past month, a facsimile of the BIFF sprang to life in New York, where Cinema on the Edge screened 27 films over nearly a month. The crowd-funded event was curated by Zhu, who now lives in the U.S. on a visa, and academic Shelly Kraicer.
“Before, if something was not explicitly forbidden, it could exist,” Kraicer says. “Now, anything that is not explicitly permitted can be repressed.”
Next month’s Hamburg Film Festival also plans to screen a series of Chinese independent films. But Hamburg’s organizers say formal connections with BIFF had to be dropped after their partners in China came under pressure. Hamburg will continue to screen a selection of the films and it hopes some filmmakers will attend.
Indie films, however, are not made for foreign intellectuals in Germany or the U.S. But getting them to Chinese audiences is becoming harder.
“There have been no arrests, just pressure,” says a source who asks to remain unidentified. “People are still making films, but fewer, because it is tough. Exhibition is the problem.”
China scarcely has an arthouse or theatrical documentary culture and, anyway, the country’s mainstream circuits cannot handle films without release certificates. Events such as BIFF and Nanjing represented the best alternatives, but these days such indie festivals seem too high-profile and dangerous.
Ironically, while digital technology has allowed production costs to come down and helped otherwise unviable indie filmmaking to continue, it may not be helping indie film exhibition very much.
China maintains arguably the world’s most sophisticated system for controlling public use of the Internet. It uses a combination of blocks on specific foreign websites, key-word monitoring and tens of thousands of online censors, as well as requirements that social media sites and online video operators also police their clients.
For China’s independent cinema, the favored model these days is nonfestival-disbursed exhibition. In practical terms that means screenings in homes, cafes and libraries without flashy publicity, a focus on second-tier cities, and screening series that take place over several months. Quite the opposite of a wide release.
These days, too, China’s censors may be operating a multifaceted strategy. While high-profile independent filmmakers such as Jia and Wang Xiaoshuai can get releases, their audiences have proved small. (Wang railed against distributors and exhibitors when the late April release of his “Red Amnesia” put him in direct competition with “Furious 7” and then “Avengers: Age of Ultron” and his film earned less than $2 million.)
Lesser-known moviemakers are easier to intimidate, instilling fear and self-censorship.
That may be a smarter approach than an unwaveringly hard line, as a unilaterally authoritarian stance may cause unwanted consequences.
“The reason that independent films came into existence was mostly because of the government. It was not because of censorship,” says Tony Rayns, critic and Vancouver festival programmer. “Chinese independent film was really born in 1989. The Tiananmen Square massacre meant that none of the studios were willing to hire the students who graduated from the Beijing Film Academy.”
But Rayns also notes that censorship in China tends to move in cycles.