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Marco Mueller on Beijing Festival’s New Logic

Former Venice, Locarno and Rome festivals chief Marco Mueller was appointed as artistic adviser to the hugely ambitious Beijing International Film Festival earlier this year. The first event under his tutelage opens today.

Variety: This is your first time as adviser to the Beijing festival. How would you describe the lineup you’ve come up with?
Marco Mueller:
It is the best possible indication of the interest of producers and world sales companies for the Beijing International Film Festival. We have 40 titles that are world or international premieres. Having the world premiere of a Japanese film [Sono Sion’s “Love & Peace”] at a Chinese festival is a real achievement.

Variety: How did you deal with the censorship for which China is well known and which has curbed other Chinese festivals? What was the process?
From the start, the political authorities accepted that we could have the same team of selectors as I’ve had before. Therefore the selectors were able to operate very professionally. They weren’t hunting for the kind of moral values that figure in Chinese censorship problems. In a period of 40 days the 10 of us saw 500 titles, and with [Chinese director] Chen Zhihong we put forward 40 to the committee. It was very clear that we were not to send too many. Not more than 35-40, in order to arrive at 20 films at the end. There are four levels of selection committee. We were able to go directly to the executive committee, which then sent them to censorship with the committee’s positive endorsement.

Of course we were given guidelines. We avoided graphic or lengthy sex scenes. But we have the Taviani brothers’ version of [bawdy tale] “The Decameron” as the opening film. Just think what that means. My experience is that the censorship process is now more relaxed and intelligent than in the past.

Variety: The festival has had struggled with something of an identity problem. Who is it for now?
: It is for the students. It is absolutely for the ticket buyers of tomorrow. This is something I tell the authorities every three or four days.

Films have to be presented in the right track. Therefore, we have been liaising with the film societies of the main universities. Therefore, too, any world sales company that cares to attend a Beijing Festival screening is going to get a real sense of how a Chinese audience reacts.

“The Taviani film is a case in point. We knew why we had picked it. We considered it to be a mixture of action, costume drama and romance, which all wok well in China. We sought permission to show it in advance of the festival to some distributors, and it has been bought by New Film Association. Afterwards the distributor told us he was convinced of the student audience for it.

Variety: A booming box office and commercial considerations are everywhere in Chinese cinema today. How is arthouse cinema faring in China?
There is discussion by SARFT of the opening of an arthouse film circuit within a year or two. It would be in a limited number of cities and initially show a limited number of nationalities of films. But the idea is to expand and add other nationalities over time.

Variety: You have had a very busy 40 days. What takes place in the other 10 months of the year?
“It has always been my habit to start analysis and preparations for the next festival as soon as possible after we have finished one. And on April 24-25 we will have two days of closed-door discussions with many things on the agenda. These are likely to include greater festival and market coordination, as right now the market is a 20-minute car or subway ride away from the festival, and the building of a festival center. Once a political decision is taken here things can move very quickly.

Variety: Are the dates of the festival on the agenda? Did proximity to Cannes affect the film selection?
Yes, absolutely the dates are up for discussion. Ideally, we would move further away from Cannes. But in some ways Cannes helped us too. For at least one film, once it became clear that it was offered a minor position in Cannes while we were offering a competition slot, it became easier to persuade them to come to Beijing.

Variety: The Beijing festival is now 5 years old. How far can it develop?
Things will definitely take time. For one thing Chinese producers need to give more thought to the kinds of films that can work in the international marketplace, and therefore how they can use festivals to get there. And we at the festival need to give something that has real meaning to the media market and to the film market across Asia.”

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