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Banned Chinese Films to Unspool in Hamburg Despite Growing Pressure From Beijing

The upcoming Filmfest Hamburg has revamped a special showcase of films originally set to premiere at last year’s Beijing Independent Film Festival before the event was shut down by Chinese authorities.’

Initially planned as a collaboration with BIFF, Filmfest Hamburg was set to screen a selection of the 76 films that would have unspooled in Beijing last year, with BIFF founder Li Xianting and other festival reps scheduled to attend.

On Tuesday, however, fest organizers said BIFF would no longer be taking part in the event. Li and fellow BIFF staffers have likewise cancelled their participation.

The fest will nevertheless go ahead with the screenings, but rather than calling it a Beijing Independent Film Festival showcase, it will now be known as Chinese Independent Cinema and run as part of the fest’s Asia Express sidebar. The showcase kicks off with Zhai Yixiang’s “This Worldly Life,” about a Buddhist monk struggling to remain true to his beliefs despite the collapse of his world.

“We received clear signals from our partners [in China] that it would be better if BIFF did not take part in the screening of the films in Hamburg,” Filmfest Hamburg’s Jens Geiger told Variety. Geiger, who oversees Asian film for the fest, added, “We of course agreed to their wish, but are nevertheless happy to provide a forum for the selected films here at Filmfest Hamburg.”

A number of the Chinese filmmakers are still expected to attend the fest.

The Beijing Independent Film Festival ran for a decade before it was finally stamped out amidst Chinese President Xi Jinping’s increasingly hostile stance on free speech.

Filmfest Hamburg is partnering with the recently established K26 – Sino-German Association for Independent Art in Dusseldorf on the Chinese Independent Cinema series, which includes a selection of 11 films originally slated for last year’s BIFF. They include features, documentaries and experimental works by the likes of Yang Pingdao, Ye Zuyi and Guo Xiadong. In addition to the special series, the fest will also unspool two other films — Yang Yishu’s “One Summer” and Qiu Jiongjiong’s “Mr. Zhang Believes” — that also take critical looks at China.

The fest’s program, Geiger stressed, was in no way affected by events in China.

“One of the important tasks of film festivals is to support independent cinema, no matter how differently this term is understood in various cinema cultures around the world,” said Filmfest Hamburg director Albert Wiederspiel. “The fact that we are able to present contributions from independent Chinese cinema here in Hamburg is a huge asset to the program.”

Wiederspiegel added that the selected films would offer “new insights into the realities of China today — some of which are very harsh.”

Founded in 2004 by Li, a renowned curator and critic of Chinese contemporary art and film, BIFF became a well-known forum for independent cinema in the country and had regular run-ins with Chinese authorities over the years until it was finally shut down on Aug. 23, 2014 — the day it was to open. It has not been allowed to take place since.

Filmfest Hamburg’s series follows the separate Cinema on the Edge: The Best of the Beijing Independent Film event in New York this summer. It’s unclear whether this event led to increased pressure on BIFF organizers in Beijing and their withdrawal from the Hamburg fest.

Running Oct. 1-10, the 23rd Filmfest Hamburg opens with the German premiere of Jaco Van Dormael’s Cannes screener “The Brand New Testament.” Other high-profile pics screening at the fest include Robin Williams’ final film, “Boulevard,” from director Dito Montiel, which runs in Transatlantic, a new section for English-language North American cinema.

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