China’s last truly independent film festival has been “halted indefinitely,” organizers said in a hard-hitting statement. They said that it has become “impossible” to undertake such an event in the country’s current political climate.
The move comes as Chinese president Xi Jinping tightens the noose on freedom of expression in one of the world’s most censorious nations.
The China Independent Film Festival (CIFF) has held 14 editions and shown some 1,000 films since it was established in 2003 in Nanjing, the capital of coastal Jiangsu province. Many of the titles it highlighted touched on topics like homosexuality or political history deemed sensitive or inappropriate by the ruling Communist Party. Other films were effectively underground titles as they lacked the government “dragon seal” of censorship approval required for public screening.
“We believe that given the current local organizational circumstances, it has already become impossible to organize a film festival that truly has a purely independent spirit and is also effective,” read the statement, posted to CIFF’s official Wechat account over the weekend. It added that “even film festivals themselves have become a mechanism worthy of reflecting upon.”
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Despite these harsh words, organizers said they didn’t seek to cast aspersions on other festivals that continue to soldier on. “Of course, we still respect the local film festivals doing their best to encourage an independent spirit under a mask of safety.”
CIFF has already completed its “historic mission” of promoting “films for freedom,” the statement continued. “Saying goodbye before it all rots and degenerates is our greatest way of respecting that history and expressing our best wishes for the future.”
In its last iteration, which encompassed films from 2017 and 2018, it awarded its top prize to Yang Mingteng’s debut feature “Shanghai Without Sadness” and its jury prize for feature-length film to Gu Tao’s “Taming the Horse,” a documentary about a young migrant from Inner Mongolia who moves to the southwestern capital city of Kunming. Its prize for best short film went to young Uighur filmmaker Taobike Nizhamiding’s 35-minute, Golden Horse-nominated “The Night of Arzu.”
The festival had experienced regulatory troubles and been shut down by authorities several times over the past 17 years, and was not, for instance, held last year. But organizers appear to have wished to issue a formal statement this year to “thoroughly put a full stop on it,” an independent critic assessed.
Critic and professor Zhang Xianmin, one of the festival’s key organizers over the years, told Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post newspaper that the development marked a sort of depressing return to business as usual for China, after what now appears to have been a decade of comparable freedom.
“We are just back to the usual rule under the Party. We just went back to 20 years ago, when there was no room or opportunity for independent films,” he said. “If we had promoted the commercialization of CIFF, that might have made it safer and we could have had the chance to survive.”
In 2012, Chinese authorities forcibly shuttered the Beijing Independent Film Festival. Other arthouse-oriented festivals have risen in prominence since, but they all only showcase films that have been approved by the government.
One of CIFF’s curators mused to the SCMP: “There are not enough radical independent films now. So what’s the meaning of an independent festival’s existence?”