In the U.S., and in most countries for that matter, making independent films is a common and relatively unremarkable practice, mainly meaning creating works that are the opposite of studio and big-budget films.
Usually, filmmakers go this route because they wish to make films that are more personal, more artistic, more daring, and less beholden to commercial considerations and constraints. Sometimes you can see these films playing in your local theater; increasingly more likely these days, you can catch them on VOD, via your computer or your cable provider, or even on your smartphone.
But usually, film festivals are the most likely places you'll get to see independent films. Here in the U.S., especially in major cities like New York, Los Angeles, or Chicago, you can't swing your arms without hitting an independent film festival of some kind or another.
Making independent films and putting on film festivals, then, are for the most part occasions for checking out and presenting interesting movies. What they usually aren't, are activities that are considered politically dangerous, or can get you in trouble with the police or governmental authorities. Unfortunately, this is currently the situation in China.
What makes this situation even more unfortunate is that in the last decade or so, China has been the source of some of the most provocative, innovative and artful independent fiction films and documentaries being made today. The rapid and dizzying changes that have occurred in contemporary Chinese society have driven filmmakers and artists to express their reactions to these changes in works that challenge viewers with their radical approaches to cinematic forms.
However, independent films cannot be legally shown in China, because they are made outside of the official film system and without approval by government censors, which all films in China must have in order to be shown in regular movie theaters. Independent film festivals, organized outside the official systems, are the only venues where independent films have a chance to be seen by the public.
By many accounts, the most important venue for the screening of unauthorized films is the Beijing Independent Film Festival, which started in 2004. The festival is organized by Li Xianting, a prominent art critic and curator, and festival artistic director Wang Hongwei, an important figure in China's independent film scene (and sometime actor in the films of Jia Zhang-ke). Based in Songzhuang in suburban Beijing, the festival was the rare pocket in China where unencumbered artistic expression flourished, not only with the festival, but with a film school and a valuable archive of Chinese independent film.
However, in recent years, the festival has come under fire by the authorities, clearly threatened by the burgeoning artistic and documentary film movements brewing under the festival's aegis. Things came to a head in August of last year, where in the midst of Chinese president Xi Jinping's increasingly punitive crackdown on freedom of speech and mass media, the 11th edition of the festival was completely shut down by police on the day it was set to begin. Electricity to the venue was shut off, audience members were made to disperse, and organizers Li, Wang, and Fan Rong were detained by police and forced to sign documents promising not to hold the festival. Also, authorities raided the offices of the Li Xianting Film Fund, the organization overseeing the festival, seizing computers, files, and its archive of independent films and other materials. (The above poster illustrating this article was made for the canceled 11th edition of the festival, appropriately picturing a power generator.)
Organized with the full cooperation of the festival, the series consists of 29 features and shorts, encompassing dramatic features, documentaries, experimental films, and animation. It's a vibrant snapshot of some of the most important work being done in Chinese independent film today, and it will include some of the films that were set to be screened at last year's aborted edition of the festival.
The series includes films by such acclaimed filmmakers and artists as Ai Weiwei (Ping'an Yueqing), Hu Jie (Spark), Li Luo (Emperor Visits the Hell), Zhu Rikun (The Dossier), Yang Mingming (Female Directors), Cong Feng (Stratum 1: The Visitors), and Huang Ji (Egg and Stone). The venues where the films will screen are Anthology Film Archives, Asia Society, Maysles Cinema, the Museum of Chinese in America, UnionDocs, the Made in New York Media Center by IFP, and Columbia University.
Below is the full schedule of the series, as well as the Kickstarter campaign video which provides some background information.
ANTHOLOGY FILM ARCHIVES (August 7-13)
32 Second Avenue (at 2nd St.), New York NY 10003, (212) 505-5181, anthologyfilmarchives.org.
Admission: $10 general; $8 students, seniors and children (12 & under); $6 AFA members.
EMPEROR VISITS THE HELL
唐皇游地府/ Tang huang you difu
Directed by Li Luo
2012, 67 min, digital. In Mandarin with English subtitles.
Winner of the 2012 Vancouver International Film Festival's Dragons & Tigers Prize, this is a quietly astonishing tour de force that hinges on a lovely conceit: relocating to the present day the famous story of the Tang dynasty Emperor Taizong's visit to the underworld. Shot in elegant, black-and-white long takes, the film spins a tale of a local river god, the Dragon King, who, feuding with a fortune teller, alters the weather without authorization and is condemned to death. When the Emperor fails to commute the god's sentence, otherworldly retribution is swift: he is summoned to Hell. Li's audacious use of multiple levels of storytelling and filmmaking craftily and joyously subverts every authority around.
-Fri, Aug 7 at 6:45 and Mon, Aug 10 at 9:00 (intro and Q&A with director Li Luo at both screenings)
AROUND THAT WINTER
田园将芜 / Tianyuan jiang wu
Directed by Wang Xiaozhen
2013, 96 min, digital. In Shandong dialect with English subtitles.
This curiously beautiful Daoist comedy, the opening film of BIFF2013, is a first film full of promise. Wang, painting with scrupulously composed, eloquent black-and-white images, tells of a young urbanite who brings his girlfriend to meet his farmer parents in the countryside of Shandong province. Although nothing precisely happens, the farm and surrounding woods are a stage for almost non-stop cursing, kissing, pissing, and fucking. It's both earthy and somehow unworldly at the same time, featuring perfectly ribald kids, a voyeuristic brother with a urination fetish, and a deadpan comic couple. Wang has a terrific eye, and an utterly unique, low-key comic voice.
-Fri, Aug 7 at 8:45 (introduced by critic and Cinema on the Edge programmer Shelly Kraicer) and Tues, Aug 11 at 7:00.
Directed by Huang Xiang, Xu Ruotao, and JP Sniadecki
2013, 65 min, 16mm-to-digital. In Gansu dialect with English subtitles.
Two Chinese avant-garde artists and an American experimental filmmaker have collaborated on a stunningly beautiful Chinese experimental-fiction-documentary that dazzlingly combines ghost stories and "ruin porn" to form a celluloid psycho-collage. Shot on 16mm film, it's set in the largely abandoned oil drilling town of Yumen - a place with an ancient, poetic history in China's western Gansu province - and takes us through trashed, desolate urban spaces abandoned by Chinese socialism. But the filmmakers bring these places alive with their cast of ghosts, artists, vagabond dancers, and singers. It's a film chock full of fascinating things: massive oil pumps and sun-blasted vistas; nude performance art and impromptu flamenco; fuzzy bunny rabbits and snarling canines; groovy 70s Taiwan pop and contemporary Korean girl bands; socialist nostalgia and postmodern pastiche.
-Sat, Aug 8 at 6:45 and Tues, Aug 11 at 9:00.
FOUR WAYS TO DIE IN MY HOMETOWN
我故乡的四种死亡方式 / Wo guxiangde si zhong siwang fangshi
Directed by Chai Chunya
2012, 90 min, digital. In Gansu dialect with English subtitles.
A four-part fiction film that's as much poetry as it is narrative, first-time filmmaker Chai Chunya's gorgeous work evokes four characters - a poet, a searcher, a puppet master, and a shaman - each with intense, mystical, deeply-rooted spiritual links to the land (the film was shot in and around Gansu province) mediated by the four elemental symbols: earth, water, fire, and wind. The film's logic is associative, dreamlike; Chai builds up a series of striking tableaux, hypnotically suggestive and pictorially spectacular. Two young women lose a camel, then a father. A retired shadow puppeteer meets a gun-toting tree thief. Storytellers and shamans evoke a lost spiritual world that Chai films back to life in spectacular visual motifs whose meanings are intuited, like deeply felt communal memories.
-Sat, Aug 8 at 8:45 and Wed, Aug 12 at 7:00.
女导演 / Nü daoyan
Directed by Yang Mingming
2012, 43 min, digital. In Mandarin with English subtitles.
Two brilliant young women, art school graduates with deliciously profane vocabularies and supreme confidence, talk sex, cinema, and power, as they wield their shared video camera like a scalpel. Yang Mingming's superb debut is hilarious, moving, and subversive: is it documentary or fiction, or something new that violates both modes with gleeful abandon?
LISTENING TO THIRD GRANDMOTHER'S STORIES
听三奶奶讲过去的事情 / Ting sannainai jiang guoqu de shiqing
Directed by Wen Hui
2012, 75 min, digital, b&w/color. In Mandarin with English subtitles.
A language written by women confronts official ideology in dancer/choreographer/filmmaker Wen Hui's film. She starts from stories her 83-year-old great-aunt tells her of being tortured as a "class enemy" during Mao's China: the result is poetry, an experimental documentary that combines testimony and dance-like gesture, in black-and-white and color.
-Sun, Aug 9 at 5:30 and Wed, Aug 12 at 9:00.
Directed by Ai Weiwei
2011, 142 min, digital. In Mandarin with English subtitles.
The documentaries produced by Ai Weiwei's studio are closer to investigative journalism than to conceptual art. This film in particular starts from a specific case, the mysterious death by "road accident" of a village leader, Qian Yunhui from Zhejiang province, an activist who stood up for his fellow villagers when their land was confiscated without compensation by the local government. Qian's death in 2010 quickly became a cause célèbre online in China. Ai and his team take up the challenge of determining what really happened, and dig deep into the land dispute lying behind what looks like the convenient murder of a rights advocate. The story unfolds like a thriller, but an ultra-realist one, with terrified villagers, government media spectacles, conflicting stories, and a mysteriously disappearing surveillance video.
-Sun, Aug 9 at 8:00 and Thurs, Aug 13 at 6:30.
EXPERIMENTAL SHORT FILM PROGRAM:
THE POET AND THE SINGER
金刚经 / Jingangjing
Directed by Bi Gan
2012, 26 min, digital
A visually splendid poem that provocatively but elegantly juxtaposes a poet, a singer, a river, a pair of murderers, and the Diamond Sutra.
DISMANTLING CLEMATIS #16
拆铁丝16＃/ Chai tiesi #16
Directed by Zhi Jun
2014, 30 min, digital
After a fire, scarred bonsai trees are meticulously freed of their supporting wires by medical professionals.
I'M NOT NOT NOT CHEN ZHOU
Directed by Chen Zhou
2013, 34 min, digital
The color yellow, as well as artist Chen Zhou and his alter ego(s), star in this droll, playfully conceptual tour de force.
Total running time: ca. 95 min.
-Mon, Aug 10 at 7:00 and Thurs, Aug 13 at 9:15.
MADE IN NY MEDIA CENTER BY IFP
30 John St. DUMBO Brooklyn, New York NY 11201, (718) 729-6677, http://nymediacenter.com
EGG AND STONE
by Huang Ji
2011, 98 min, digital. In Hunan dialect with English subtitles.
Winner of the 2012 International Film Festival Rotterdam's Tiger Award, Huang Ji's brave personal film is one of the most auspicious debuts in recent Chinese cinema. Set in her home village in rural Hunan province, Egg and Stone is a powerful autobiographical portrait of a 14-year-old girl's attempts to come to terms with her emerging sexual maturity. Since her parents moved to the city to work, she has been forced to live with her uncle and aunt for seven years. Alone with her own inchoate fears and desires, she grapples with a terrifying world of sexual awakening and danger. Huang Ji's visual sophistication, narrative fluency, and technical polish belie her youth. Cinematographer Ryuji Otsuka (also the film's producer and editor) contributes beautifully crafted cinematic images, fearfully intimate, softly pulsing with light, saturated with complex emotional power.
- Monday, August 17 at 7:00pm
MAYSLES CINEMA AT THE MAYSLES DOCUMENTARY CENTER (August 18-19)
343 Lenox Avenue / Malcolm X Boulevard, New York, NY 10027 (between 127th and 128th Streets), (212) 537-6843, http://maysles.org/mdc/
$10 General Admission (suggested)
CUT OUT THE EYES
挖眼睛/ Kong yanjing
Directed by Xu Tong
2014, 80 min, digital. In Chinese with English subtitles.
Er Housheng is a blind musician who travels Inner Mongolia with his lover/partner Liu Lanlan performing the saucy, sensationally bawdy form of musical duet comedy called er ren tai. Er's female audiences are particularly enthralled with his combination of sensuality, Rabelaisian earthiness, and frankly socially subversive lyrics. Director Xu's specialty is to train his piercingly observant documentary camera -- intimate and complicit, rather than coldly objective -- on unique Chinese characters like Er, using them to probe deep beneath the surface of China's clash of rural traditions with its urbanizing contemporaneity. The result is, on one hand, an enthralling ethnographic showpiece; but it's at its core a passionate and frenzied psycho-drama of lust, violence, and genius.
- Tuesday, August 17 at 7:30pm
A FILMLESS FESTIVAL
2015, approx. 85 minutes, digital. In Chinese with English subtitles.
This film documents the 11th Beijing Independent Film Festival in 2014, from the preparations before the opening ceremony to the process of its forced cancellation, the event which spurred the Cinema on the Edge series. The footage used for the film was captured by audience members, local artists, invited directors and special guests, festival volunteers and workers, as well as journalists and members of the media. It is a film produced by the collective.
Wednesday, August 19 at 7:30pm, Q&A with filmmaker Wang Wo)
ASIA SOCIETY (August 20 and 24)
725 Park Avenue (at 70th Street), New York, NY 10021; 212-288-6400; https://tickets.asiasociety.org
Tickets: $12 General; $10 Seniors; $7 Students; Free for members and persons under 16. Admission is free on Fridays from 6:00 to 9:00 pm.
人民公园/ Renmin gongyuan
Directed by J.P. Sniadecki & Libbie Cohn
2012, 75 min, digital. In Sichuanese and Mandarin Chinese.
This is an experimental, structuralist documentary shot in People's Park, Chengdu, Sichuan, in one single, bravura take lasting 75 minutes by two young American directors. Their camera captures the fullness of Chinese urban leisure life. As the camera pans side to side and glides relentlessly forward through the park, it catches hundreds of Chinese urbanites out for fun, relaxation, socializing, and a certain kind of freedom: eating, strolling, singing, practicing calligraphy, and watching each other. Watching becomes dancing, as the film slowly gathers an ecstatic, trance-like groove, building to a rapturous climax, as people, movement, music, image, and sound mix together: this is as close to pure pleasure as cinema gets.
Thursday, August 20 at 6:30pm (Q&A with J.P. Sniadecki)
档案 / Dang'an
Directed by Zhu Rikun
2014, 129 min. In Chinese with English subtitles.
Tsering Woeser, the subject of Chinese filmmaker Zhu Rikun's extraordinary documentary, is a Tibetan writer now based in Beijing. Through her writing and online voice, she has become one of the most eloquent voices on Tibet. Zhu Rikun's sharply designed, formally innovative documentary is completely in Woeser's own voice: Zhu alternates formally photographed scenes of Woeser reading excerpts from her secret government "dossier" (which she has somehow gained access to) with scenes of her speaking in her own soft but powerful, eloquent, passionate voice. Woeser's moving account of her political awakening and current activism makes for a powerful document of a Tibetan woman finding her voice and insisting on her freedom to use it.
Monday, August 24 at 6:30pm (Q&A with Zhu Rikun)
WEATHERHEAD EAST ASIAN INSTITUTE AT COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY (September 9)
420 W 118th St #9, New York, NY 10027
THE LAST MOOSE OF AOLUGUYA
最后的敖鲁古雅驼鹿 / An da han
Directed by Gu Tao
2013, 100 min, digital. In Chinese with English subtitles.
Award winning filmmaker Gu Tao's weirder-than fiction documentary is a portrait of Weijia, a hunter-poet with a tumultuous life. Weijian is a member of the Ewenki minority, whose homeland is near Siberia in far northeastern China. Forbidden to continue hunting, the Ewenki have been forced to move from their forests into dreary Chinese government-designed permanent villages. Like many, deprived of livelihood, Weijia spends his time drinking and being a poet ... when all of a sudden, as in a fairytale, a young teacher from Hainan, the tropical paradise island in China's far south, comes to marry him and sweep him away. Weijia, clad in tropical print shirts, doesn't quite fit into paradise, and his story turns dark, with intimations of madness and violence.
Wednesday, September 9, 6pm
MUSEUM OF CHINESE IN AMERICA (MoCA) (September 10)
215 Centre Street, New York, NY 10013, (212) 619-4785, www.mocanyc.org.
Admission: $10 General; $5 Seniors (65+ w/ID) and Students (w/school ID); free for MOCA Members and Children under 12 in groups less than 10.
(108 min total running time)
Perfect Conjugal Bliss / 花好月圆 Zhong Su, 6' 2014
A gorgeous 3D animation unscrolling through Chinese history, from grey urban collapse to ultra-coloured consumer dystopia.
How / 在哪儿 Zhang Yipin, 5' 2013
Traditional pen-and-ink drawings, animating a fuzzy-haired ruddy-cheeked girl's imaginative world of terror and freedom.
The Hunter and the Skeleton / 猎人与骷髅怪 Bai Bin 26' (prize) 2012
A spectacular animated version, flash plus thangka, of an Eastern Tibetan folk tale: when a hunter meets a fearsome skeleton monster, are they friends, or enemies?
An Apple Tree / 苹果树 Bai Bin, 11' 2013
A Tibetan fable, in vivid colours, of an indomitable tree, assailed yet triumphant.
Double Act / 双簧 Ding Shiwei, 5' 2013
Black-and-white industrial surreal: bodies float between familiar bureaucratic monuments above, and sunflowers beneath the earth.
Mirror Room / 镜室 Zhou Xiaohu 8' 2012
Master clay animator Zhou fashions a bathroom of hallucinatory reflections, where Lacan meets fascism
The New Book of Mountains and Seas Part 2 / 新山海经2 Qiu Anxiong 29' (2007) 2012
Animating classic-styled ink and pen drawings, and filling them with quasi-nightmarish animal-machine forms, Qiu suggests a world under ecological collapse, where genetically tampered animal forms expire on earth and colonize the stars.
Family Reunion / 馬拉自在 Chen Li-hua 18' 2012
A-mei, a Taiwanese aboriginal woman working in a factory, is called home for the Harvest Festival, but her boss refuses. In Chen's imaginative tale, illustrated with cut out and line drawn animation, a daughter's powerful dreaming saves all.
UNIONDOCS (September 11-13)
322 Union Avenue, Williamsburg, Brooklyn, NY 11211, www.uniondocs.org
THE RIVER OF LIFE
生命的河流 / Shengming de heliu
Directed by Yang Pingdao
2014, 101 min, digital. in Mandarin and Cantonese with English subtitles.
Yang Pingdao is one of China's most exciting emerging filmmakers. His astonishingly creative camera eye brings unexpected beauty to his new feature length film. Using an innovative structure, based on the distinctive texture of family memory through space and time, Yang invents something poised delicately between fiction and documentary to capture crystallized moments in his family history, to recreate in cinematic form its emotional weight and variety, woven around the life and death of his grandmother, and the birth of his child. In order to combine extended family chronicle, implicit national history, and intimate soul-bearing autobiography, Yang employs gentle formal experimentation to invent new cinematic pathways. Opening film and prize winner of BIFF 2014.
September 11, 7:30pm
Xinghuo / 星火
Directed by Hu Jie
2014, 101 min, digital. In Mandarin with English subtitles.
Probably China's most important unofficial historian-filmmaker, Hu Jie documents with his camera episodes that Chinese official history, for now, ignores. Spark was an underground magazine published in 1960 by four young intellectuals who wanted to expose the devastating famine caused by Mao's Great Leap Forward, a horrendous period of national suffering that is still unmentioned in China's history textbooks today. This is filmmaking as urgent historical investigation: with a shoestring budget Hu combines years of research, and a knack for getting people to talk without fear about the most taboo subjects in China's recent past. His alternative oral history approach knits together courageous and frequently moving interviews with the magazine's surviving editor, supporters, and readers, who were ready to sacrifice themselves to alert their countrymen to unprecedented disaster.
September 12, 5pm
STRATUM 1: THE VISITORS
Diceng 1: laike
Directed by Cong Feng
2013, 71 min, digital. In Mandarin with English subtitles.
Poet and filmmaker Cong Feng started to film a documentary about whole-scale urban demolition in the Beijing suburb of Tongzhou, but discovered that the extraordinary rapidity of change and the furious power of China's history of destruction required something more experimental, more essay-like. From hallucinatory (are they perhaps utopian? despairing?) images of a bulldozer seeming to conjure up a building from its rubble, we follow two characters wandering through debris, telling stories of childhood trauma (featuring canine, not human loyalty during a horrific episode from the Cultural Revolution). Cong, like a visual paleo-geologist, unearths surreal, chilling images of otherworldly beauty emanating from the buried strata of this collapsing world, whose history threatens to be suffocated by layers of experience, of loss, of unremembered suffering.
September 12, 8pm
I WANT TO BE A PEOPLE'S REPRESENTATIVE
我要当人民代表/ Wo yao dang renmin daibiao
Directed by Jia Zhitan
2014, 78 min, digital. In Hunanese with English subtitles.
Can a documentary camera be a tool for democracy in China? Jia Zhitan certainly thinks so, and wields his camera like an anti-bureaucratic weapon. Jia, a member of Caochangdi's influential Villagers Documentary Project (organizer Wu Wenguang has been training local villagers to use digital video cameras to record their participation in ultra-local politics), wants to run to be a delegate to the National People's Congress. He wins the first round, but is deemed unqualified by officials for reasons they keep to themselves. As the irrepressibly scrappy and stubborn Jia seeks explanations and redress from ever higher levels of authority, he records their interactions scenes that would play as entertaining satiric comedy if they weren't so frustratingly real.
September 13, 3pm
吃饱的村子/ Chibao de cunzi
Directed by Zou Xueping
2011, 88 min. In Shandong dialect with English subtitles.
Zou Xueping's took her first documentary The Hungry Village (part of Caochangdi Workstation's Folk Memory Project) -- made up of first-person testimony about the effects of the Great Famine of 1960 (see Hu Jie's Spark for another view) on her home village in Shandong -- back home to show her subjects. They unanimously disapproved. Frustrated and full of doubt, Zou then made this second documentary discussing the villagers' reactions to her first. This wonderful, searching, self-reflexive film questions the necessity and usefulness of truth-telling via cinema, when it brings pain and even shame upon neighbours and family. Zou's 9-year-old niece emerges as its star, a girl who can balance competing exigencies of truth and love with a wisdom beyond her years.
September 13, 6:30pm (Q&A with Zou Xueping)
A reception and discussion on participatory filmmaking with Zou Xueping and filmmaker Li Xinmin will take place between the screenings on September 13.