From Public to Private Space

This overview shows how political restrictions have led to changes within the festival organizing team and forced BIFF to reduce its size and visibility. Based on the above, one might wonder the significance of a festival that cannot take place in publicly accessible venues. To address this question, we need to consider the purposes served by other Chinese independent film festivals. First, these events provide Chinese independent films with a domestic exhibition platform, giving young urban audiences the chance to see this cinema. Second, they are an opportunity for these films to be selected for foreign festivals, since some events are attended by overseas programmers. Independent film festivals in China are therefore part of what Dina Iordanova calls the “business of showing films,” as distinct from the “business of film distribution.” This distinction reflects the benefits directors derive from the festival circuit: it helps enhance their international recognition as a form of symbolic capital, but offers little in the way of commercial gain, other than the possibility of obtaining funding for the production of forthcoming projects.16 Last, but not least, Chinese independent festivals function as spaces for community building, enabling filmmakers, film critics and programmers to gather together and meet over the course of the year at the various different festivals.

However, since 2008, increasing government interference has led to the social and spatial marginalization of independent cinema in China. Attempts to hold festivals in locations accessible to the public have been largely abandoned. Some events, like the Yunnan Multiculture Visual Festival (Yunfest) in Kunming, Yunnan Province, have tried to find new venues in which to hold private screenings. This strategy worked for Yunfest in 2009, but could not be repeated in 2013, due to threats made by the authorities to the festival organizers. The intermediary role these festivals play between the Chinese independent film scene and overseas festivals has continued with some difficulty: only programmers who speak Chinese and enjoy the confidence of organizers and filmmakers can attend and receive DVDs of the films programmed. Community building, while possible on a small scale, has largely been dependent on the mindset and resources of the organizers. Most of the independent festivals have reacted as follows: after announcing the official cancellation of the event, the organizers and those participants still present meet informally, in cafes or at a central venue, to watch DVDs and discuss the festival’s situation.

Against this backdrop, BIFF’s distinctiveness can be summarized in two ways. First, the festival took place every year until 2014, in a reduced configuration, holding screenings in the foundation as well as in artists’ studios. These screenings were possible because BIFF’s organizers had their own private spaces and were not dependent on public institutions or private venues subject to the rules of commercial and government censorship.

This was not the case with the other festivals: the China Independent Film Festival (CIFF) in Nanjing occurred primarily at Nanjing University; Yunfest was held in Yunnan Provincial Library and at the Yunnan University in Kunming; while CIFVF took place at Chongqing University and in commercial film theaters round the city. Zhu Rikun thus claimed independence from government institutions and commercial cinemas, stating that this was one of the major differences between BIFF and other independent festivals. However, this independence was not entirely the choice of the festival organizers. Li Xianting explained that Zhang Yaxuan, a film critic and founder of the China Independent Film Archive (CIFA), originally wanted CDFF to be organized in collaboration with the Beijing Film Academy (BFA). However, Li maintained that since political controls in Beijing are more stringent than in other Chinese cities, collaboration of this sort was impossible.17 Whatever the reasons behind this decision, it paved the way for BIFF to screen films in private spaces, despite the authorities’ prohibition on holding screenings in Songzhuang’s Museum of Contemporary Art.

Second, BIFF has always attached importance to gatherings of filmmakers and participants both during and outside the festival proper. This is partly due to Zhu Rikun’s willingness to support independent filmmakers by providing them with space for regular meetings, both at the Li Xianting Foundation where the organizing team had its offices, and at the Fanhall Studio where regular screenings were held.18 Directors gathered at these two places throughout the year to share their filmmaking experience and receive peer feedback on their latest work. Some lived in Songzhuang, paying lower rents than in the capital proper while remaining close to the foundation; others visited every time they were in Beijing. Students, researchers, programmers and journalists interested in Chinese independent cinema also came to meet the organizing team and watch films on the foundation’s computers. In addition to these regular meetings, the two festivals punctuated the year, offering directors the opportunity to show the fruits of their labor to a wider audience, and to see the best films rewarded. Consequently, while other independent festivals have placed more emphasis on the role of public diffusion rather than on community building, CDFF and BIFF have always attached equal importance to these complementary functions: the “event” function, with its temporary time frame, aimed to facilitate encounters between the films and their audience, while the “living space” function embodied the temporality of daily practice for the independent filmmakers.

The latter function meant that, despite the forced retreat from publicly accessible places, BIFF still had a core reason to continue. It thus carried on performing this function in private spaces belonging to the organizers and to artists supporting the festival. One could argue that the number of people who regularly gathered at the foundation was insignificant, and that such events were little more than friends socializing. I believe, however, that the creation of such a space is important in the Chinese context, because it opened up new possibilities for social interaction. BIFF’s organizers encouraged the gathering of filmmakers who shared common values and experiences, enabling them to find comfort in a community where they felt understood. The foundation thus became a place where new identities could be forged and individuals could reinvent themselves outside the traditional Chinese social ties of family, clan, ancestral village or city and place of employment.19 I would therefore argue that BIFF, as with all Chinese independent film festivals, was at the heart of a process of deterritorialization through which individuals were uprooted from a single geographical and temporal space and dispersed to new “places of anchorage.” I surmise that the authorities adopted a more aggressive attitude toward the festival in 2014 because the Li Xianting Foundation had by this point become a significant symbolic place of anchorage for the Chinese independent film sphere. The confiscation of the film archive can thus be interpreted as reflecting the desire of the authorities to put a stop to BIFF not only as a festival, but also as a place for community building. However, this is only an assumption, since it is difficult to understand the government’s intentions.

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