The Politicization of BIFF: From Elitism to Public Resistance
If BIFF’s multiple functions and access to private space enabled it to forge ahead in the face of pressure from the state, I would also argue that the resulting organizational changes and the progressive marginalization of the festival encouraged both its organizers and independent filmmakers to assert their opposition to the Chinese government’s policies. This does not mean that BIFF was originally detached from politics: the organizers of the other Chinese independent film festivals and the filmmakers have always considered BIFF to be more radical than its counterparts. However, Zhu Rikun and Li Xianting did not share a common understanding of the festival’s independence.
Zhu Rikun insisted on complete independence for the festival’s programming and editorial line, refusing any form of self-censorship. He defended both politically sensitive documentaries and experimental videos, and did not hesitate to screen four to five hour-long films. He thus demonstrated a desire to carry out his goals without any concessions to the Chinese authorities, while also placing little importance on the views of the festival audience.20 His attitude was similar to that observed by Howard Becker in his analysis of the behavior of jazz musicians: the fear of having to sacrifice artistic standards rendered the musicians hostile to their listeners. The result was a tendency toward self-segregation that appeared in both the musicians’ work and in their relations with the outside community. The musicians created physical and symbolic barriers in order to protect themselves from their audience. These symbolic barriers included common linguistic conventions, in particular the use of jargon or specific references unknown to people outside their community.21 In effect, Zhu Rikun also adopted an elitist attitude to protect the film standards he espoused. I therefore conclude that the spatial and social isolation during the first years after the establishment of the two festivals was not only linked to political limitations but also to a genuine desire on the part of the management team to preserve the spirit of the avant-garde. From 2008, in response to BIFF’s increasing marginalization by the authorities, Zhu refused to consent to this treatment, retreating voluntarily within the walls of his community, and finally withdrawing altogether.
On his part, Li Xianting advocated a vision of independence that targeted the Chinese authoritarian regime. For him, Chinese independent film festivals were both a means of supporting independent filmmaking and a way of developing exchanges among intellectuals, following the civil society model. As stated in the introduction to the festival catalog for the 2012 festival, he wanted to create links between independent filmmakers and other small communities:
What I call “small environments” has to do with “small circles”, but the two are not the same. For example, the milieu of independent filmmakers is, naturally, a “small circle,” but if this “small circle,” in the process of interacting with society, can form an unofficial community based on common values, then it becomes what I call a “small environment” ... At a time when the whole of mainstream culture is tending toward consumerism and entertainment, at a time when we can neither change the wider environment with anger, nor fully express our anger, I believe what we can do for our culture is to promote the formation of unofficial “small environments” in all social arenas. This is a constructive effort; it builds culture from the bottom up.22
Li believed that the best way to contribute to the formation of these small environments was to be flexible and try to deal with difficulties strategically.23 Zhu Rikun’s departure should therefore have allowed BIFF to engage with a wider audience. However, only a relaxation of government control over the third sector would truly have allowed independent filmmakers to shed their elitism and interact with the rest of society. Instead, BIFF’s organizers had to unite in the face of adversity and focus all their energy on the survival on the festival. Li Xianting explained in this respect that though he had wanted to study Chinese independent films since the creation of his foundation, he had not had time to do so, since he was faced with the need to focus on negotiations with officials.24 Therefore, the intensification of political pressures and the departure of Zhu Rikun, who was the most involved in programming work, had an important consequence for the festival: resistance to the government’s restrictions began to take precedence over curatorial policy.
This evolution can be observed in the catalog of successive editions of the two festivals. In his editorial for the fourth BIFF in 2009, Zhu Rikun affirmed the importance of the festival’s existence, but remained unclear about the direction in which he wished to guide the event:
Since the founding of the BIFF in 2006 up to now, we are still in the process of exploring the style and direction of our film festival. These questions must still be confronted in future years as we maintain a certain kind of unfixed position, or perhaps a kind of valuable wariness.25
In the editorial for the fifth BIFF, he set out the two major tasks that a festival faces: “Film festivals need to resolve two problems: first, the selection of the type of films, and second, how to show these films.”26 He went on to explain his programming choices. But in the editorial for the sixth festival in 2011, after Zhu Rikun’s withdrawal, we note that the tone has changed. Li Xianting declared his determination to support independent cinema despite the current difficulties:
In May 2011, the eighth China Documentary Week directed by Zhu Rikun was forced into cancellation. This October 2011, the sixth Beijing Independent Film festival directed by Wang Hongwei has been forced to move and yet officials want to call Songzhuang China’s largest community for contemporary artists. With this kind of regrettable situation wherein the various places for film exhibition meet with so many interferences from officials, the future progress of independent cinema remains under duress ... Supporting independent cinema and providing it with a better exhibition platform is the kind of work that our foundation and all of those who love independent cinema are glad to do . At the same time, for those involved in independent cinema, we must be even more devoted to our work, and face the upcoming challenges with a firm and peaceful mind.27
This sentiment of determination was repeated in the editorial for the following year, and was illustrated on the cover of the catalog, which featured the image of someone trying to ride a unicycle on a tightrope. Finally, the introduction to the festival catalog for the 2013 edition focused entirely on the festival’s difficulties and ended with a quote from Cui Weiping, a former professor at the BFA: “we must keep going no matter if we are alive or not!”28 The message was clear: the organizing team was determined to continue the festival at all costs.
To clarify this transition from a commitment to support independent cinema to political activism, a parallel can be drawn with the forms of political resistance described by Vaclav Havel during the decade following the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia. Havel observes that individuals who refused to accept the restrictions imposed by the authorities were labeled “dissenters,” although they did not initially decide to engage in dissenting activities:
You are thrown into it by your personal sense of responsibility, combined with a complex set of external circumstances. You are cast out of the existing structures and placed in a position of conflict with them. It begins as an attempt to do your work well, and ends being branded an enemy of society.29
This suggests that what academic publications and media reports usually call “political activism” or “political dissent” is in this context less the result of a pro-active decision on the part of the “activists” and more a defensive reaction by said “activists” to government activity. This phenomenon has also been observed in the Chinese context. In his book, Defending Rights in Contemporary China, Jonathan Benney points out that the distinction between moderate and radical activist lawyers is not so much in the strategies they pursue, or in the way they interpret law, but rather in how the state responds to them. Hence the labels attributed to a particular lawyer might change while their work stays the same.30
Benney further explains that the authorities can suddenly suppress the activities of lawyers as a response to current events or new government policies. In other words, moderate lawyers are considered radical as soon as the government changes its attitude toward their activities. Vaclav Havel argues that this self-defensive reaction can sometimes be followed by individual or collective actions that involve direct conflict with the authorities. These actions are driven by a new sense of responsibility, which can be defined as the awareness to engage in a collective refusal to comply with government policies.31
In a similar manner, the English-language media coverage began to portray BIFF as a site of political advocacy after the authorities asked Zhu Rikun to cancel the screening of the documentary Karamay. Li Xianting then started to develop survival strategies for the festival, asserting publicly his commitment to the preservation of the Chinese independent film sphere despite government restrictions. During and after the 2012 to 2014 editions of the festival, the organizers, filmmakers and members of the audience gave interviews to the media, mainly describing police intervention in the face of the determination of the organizers and directors. It is noteworthy that this political battle was often placed in the context of the struggle for civil rights, as this comment by David Bandurski, editor of the Hong Kong-based China Media Project website and the producer of several Chinese independent films, demonstrates:
It’s not just about films, it’s about activism, it’s about being tied in and participating in social issues and using film as a medium to explore those, so that’s what they [the Chinese authorities] are really interested in nipping in the bud.32
This image of political activism was the one that has spread beyond the actual event, reaching a wider audience through what Daniel Dayan calls “the written festival”—the multiple representations of a film festival that emerge through its journalistic coverage.33 On the one hand, this coverage enabled BIFF’s key stakeholders to extend their influence beyond the confines of the Li Xianting Foundation, and to publicize their case to the outside world. On the other hand, it gave readers the impression that independent cinema was mostly concerned with the fight for Chinese democracy, while ignoring issues related to the aesthetic qualities of the films produced.