BIFF as Third Space: Hybridity, Transgression, Translation

This analysis demonstrates that BIFF’s transformation had significant sociopolitical implications. To understand the nature of these implications, I propose to look at the bigger picture. As noted at the beginning of this chapter, the founder-organizers of China’s independent film festivals were both inspired by the first Chinese independent film festivals and by the global model of “festival-as-non-profit,” gradually establishing a domestic network of independent film festivals. This rhizomatic mode of development echoes Marijke De Valck’s analysis of the international film festival circuit. It refers in particular to the theory of the rhizome, developed by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, to show that the creation of new festivals was the result of the deterritorialization of the existing network.34 I therefore consider the proliferation of Chinese independent film festivals to be an extension of the international festival network.

As this domestic network grew, however, the new elements gradually transformed: they became both identical to and yet different from the existing ones. In the case of BIFF, this transformation was generated by a process of negotiation between the government and the festival that resulted in a retreat into private space and an affirmation of the political commitment of the festival’s organizers. Following this process of negotiation, the term “independent,” originally associated with a personal mode of expression, increasingly took on a sense of political activism. The term “festival,” originally associated with the desire for greater visibility and public recognition, came to mean private gatherings within a small community. Although BIFF now bears little resemblance to a Western film festival, either in its configuration or its objectives, the organizers still maintain the English word “festival,” and continue to claim this idea for their event, as if it validates their existence and value vis-a-vis the outside world.

These developments suggest how translation can be analyzed as an evolving process that contributes to the very fabric of culture and society: as the concept of “festival” travels round the world, it transforms national and international cultural landscapes. This broader metaphorical understanding of translation appeared in the 1980s and 1990s, contemporaneous with the emergence of cultural and postcolonial studies. These disciplines considered culture to be a dynamic concept generated via translation, particularly in contexts of intense geographical mobility, or in postcolonial nations where subcultures were subordinate to the authority of hegemonic cultures. These theories have been criticized for their failure to overcome colonial paradigms and their neglect of historical empiricism. However, they still enhance our understanding of the consequences of introducing a global model of cultural organization (the festival-as-non- profit) into contemporary China.

My interest here is particularly in Homi Bhabha’s notion of “third space,” developed in his book The Location of Culture. Kate Sturge explains this concept as follows:

Translation is not an interchange between discourse wholes but a process of mixing and mutual contamination, and not a movement from “source” to “target” but located in a “third space” beyond both, where conflicts arising from cultural difference and the different social discourses involved in those conflicts are negotiated.35

In other words, translation processes generate hybrid spaces where binary divisions such as source-target, and more generally, all antagonisms around which modern societies are built, no longer apply. These spaces are politically subversive in nature, and contribute to the constant re-formation of boundaried cultural entities (generally national in scale) through frictions and negotiations.

With reference to the Chinese independent film scene, this suggests that the introduction of a global model of cultural organization allowed the creation of hybrid spaces (independent film festivals), which stimulated the rise of new forms of cultural practice and social interaction (exchanges based around common interests and experiences) among filmmakers and festival-goers. These hybrid spaces were also counter-hegemonic: the view that cultural events should be organized independently of government control challenged the power of the Chinese party-state. In response to this challenge, the government tried to reduce the visibility of the festivals and then stop them indefinitely. The response of BIFF’s management team to these pressures modified the nature of the private space at the Li Xianting Foundation: this space could not operate as a public sphere because it was not accessible to the general public and remained effectively invisible to Chinese society at large. However, the foundation demonstrated a capacity to extend its influence beyond its spatial limits, through English-language media coverage. This private space thus became politically sensitive for the government which, in turn, had to adapt to the potential threat posed by the festival’s new strategies.

I believe that, over the years, the authorities have responded to these developments by setting up an increasingly systematic model of intervention vis-a-vis independent film festivals. Before an event, government representatives send threats to the organizers and prohibit access to screening venues. If the organizers still manage to hold screenings elsewhere, police and local officials will go to the opening ceremony and cut the electricity, dispersing the participants and talking to the organizers. After this interruption, the festival sometimes continues in small groups under the supervision of local officials, who oblige the organizers to announce an early closure of the event. In this way, the authorities have adapted their modus operandi to the independent festivals, and have continuously re-negotiated the limits of their interference with these collective activities. In reaction, festivals have had to update their strategies: Li Xianting’s argument that they cannot prevent him from organizing private screenings at home was accepted in 2011, but was no longer acceptable in the years that followed. This process of mutual adaptation calls into question the division between public space, where public opinion is controlled and guided by the party- state, and private space, where people have no visibility or outside influence. In this sense, the private space of the Li Xianting Foundation could be understood, metaphorically, as a third space. It constitutes an interstitial and transgressive place where the boundaries between the antagonistic categories around which Chinese contemporary society is built—government versus independent, public versus private, national versus transnational—become porous and blurred.

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