Are Chinese Independent Film Festivals Actually Festivals?

There are some discussions around whether or not Chinese independent film festivals can be called film festivals. In fact, the Chinese title of most Chinese independentfilm festivals is ying zhan (film exhibition) rather than dianying jie (film festival). In his report on the sixth CIFF (entitled “When Is a Film Festival not a Festival?”4), Chris Berry points out that Chinese independent film events eschew using “festival” in their title to skirt censorship by the Film Bureau of the State Administration for Radio, Film and Television (SARFT, renamed the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television [SAPPRFT] since 2013), which has absolute control over films and film festivals in China. While Berry presents the choice as a clever strategy, it does seem difficult to classify these independent events as film festivals when using international s tandards and accepted definitions. There is a critical consensus that important European international film festivals, such as Berlin, Venice, and Rotterdam, have set the standard for contemporary film festivals. Mark Peranson identifies two ideal models of film festival, which are the business festival and the audience festival. Both models involve seven interest groups, namely distributors/buyers, sales agents, sponsors, government, audiences, critics, and filmmakers. Each interest group is involved to different degrees depending on the needs and expectations of a particular film festival and/or benefactor.5 Therefore, the film festival can be viewed as negotiating with various social resources such as government (cultural policies and funding), distributors and sales agents (marketing), critics and audiences (cultural evaluation), and sponsors (commerce).

Peranson’s definition applies mostly to large-scale international film festivals. Unsurprisingly, a few important interest groups are missing from the map of Chinese independent film festivals. First, due to the fact that they are not approved by SAPPRFT, the government has never been an accessible social resource for independent film festivals—instead, it has become an increasingly real obstacle that threatens the survival of these festivals. Second, the involvement of distributors, buyers, and sales agents is very limited, if not non-existent. Elsewhere in the world, receiving awards at a film festival often leads to financial support for filmmakers, but this is rarely the case at Chinese independent film festivals. In China, “independent films” usually refers to films that do not obtain permission from the authorities, in other words, the famous “dragon seal” issued by SAPPRFT. After all, who would risk investing in films that cannot even be shown in cinemas? Third, instead of being government bodies, NGOs, or the industry, sponsors of Chinese independent film festivals are usually private companies or the friends of the organizers—therefore these festivals are characterized by instability and discontinuity. Finally, the audience of the independent film festivals is tiny. In some extreme cases, there was no outside audience but only insiders comprised of filmmakers, curators, and volunteers. For example, as one of us (Lydia Wu) witnessed, in the first screening of the ninth Beijing Independent Film Festival in 2012, the power was cut and the festival was forced to shut down and continued at some secret venues with only filmmakers attending the screenings. Given the absence of these main stakeholders, Chinese independent film festivals cannot easily fit into the category of either business festival or audience festival.

It is worth noting that in Peranson’s models, government is listed as a stakeholder due to their intention to promote national cinema rather than their role as cultural policymaker. Ragan Rhyne notices that policy stakeholders have received less critical consideration, and proposes to add policy discourse to the four discourses that operate on the film festival circuit as identified by Janet Harbord—independent filmmakers and producers, media representation, financing and legal transactions, and tourism and the service economy of host cities6—to “reflect an often hidden but equally as significant discourse.”7 One important policymaker in the international film festival circuit is the International Federation of Film Producers Associations (FIAPF). FIAPF’s role as a regulator of international film festivals is to provide accreditation to film festivals around the world and to create “institutions via construction of the rule system.”8 While the accredited film festivals should comply with the standards and principles formulated by FIAPF, they also benefit from the systematic operation that guarantees access to international resources such as funding, distributors, and transnational cooperation. The institutionalized structure regulated by FIAPF hence creates a well-functioning system that drives all the participants (filmmakers, programmers, buyers, and producers) to fame and economic success.

When it comes to Chinese independent film festivals, however, it appears that the organizational field does not exist. There is no authorizing agent like FIAPF to regulate these film festivals. In fact, independent film festivals were born in the milieu of boycotting the censorship of the then SARFT, with a spirit of resisting authority and restriction, as well as a desire to distinguish themselves from two government-sponsored film festivals (SIFF and BJIFF). Both were established under the supervision of SARFT, and the former is a FIAPF-accredited festival. It seems that no standards have been set and no principles have been formulated for Chinese independent film festivals. A chain of film exhibition, exchange, production, and distribution has certainly not been established due to the absence of a few major stakeholders, as analyzed above. However, we argue that although it is hard to identify official bodies as stakeholders in these festivals (such as SAPPRFT), the state plays a significant role in the emergence and development of independent film festivals. Any serious examination of Chinese independent film festivals cannot afford overlooking the role of the state as policymaker, even though at a glance, the existing policies seem only to suffocate these festivals.

As mentioned earlier, in China, film festivals need to be approved by the state and are constantly under strict government control. Only SAPPRFT- approved films (so-called dragon seal films) can be shown in such festivals.

The primary goal of independent film festivals is to exhibit films without a dragon seal and therefore they lack legitimacy, which explains the lack of state support and incessant state intervention. From the very beginning, independent film festivals seem to have been driven by a self-legitimization complex. We can observe the operation of self-legitimization from at least three aspects. First, they model themselves on the established international film festivals by copying their programming practices and the ways they mobilize social resources, in the hope of being recognized by the global film festival network. Second, they negotiate political pressure by making or refusing to make compromises and, in some cases, by seeking cooperation with official bodies, in the hope of being tolerated by the authorities. And third, they form an independent film festival circuit by collaborating and networking with both domestic and international institutions in order to build alliances. Of these three aspects, dancing with the authorities has probably played the most decisive role in shaping the landscape of Chinese independent film festivals. In the rest of the chapter, we will use CIFF to scrutinize the process of self-legitimization and institutionalization on the independent film festival scene in response to high pressure from the state. We choose to study CIFF because it is known as one of the three most established and longest-running independent film festivals in China. The other two are the China Documentary Film Festival (CDFF), which merged with BIFF later, and Yunfest. All three were established in 2003, but CIFF is the only one that is still active. We also selected CIFF because, as Chris Berry rightly noted at its sixth edition, although “by international standards CIFF is a relatively small and under-resourced event... the very particular circumstances of China mean that CIFF can claim to be the most important film festival in the country.”9

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