Between the Independent and the Mainstream
Like the Taiwan Cinefest, the Chinese Visual Festival is not run as a profit-making enterprise. Initially, both Zhan and Xie invested private money in the event; further support was forthcoming from China Culture Connect.40 Although the festival now charges for tickets, no one organizing the event draws a salary, and sponsorship is either in kind or tied to particular programs.41 While the permanent organizers have more clearly defined and distributed responsibilities than Flynn, it is clear that people make contributions beyond mere titles: Xie is supported in her role as programmer by Mudge, with additional help from scholars at King’s College London.42 Nevertheless, the festival has clearly been molded by Zhan’s and Xie’s individual interests. First, its scope—the particular combination of art and cinema, the emphasis on documentary—arises from their own personal expertise, and is quite distinct from that of any other London- based, Chinese cultural festival. Second, it is clear that the breadth of films shown reflects Xie’s own experience both within and without China’s formal media systems. GZDOC, where Xie was employed, is the only officially approved festival of its kind in China; it is in fact jointly run by the Guangdong Provincial Government and the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film, and Television, the government organ with overall responsibility for film and television regulation. As such, the festival has always been far more industry-oriented and much less political than its unofficial counterparts, both in terms of the activities conducted there and the material screened.43 This is reflected in some of the Chinese Visual Festival’s programming, which has mixed independent films with more mainstream material that has domestic broadcast potential. For example, in 2012, Olympic year, one of the documentaries screened at the festival was Ou Ning’s Meishi Street. An independently produced, participatory documentary that tackles resistance to gentrification in central Beijing through the eyes of a single “stuck nail” tenant, Meishi Street illuminates the negative consequences of pre-Olympic development for the poorest residents of the Chinese capital.44 But the same year, the festival also screened a series of documentary shorts called August, Beijing. Produced in collaboration with GZDOC, this collection included films such as Yan Fei’s Are You a Sportsman?, the story of a young boy from Zhejiang camping out at Beijing Airport, hunting for athletes’ autographs.
The human interest in these two films is clearly quite different; so too is the impression conveyed of the Olympic experience.
Shifting personal and professional networks partly explain this combination of programming. Xie’s own connections have now been supplemented by a call for submissions, personal introductions from filmmakers and artists, and scouting trips to independent film festivals in the PRC, such as the Beijing Independent Film Festival (BIFF) in Songzhuang and the China Independent Film Festival (CIFF) in Nanjing. The pool of potential selection has thus widened considerably over time.45 Nevertheless, retaining this connection with GZDOC has been quite deliberate. Xie says she tries to go to the festival whenever possible, not just because she used to work there, but also precisely because she has “always believed in sourcing from both within and outside of the broadcasting system to find the most varied combination of films.”46 This issue of variety speaks to a key objective of the Chinese Visual Festival, however: to counter what both Zhan and Xie see as an excessive emphasis on the negative in Western discourse around, and media representation of, the contemporary PRC. Xie says quite explicitly that, when working at GZDOC, she noticed a particular emphasis in the way international film festivals selected Chinese documentaries.47 Commissioning editors and festival programmers from overseas were only interested in material that dealt with social problems or current affairs; other genres, such as science or history documentaries, were ignored. The result, Xie says, is that what she terms “exposure documentaries” dominate western festival programming, something that she tries consciously to avoid:
Most factual programs about China, except lifestyle ones, tend to be very negative about the country. [This] is true [of] most independent production[s] ... This is why I always want to balance between positive and negative stories in programs ... I do not want to show Chinese lives as just grim, depressed, and harsh because it is simply not true.48
The key would thus seem to be curating a group of films, from a variety of different sources, with a range of perspectives on contemporary China, without committing the festival to a specific political line. As Zhan says, “our point of view isn’t that of CNN or the BBC, but neither is it that of CCTV.”49