The Corrective Festival

The corrective festival is a variation on the activist festival and performs itself as such; it can range from angry disclosure of injustices to gentle presenting of original curatorial visions. The activist film festival is the subject of a collection Leshu Torchin and I worked on back in 2012. In our respective contributions to the volume, we tried to offer definitions and discussion of its particularities, ranging from its intent to “providing a pulpit” and “building context” through to their specific stakeholders, global activist film circulation through festivals, and the distinctive conduits that have emerged in the Internet era.13 Activist festivals operate on the assumption that film can change the world. The core motivation is advocacy, which can be slanted in different directions. However, it usually proceeds from an assumed absence of “truthful” or “complete” representation, and the implied presence of “incorrect” and “partial” representation in the efforts of official cultural diplomacy, or the “sponsored” festival. The premise is that cultural diplomacy’s officially sanctioned selections, by default, exclude critical representations, and are therefore biased and one-sided. To realize a “truer representation,” the program must be put together by detached and independent curators. The objective is to challenge and enrich the official narrative by complicating it and bringing snubbed themes and disregarded storylines to light.

The rhetoric usually revolves around terms such as “real” image (as opposed to manipulated or one-sided), “unveiled” (as opposed to censored, controlled) or at least one that is “complex” and thus “comprehensive.” The festival puts forward a specific curatorial concept and showcases a selection of films that, alongside carefully planned talks, are meant to represent certain realities and thus correct biased media coverage and mainstream discourses.

Besides its specific motivation, curatorial slant, and political message, the corrective festival actively seeks to cultivate an audience and educate it; concurrent discussions and events are often more important than the films. Key stakeholders here are intellectuals who normally possess a certain critical mass of knowledge but are, by default, not in a position of power. They neither have nor want to have any political or commercial affiliations, so the only thing they can do is to insert alternative narratives. This determines the types of people who are recruited to the planning committee (individuals who are similarly detached and independent), the partners (most frequently the venue that hosts the event), and the sponsors. The interests of mainstream festival stakeholder groups, such as industry or city authorities, are not served here, whereas the featured filmmakers often have a higher degree of involvement than usual, and so do specialist media.

The way the festival writes and performs itself revolves around the dichotomy of real and hidden. The “corrective” slant is often reflected in the very title of the event, as in the Reel China@NYU Documentary Festival. The seventh edition of this biennial event took place in April 2014.14 Another example would be Forbidden No More: The New China in Ethnographic Film Festival and conference, which took place at Haverford College in Pennsylvania in February 2012. It focused on new ethnographic films about contemporary China and featured films that explore “the changing social landscape of China.” Made by both Western and Asia-based filmmakers, the selection of films is meant to “consider contemporary China through a myriad of lenses.” Similarly to Reel China’s website, the Haverford event’s website lists a variety of typical sponsors and partners.15 Here, of course, the title of “forbidden no more” is a marketing tool used by the curators of the event to suggest that their “exhibition” will provide a remedial insight beyond the one-sided and incomplete narrative of the country that is supposedly in circulation due to the restrictive policies and moves of cultural diplomacy. The corrective festival is geared toward shaping local public opinion. Its rhetoric often highlights the fact that films shown at the festival may not have been in distribution in China—because, of course, they showcase aspects of reality that the authorities there “do not want you to see.”

Predictably, the program of the corrective festival aims to counterbalance the media coverage of China’s ascent to consumerism. It revolves around critical realist features and documentaries, and it relies on a certain pool of directors, such as Wang Bing, Wu Wenguang, Pema Tseden, Wang Xiaoshuai, and Cui Zi’en.16 I would even claim that a circuit of such events, enhanced by some generalist or specialist festivals in the West, has functioned (and still does function) as an important springboard for the careers of a number of independent directors, such as Jia Zhangke, Zhang Yang, and Lou Ye.17 The selection favors films that expose an extensively corrupt system (Petition; When Night Falls); revisit painful episodes of history (Wang Bing’s camp film The Ditch and Fengming); depict the orderly deconstruction of the Communist project (Jia Zhangke’s Still Life and 24 City); explore ‘violent China’ (Blind Shaft; A Touch of Sin); or visit forsaken corners of this vast country (Ghost Town; Yumen). Often, the films are promoted in the program with a note specifying that the films are not in distribution in China. The documentaries are often designated as “epic,” not least because of overstretched running times. Comments Chris Berry, “Chinese independent documentaries are made neither for TV nor for movie theatres, and have no commercial circulation. As a result, filmmakers are very relaxed about the narratives. There is a sense in which they are made to be watched without budgeting for time ... it means they are all quite distended and loose.”18

The series Chinese Realities/Documentary Visions at the Museum of Modern Art in New York is a high-profile example of the corrective festival. The series ran between May 8 and June 1, 2013, and was curated by distributor Kevin B. Lee, who used to work for dGenerate films and MoMA assistant curator Sally Berger.19 With a strong curatorial concept, it revolves around documentaries that span over two decades, going as far back as 1990 with Bumming in Beijing and coming up to 2012 with When Night Falls). It also uses a number of feature films that fit the “narrative” that the curators want to put forward by having a certain “documentary” quality to them suitable for “correcting the record” (Story of Qiu Ju; Mama; Old Dog). As a constructed narrative of the curators’ vision of modern day China, the notes on the event talk of the “proliferation of the ‘reality aesthetic.’” While the rhetoric is mainly about the emergence of “new documentary” and “bracing alternative visions” of “uncensored personal expression” and “newfound fascination with unbridled realism,” the bottom line is that the series aims, by “including state-approved productions, underground amateur videos, and Web-based Conceptual art,” to provide a panoramic vision of China’s epochal transformations.20

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