Programming China at SIFF

Approaching SIFF’s programming proves challenging. Criticized by French critic Jean-Michel Frodon as “functioning far below the reasonable expectations of programming,” SIFF’s elusive programming mechanisms and rationales are typical of a state-sanctioned film festival in the PRC.32 On one hand, SIFF engages with diversified strands of PRC cinemas through its shifting programming schemes, which actually come to accommodate and highlight budding Chinese talents and works from the independent sector. On the other hand, SIFF translates the international ideals and standards of festival programming through the localized practices of xuanpian, which is literally equivalent to “programming.”

SIFF’s programming manifests and negotiates its position within the interwoven power relations of the Chinese state’s regulation and bureaucratic confinement, the transforming Chinese film industry and its institutional framework, and the international film festival system and its heterogeneous constituents. To be specific, SIFF’s official status inside China requires that it exhibit only Chinese films that have already passed censorship and received a “Film Public Screening Permit” (dianying gon- gyingxukezheng, also known as the “Dragon Seal” [longbiao]). However, being also defined and confined by its FIAPF A-list status, SIFF necessarily also selects foreign titles. For instance, its Jinjue lineup has generally been an eclectic assemblage of predominantly European films and occasionally Asian titles. Despite the constant presence of mainland films in the Jinjue competition, they have never won the Best Film award, with the exception of 2002s Life Show (2002) directed by Huo Jianqi. SIFF’s efforts at international linkage are noticeably out of step with the pace of reform and liberalization in the PRC’s film system. The fact that the SIFF’s competition films must be submitted to and censored by SARFT has forced the festival to adopt cautious and conservative stances regarding film selection, even though it has relatively more freedom to choose films for its panorama and other exhibition sections. For example, the state-owned China Film Group Corporation (CFGC) still dominates the import and distribution of foreign films in China. Although CFCG has promised to selectively import films that were positively received at SIFF, it remains questionable how effective SIFF and its film market are in overcoming an inherited and unsatisfactory system, and facilitating connections between the local market and overseas film producers and exhibitors. For instance, as a Hollywood Reporter interview with one of the festival programmers in 2011 disclosed, Shanghai’s difficulties in attracting world premieres also lie in the fact that chances for theatrical release are hardly guaranteed.33

As mentioned on the section on HKIFF, 2004 marks the turning point for many previously blacklisted independent filmmakers (such as Jia Zhangke, Wang Xiaoshuai, and Lou Ye) to move above ground and make their first legitimized films. The intensified reform of the Chinese film industry and changes to film policies also allowed SIFF to broaden its programming of Chinese films. Due to the corporatization of SMEG’s festival enterprises since 2006, SIFF formed a comparatively more professional and expert programming team under the leadership of Tang Lijun, the former managing director. Arguably, the festival has therefore been given more autonomy to respond to international trends in its programming.

SIFF has mainly placed its Chinese-language and especially PRC films in the Focus China (jujiao zhongguo) umbrella category and divided it into three parallel sub-sectors: Movie Channel Media Award (hereafter MCMA), Most Focused Chinese Films, which showcases the latest genre films and award-winning works from the Chinese-language film world, and Chinese New Films (zhongguo xinpian), which celebrates and promotes a selection of recently produced small or medium budget films from highly diversified production backgrounds, and especially private firms. Set up in 2004, MCMA is run by the festival together with the CFGC- owned China Central Television Movie Channel, which is also PRC’s only national-level movie channel. In 2015 MCMA launched its live broadcast voting jury system: a group of media and film professionals, such as critics, producers, and journalists openly voted and awarded prizes to shortlisted films from the sidebar of Chinese New Films. For the 2014 SIFF, while its Most Focused Chinese Films presented more critically acclaimed works such as the Berlinale Golden Bear winner Black Coal, Thin Ice (Diao Yinan, 2014), Ning Hao’s Chinese Western thriller No Man’s Land (2013), and several popular titles from Hong Kong, its MCMA showcased titles such as novelist Quan Ling’s directorial debut, a small-budget art- house work produced by Jia Zhangke’s company Xstream Pictures and called Forgetting To Know You (2013), and Emmy award-winner, Canada- based filmmaker Fan Lixin’s latest documentary I Am Here (2014), about a reality talent show.

Generally speaking, Focus China has had an inconsistent lineup of Taiwan and Hong Kong titles, indicating SIFF’s underdeveloped vision of “pan-Chinese cinema.” Through the Chinese New Films and MCMA programs, the festival is also reacting to the changing ecology of the Chinese film industry by cultivating its affiliations with the independent film sector and, specifically, with private production companies. Furthermore, it was also after 2004 that SIFF set up the region-specific Asian New Talent Award, another section that accommodates legitimized Chinese independent titles. Probably not unlike the HKIFF, Shanghai’s experiments with new awards and new programs are also meant to position the festival to compete with its rivals in Asia.

SIFF’s programming of PRC films has two aspects, because, besides choreographing films through various sidebars, “programming” can also be understood to entail coordinating film pitches and co-production projects for its marketplace. Such events are usually only open to a limited circle of festival professionals. However, if SIFF has shown less autonomy and creativity presenting its film lineup due to various institutional constraints, through its forum program, it has launched various events, including seminars, and master-classes. These spaces facilitate and enhance dialogue among film and media professionals and entrepreneurs across a wide spectrum of market, industry, technology, and other topics, usually with a geopolitical emphasis on film cultures and industries in Greater China and Asia.

More importantly, the festival has progressively built up its links with both national and international film industries through its extended marketplace, called SIFFMART. Currently, this consists of the SIFF Market trading platform, which promotes business exchanges across all aspects of film, media and technology, and also the SIFF Project pitching platform. SIFF Project integrated two existing pitching schemes in 2011: Co-production Film Pitch and Catch (Co-FPC) and China Film Pitch and Catch (CFPC). Established in 2006, Co-FPC grew out of the festival’s former Sino-European Co-production Film Forum, and had the aim of facilitating co-production opportunities for either Chinese-language projects or overseas projects “with Chinese elements, looking for co-producer or partner in China” (SIFF). Founded in 2007, CFPC targeted discovering and financing promising film projects by younger generations of filmmakers from the Chinese-speaking world. Each CFPC pitching session assembled eight Chinese-language feature film projects. Their filmmakers were first given the chance to consult with a group of high-profile film professionals (such as veteran producers and directors). The core event featured a 15-20-minute public presentation where the filmmakers and producers would pitch films in front of a jury and festival professionals- cum-audience, followed by a question and answer session in which the presenters would be challenged by both jury and audience members. 2014 saw the SIFF Project framework reconfigured, with the CFPC transformed into the New Talent Project, which expanded to accommodate ten Chinese-language projects. This space is only open to debutant or sophomore directors, while the pitching process remains basically the same. Nowadays, major Asian film festivals, such as the aforementioned BIFF, the JIFF, and HKIFF have reinforced their role by becoming not only as an interface for business exchanges, but also producing film projects through their robustly promoted pitching schemes. The Asian Project Market (BIFF), Jeonju Project Market (JIFF) and HAF often lure the applicants with diverse types of awards for projects at different stages of production. Although SIFF cannot screen Chinese independent films that have not obtained screening permits, its pitching forum has actually functioned to co-opt the independent film community by offering marketing and funding opportunities at an earlier stage. Despite its short period of development (2007-2013) and budgetary constraints,34 CFPC and its successor New Talent Project have helped to successfully launch and promote independent art-house projects such as Han Jie’s Mr. Tree (also from Jia Zhangke’s Xstream Company), and The Piano in a Factory (Zhang Meng, 2010), both of which were featured in the 2009 CFPC, as well as the previously mentioned Berlinale winner, Black Coal, Thin Ice (2010 CFPC). Similar to HAF’s strategy in selecting promising Chinese titles that would tour film festivals worldwide, SIFF Project builds the festival’s profile more effectively than simply programming mediocre titles for its Jinjue Award.

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