Surviving in the Shadows

On 16 August, some five hundred people turned up at the Song Zhuang 宋庄 Art District on the outskirts of Beijing to attend the opening event of the Ninth Beijing Independent Film Festival (BIFF) – a record number. Thirty minutes into the screening of the first film, however, a power failure hit the entire residential block around the screening venue. Local officials called Li Xianting 栗宪庭, the art critic and curator whose film fund organized the festival, and told him that repairs were underway.[1]

The opening of the Ninth Beijing International Film Festival (BIFF). Photograph courtesy of BIFF.

The audience waited in vain; as evening descended, people lit candles, shared food and muttered darkly.

A Festival Unplugged

The ‘power failure’ drew instant attention on China’s micro-blogs and twitter. ‘The shortest film festival in history ended right after it began’, wrote one micro-blogger. The comment was reposted more than 20,000 times before the authorities deleted it.[2] In Chinese, the word for ‘cinema’ or ‘movies’ is dianying 电影, literally ‘electric shadows’. Cutting electricity literally and effectively returns the shacinema to the dark. It’s an irony that didn’t escape the notice of micro-bloggers: ‘Independent cinema needs independent power generators’, wrote one. Another called for ‘an unplugged film festival’. The filmmaker Jia Zhangke 贾樟柯 wrote: ‘I heard that the Film Bureau and the Electricity Bureau have just merged. Fine, tomorrow I’ll start studying shadow puppetry.’[3] The power outage did not, however, spell the end of the festival. Over the next few days, screenings moved from one private venue to another in something of a guerrilla campaign. Audience members told each other of the locations by word of mouth. The unplugged film festival survived in the shadows.

Shades at Song Zhuang

Existence in the penumbra of official China is nothing new for the country’s independent art and cinema. I first visited Song Zhuang in 2009, when I was pursuing my work on independent Chinese documentary films. At the time, I noted the advantageous location of Song Zhuang. Traditionally, provincial border areas served as a refuge for people who wished to avoid the authorities. The situation of Song Zhuang on the periphery of Hebei province and the municipality of Beijing meant that at first neither Beijing nor Hebei had much interest in regulating the area.[4]

Song Zhuang, literally ‘Song Family Village’, started attracting artists in the mid 1990s, in particular following the closure of the artist’s village at the Garden of Perfect Brightness 圆明园 located in the university district in northwest Beijing. Many of those who were forced to quit the Garden of Perfect Brightness area ended up finding a quiet haven in Song Zhuang’s rural courtyards, shaded by bushes and trees and surrounded by fields.

Li Xianting being interviewed following the mysterious power outage on the opening day of the Festival. Photograph courtesy of BIFF.

The Li Xianting Film Fund 栗宪庭电影基金 was established in 2006 for the purpose of collecting, supporting and promoting independent filmmaking. The head of the fund, Li Xianting, has been a renowned art critic since the early 1980s, something of a pater familias who helped nurture non-official art at a time when it was regarded as being outlandish, idealistic and rebellious, and long before it became a big business on the international art market. Li supported many young artists in the 1980s, and some of them, having become run-away commercial successes on the art market, in turn want to help the younger generation of upcoming cultural creators. Li’s Film Fund is mostly supported by their personal donations. The first came from Fang Lijun 方力钧, one of the country’s most successful contemporary artists. Many followed suit as they felt that supporting independent cinema was a meaningful way to contribute to nonofficial culture. For them cinema, as compared to contemporary art, is a more popular and politically salient art form, one that is able to engage with a wider audience. The Film Fund has also benefited from the talent and experience of Zhu Rikun 朱日坤, the Fund’s first artistic director. Prior to joining forces with Li Xianting, Zhu gained five years of experience showing independent films and, in the process he built up around his Fanhall Films Studio 现象工作室 both online and off-line communities of indie film lovers.

By 2009, a number of filmmakers attracted by the outcast location of Song Zhuang moved there in the hope of finding a relatively free shelter from the glare of officialdom in which to survive and develop their art. At that time, independent film festivals were regularly held in the cinemas at the Song Zhuang Art Gallery 宋庄美术馆, or in the small cinema at the Fanhall Film Studio without encountering any particular problem from the authorities. Cui Zi’en 崔子恩, filmmaker, activist and organizer of the China Queer Film Festival 中国酷儿影展, spoke to me then about the promise Song Zhuang held for independent cinema. The queer film festival he organized had previously had great difficulty in finding hosting venues, but it was held without any problem at Song Zhuang. ‘By exiling ourselves to the periphery,’ Cui remarked, ‘we have lost some opportunities to influence the larger society, but we have gained a relatively stable and safe new space to focus on building new cinema.’

Song Zhuang has indeed seen many efforts to develop new cinema. After some two decades of surviving and fitful growth it was now in Song Zhuang that independent filmmaking began to articulate and transmit its legacies and design a curriculum for socially engaged and responsible filmmaking. The Li Xianting Film School 栗宪庭电影学校 was founded in 2009, and I was among the few observers at its inaugural sessions. The young aspiring filmmakers at the school were an amazing group that wanted to make films not because it was fashionable or ‘cool’, but because they felt film had a mission to reveal, redeem and even change reality.

Cinema Unlike Any Other

Yet within a few short years, this rare independent zone is under threat. Last October, the eighth BIFF had to shift venue three times as the authorities pressured hotels and galleries to renege on their agreements to host it. In the end, the Festival retreated to Li Xianting home where two lounges were transformed into crowded screening rooms. Even then, the police broke in the middle of the first film screening, dispersed viewers and only allowed the Festival to resume after hours of negotiation between the organizers and the local government. I was at the Festival and witnessed the stressful negotiations the organizers had undertake with the police stationed outside Li Xianting’s courtyard on an almost daily basis. This year, I visited Song Zhuang about two weeks before the Festival began where I spoke to Zhang Qi 张琪, the capable, calm and compassionate artistic director of the Festival. Exhausted from working around the clock, Zhang told me that she had been in difficult negotiations with various local authorities. On occasions, more than ten cadres from various branches of the government would come to the Film Fund at once to speak with the organisers.

Zhang Qi (middle), executive director of BIFF, and the Festival’s artistic director, Wang Hongwei 王宏伟 (left). Wang appeared in such early films by Jia Zhangke as ‘Xiao Wu’ 小武 and ‘The Platform’ 站台. Photograph courtesy of BIFF.

The negotiations centered on the nature of independent cinema and the appropriate extent of state control. The authorities deem it necessary to regulate independent film in the same way that all cinema is regulated in China, by means of censorship and restrictive exhibition licenses. They have pressed the Film Fund to lodge a formal application to the National Film Bureau, arguing that only with the state’s approval and under its supervision can such a film festival be held. For their part, Li Xianting and his colleagues at the Film Fund contend that ‘indie cinema’ is different from commercial cinema. Almost all films exhibited at the festival are made on extremely low budgets and by a very small crew, often consisting of a lone filmmaker. These films are works of art rather than commercial products; personal expressions rather than mass media outputs. Therefore, they argue, such films should not be subject to the same regulations as the commercial film industry.

Survival Stories

The meetings with the authorities were frustrating for the staff at the Film Fund, but in Zhang’s view, the fact that they happened at all was an indication that the authorities were open to communication and negotiation. Zhang remarked:

We are glad that they come to speak to us because it allows us to voice our opinions. We are not doing anything harmful to the society. A society has to have its own history; its changes have to be documented and expressed by people who experience them. We are trying to help artists do just that.

Last year, I saw Zhang Qi take food and tea to the police car parked outside during the Festival and invite the police to come and watch films with the audience. ‘If they want to monitor our screenings, then why shouldn’t they come in and see the films with us?’ asked Zhang. When the police declined, she thought about organizing a screening just for the police after the festival. Her faith in the power of cinema was unwavering, ‘These films realistically portray this society’s predicament which the police, as members of the society, must experience as well.’ And in her pleas to the authorities, she appealed directly to individual conscience, speaking to the police about how they too can leave a meaningful legacy for the next generation. ‘These films constitute a valuable record of our times, ones from which your children could learn about the lives we live today.’ She would say to a policeman or a local cadre: ‘And if you support us, you could pat your chest and tell your kids, “Your Dad supported the survival of these films.” You’ll be proud of yourself.’ Her magnanimity won her respect and the police began to address her as ‘Sister Zhang’.

BIFF screenings continued at various private venues. A discussion forum in a living room. Photograph courtesy of BIFF.

This year, to shut down the film festival by creating a power outage was a shady tactic: power was exercised through a power failure, a technical glitch, a seemingly inadvertent accident. But the film festival didn’t end with that power failure: although retreating to the shadows it survived and continued screening at private venues. The closing ceremony was held in the studio of the artist Fang Lijun, a man who had supported the Film Fund from its inception. From the way in which this ‘unplugged’ film festival has survived, we can get a sense of how the independent cultural sector in China manages to exist albeit in the face of mounting difficulties. It does so by relying on the creativity, tenacity and stubborn optimism of its advocates, and thanks to the support from other artistic creators who have weathered similar struggles for independence from overt state control.

From the Catalogue

With the permission of the Li Xianting Film Fund, I am posting here two short articles from this year’s festival catalogue, both the Chinese originals, and the English translations I made for the bilingual catalogue. Li Xianting’s preface to the catalogue calls for independent cinema to break out of exclusive and disconnected ‘small circles’ 小圈子 [or cenâcleEd.], and move to foster open, interactive, and expansive ‘micro-environments’ 小环境 that may create a better ecology in the context of the macro-environment of the society.[5] Wang Chi’s 王迟 report on this Festival’s documentary film program explains the criteria by which the selection committee chose this year’s films. It also discusses new developments in documentary Chinese film in recent years, including the rise of political and autobiographical documentary.[6] These two articles offer a glimpses into the ideas and people behind the Festival, as well as behind independent Chinese documentary filmmaking, a retrospective of which was enthusiastically received by audiences at this year’s Melbourne International Film Festival.[7]


Ying Qian 钱颖 is a Post-doctoral Fellow with the Australian Centre on China in the World. Her research interests include media history in modern China, history and historiography of the Chinese revolution, socialism and post-socialism. She has published extensively on independent Chinese documentary film including, in 2012, a survey of the subject titled  ‘Power in the Frame‘ in New Left Review; and, ‘Just Images: Ethics and Documentary Film in China‘ in China Heritage Quarterly. The author would like to acknowledge the support of the organisers of BIFF, although she is responsible for all opinions expressed herein. She is also grateful to the CIW-Danwei editors of The China Story Journal for their comments, suggestions and technical assistance.



[1] For more on the closure of the Beijing International Film Festival at Song Zhuang, see the report published on Indie Wire. Indie Wire also published an interview with Li Xianting following the ban.

[2] Cui Weiping 崔卫平, a noted film scholar and writer, has written a powerful essay on the subject in Chinese entitled ‘The Beijing Independent Film Festival that has been Closed Down Three Times’, published on line on the Chinese edition of The New York Times.

[3] For micro-blog entries on the Festival closure, see this post on China Digital Times.

[4] My essay on Song Zhuang and independent cinema was published by the Taiwan-based Wangbao Cultural Weekly 旺報文化週刊 in November 2009.

[5] For a bilingual version of Li Xianting’s preface, see The China Story Archive.

[6] For a bilingual version of Wang Chi’s report on programming documentaries for the Festival, see The China Story Archive.

[7] For the independent Chinese documentary film program in this year’s Melbourne International Film Festival, see the ABC Newsline report or listen to Radio Australia’s interview with the filmmaker Ou Ning and the Melbourne International Film Festival curator Dan Edwards.