The clampdown comes at a particularly sensitive time and has coincided with the Communist Party’s Central Committee’s annual plenum, a four-day closed door event for the country’s top officials, which ended on Tuesday. Among topics discussed at the plenum were ways in which the authorities can promote Chinese culture and the nation’s soft power.
BIFF, now in its sixth year, is showing over 50 cutting-edge feature films, documentaries, experimental works and animations in Songzhuang, a village on the outskirts of Beijing which is known as a hub for its avant-garde artistic community. The meddling by the authorities – while stopping short of shutting down the festival itself – has thrown into the spotlight the heavy scrutiny that the independent arts face in China by the one-party state.
BIFF’s week-long event, which kicked off last Saturday, is ‘independent’ because the works are not submitted to the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television (SARFT) beforehand, thereby bypassing the often crushing state censorship machine.
On Saturday, however, police showed up at the launch event where over 100 directors, artists, writers and festival-goers were assembled to watch the opening film. According to witnesses, around 12 police officers insisted on recording down the attendees’ identification before leaving.
After the police visit the organisers changed the venue from its original location in a local arts centre and basement cinema to a hotel. Following a request by the hotel for the festival to move on, it is now being held in the office headquarters of the Li Xianting Film Fund, the organisation behind the festival.
The disruption follows the cancellation of the 8th Documentary Film Festival China in May, an event also put on by the Li Xianting Film Fund. According to state media reports at the time, organisers cancelled the documentary festival themselves due to a ‘tense’ situation and unexplained ‘pressure’.
Karin Chien, founder of dGenerate Films, a New York-based distribution company that specialises in distributing independent Chinese film to audiences worldwide, says she that was not surprised by the most recent interference from the authorities.
"Authorities caused BIFF to change venues twice, to the point where screenings were being held in the festival’s headquarters," Chien, who was present at the launch event, wrote to IPS in an email.
‘So when the police showed up to stop the first screening, it wasn’t a surprise. The documentary version of BIFF was canceled by the authorities in May, so I suppose we were all holding our breath to see what would happen this time."
The news, while failing to register with the majority of Internet users in a country where independent film is still a fledgling art form, provoked a number of responses from the film community on Sina Weibo, China’s popular micro-blogging site.
"Could not such a huge city tolerate a small screen showing independent films?… It is shameful for Songzhuang and also for China," commented Zhang Zanbo. Another Weibo user calling himself ‘Director Kefeng’ wrote: "I pay tribute to those film makers and the organisers of this film festival.
Suddenly film is considered to have a subversive function. We are not far from Iran, where film makers are prisoned."
Despite the difficulties, around 50 people showed up to Wednesday evening’s screening of The Ditch, a brutal uncensored feature film by controversial director Wang Bing, which portrays a Chinese ‘re- education’ labour camp in 1960. Like many others films during the festival – which touch on topics ranging from forced land grabs to the plight of ethnic minorities – The Ditch cannot be distributed through regular channels or shown in Mainland cinemas.
Hao Jian, the BIFF national programme curator and a professor at the Beijing Film Academy, explains that the festival organisers keep the police at bay by claiming that the gatherings at the Li Xianting Film Fund headquarters are a private ‘party’ or merely friends getting together to roast lamb chuan’r, popular kebabs.
"Sometimes we show the films at midnight, we don’t make any announcements – we just go mouth to mouth," says Hao, who spoke to IPS after the screening Wednesday. "Before last year (the police) sometimes stopped the films from showing, such as Xu Xin’s Karamay (a documentary on the 1994 fire in Northwest China in which nearly 300 schoolchildren died).
"This time no one has come here to stop the films. But when they see too many people over here, they will come. They are just doing their jobs. They want to maintain stability. The situation is getting tighter and tighter."