China

The Dangerous World Of Independent Film In China

An interview with Zhang Xianmin, founder of one of the many independent cultural events that were banned last year by the Chinese government.

Action scene in Guangzhou
Action scene in Guangzhou
Isabelle Regnier

NANJING - Filmmaker and producer, Zhang Xianmin is the founder of China’s Independent Film Festival (CIFF), held every year in Nanjing since 2003.

In 2012, all independent film festivals in China were cancelled, including the CIFF. Zhang Xianmin talks to Le Monde about these testing times for independent cinema in China.

LE MONDE: Why was there no CIFF this year?
ZHANG XIANMIN: It was held, but in its most basic form. We printed a catalogue. Jury members decided to watch the films on a television, and hand out awards. We put the photos of our mini-ceremony online, on our website.

What happened exactly?
We were the target of a coordinated action: a dozen administrations were involved, including the police, the department of cultural affairs, the department of propaganda. And at all levels: the central government, provincial, city and neighborhood. Police stepped up to invite us for tea (interrogations for deterrent purposes), creating a climate of intense fear. Nobody escaped: all our employees, our partners, sponsors, universities which hold forums, journalists…”

Are you used to this kind of harassment?
We have always been closely monitored. But this is the first time that screenings were cancelled. There has been a return to what I call “collective punishment,” which had completely disappeared in the fields of film and culture. For the past ten or 12 years, with “invitations to tea,” the harassment targeted specific individuals, for specific periods.

Did any other events suffer the same fate as your festival?
In November 2012, Get it Louder Beijing, a contemporary art exhibition featuring art, design, film and music was interrupted, a victim of the same kind of procedure. A joint taskforce comprising of three or four administrations showed up and forced everyone out. A few days later, the exhibition was reopened but certain events were cancelled by the authorities.

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Photo: Jonathan Kos-Read

How do you explain this relentless fight against culture?
It seems that the administration is trying to prevent collective group gatherings. They might be worried about the content of certain films, but what really scares them, are the collective gatherings, not the films.

How do you envision the future of the CIFF in Nanjing?
I won’t be involved. It would be both dangerous for me and for the festival. I hope to be able to work on two itinerant mini-festivals. One of them will be held in cafes and libraries. We are trying to build up an audience on the Internet. They have already called us on the phone, to deter us from doing this. The other mini-festival will be held in art centers. Screenings will be organized simultaneously in 16 cities. They also tried to warn me off this, to make me understand that organizing such events was dangerous.

Do you think that the repression will stop soon?
Even if it stops, the damage is already enormous. Our lives are in tatters.

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