by Huanhuan Guo
The International Film Festival Rotterdam 2013 is over, but the discussions on independent film-making have only started. Especially China has played a major role during the festival in Rotterdam this year, providing several films for competition as well as one of the jury members, Ai Weiwei, leading to the questions: How much has Chinese independent film-making developed in recent years? And to what extent do Chinese independent film-makers enjoy (or not) freedom of action?
The concept of an ‘independent film’ differs in the so-called ‘Western’ and ‘Eastern’ world. For example, in Europe, the notion of independence mainly refers to the production of the movie and does not pertain to the content of a film or its funding. “Actually, it is very hard to tell what is an independent film in Europe, since some films are actually funded by the government, under the name of arts,” says Professor Jeroen de Kloet, who is specialized in Globalization Studies at the University of Amsterdam, Netherlands. According to De Kloet, China offers a much clearer concept of what an ‘independent film’ characterizes: it is a type of film which has its independent funds and is not exposed to government’s censorship. “There is a spirit of freedom inside,” emphasizes De Kloet.
To Gerwin Tamsma, one of the IFFR programmers who selected independent films made by Chinese film-makers, Chinese independent films highlight their ‘young’ image: “There is a group of young film-makers in China that has emerged in recent years. A few of them have already been recognized by the international film industry, which means more and more young directors have joined the independent film industry in China.”
The development of the production of independent films in China, however, still is quite slow. Among 4.500 films and 2.000 short films which entered IFFR this year were only 100 films made by Chinese film-makers. De Kloet indicates that something magical is missing in most of Chinese independent films: “Most of them are documentaries, which have very slow story lines.” Coincidentally, Tamsma also suggests that, at this moment, China is better at documentaries than fictions.
The artistic freedom of Chinese independent film-makers is always under the ‘watch’ of Chinese government. Tamsma confirms this: Some young film-makers can’t turn their intentions into action because of the pressure from officials, such as they don’t have funds for the film, or films are banned to show in public. This might partially explain the small number of Chinese films in IFFR 2013.
On the positive side, however, De Kloet considers censorship in China as a double-edged sword: “The more the Chinese government wants to restrain, the more curious film-makers become.” He further argues that nowadays, independent film-makers in China launch themselves precisely into those topics that the government decides to ban. This is true for example for films on LGBT rights as <EastPalace, WestPalace> showed.
Another positive factor for independent film-makers in China is the usage of Internet through which an increasing number of films can be seen by an increasing number of people. “I do think that the Internet, especially social media platforms, is the new approach to promote independent films in China,” says De Kloet. Film <SuzhouRiver> by LouYe is an example of how films can spread online.
Compared to commercial films, independent film-making is still marginal(ized) in China due to censorship reasons and minority audience. Hollywood movies and commercial ones are in general more popular than independent movies, and mainly students who are really into movies, artists and scholars are following independent films in the long term. Tamsma, however, has a positive outlook as for the potential of emerging independent film-makers in China: “They are on their way.”
Picture credit: Wofgang Staudt