By Mandy Day
Two films which highlighted the determination of Chinese activists to exercise their freedom of speech in China were showcased at the recent San Diego Asian Film Festival.
A Filmless Festival documented the cancellation of the 2014 Beijing Independent Film Festival. As the film commenced, it was obvious that the project was an impromptu creation. The documentary was filmed over a series of days as the Chinese government clamped down on the film festival and its parent organization the Li Xianting Film Fund. Over the course of the 80 minute film, the organization shifted from desperately trying to relocate the festival away from the local authorities to an attempt to keep its staff from being jailed.
A large percentage of the film was shot on cell phone camera giving it an authenticity and rawness often missing from big budget documentaries done in other parts of the world. Those with motion sensitivity might have problems with the scuffles and violence that often affected the quality of the footage, but it gave the viewer a perspective of what it was like to be there being berated by “villagers” who were angry with the organization. Government officials first cut water and power to the organization’s headquarters and as time progressed, the interference became more aggressive with police prohibiting people from entering or exiting the premises. An official then scaled the property wall and let in officials and police who proceeded to confiscate the organization’s complete archive of over 1,500 films, paperwork, posters, and dozens of computers and equipment.
The film also documents the assault of a Taiwanese director who had traveled to the festival for a screening of his film. The assailants said they were villagers angered by the presence of crowds of people. The director later went to the local police station to file a report with authorities and cameramen documenting the process discovered photos of the “villagers” in police uniforms on the wall. There are no interviews with authorities used in the film to refute the accusations of government interference and censorship.
Accessibility to social media and mobile technology protected Li Xiating, the organization’s founder, and several staff members from prosecution as word spread about their detention in the local police station for interviewing. The film concludes with a dizzying montage of photographs from supporters of the organization and film festival who used social media platforms like Weibo, Facebook, Twitter, and others to voice their opposition to restrictions on artistry, as well as censorship.
2013’s Spark delved deeper into a much older story of an underground magazine operated by four citizens determined to expose the horrific toll of China’s Great Famine in 1960 caused by Mao’s Great Leap Forward. The film lacked the panache so often seen in western documentaries. There is no music, just drums and the occasional ring of a gong. The nearly two hour film is minimalistic with barren scenery and long interview segments. Photocopies of the two issues of Spark that managed to make it to print before authorities halted production are shown anchored to bare gravelly earth with rocks. Though it lags in places and could have been condensed for efficacy, the story tells of the brave men and women who risked their lives and freedom to get the story out about towns and villages losing up to half of their population to starvation. The interview subjects, many participants in the secretive activities of Spark or children of the imprisoned and executed, spared no gory details of what they witnessed. Victims of the famine were prohibited from fleeing or speaking out, and many were imprisoned simply for writing to the central government about the catastrophic consequences of Mao’s policies.
The filmmaker, Hu Jie, is an acclaimed historical documentarian, who films alone and seeks to expose the darkest periods in Chinese history since the rise of Communism. His films represent an almost desperate search to honestly tell the stories so often repressed by the government. An interview with The New York Review of Books sheds light on Hu’s vision to record the stories of the impoverished and persecuted before there is no one left to expose the gritty truth behind China’s rise to an economic and political powerhouse:
“The other point is that during this bitter era, this violent era, this most terrifying era, people still tried to reflect on what was happening. They weren’t afraid to die. They died in secret, and we of succeeding generations don’t know what heroes they were. I think it’s a matter of morality. They died for us. If we don’t know this, it is a tragedy.
“When I was filming Spark, one of the people who had supported the magazine was sentenced to eighteen years and he cursed the judges. He said the court smelled of death. Couldn’t they smell it? The dead from the famine. I feel, you have such a courageous person—if we don’t understand their history, then it will vanish.”
Inspired by the burgeoning independent film industry in the country, Pac Arts featured Spark and A Filmless Festival along with other feature films brought to the United States by Cinema on the Edge. Cinema on the Edge curates independent films from China and screens them worldwide. Films from the China Now: Independent Visions series were selected for the San Diego showcase displayed the diversity of Chinese film-making.
As the world globalizes and technology improves, it is becoming more difficult for governments to restrict speech and artistic license. Information is becoming increasingly accessible to people in the most remotes places on Earth. With programs like the China Now: Independent Visions tour, stories of struggle and repression can be told by the people who live them, rather than well-meaning outsiders. You may find information on the tour and where films will be screening at the Cinema on the Edge website.
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