Last week, authorities in Beijing ordered a stop to the Beijing Independent Film Festival, organized since 2006 by cultural critic Li Xianting (栗宪庭). Although festival organizers had already announced the cancellation of the event on social media, police raided the offices of Li Xianting’s film fund on August 23, confiscating the fund’s collection of Chinese independent films and removing computers and other documents.
In an interview yesterday, VOA Chinese reporter Xiao Xun (萧洵) spoke to Li Xianting to learn more about the police raid. The following is CMP’s translation of Xiao’s interview.
Xiao Xun: Why don’t you start by telling us about what happened recently with the surprise attack on the fund’s offices? Please give us a sense of whether this is something you were prepared for. And what exactly did they take away?
Li Xianting: We were not prepared for what happened. Because we had already received a notice from the police, from security departments and from local leaders that we were to stop [holding the festival]. The opening day was to be August 23. On the 22nd, we had already decided to accept the warning from the government, and we had already sent out notices of cancellation through WeChat and Sina Weibo.
But on opening day they suddenly blocked off all the roads leading in to the fund. Then, that afternoon, police came with officials from the Cultural Office (文委) and the Politics and Law Committee (政法委) and flooded into the building. The actually came over the wall, because the main gate couldn’t be opened — it was padlocked from the inside. They leapt over the wall and then made a forced inspection of the premises. We asked to see documentation, but they had none. They then confiscated and took away our entire collection of films from the festival going back to 2006, as well as other DVDs not from the festival that we had collected. They also took away more than ten computers.
Xiao Xun: Why do you think the authorities are so fearful of this festival of yours?
Li Xianting: I’ve been organizing this film festival since 2006, and in the beginning it didn’t draw attention from up top. Later, it met with all sorts of interference. Beginning in 2010, other independent film festivals in China — like the indie festival in Nanjing, Yunfest in Kunming, and also the Chongqing Independent Film and Video Festival (CIFVF) — were all subject to cancellation or forced to move locations. We persisted, but every year we were told to stop. I never thought, though, that things we get as serious as they did this year, that they would barge in and confiscate all of our computers and other materials.
It’s a mystery to me too why they are so nervous.
Xiao Xun: Could you please explain to us why you wanted to set up this kind of fund at the time, and to start this kind of film festival? What does independent film mean for Chinese film in the larger sense? Is it that you want to foster a group of filmmakers who approach film as an art form? Or does it arise from a sense of social responsibility?
Li Xianting: My interest in the existence of independent film arises entirely from the standpoint of a critic and a researcher of the arts. Because since the development of digital video (DV) technology in the 1990s, we have seen films that are very different from the celluloid films of the past. Anyone could pick up a DV camera and make a film. In fact, the lines are very blurry here between film on the one hand, and video as we see it applied in contemporary art on the other.
In fact, I noticed in the 1990s that a lot of artists had already started to take up DV cameras and make films as a way of expressing themselves. In my view this was the most experimental, and the most challenged, group among contemporary artists in China. In 2006, when I was serving as curator of the Songzhuang Art Gallery (美术馆馆长), I focused on this as a separate branch [of the arts]. But because there was no money for such things in our country, I sought out a number of artists for support. I set up the fund originally for the purpose of these donors. It was a very individualized organization, the idea being to accommodate these donors.
Later, we were ejected from the Songzhuang Art Gallery, and I started using my personal courtyard home as an office and screening venue. The approach was entirely that of a personal research studio — and under the auspices of academic interest I would invite independent directors as well as researchers interested in independent film. It was actually a pursuit of creative independence and research independence.