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Unique insight into life in the Far East


The China Independent Film Festival, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary in Newcastle this week, offers a unique insight into the world’s most populated country.

It is the first time the internationally-renowned indie festival – which has been dogged by government interference in China for several years – has come to the UK.

Newcastle University’s Dr Sabrina Qiong Yu, who is co-organiser of the festival, says the aim is to deliver a more realistic picture of China, which is currently difficult to achieve from either the media or mainstream Chinese blockbusters.

“We’ve been very careful with our film choices, avoiding being overly political because that’s what people expect,” she says. “Most independent films about China are not political or controversial - they are simply about local people’s lives and yet they’re not allowed to be shown there.”

“These filmmakers are not dissidents. They just want to bring about a more balanced perspective of China by showing all aspects of life as they see it – both positive and negative.”

Audiences will get a rare glimpse into contemporary China through some of the best independent documentaries, fictions and animations from the past decade.

Independent filmmakers have a difficult time making a living in China. It is an often dangerous occupation, and unless their film passes China’s strict censorship laws and is not deemed a ‘sensitive topic’ (which can cover anything from homosexuality to unemployment) then it will not get permission to be shown anywhere in the country. As there is no financial support available, most are self-funded through friends and filmmakers and rarely make any money.

“The fact that it is hard to make films about sensitive topics in China is one of the biggest obstacles we have to developing our film industry,” says Dr Yu, who is a lecturer in Chinese film studies at Newcastle University.

Many of the films being shown during the four-day festival are close to Dr Yu’s heart, but few more so than Bing’Ai (2007) about the Three Gorges Dam project that uprooted millions of people, including those from her hometown of Wanzhou, which is now mostly underwater. The documentary follows one woman’s stand against being moved with her disabled husband, a process which lasted nearly a decade.

“We’ve lost 2,000 years of heritage and culture and still do not know the full extent of the environmental damage, but the official documentaries simply worship the biggest dam in the world,” says Dr Yu. “It’s probably the biggest human movement in recent history and many more films like Feng Yan’s Bing’Ai should have been made.”

The leading Tibetan filmmaker Pema Tseden will open the festival in Newcastle with his film Old Dog (2011), a powerful political symbol of modern Tibet. He will also discuss making his film, as will Feng Yan, who is also holding a masterclass in Northern Stage, where she will talk about her own experience as one of the most prominent female documentary filmmakers in contemporary China.

Newcastle University’s own filmmakers – including BAFTA award nominee Dr Tina Ghavari and award-winning Dr Ian McDonald, will be chairing the Q&A sessions after Bing’Ai and Old Dog, respectively

Other films being shown during the festival in Newcastle, which runs from 12-15 May 2014, include many of the ‘sensitive topics’: from No.89 Shimen Road (2010), about the Tiananmen Square student demonstrations, to Madame (2010) about a drag queen, and the popular The Piano in a Factory (2010), a fiction film about a group of factory workers who lost their jobs when their plant closed down.

?As well as featuring retrospective screenings of CIFF award-winning films from the past decade at Newcastle University’s Culture Lab, there will be an archival exhibition about the festival’s history at Northern Stage and a workshop – Film Festivals in Focus – bringing together directors of CIFF and Edinburgh International Film Festival and a group of important scholars in the field.

After Newcastle, the festival will visit Nottingham from 16-18 May and London on 16-17 May, where the short animated films will be screened as part of the Chinese Visual Festival at King’s College.

“China is so big and complicated it can’t change overnight,” says Dr Yu. “There are positives and negatives within Chinese society and these films show there is still hope for the future, and that it comes from the ordinary people. These indie films may not be as artistic or as high-quality as blockbusters for obvious reasons, but their message will last a thousand times longer.”

Organisers hope to make Newcastle a hub for Chinese films and put on another festival at least every other year.

The event is organised by the China Independent Film Festival and Newcastle University, in partnership with the University of Nottingham and the China Visual Festival.

All the events are free of charge. For more information and to book a place, visit the website.

About the China Independent Film Festival (CFF)

The China Independent Film Festival (CFF) takes place every autumn in the city of Nanjing, and has nurtured a large number of talented filmmakers with its commitment to independent thinking and freedom of expression, including this year’s Golden Bear winner Diao Yinan and Dragon&Tiger award winner Li Luo.

It was referred to as ‘the most important Chinese film festival’ by Prof Chris Berry, a prestigious film scholar at King’s College London. The last time CIFF took place in 2013 it was severely restricted and had to take place in several different cities to avoid attracting attention from the authorities.

published on: 8 April 2014