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The hazards for independent Chinese cinema

Zhu Rikun writes about the perils of trying to make political films in an authoritarian state.

In April 2011, less than a month before the opening of the eighth Beijing Independent Documentary Festival – of which I was artistic director – I had to announce that it was cancelled. I also withdrew from a film foundation in Songzhuang, Beijing, which I had chaired for almost five years.

For me, these actions reflect how the independent film scene in China is trapped. Naturally, the government has never liked independent films. Over the past few years, the festival that I set up has hardly ever been able to run smoothly. In China, such a project is considered “illegal”. Although it seems that more people are interested in the country’s independent films and the critical reception is positive, they are misguided – the current state of independent cinema in China is far from ideal.

From 2000, changes in digital film technology and the development of the internet made production simpler and boosted independent film-making. Many works of value emerged. Ultimately, though, this lively period did not produce plentiful results. In the past two years, independent film-making has been lacklustre.

In China, there are three types of film: mainstream films led by the Communist Party and government propaganda; commercial mainstream films; and uncensored independent films. However, all kinds of work fall into the category “independent” and there is a gap between people’s expectations and what exists under the definition.

A few years ago, the commercial success of contemporary Chinese art seemed to be an example for independent film-makers to follow. They hoped to duplicate the methods used in contemporary art to promote an independent film-making “movement”. In the famous 798 Art Zone in the north-east of Beijing, the Iberia Centre for Contemporary Art held an important position in independent cinema and was good at publicity. In the academic world some people also wanted to promote independent films. For example, some of the teachers from the Beijing Film Academy, such as Cui Weiping and Zhang Xianmin, were able to show independent films in the academy and hold salons. They also held screenings and commented on films. At Tongji University in Shanghai, there were festivals and discussions. In this way, the visual artists and academics became interlinked. Although these two groups do not have a strong influence on film creativity itself, they are able to build a profile for independent film among wider society.

Over the past two or three years in China there have been more and more independent festivals and screenings. On the one hand, this shows that the number of people who know about

independent film is increasing. On the other, these activities rarely involve any noteworthy or innovative directors. First, self-censorship is serious. The organisers are almost all pragmatists, not idealists. Nanjing’s China Independent Film Festival and Shanghai’s Film Festival on the Water, for example, exclude sensitive works and only screen films tolerated by the government. Some censored documentaries have been distributed but the most widely distributed in recent years, such as Together (2002, about a 13-year-old violin prodigy) or Last Train Home (2009, about China’s 130 million migrant workers), are films that have passed censorship. Television stations also took part in production of parts of these films.

The earliest group of underground directors – which included Zhang Yuan, Wang Xiaoshuai, Lou Ye and Jia Zhangke, and emerged between the late 1980s and 2000 – was dubbed the “Sixth Generation” by western film critics. It no longer exists. Most of the directors now

submit to the system or have lost their creative power. Some of the Sixth Generation continue to produce work in isolated cases, but independent film has become a muddied pond. There

are no longer prominent figures and international recognition has been flattened. Within the circle, motives are mixed. The lifespan of the Sixth Generation is short.

Nowadays, poignant and outstanding films cannot be distributed, such as Karamay, Xu Xin’s documentary about the 1994 theatre fire where audience members were not allowed to leave until Communist Party officials had been evacuated. Documentaries from Ai Weiwei’s studio rely on the internet and free DVDs to

get a reaction. Few film festivals and screenings are interested. In academic and independent film circles they are seldom discussed. Disturbing the Peace (in which Ai confronts government officials about the arrest of his assistant) was watched widely because it was put on the internet. Some artists on the relative fringes of filmmaking, such as Ai Xiaoming, find it hard to get their works shown, because a lot of her films are about sensitive incidents or people.

Yet many film festivals consider it an honour to gain official blessing or have academia as

a co-operation partner. Some years ago, the head of Film Art, a magazine of the China Film Society, wanted to run a festival and show some independent films. I gave some advice. But this festival is now basically no different from an official meeting. During the activities, officials come to give speeches and all the films have to undergo censorship.

At present, the best that artists can do is to persist as far as they can within the limitations of the system, but the results often lack creativity. Optimism would be misplaced. I still doubt whether there is a way out when there is clearly a lack of ideas or skills and when there is such a restrictive environment. Things will change if genuinely independent film-makers leave this circle and take responsibility themselves. Only then will there be a glimmer of hope.

This article is available in Chinese here.

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Why did the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet win this year's Nobel Peace Prize?

Thanks to Tunisia, it is no longer possible to argue that the Middle East and North Africa are inherently undemocratic or prone to violence.

It is a fitting that in a tumultuous year for global peacemaking, the Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded to the little-known Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet, a coalition made up of the union federation UGTT, the employers’ institute, the Tunisian human rights league and the order of lawyers . Over the past few years, the Quartet has been quietly shepherded in democracy to the country that lit the fuse of the Arab Spring. In part thanks to the efforts of this broad cross-section of civil society, Tunisia has stayed the course in transitioning from an authoritarian past to a democratic future, even in the face of terrorist violence and as other revolutions in the region have faltered.

The award comes at a time of escalating sectarian conflicts in Syria, Libya and Yemen. Islamic State’s campaign of terror has uprooted Iraqis and Syrians alike, driving desperate refugees into small boats to battle the waves of the Mediterranean. They join others fleeing to Europe from political and economic crises in Africa and Asia, forming a stream of humanity symbolising failures in leadership in three continents.

Among all this, it is not hard to identify why the Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded the world’s most coveted peace prize to the Tunisian Quartet.

First,Tunisia deserves to be celebrated for its momentous achievements in consolidating democracy. Unlike other countries in the region, it has trodden a path that is slow but solid, adopting a comprehensive and consensus-building approach to decision-making.

In this it provides a rare and extremely important example, not only for the region but also for the world. Thanks to Tunisia, it is no longer possible to argue that the Middle East and North Africa are inherently undemocratic or prone to violence.

Civil society steps up

Second, the role of civil society is fundamental for bringing about sustainable peace. Political leadership is important, but the scale of the challenge in transitional societies means that we cannot simply leave things to political leaders to sort out.

At local level especially, peace feels a lot more real when it comes with tangible improvements to quality of life. Citizens want to see the economy motoring again and to have confidence in the state’s institutions. They want to know that they can sleep soundly and safely, without fear of violence, persecution or poverty. Governments often lack the capacity and credibility to deliver these dividends alone. Civil society must step up to the plate – particularly the associations of trade, justice and human rights of which the Quartet is formed.

And third, the Quartet’s work relies heavily on forming constructive relationships across the political spectrum – from secularists to fundamentalists. It has walked a fine line, keeping disparate groups with diverging interests invested in an inclusive national process of dialogue. It has, in the words of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, laid the “groundwork for a national fraternity”.

Politicians are often the most cynical of creatures, yet the Quartet has managed to build a sense of collective endeavour among them. It has encouraged them to put the country’s best interest ahead of personal or sectarian interests, making this the guiding principle for decision-making.

Other bright spots

The transition in Tunisia is a work in progress and there will be more setbacks and successes. The country was left reeling from two terrorist attacks earlier this year, when 22 people were killed at the Bardo Museum in Tunis, and another 39 people died during an attack on a tourist resort in Sousse. But the message today is clear – Tunisia has made remarkable progress since 2010, despite the odds. This is in large part due to a credible and engaged civil society, a remarkable achievement in a new democracy. The country has forged a path of inclusive national dialogue from which many lessons can be learned.

Elsewhere this year, Myanmar goes to the polls in November – the country’s first free national ballot since 1990. Colombia is closer to lasting peace than ever, ending half a century of war that has taken 220,00 lives and uprooted six million people.

The US restored diplomatic relationships with Cuba, and also struck a landmark agreement with Iran over its nuclear programmes. And the UN has adopted the sustainable development goals, explicitly recognising peaceful and inclusive societies as a development priority for the first time. Behind every step forward there is an individual or institution worthy of the Nobel Peace Prize, but only one can win and the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet is a worthy laureate.

Laura Payne is a Research Fellow and Director of RISING Global Peace Forum, Coventry University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


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