Party Elite and Police All Have a Say on Culture

TIME’s Austin Ramzy reports from the opening of the 6th Beijing Independent Film Festival, at which police made a special appearance against the backdrop of the Party’s Central Committee plenum.

The BIFF opening was held outside because the police forced at least two changes of venue, first from a local arts center and then from a hotel. The courtyard of the Li Xianting Film Fund, which is run by an arts critic and independent cinema backer, was lovely, though not an ideal spot for showing the opening film, Embracing Not Sleep, a fictional work about the relationship between two men forced to work in an illegal brick kiln. After Wang Hongwei, an actor who often appears in Jia Zhangke’s films, introduced the directors, the group squeezed into two rooms to watch the opener.

Then the cops arrived. A local official walked into one of the makeshift theaters and demanded, “What are you doing here? What are you watching?” The audience didn’t respond. Outside in the courtyard about a dozen police officers milled around, demanding identification from attendees. I watched as one young security guard who was helping the police walked up to a director and asked for his ID. “I don’t have it with me, and you don’t have the power to ask for it anyway,” the director told the security guard, who walked off with a confused look on his face.

Ramzy notes that none of the festival’s fifty-plus films was submitted for vetting by the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television (SARFT), their makers opting to trade ease of distribution for creative freedom. China Media Project recently translated part of an interview in which Han Han blamed this burden for a decline in quality in China’s mainstream film industry:

Southern Metropolis Daily: … You’ve talked before about how you have played with the idea of directing. So why have you not started? These past couple of years, film has been hot, and the money has flowed. On the surface, it seems to be flourishing, with box office numbers breaking hundreds of millions. Do you think there is a higher proportion of good films on the silver screen today?

Han Han: Films aren’t the work of a single person. If a film can’t make it into theaters, there’s no way I can face my investors and partners. The film market is flourishing, but it’s even harder to make decent films in China. The quality of Hong Kong films has been pulled lower as cooperation has been sought [with mainland film partners to reach both markets]. The film censorship system means current material [relating to life today] is avoided altogether ….

Southern Metropolis Daily: Do you think the film censorship system is the chief reason we have so many bad Chinese films?

Han Han: It’s an extremely important reason. When I was writing my book I found myself self-censoring, taking a lot of content out myself. And then the editor would take out more. This is even more the case with film. It may be the case that the government in a country with cultural censorship no longer has to fear criticism or satire at the hands of its own creative works. But then the whole world subjects it to criticism and satire.

The Los Angeles Times reviews a busy year for SARFT on the televisual front, which has seen a crackdown on time travel, transsexuals and assorted “magnifications of distorted ethics and moral values”:

People in the television industry complain that the watchdog’s rulings often come out of the blue, leaving them scratching their heads trying to fathom the reasoning.

“They don’t have any detailed standards for what you can do and what you can’t,” said Miao Di, a professor of television arts at China Communications University in Beijing. “Fundamentally, it’s just, whatever they say goes ….”

The heavy hand of the censor may be backfiring on the Communist Party by making television increasingly irrelevant. A report by Stanford University and Beijing-based consulting firm BDA blamed the government watchdog for pushing viewers onto the Internet, a significantly more difficult medium to control. According to the report, China had 240 million online TV viewers in 2010, an increase of 38 million over the previous year.

See also China TV Struggles to Break Free of State, and Global Times’ take on the anti-time travel guidelines, “Popularity Does Not Always Rhyme With Quality”, via CDT. PBS has posted a non-SARFT-approved guide to Essential Documentaries About China, which may also be of interest.


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