Claims to bravery in art are easily overstated. In America, especially, everything seems courageous: We’ll swiftly praise the valor of an actor who puts on weight for a role or performs without makeup. But the Beijing Independent Film Festival really does merit the acclaim. Its very existence is audacious — as the Chinese authorities proved last year. For more than a decade the festival had been besieged by government interference, barely enduring under threat of dissolution, as, with great tenacity, disrupted events and canceled screenings were surreptitiously remounted in the living rooms of local volunteers. Those for whom the cinema mattered dearly clung to the promise of the festival and refused to let it go.
But in 2014 the ax fell: Police raided and barred the offices of the Li Xianting Film Fund, the festival’s organizing body, while plainclothes cops dispersed crowds of attendees. Phones were confiscated and films were seized. Wang Hongwei, Fan Rong, and Li Xianting — the festival’s artistic director, executive director, and founder — were arrested, detained, and forced to sign a document agreeing to cancel the festival and never hold it again. Reporting on the suppression last August, the Guardian placed the blame on Chinese president Xi Jinping: The festival, the paper said, was a casualty of “the most intense crackdown on freedom of speech and civil society in recent memory.”
Most assumed the slate of films would never be seen. But now, miraculously, it will: Selections from the 2014 edition of the BIFF, alongside titles culled from the 2012 and 2013 editions, have arrived, one year later, in cinemas across New York. (For this effort, thank Karin Chien, Shelly Kraicer, and J.P. Sniadecki, as well as the museums and theaters sharing hosting duties.) Restaging the canceled festival here, beyond the reach of the Chinese authorities, is plainly an act of political defiance — and it ought to be applauded as such. But happily, the program of shorts and features already boasts much to celebrate.
It’s in keeping with the spirit of resistance that Ai Weiwei, China’s most recognizable dissident, leads the festival with its highest-profile film. Ping’an Yueqing (August 13, Anthology Film Archives), from 2012, is the artist’s investigation into the death of a campaigner in eastern China. In typical Ai fashion, it is a work of uncompromising skepticism in the face of the party line. A journalistic inquiry soon becomes a full-blown murder mystery, as the film begins to look less like an ordinary documentary and more like a Hollywood thriller.
Embodying a less conspicuous though no less radical politics is the marvelously beguiling Female Directors (August 12, Anthology), the debut film of 27-year-old Yang Mingming. It begins with Yang and a friend, Guo Yue, trading gossip and candid sex talk in the bedroom, handing a cheap camera back and forth and training it on each other in turn. But what’s ostensibly a home movie morphs into something harder to define, as unbeknownst to them the girls have been sharing the same lover — a soap-opera turnabout that kicks off a sort of comic adventure, still shot in the documentary style. It’s a singular work from the kind of voice most at risk in a climate of repression.
People’s Park (August 20, Asia Society), by Libbie Cohn and Sniadecki, is another original vision. They call it a “structuralist documentary,” but its pleasures aren’t so heady; there’s much to delight in on a purely visceral level. A single, unbroken take — a waist-level dolly shot — spanning a brisk 75 minutes, the film bobs and weaves through the crowds of the sprawling People’s Park in Chengdu, taking in a great deal of eating and walking and dancing and generally sopping up the local color. A certain anxiety around surveillance looms over the film, but the presiding mood is convivial, even joyous: It asserts the irrepressibility of cultural life at a time when people seek to extinguish it.
Cinema on the Edge: The Best of the Beijing Independent Film Festival 2012–2014
Through September 13, various locations