The 16th Shanghai International Film Festival (SIFF) on the Weibo-sphere—the Theater Screenshot Symptom

Ma Ran (Graduate School of Letters, Nagoya University)

These are some reflections on the 16th SIFF, which closed on June 23rd 2013. As a distant observer who could not make it to the festival this year, I tried my best to “follow” what is one of the most important Chinese official film festivals via the microblog Weibo, the Chinese Twitter. This report is thus largely based on my reading/summary of SIFF-related tweets. To facilitate reading, I have appended all the screenshot images of the tweets at the end of the notes, with brief captions below.

I have several Weibo users to introduce, who seem to be central figures in SIFF’s cinephilic camp. If my information is correct, film critic/programmer YAOLINGYAO (妖灵妖, henceforth Y, real name 徐鸢/XU Yuan) is one of SIFF’s grassroots/minjian programmers/consultants (Yaolingyao, a.k.a.101 actually refers to the name of a Shanghai-based cinephile group, 101 Film Studio [101 dianying gongzuoshi], of which Xu is a major coordinator). Y recently “came out of the closet” by showing up in a local magazine disclosing his relationship to SIFF; my impression is that he is SIFF’s big parent figure, and greatly revered among the local audience and film lovers, though the festival has its own bureaucratic/hierarchical system and barely recognizes his status as such officially. MAGASA (real name 骆晋,one of the founders of; henceforth M) is a younger generation film critic who this year attracted considerable media attention in Mainland China, as he was in Cannes as a jury member for the International Critic’s Week. The third user, SHUIGUAI 1825 (henceforth S), is based in Beijing. He works as a promoter and mediator, negotiating art house/indie films’ theatrical distribution at local cinemas.

The following Weibo tweets mainly revolve around a seemingly tiny little incident in which several active Shanghai-based film-lovers found out that SIFF audience members were using their mobiles or cameras to take photos of the screen during screenings. They reacted with shock, and gave out continuous advice on Weibo to audience members in the days that followed urging them not to behave in this manner.

M initiated the debate by claiming that there are at least four reasons that audiences should stop taking pictures or videotaping films at the festival. First, it might bother other audience members; second, it infringes copyright law; third. the big screen is the ultimate way to enjoy cinema, while taking photos of the big screen, and disseminating these low-quality images, would taint the artistic integrity of the films; fourth, it is simply very tubie (stupid/outmoded in a country bumpkin kind of way). M further pointed out that the Hitchcock retrospective screenings suffered the most, since the rarity of these films, and the accompanying loud music, particularly roused the audience’s curiosity, leading members to take photos on site.

Y and M pushed SIFF’s official Weibo account to retweet their request for the audience to abide by movie theater etiquette (screen photo-takers who posted their “tourist photos” at theaters on Weibo were also reported to both Y and M), and they also tweeted and retweeted their dissatisfaction with other elements of the festival while it was still going on, despite Y also acknowledging on Weibo that he was “criticized” for over-emphasizing the “negative aspects” of SIFF.

However, of all the Weibo accounts I followed during the festival, I found S’s had a slightly different take on cinema etiquette. Rather than voicing his opposition to M’s advice, Beijing-based S tweeted, “for sure [taking photos of the big screen] is tubie. However there are different ways to achieve a sense of ritual or mutual respect, and being tubie is one of them”. He continued, “publicness doesn’t necessarily mean an extreme sense of ritual unity; it also implies inflicting suffering on one another and accommodating one another…extreme unity is underwritten with another form of terrorism”. He ends by saying, “this is not to offer any excuse; there is no excuse to offer”.

I have the following personal observations.

First, it is interesting that I have also observed more than once at grassroots indie film festivals in Chongqing and Beijing that audience members often appear not to be conscious of a certain etiquette for “film-watching”. Partially, I suppose, this is due to the fact that screenings often takes place in alternative venues (pubs, cafes, lecture rooms etc.) that make people uncertain what film-viewing codes follow. I once debated with an indie festival programmer about etiquette issues. He first thought I was against sharing the festival experience on Weibo; then he responded by saying “few of our audience members would behave like that”. But I have found that indie film audience have just as much “touristic curiosity” about these minor, alternative films as their SIFF counterparts, and they too cannot resist taking photos to say “I Was Here”.

To go back to the SIFF incident, I understand that M’s joke about being tubie is not as condescending as it sounds. Rather, it’s more like a gentle provocation to one of the most sensitive areas of Shanghainese pride. On the other hand, I perceive what is behind the cinephilic-parental guidance eagerly offered by M, Y and others (mostly Shanghai-based film critics, their friends, and so forth) as being more complicated. For sure these film-lovers and quasi-film professionals are trying to help nurture a better festival culture at SIFF, which necessitates an agenda of cultivating an audience at the grassroots level. Weibo has therefore been aggressively used as a major platform for them to engage with the public. Intriguingly, the discourses their tweets shore up about the SIFF are sometimes quite different from the rhetorics permeating SIFF’s official tweets.

If we could for the time being suspend discussion of the illegality of theater screenshots, what S’s opinions inspired me to think about was the boundary between the public domain and private space, since S did not necessarily consider it unacceptable to hide in a corner of the movie theater and silently take photos; indeed, he thought such behavior might be cinephilic in essence. Furthermore, while M believed that copyright law should be acknowledged and respected (as is partially indicated on the SIFF tickets), I suggest that snapping screenshots is taken for granted not simply because SIFF audiences are ignorant or tubie (boorish), but because they might work within a different cultural frame of reference – one accustomed to film piracy and bootleg culture.

What I read in S’s caution against imposing an “extreme unity” of viewing practices was mixed feelings about the potentially elitist connotations of publicness. These feelings are also directed against certain rules and codes that are imposed by festival management in an attempt to match SIFF to its international/cosmopolitan status in the “virtual global culture network” (which in turn partially explains why at grassroots film festivals people are more lenient and relaxed about similarly “illegal” behavior). Ruminating on Shanghai’s cosmopolitanism, Ackbar Abbas (2000) believes the social embarrassment occurring in certain international settings indicates a “transnationalism without a corresponding transnational subject”. In the same vein, the screen-shooters “tubie” behavior is also an example of a “genuine confusion about where the boundaries are, making both ‘transgression’ and ‘behaving well’ equally problematic”.

Abbas, Ackbar (2000). “Cosmopolitan De-scriptions: Shanghai and Hong Kong”, Public Culture 12(3): 769-786.

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