The 4th Xi’an China International Folk Video Festival (or an Alternative Way to Screen Documentaries in China)

Elena Pollacchi (Ca’ Foscari University of Venice/Stockholm University and Venice International Film Festival)

In mid-September 2013, I received an invitation to serve as a jury member at a film festival in China previously unknown to me. The event was described as “a festival with an international program, a combination of Chinese independent filmmaking and CCTV, of freelance programmers and local provincial government”. The message went on to say “The name is a little weird: Xi’an international folk video festival (Xi’an guoji minjian yingxiang jie西安国际民间影像节)”. The invitation was for October 25th to October 29th although the event was officially scheduled for October 28th – November 1st in Xi’an, the capital of Shaanxi province in central China. Excited at the prospect attending an event which was little known and outside the ‘festival circuit’, I accepted the invitation. We were received at the Tang Dynasty Art Garden Hotel, once the Xi’an Historical Museum and a traditional Tang-style building located in the park of the Wild Goose Pagoda, a landmark of the city of Xi’an.

A Kaleidoscopic ‘Video Carnival’
Although it was presented as the fourth Xi’an International Folk Video Festival (this is its official English title), according to the organizers it was the second year of this event which combines new sections and activities with the remnants of a former festival which had been open only to governmental cinema (1). The event was actually a combination of four parts: an international film festival, a documentary showcase, an Asian film festival, and an animation festival. Moreover, it was the first year that the event also featured a fund to help young filmmakers. Yet what happened as part of the public programme and what was the impact of the festival locally remained little known to us jury members as we completed our activities before the public screenings started. Only by exchanging emails and short messages with the organizers, did we find that the Chinese titles which we had judged as part of the competition and which were scheduled for screening on the last day of the festival had not been shown. Local institutions had prevented the screenings as most of the films had not passed the censor. The issue and the dynamics at stake between censorial issues, Chinese documentary films and what can be defined as a ‘folk video festival’ are quite complex and deserve a more accurate analysis. I hope I can publish on this more extensively soon. For this report it is worth noticing that until our arrival in Xi’an, we did not have the chance to know which films we would have judged and what kind of activities we were expected to attend.

In spite of a dedicated website in Chinese and partly in English ( – at the time of writing this report the English website does not appear anymore), it was not easy to get information either about the programme or about other jury members. Once in Xi’an we received a nice welcome pack with four newly printed catalogues in a box in addition to our screening schedule and the programme of the activities we were expected to attend over the following three days. These included an opening ceremony in the afternoon of October 28th and an award ceremony scheduled for the evening of October 29th. According to this schedule, it was then clear that the opening and award ceremonies would take place at the end of our activities as jurors and before the start of the public screenings. This was quite an interesting element which highlighted the unusual combination of governmental and non-governmental activities. Moreover, the catalogue listed a Chinese jury in addition to the international one I was part of. The two juries were presented separately in the festival catalogue although we were instructed that awards should be given as a joined decision of both juries, another quite peculiar aspect. The international jury was formed of five international members (three festival professionals: Juhani Alanen of the Tampere International Film Festival, Hong Hyosook of the Korean Asian Cinema Fund and myself representing the Venice International Film Festival and two filmmakers: Malaysian director Edmond Yeo and Shanghai-based French director Fabien Gaillard). The Chinese jury consisted of two officers of the Chinese state television (CCTV), one Chinese distributor (Li Zhe), the Deputy program director of the Shanghai International Film Festival (Shen Yang), one film critic and curator active both in China and abroad (Zhang Yaxuan) and Chinese documentary filmmaker Du Haibin.

These preliminary observations on the mixed governmental and non-governmental elements were confirmed by the venues in which the jury activities and the festival took place. On the morning of October 25th all jury members were supposed to gather for the first private screening session which was arranged at the hotel (and not in a theatre). The layout of the room was the typical layout of Chinese congress meetings with tables in a U-shape and in front of each place lay a name tag and a microphone. Screening equipment was in place but the whole arrangements had the appearance of a governmental event though none of the state representatives in the Chinese jury was there. However, when we received the list of titles to judge it was clear that most of them were independent documentaries, mainly by young filmmakers. When looking at the titles’ list, the mixture of titles connected to mainstream Chinese cinema, young and independent directors and very few international titles – mainly short films – was even more striking although the balance was in favour of Chinese independent documentaries and auteur-driven independent works. The selection of films was also quite unusual in terms of format since short and long features were grouped together with animation, documentary and dramas.

Despite the governmental appearance, there was something which connected the event to the Chinese independent scene. The staff in charge of our jury activities was composed mainly of very young and passionate film-goers which made it from the beginning quite a different experience from that of other official events like the Beijing International Film Festival. Most staff members were also serving as translators for those who could not speak Chinese but their knowledge of the film scene and of the films presented was quite uncommon. How was the festival ‘directed’ and who was in charge of what was not clearly specified in the presentation material which lists about twenty different names under the ‘vice-chairmen of the jury committtee’ (评审委员会副主席) in addition to the Chairman Zhao Huayong (Chairman of the Chinese Television Artists Association). Nonetheless, the person who was actually in charge of the work of the jury and who was taking care of most of the activities related to the programming of the festival was Dong Jun – a director, artist and young lecturer at the Xi’an Academy of Fine Arts.

Programming and Judging Films of Different Formats
On the second day, the first one of our duty as jurors, we were told that for each category a pre-selection of four nominated titles had already been made by eight ‘preliminary judges’ (初评审委员). These included professors, senior journalists and industry professionals and they were also listed in the catalogue. The catalogue listed 73 Chinese feature films and 59 Chinese documentary works, 14 animations, 7 films under the heading ‘public benefit and new media’ (公益单元和新媒体单元) 安定47 short and medium films in the section ‘international works’. Out of these titles we had to watch the four ‘nominated’ films for each of the seven awards. The main awards were Best Video and Jury Award and then the following awards were grouped as ‘technical awards’: Best Director, Best Scriptwriter, Best Photography, Best Humanistic Care (最佳人文关怀奖), Best Technology (最佳技术作奖). The nominated titles were picked up from all the selected films regardless of their origin, duration, format or budget. One film could also be among the nominees for more than one category, so the model seemed to be that of the Academy Awards. Altogether we watched twenty films, only 6 were international short films and all other entries were Chinese recent films of the last two years. Except for the three Chinese titles that had received government support or were privately sponsored such as actor Liu Ye’s Before the Current (洋流之前), all the finalists were Chinese documentaries dealing with local traditions, ethnic minorities or issues specific to certain areas. In fact, they all broadly represented a kind of ‘folk videos’ and some of them were challenging works.

On the third day, at the end of the second session of private screenings, all members of the two juries had the chance to meet. Only at the end of a very long afternoon of discussions and debates had a few films emerged (at least as a shared impression of the international jury): 26-year-old Zhu Yu’s Cloudy Mountains (造云的山, 2012), which follows a father-and-son asbestos mining team working in Lop Nur, China; Gu Tao’s Yuguo and his Mother (雨果的假期, 2011) on the Ewenki ethnic minority; Wang Qingren’s Song for the Spirits (老祖的声音 , 2013) on the efforts of Lin Zhongshu, village head of Qujiaying Village at the Hebei Province and director of the Qujiaying Music Association, at preserving the traditional Qujiaying folk music; Chen Changqing’s Son of Adam (亚当之子 , 2012), which shows the poorest and darkest sides of Xi’An and Hu Yichuan’s Tieta of Agreste (农锦还乡, 2013). This last one was awarded the Best Film Award while Zhu Yu’s Cloudy Mountain received the Jury Award (2).

Unfortunately, we did not have the chance to attend any of the public screenings which were scheduled in one of the central multiplex-theatres of Xi’an. We were also later informed that the final day of screenings which featured most of the Chinese documentaries never took place. The only two ‘public’ events we had the chance to attend were the two official ceremonies: the opening and award ceremonies that were also broadcasted on the local TV and largely reported on local newspapers (3). These two events were smaller in scale in comparison to other state events in Beijing or Shanghai but featured the same conventional structure of most media-related events. The first opening which took place in the afternoon was mainly for state institutions with some speeches followed by an emblematic gesture to signal the opening, in this case it was a wheeled set on stage which was supposed to start rotating; the award ceremony – a sort of second opening- alternated song and music performances with award presentations.

At the end of our short stay in Xi’an most members of the international jury including myself were very positively impressed by the care and attention with which the festival staff presented challenging Chinese works within the framework of the Folk Video Festival. Moreover, such an unconventional combination of formats, international works and different activities which brings together young Chinese filmmakers and more established talents (film star Liu Ye did not attend the Xi’an festival but Singapore director Royston Tan attended the award ceremony) could help pave way for the exhibition of documentaries works.

The Xi’an China International Folk Video Festival site can be found here.

(1) In the English website of the SCG (Shaanxi Culture Industry Investment Holdings Group Ltd.) the event is describes as follows: “Initiated in 2010, Xi’an China International Folk Festival stands as an international grand meeting to appraise video works and increase exchanges among related industries. Organized by Center of International Cultural Exchange and China DV Commission, undertaken by Shaanxi Culture Industry Investment Holdings (Group) Co.,Ltd (SCG), this event has always stuck to the philosophy of international horizon, folk perspective, professional operation, and industrialization support and is becoming an important brand in intentional video communication” [accessed 20.01.2014].
(2) A full list of awards and a short presentation of the awarded films in Chinese is available on the festival website [accessed 20.01.2014].
(3) The broadcast of the 42-minute-long award ceremony can be accessed here [accessed 08.03.2014].

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