The Shadows Film Festival, 21-29 November 2014, Paris

Flora Lichaa (INALCO/Paris 3)

The recent announcement of the closure of two festivals – Deauville Asian Film Festival and Paris Cinema – because of the tight economic times, plunged French moviegoers into a gloomy atmosphere. While major film festivals disappear, it is surprising that many small-scale events are still able to carry on their activities. Shadows is one of these that operates on such a small budget and relies entirely on the dynamism of a volunteer team. Created in 2006 on a biennial basis, the festival has just completed its 5th edition.

Of all the Chinese film festivals that share the Parisian scene, Shadows Festival stands out for its programming of independent films, that is to say films made individually or in small teams outside of state censorship. This year, the programme included a selection of 11 documentary and feature films and 9 animated shorts. All films were screened in the original version with French subtitles thanks to the festival’s subtitling team. Three directors were invited to present their works: Peng Tao and Ye Zuyi for the opening and closing nights and Fan Popo whose documentary Mama Rainbow was followed by a panel discussion on “Film and homosexuality in China” with the director and Lucas Monteil – PhD student at Paris 8 working on the subject. In addition, a round table led by Anne Kerlan-Stephens in the presence of the three filmmakers invited focused on the current situation of Chinese indie films.

Since the 3rd edition, Shadows has taken place at the Studio des Ursulines, an art-house cinema located near the Luxembourg park, set back from the busy Latin Quarter. The cinema screens films for children during the day while the evenings are reserved for thematic programmes. Hence, the very small number of film releases allowed the festival to benefit from sessions every night for over a week. Some screenings were also held in four Parisian universities in order to provide additional locations so that each film could be shown twice without extending the duration of the festival. Since universities are allocated an annual budget to finance students’ cultural projects, these partnerships also provide important financial support to fund Chinese filmmakers to attend the festival.

The festival was organized by a team of around ten volunteers under the direction of Antoine Hervé and Anna Charrière. Antoine wrote a thesis on the distribution of Chinese independent films as part of an MA in Chinese Studies at INALCO. Given his knowledge of the field, he is both programmer for Shadows Festival and consultant for Visions du Reel. Anna produced a dissertation on the emergence of Chinese independent films for an MA in Film Studies in Paris 8. She currently works in the Centre National du Cinéma’s department of short films.

Having held the previous two editions in 2010 and 2012, I stayed in touch with the team that took over after I left. Thus, my perspective is not that of an outside observer: I had seen almost all films in the schedule before the opening of the festival and I just attended a few screenings to moderate discussions with the directors. The leading of the debates is always better left to the programmer, but Antoine was then in China and asked me to replace him. The following paragraphs will therefore focus on the screenings I attended.

The film chosen for the opening session – The Cremator by Peng Tao – tells the story of an employee of a crematorium selling some unclaimed bodies for people wishing to find a spouse for their deceased child to not be alone in the afterlife. The film depicts a dark reality, in a quasi-documentary style, in which the only traces of hope come from the mutually supportive relationship that develops between the two protagonists. After the screening, the director explained the genesis of the film, the conduct of the shooting and his artistic choices. This helped the audience to better understand the conditions in which fiction films are being made in mainland China. In this respect, the director expressed regret that indie films remain cut off from the Chinese audience, and indicated his desire to make commercial films to escape his isolation.

Gu Tao’s documentaries on the Ewenki minority in Inner Mongolia aroused great interest, partly because his last film – The Last Moose of Aoluguya – received the Grand Prix Nanook at the Jean Rouch International Film Festival a week earlier. The screening of the whole trilogy at Shadows Festival thus offered the opportunity to see his previous films. It also attracted an audience interested in ethnic minorities and nomadic peoples of China and neighbouring countries. The director, who was supposed to attend the festival, was ultimately unable to come: he attended the Chinese Independent Film Festival that was taking place in Nanjing a few days before and afterwards, and went to Taiwan to receive a prize.

The festival ended with the screening of The Gleaners by Ye Zuyi. As part of the Folk Memory Project hosted by Caochangdi Workstation in Beijing, the documentary shows the director returning to his native village in Guangdong province to conduct interviews on the Great Famine. But the film mainly focuses on his daily life, highlighting the conflictual relationship with his parents due to disagreements about marriage and work. The questions raised by the audience concerned rural life and the gap between tradition and modernity, older and younger generations.

In this edition as well as in the past few years, I noticed that some issues recur during the Q&A sessions. On the one hand, Western members of the audience often try to use elements from the films to gain some insights into contemporary Chinese society. On the other hand, the members of the Chinese community identify with the films shown and can sometimes express anger if the film is too far from their own experience. Hence, most of the people come to Shadows Festival because they share a common interest in Chinese society and not necessarily in cinema. Indeed, it remains difficult to interest a cinephile audience, due to the variety of film screenings available in Paris. In addition, I would note a “never-fading” interest in issues related to state censorship and the conditions of production and diffusion of indie films in China. The link made by the audience between “independent” and “activist”, though not encouraged by the festival, is hard to shake off, and may sometimes be helpful in gaining the support of leftist media engaged in the fight for human rights, such as Rue89 and Courrier International.

The media coverage of the festival is not extensive, though some papers are sometimes devoted to it, as in the November issue of Cahiers du Cinéma. But Shadows now benefits from a regular audience thanks to its continued presence year after year, consolidated by the Shadows Cycle, the  resumption of which has been announced for early 2015. This monthly event was launched in 2010 at the Studio des Ursulines with the objective of establishing more regular contact with the audience and potential future financial and media partners. In other words, Shadows is based on powerful word-of-mouth publicity, as well as on a network of volunteers and regular supports. While some consider it still a shame that the festival has not expanded in size from year to year, its small scale and its specificity also represent its strength: people have the desire to spend their time and money on a human and cinematic experience. In this sense, Shadows exemplifies how small festivals often rely on the quality of their screenings and meetings that offer added value through their performative character.

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