What Happened? The First Day of the Beijing Independent Film Festival 2014

Scott E. Myers (University of Chicago)

What follows is my account of what took place at and around the Li Xianting Film Fund in Songzhuang on August 23rd, 2014, the opening day of the Beijing Independent Film Festival.

I arrived at 1:30 pm, an hour and a half before the opening ceremony was set to begin at 3:00. Wang Hongwei 王宏伟 and Fan Rong 范荣 had been arrested and released the day before, and the police had made it clear that the Festival was not moving forward. According to information Li Xianting released on Weibo in the days leading up to the cancellation, the police had at first agreed to allow the Festival to be held in Yanjiao, Hebei province, but this promise was later rescinded. While I was on the bus to Songzhuang from Beijing, a friend who lives and works inside the Film Fund, a paper cut artist who is also the compound gatekeeper and cook, texted me to say “We’re completely encircled. Everyone has left. The electricity has been cut.” By “everyone”, he meant Festival supporters gathered outside.

When I arrived at the Film Fund at 1:30 pm with two Chinese friends, there was a group of ten or more men blocking the front gate of the compound. They immediately told us we could not enter. The gate was shut and had a notice posted on it. There were no other Fest supporters in front of the Film Fund at this time, undoubtedly because no one was allowed to linger there. There were, however, small groups of twos and threes walking around the area. My two friends and I left and then returned at around 2:30.

When we came back, there was a crowd of about 50 people two blocks from the Film Fund. Most were Chinese; five or so were journalists from Die Zeit and Le Monde. Across the street from us were the same men we had seen outside the Film Fund front gate earlier. There were few if any uniformed Public Security Bureau officers present. There were, however, PSB cars parked nearby, several with officers inside with the windows shut (where it was nice and air conditioned, Fest supporters commented sardonically).

The vast majority of the muscle flexed that day was by local men who had allegedly been paid 100-200 yuan per day to be the goons who would eject Fest supporters from the area. Some, it seems, were village committee members. There was essentially a stand-off between the two sides that lasted for most of the day. The men alternated between staring us down from across the street and coming over and trying to herd us away while speaking in loud, macho voices. Fest supporters ignored them at best, and in many cases simply laughed at them. There were also words exchanged between the groups: mainly, the men saying they were just “regular people” 老百姓 and the crowd responding that they, too, were “regular people.” When the men said that they were just villagers (村民 / 村里的人), some of the Songzhuang resident artists responded that they, too, were villagers.

During this period of time from around 2:30 to 4:00, the men succeeded in making people shift position a little bit, but they were not able to make us disperse. By around 4:00, however, the men became sufficiently aggressive that they succeeded in dispersing the crowd, which immediately reassembled on the next block, which was in fact closer to LXTFF.

At this point it was around 4:00 pm, and we were on the corner one block away from the Film Fund (it’s a village, so the scale is much smaller than the word “block” implies). The men became extremely aggressive at this point. One fest supporter who was taking pictures had his phone grabbed. The men had been threatening people not to take pictures the entire time (earlier, they had grabbed a few phones, but had returned them). There was a constant dance going on around the issue of picture taking and filming: threats followed by gestures of compliance. At one point when one of the men confiscated a Fest supporter’s phone, the crowd verbally confronted him, demanding that he give it back. I did not see whether or not he returned it, but at this point several of the men came toward the crowd aggressively. One of them pushed director Geng Jun 耿军 and the crowd responded with strong verbal condemnation. It was this push that triggered a physical altercation between the two groups. Geng Jun was the center of this altercation, but others stepped in to try to break things up and/or help Geng resist the pushing. At the time, I did not see blows exchanged, although evidence has since come to light that he was indeed beaten when I was not present.

At 4:15, the crowd moved to yet another corner, strategically positioning itself as close to the LXTFF compound as it could. At this point I started noticing many people wearing white t-shirts with the large character 停 (which can be interpreted as “stop” as well as “cancelled”); on the back of the t-shirts was written 11th Beijing Independent Film Festival. These shirts had been made the night before when news of the cancellation spread.

At around 4:30 I learned more about who was inside the compound. Li Xianting himself had been inside along with several people from the Songzhuang Art Museum. Surely also were several PSB. For a while an officer was installed on a compound balcony filming the crowd.

Those of us who are friends with the gatekeeper were greatly worried about him. In his 50s and living alone in a small courtyard room adjacent to the main building of the Film Fund, he was told that if he left the compound (where he lives) he would not be able to re-enter. It was very hot that day and he was in his small room without air conditioning; the temperatures of refrigerators would soon be rising. We called him to ask if he needed us to bring him food, and he said he was fine. The day after the incident (8/24) I texted him to ask about the electricity, and he said it’s still off. My mind is somewhat put to rest knowing he has friends in Songzhuang who have offered a place for him to stay if he needs to leave. More troubling are the indications that he might not be allowed to leave at all.

The crowd began dispersing on its own around 5:00 pm. The men warned us that “it will be more dangerous for you after 6:00.”

Most of the group when to a nearby restaurant to eat, process and strategize. As early as 3:30 I had heard reports that the authorities were searching the compound, going through films and computers. Around 6:00 pm it was confirmed (to me, at least) that they had seized computers, papers, and, according to Li Xianting’s Weibo post, “10 years’ worth of films.” There are backup copies of previous years’ films that are (relatively) safely housed away from the compound, but from what I understand there were no copies of this year’s films. Li Xianting and Wang Hongwei were taken to the police station. Unlike the previous day, this was not an “official” arrest, but questioning meant to intimidate. At the station Li Xianting and Wang Hongwei were questioned for six hours and made to fill out paperwork (笔录) concerning what had happened. Finally they were released.

From what I understand, the authorities particularly targeted two films at this year’s fest. No one I spoke to was able to confirm what they were, but one person said he strongly suspected that one of the films was Hu Jie’s 胡杰 film Park 星火。

After dinner, some of the group wanted to go on with the purpose of the Beijing Independent Film Festival: to watch movies. Hong Kong filmmaker Wong Fei Pang 黄飞鹏, whose film An Odd Fish 池之鱼 was the opening film, was present. Wong, myself, and two others drove to Wong’s hotel in Songzhuang, where he retrieved the DVD. We then went to the home of a young filmmaker who lives not more than a 10 minute walk from the Film Fund. At 11:00 pm, around 15 of us watched the opening film of the 11th Film Fest in her home-work space. The viewing was followed by applause, champagne, and a good deal of conversation and reflection on what had happened. People began to go home at around 1:30 am.

By all accounts, the repression of this year’s Independent Film Fest was much worse than in years past. There was a real concern among people I spoke with that the continued survival not only of the Festival, but of the Li Xianting Film Fund itself, is at serious risk.

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