Why the Chinese Visual Festival mattered

For the last decade, the Chinese Visual Festival has brought a vital mix of contemporary Chinese language cinema to the UK. But with titles being mysteriously withdrawn from the 2021 programme, its future seems uncertain. We caught up with the festival’s programmers to find out more.

Opening night of the Chinese Visual Festival 2017 at BFI Southbank

From its beginnings in 2011 with screenings hosted at King’s College London and later at BFI Southbank, the Chinese Visual Festival (CVF) has remained a unique event, offering a carefully curated programme of Chinese language film, from documentary, arthouse and independent drama to artists’ films. This year titles were withdrawn from the programme at the last minute. It’s unlikely that the festival will continue in light of this intervention, so it seemed fitting to look back after a decade of this unique and insightful programme. 

Festival director James Mudge had an interest in Hong Kong cinema in his teens and from there extended this interest to the wider world of Chinese-language films. He has been involved in film press and promotions for over 20 years and runs a small international production company, working between east and west. He began in film exhibition with the aim of giving exposure to rarely screened work, to support filmmakers and for the sheer pleasure of sharing films with cinema audiences.

Festival programmer Jingjing Xie began her interest in film as a film studies graduate. She became involved in a pioneering film club in Guangzhou called U-thèque, founded by a group of artists and filmmakers – among them Cao Fei, who later became one of the most prominent video artists from mainland China and a regular CVF guest. Many of the films that would be later featured at CVF came from U-thèque members as well, like Zhou Hao and Huang Weikai, whose Disorder (2009) ranked in Sight and Sound’s poll of the best documentaries ever made.

Platform (2000)

It was in U-thèque screenings that Jingjing had her first taste of independent Chinese films like Xiao Wu (1997) and Platform (2000) by Jia Zhangke, and Suzhou River (2000) by Lou Ye. The so-called ‘Sixth Generation’ directors were still working ‘underground’ since they couldn’t get their films screened in cinemas or on TV. U-thèque was among the first of three influential film clubs in China to introduce both overseas films (mostly on DVDs smuggled by our members from Hong Kong) and indie Chinese films. 

Through her connection with U-thèque, Jingjing was introduced to the organisers of Guangzhou International Documentary Festival (GZ DOC) in 2003, and in 2005 she was employed to be the festival’s full-time assistant director. GZ DOC started as a purely industrial event that aimed to build connections between Chinese and international documentary filmmakers. Their screenings were for professionals only. After a few years, Jingjing started the public screening section in GZ DOC and was the head programmer, curating a programme of films that were screened in five cinemas in Guangzhou. 

Could you say something about the foundations of CVF, as well as China Culture Connect, which was a founding organisation?

James: I only did press coverage in the first year, 2011. The festival was started by Jingjing Xie and Sylvia Zhan of China Culture Connect, with the main aim of going ‘beyond the headlines’, and giving UK audiences a real look at the life of everyday people in China, from a Chinese perspective. That was always the driving force of the festival, and we only ever featured films by filmmakers from the Chinese diaspora rather than anything by western filmmakers looking at the Chinese speaking world – not that there’s anything wrong with such films, though Chinese Visual Festival was specifically set up to give a voice to Chinese indie, arthouse and documentary filmmakers. 

As well as bringing these films to UK audiences, the festival also aimed to show films to Chinese people in the UK that they might not have the chance to watch in China, for various reasons. Authenticity was always very much key. 

The first year of the festival was focused on documentaries and video art from mainland China, including works by Cao Fei, who we featured again a few years later. We also had an art component, including a photographic exhibition for the first few editions of the festival, combining film and art. This is where Sylvia Zhan’s company, China Culture Connect, came in as one of our original hosts. 

Jingjing: I moved to London in 2009 and, through a director friend, I met my CVF founding partner Xuhua Zhan (Sylvia). Xuhua is an art curator of contemporary Chinese art and is the owner of China Culture Connect. China Culture Connect is a company facilitating various cultural exchange events, mostly in fine arts, between the UK and China. 

Xuhua told me how disappointed she was by some of the Chinese film festivals and events in London at that time, since they were either showing propaganda films or kung fu fantasies that had nothing to do with real Chinese people. I was also experiencing my first wave of ‘culture shock’ during my daily contact with British people and discovering how little they knew about Chinese reality. 

We then began to hatch the idea of presenting unseen China stories from a new perspective by joining films and art. We thought we’d be standing out from the crowd with this new approach. That’s why we decided to call it the Chinese Visual Festival and not just a film or art festival. It was an approach that many film and art festivals around the world have later taken, especially when the line between film and art became more and more blurred during the years that followed. 

Our vision was to bring the real China, beyond the headlines, to the public in the UK. London hosts over 70 film festivals and numerous art events. We were aiming to attract as wide an audience as possible by mixing genres, and so in our first two years we had a theme to unify the focus. That approach had posed great challenges in programming but also generated keen interest among both the UK audience and the Chinese filmmakers and artists. 

When we began programming for the BFI, we selected predominantly documentaries. I think one of the significant figures was Zhou Hao, with 2013’s Emergency Room China (and later on The Chinese Mayor), a fly-on-the-wall type film about a Chinese hospital’s A&E wing, that was highly committed to an authentic representation of life in China.

Emergency Room China (2013)

James: Zhou’s documentaries show a side of China that we don’t get to see in the west. He’s a filmmaker who manages to present incredibly personal and intimate stories of everyday life. We were very proud to have brought him to London and to have done a retrospective of his works – he’s very much one of my favourite Chinese documentary makers. As well as Emergency Room China, I’m really happy we were able to screen the likes of Using (2008), following the daily life of a drug addict in China, and The Transition Period (2010), which covers the realities of life in governmental office. 

I think that Zhou and other filmmakers like him weren’t trying to effect political change so much as social change, showing how official bodies and government organisations function, trying to give both domestic and international audiences a more realistic picture of China, telling unseen stories. 

Jingjing: Zhou was a newspaper photojournalist and became drawn to the stories he was following beyond just new reportage. He was part of the Chinese New Documentary wave that started in the 1990s. In a society experiencing fast transformation, a lot of events and stories happened yet very few of them got recorded or filmed by the official television documentary departments. It was both the sense of urgency and humanistic interest that started most of the independent documentary filmmakers in the early 2000s. Huang Weikai’s Disorder was edited from 60 hours of television news footage, which were discarded by the broadcaster and made into a one-hour essence of contemporary Chinese lives. 

Disorder (2009)

Zhou was curious to find out more about unknown stories and featured a series following Chinese institutions like high school, police stations, government officials and hospitals. 

The effect these films had often went beyond the filmmakers’ intentions and generated heated discussion among our audience. We were very proud to have invited many of these filmmakers over and to witness their exchanges with our audience. 

It seemed that documentary films did not garner the same level of scrutiny from the censors that was given to fiction films. Could you say something about this?

James: It’s true that documentary wasn’t subject to the same levels of censorship as fiction, at least in the early days of CVF. Ten years ago things were very different indeed, when independent films in general weren’t as regulated, and though they couldn’t really screen in China, they could be screened at festivals overseas. Although it might have been a bit easier to shoot a documentary that covered sensitive subjects, it would still be difficult to get it released in China or, perhaps most importantly, to make any actual money from it at home or abroad. 

Things changed hugely a few years back, with films then requiring permission to screen outside China as well as getting the famous Dragon Seal to screen in China, and this was really a seismic change for the Chinese film industry. Now, things are so much more tightly controlled, and the idea of what constitutes a Chinese indie, whether documentary or fiction, is totally different. Where in the early days of CVF our call for entries would attract several hundred films, after these rule changes this dropped off massively, at least in terms of films received from mainland China. 

Jingjing: In China, fiction films need to submit their final script for censorship before they are allowed to start filming. If non-licensed fiction films were made and shown, the director would be banned from filmmaking for quite a few years. Many famous Chinese directors have experienced this, including big shots like Jiang Wen. 

Due to the unpredictable nature of documentaries, that rule doesn’t apply to documentary projects. The control over content of documentaries therefore lies in its distribution. Before the 1990s, television used to be the only platform for documentaries in China, and the filmmakers who made documentaries for these broadcasters are therefore referred to as ‘within-system’ ones. The New Documentary movement started with these ‘within-system’ directors who had access to expensive filming kit and materials, most famously Duan Jinchuan. 

Since so few were made, as James mentioned, the control over showing indie documentaries within China and overseas wasn’t as strict as with fiction films 20 years ago. However, when lighter and cheaper equipment like digital video cameras became available, the New Documentary movement in China bloomed, with many filmmakers from outside the system. Around 2000, we saw a robust generation of indie documentary filmmakers, with independent Chinese film festivals bringing their work to the public. With the frequent exchanges between Chinese filmmakers and the international community, more Chinese documentaries got shown around the world and many Chinese film festivals were founded overseas as well. 

The line between drama and factual film often appeared to be blurred in some of the films in the festival. Was this because a documentary filmmaker could proceed without having to get any script signed off, which at times perhaps was a clever way of making a fiction rather than a documentary film?

James: Again, perhaps 10 years ago this might have been the case, though I think films that blur the fiction and documentary line are more the result of a stylistic choice by filmmakers than anything else. This reflects the CVF curating being focused on indie and arthouse films, which are more likely to have a naturalistic, semi-documentary look and feel in general.

Jingjing: I’d agree with James that to blur the line between genres was in most cases a choice for aesthetics rather than politics. One of the films that we showed, Children Are Not Afraid of Death, Children Are Afraid of Ghosts (2017), was actually the other way around. The director wanted to make a documentary about the death of three children in one family in the remote countryside. He wasn’t allowed access to the area or the story, and he therefore imagined what happened and made a fiction film around it. 

Your festival has always remained non-political. Did you have any anxieties about political repercussions?

James: While CVF always tried very hard to screen challenging films, we avoided anything that was actually banned in mainland China or which was overtly political or could be considered activist – a few films aside. We did on a number of occasions over the years have discussions between Jingjing and myself about certain films and filmmakers, and whether or not to include them. Being mindful of these factors was always part of our curatorial process, both to protect team members and the filmmakers themselves. 

We’d been quite successful in this during the 10 years of the festival, and though I’m sure we did attract some unwanted attention for our programming, we managed to stay out of any official trouble until recently. As well as working with directors like Jia Zhangke and Zhou Hao, both of whom have generally walked a careful line during their careers, we also screened works by – and invited to London – the Tibetan director Pema Tseden, and were careful to keep discussions and events focused on his films and filmmaking processes rather than anything else. 

Jingjing: I found the speculation that Chinese filmmakers or film exhibitors would be in trouble if they showed films reflecting current issues rather exaggerated in the west. I remember during the first CVF in 2011, one of the audience asked if I’d be in trouble with Chinese authorities for the films I showed, which was a short doc on the hardship of migrant workers during a natural disaster. As I had worked in a government-run documentary festival like GZ DOC before, I was sure I’d be fine. That was another ‘culture shock’ for me as I thought Chinese lives were rather demonised by the west. 

Unknown Pleasures (2002)

Neither Jia Zhangke nor Zhou Hao were controversial filmmakers in China when we invited them over. Zhou Hao had always been backed by the press he worked for, and Jia Zhangke had been ‘overground’ since his third feature, Unknown Pleasures (2002). As James said, both worked very carefully in dealing with the authorities. 

As the festival organisers, we never wanted CVF to become a politically charged event. Although we were accused, many times, by some young Chinese overseas students here in London, for presenting a China that wasn’t as glamorous as many commercial films show, most of our audiences appreciated the fact that we stayed neutral and brought them touching stories of great honesty. Many Chinese students came from as far as Edinburgh to our screenings in London, as they could catch films that would not be available for them even in China. 

The festival was always committed to reflecting film from the Chinese-language speaking world rather than just the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Could you talk about this and also some of the challenges of this ambition?

James: Yes, after the first edition of CVF the aim was very much to reflect the cinema of the wider Chinese-language speaking diaspora, expanding from the mainland to cover Hong Kong, Taiwan, Tibet, Singapore and beyond. Through this we were hoping to celebrate all these different cultures and their filmmakers, as well as boosting communication and giving UK audiences an authentic look at stories from these places, especially those of the marginalised. 

On the one hand, this wasn’t too difficult, until recently, and we were able to screen films from different countries without anything more than minor issues like discussions about the placement of logos on marketing materials. 

Probably the main challenge during these earlier years was in how to keep a balance between the number of films and guests from different places – while the Taiwan and Hong Kong governments have always been very generous in supporting film screenings and guests, it’s never been possible to get any funding from the mainland. With screening fee costs having really jumped up over the last few years, this has made it more difficult to screen mainland films – something I think we also see in other festivals. 

Obviously this changed very suddenly this year, which is a reflection of the wider situation, and I think screening films from across the Chinese-language speaking world together is now going to be a lot more difficult without certain compromises. 

Jingjing: The decision to include wider areas than just PRC came in the third year when we started our partnership with King’s College London. Professor Chris Berry of KCL, who was one of the most influential scholars in Chinese film studies, kindly introduced us to the university and offered CVF a venue and some basic funding to cover costs for inviting filmmakers to the festival.

It was also through Chris’s connection that we were introduced to the Taipei Representative Office in the UK. They offered us support for showcasing films from Taiwan and gave us full autonomy in our choices of programming. 

Since then, we’d been expanding our vision, and it was a popular change – well received by both the filmmakers and audiences. As a small independent event, CVF was able to bring together filmmakers from a wider area and to present a very varied programme. We’ve been gaining audiences keen on Hong Kong genre cinema as well as those with an interest in Taiwanese culture. 

Besides the challenge of balancing films and guests from different regions, I was challenged as a curator as I wasn’t familiar with Taiwanese films or Hong Kong commercial films. That’s where James and Andy Heskins came in with their years of experience working with more commercial cinema across east Asia. 

They later started Focus Hong Kong, which wasn’t surprising, given how popular Hong Kong films were at CVF. Over the years, we were very proud to have worked with Hong Kong Fresh Wave and the Hong Kong Independent Documentary Festival as well as CNEX, a documentary production and distribution organisation with their headquarters in Taiwan.  

What does the future of Chinese film look like?

James: It’s going to be very interesting to see how the mainland film industry, and that of Hong Kong, develop over the next few years, not just in terms of increasing censorship but against a backdrop of the Chinese commercial cinema bubble of recent times possibly bursting.

We’ve all seen headlines over the last couple of years about China taking over from the US as the biggest film audience and market in the world, and about the huge numbers of cinemas being built in China. However, much the same as in Hollywood, this has unsurprisingly resulted mostly in a cash-grab mentality when it comes to commercial films and blockbusters, with quality being way down the list of priorities – something which is never good for the industry in the long term, nor sustainable. 

We’ve also seen a big rise in nationalistic and propagandist cinema in China, and – whatever role that might play or how it plays to local audiences aside – this isn’t particularly great for filmmakers harbouring any kind of creative ambitions. 

At the same time, there are certainly some very talented young Chinese filmmakers who have emerged over the last few years, and who have had films screened at Cannes, Berlin, Rotterdam and other major festivals. We’ll have to see if the changing situation allows for their continued work and development, both in terms of censorship, and, probably even more importantly, in terms of financing and managing to get these films screened in China in a way which makes money for investors. 

Jingjing: Despite the setback that CVF experienced this year, I’m confident Chinese language films will find their way out. With a new generation of filmmakers who have been trained in film academies and are encouraged with investment from various resources, I’ve seen many first-time directors putting their individuality into Chinese cinema. I believe there will be more voices from all around the Chinese speaking world and with closer collaborations among them as well. 

However, I’m also concerned that the younger generation lacks the passion and dedication to indie documentaries that their predecessors showed in the genre. There seems to be a gap unfilled among Chinese documentary makers. Those who keep producing relevant work are those who have been making films for over 20 years, like Zhou Hao. There are no noticeable newcomers. I guess it’s because young directors these days are pampered with plenty of opportunities in making profits in fiction films, and therefore didn’t get the chance to find their focus in documentaries. 

Men on the Dragon screening at the Chinese Visual Festival in 2019

CVF combined commercial content with independent and more challenging work. Could you say a few words about your programming mix?

James: This partly ties back into what I mentioned before about the financing of the festival, and in getting support from the Hong Kong and Taiwan governments, rather than the mainland. Hong Kong is far better known for its genre cinema than arthouse, and so it was natural to screen more commercial films from there, something which we tried to balance with screening older classic HK films like the Stanley Kwan retrospective we did a couple of years ago. 

In general there’s always been a balance in the CVF programming. Realistically most of the audience in the UK won’t have heard of the filmmakers themselves, and so whether a film is a bit more on the commercial side hasn’t been as important as the themes or format of the film, which is more likely to attract the attention. Similarly, having a couple of films slightly more on the commercial side, or higher profile films, has always been a good way of gradually introducing audiences to the more challenging films screening beside them. 

But we’ve always avoided anything that was more on the blockbuster or Chinese propagandist side, which would be too much of a clash with the core aims of the festival. 

Jingjing: Coming from an almost 100 percent indie/documentary background, I had always felt frustrated by the lukewarm responses I got from both Chinese and overseas audiences to the very indie and edgy films I showed at GZ DOC and at CVF. When the more accessible films were brought into the programme, I was very happy to see our audience grow steadily. But as James said, no matter if the film was more a commercial hit or a challenging indie one, our curating team have always chosen them with a core CVF message in mind.

We have developed from showing true lives of Chinese people around the world to showcasing the latest and best films by Chinese filmmakers. I think it’s equally important to bring true Chinese stories to the UK and to feature fresh Chinese talents in the cinema world. 

Could you talk about the impact of recent Chinese Communist Party ruling for international exhibition of Chinese film?

James: Yes, we’ve always been aware that things were likely to get more challenging, and there were early signs over the years, with events in China like the Beijing Independent Film Festival and the China Independent Film Festival in Nanjing being forced to close their doors, and with the changes in rules for Chinese films being screened internationally that I mentioned previously. We’ve also seen a big increase in mainland films being pulled from international festivals over the last few years, with even screenings of the works of big filmmakers like Zhang Yimou having been cancelled at the last minute due to the famous ‘technical reasons’.  More recently, we’ve seen changes in Hong Kong as a barometer for this, with Where the Wind Blows being pulled from the opening gala of the Hong Kong International Film Festival in April. 

What happened to CVF this year did come as a surprise though, with films withdrawn at the last minute with no clear reason, given our continuing efforts to stay non-political. The fact that our trouble came from simply screening two genre films that were listed as coming from Taiwan, and with support from Taiwanese governmental bodies, is a worrying sign. 

In general, though, the main issue is that there aren’t any official guidelines or published directives for festivals to follow. Like mainland film censorship rules, it’s all a bit of a mystery and seems to change randomly and rapidly. It’s very hard to plan and programme around this kind of unknown, and with film festivals taking many months to organise this introduces a huge element of risk.

There’s clearly an increasing danger of any mainland films being pulled from festivals without warning, and so it might well be that festival programmers and film distributors sadly start steering clear of Chinese films, and that the majority of those screened are just safe commercial or propaganda productions pitched at the sizeable market of Chinese overseas students – you can certainly see this in the UK already. 

There’s also a flipside to this. With the festival’s aim having been to support Chinese-language filmmakers and to boost east-west communication, something that’s become even more important of late, we’ve tried not to draw much attention to what’s happened to CVF. This is to avoid being seen as suddenly trying to make some kind of political stance – there’s a danger that in the current climate, taking any kind of anti-government stance could result in us being seen as ‘anti-Chinese’, which we’re certainly not, and never have been. The last thing we’d want to do would be to contribute to any ill feeling. 

Jingjing: The reason why the two mainland Chinese films withdrew from this year’s CVF remains formally a mystery. As we were never approached by any Chinese authorities, we didn’t get the message first hand. There had been various rumours, some of them simply ridiculous. But no one was really sure. I suspect such uncertainty will make anyone who wants to screen mainland Chinese films in their festivals more hesitant. I am still waiting to see what other overseas Chinese film festivals will do. 

Have you any personal favourites, in terms of guests and films that you have featured in the past decade?

James: Too many to mention really, though I was very proud that we brought Jia Zhangke over, along with doc makers like Zhou Hao and Gu Tao, both of whom made fantastic guests, as did Ju Anqi and Stanley Kwan, whose films proved incredibly popular. I’m very grateful that running the festival has introduced me to so many amazing films over the years, and I think Disorder by Huang Weikai is still really one that stands out for me. 

Jingjing: I’ve been thrilled by each edition of CVF, by the films and our guests. I had met many of our guests before their visits and therefore wasn’t surprised how they were welcomed by the UK audience. Ju Anqi was the one that surprised me. He was little known in the UK, yet his quirky and humorous responses during his Q&A gained him many instant fans. In the three screenings we held in that week, we saw a steady increase among audience numbers, which was unusual for a guest with multiple films at the festival.

Closing night of the Chinese Visual Festival 2017 at BFI Southbank

What are your hopes going forward with Chinese film exhibition?

James: I think it’s clearly going to be a difficult and challenging time over the next few years for anyone looking to screen mainland films that aren’t propagandist or commercial blockbusters, and for anyone who wants to screen films from around the Chinese-language speaking world. It’ll certainly become more risky to do so, in terms of the always-looming threat of film cancellation, and financially. With the whole exhibition sector facing major issues in the wake of COVID, screening foreign-language films – and Chinese-language films in general – was always going to become tougher commercially. 

But there are certainly very talented young filmmakers working in mainland China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and around the whole of the Chinese-language speaking world. I do hope that they’ll manage to get their works seen, and that there can be a return to programmers and exhibitors being able to focus again on the wonders of cinema and a love of film rather than having to curate around politics. 

Jingjing: With what we have encountered this year, I think it will be tough for festivals trying to show films from different Chinese-speaking regions together. The regulations and laws in screening Chinese films are unclear, which means anything can happen. The increased political tension between China and the US means the collaboration of filmmakers and festivals in the two countries will face unforeseen obstacles as well. 

But with COVID pushing almost every festival into a hybrid of off-line and online events, I think there might be some new formats and platforms to bring Chinese stories to the world. I sincerely hope there will be some Chinese film exhibitors bringing new films to the UK.

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