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VIFF shines spotlight on taboo-busting Chinese directors

A still from the film "Egg and Stone" Vancouver International Film Festival VIFF


Even for China, it was unusual. The presence of plain-clothes police and local officials on opening night of the Beijing Independent Film Festival, the intense pressure on organizers to halt the opening film and, after organizers refused, about half-an-hour into the film, the power going out.

"From 2003 until two years ago I never saw anything like that," says Shelly Kraicer, who was there that night in August and was among the 100 or so invited attendees who relocated to the film festival's offices, where the rest of the screenings – the whole 10-day festival, in fact – took place.

"We all watched the films in the film festival offices, which they overnight converted into screening rooms," says Kraicer, a Canadian who since 2003 has split his time between Beijing and Toronto. "So every film that was scheduled to be part of the festival – and they had 100 films – all went ahead, but in these shrunken circumstances."

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That opening film, Egg and Stone, will screen at the Vancouver International Film Festival this week as part of Dragons & Tigers, a comprehensive program of East Asian film that is unparalleled in North America. Egg and Stone is one of a number of films this year that speak to China's continuing dance with censorship. In China, if a film is sanctioned by the state – approved at script (or detailed synopsis) stage and then at final cut – it can be shown in theatres, and marketed. But independent films in China fly under the radar – both in terms of production and exhibition.

"Independent directors … face this problem of not being able to openly show their films to larger audiences in China," says Kraicer, a programmer for Dragons & Tigers. "We have a special mandate to support young Chinese directors and independent Chinese film, which means film that hasn't been passed by the censor bureau. So it's up to festivals like us to pick up the slack and give these people a chance to have audiences and get support."

In the case of that opening ceremony in Beijing, Kraicer believes it was shut down not specifically because of Egg and Stone , but for a complicated set of reasons which included a large gathering – about 500 people, he estimates – at an unauthorized public event. Still, the film's content would not have helped matters. Directed by Huang Ji, who will be in Vancouver this week, Egg and Stone is a coming-of-age story based on her own life, and deals with sexual abuse by a family member.

"There's no way adolescent sexuality can be shown in a film. That's the biggest taboo these days. Bigger than Tibet, bigger than anything," says Kraicer. "Democratic activism is a problem, but for some reason the biggest hang-up is sex and teenagers."

Kraicer stresses that these filmmakers are going up against bureaucrats, not police – at least, not usually. But things have been escalating of late, the return of the chill possibly a result of the upcoming Communist Party Congress, and the increased security and control over culture that accompanied the 2008 Olympics.

Kraicer points to the unusual (although not unprecedented) case of Ying Liang, another director in town for VIFF. His film When Night Falls is based on a true story: In 2008, a young man accused Shanghai police of falsely arresting him over the theft of a bicycle, then conducting an abusive interrogation. The accused later walked into a police station and stabbed six officers to death. He was convicted at trial, and sentenced to death. His mother, meanwhile, was sent to a mental institution by the authorities, and not released until the eve of his execution. This film is a fictionalized account of her story.

Not surprisingly, police authorities in Shanghai were not pleased to hear about this film (there was a fair bit of public sympathy on social media for the man who stabbed the officers – and Ai Weiwei made a short documentary about the case). According to Kraicer, Chinese authorities tried to stop When Night Falls from being shown at its premiere at a South Korean film festival (there are reports they even tried to buy the rights), police have paid intimidating visits to his family, and have threatened to arrest Ying, who is now living in Hong Kong.

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"They warned me, threatened me, and said they would arrest me," Ying wrote in an e-mail to The Globe and Mail. "My life has been changed. My freedom, freedom of filming and returning to the Mainland has been severely restricted," he continued, adding that his Hong Kong visa expires in November, and he's not sure what he'll do after that.

"This is weird, the threat of arrest to a director? This hasn't happened in years, decades really; a long time. Not in my memory," says Kraicer." So he's in Hong Kong now and he can't come home. He can come to Vancouver, though."

On Thursday, the Dragons & Tigers Awards Gala – which will award $5,000 for a creative and innovative film made early in the director's career – will screen the highly anticipated Mystery. The film marks the return to officially sanctioned filmmaking by big deal director Lou Ye, after a five-year ban in China that followed the premiere at Cannes in 2006 of his film Summer Palace, a film that was both sexually and politically charged, with the Tiananmen Square protests serving as a backdrop to a love story. (Censors do not necessarily say why a film has failed to pass, and will often cite technical problems rather than reveal the true reasons.)

Lou did continue to make films – both outside the system and outside the country – but Mystery was approved by state authorities – despite its depiction of a sexually charged, amoral contemporary China (perhaps acceptable because the film also depicts terrible consequences of such behaviour – it's impossible, really, to know).

The dichotomy in all this is that there is some pressure, says Kraicer, for authorities to approve these films. China is eager to pump out domestic films that are widely viewed, and critically acclaimed. So there's incentive on their part, along with incentive for filmmakers to make movies within the official system.

"There's this real pressure to make films Chinese people can see. That your neighbours and your family and your colleagues can see in your own country," says Kraicer. "It certainly is for many of these people incredibly frustrating to make films that [only] foreigners watch and that can only flow back into your own country on DVD or online."

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Lou will not be in Vancouver this year, but many filmmakers – such as Ying and Huang – who have faced trouble at home have come to VIFF over the years, and festival director Alan Franey says that's an important aspect of the program.

"There's a space [here] that's not too contentious, where the political dimension is at a distance," he says. "We're trying to create both in the larger sense of programming but also on the ground a sort of physical welcome and human welcome that you give people. I think it means a lot to particularly young filmmakers to come and see life simplified to what their original purpose was: to express something, to explore questions, and to see how an audience will respond."

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