A New Platform for Chinese Independent Cinema: An Interview with Jia Zhangke and Marco Muller

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By Martin Kudláč.

A new Chinese film festival emerged this year, Pingyao Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon International Film Festival, inaugurated in the Ancient City of Pingyao listed on the World Cultural Heritage map. Founded by internationally-recognized Chinese independent writer-director-producer and seasoned festival director Marco Muller, the festival embraced dialogue between Eastern and Western cinema in “the first boutique Chinese film festival.” The festival introduced emerging domestic filmmakers from the independent scene and spotlighted filmmaking talents from the world cinema. Film International had a seat at the roundtable discussion with the founders in the freshly build film palace at the festival compound. Both founders talk about the basic festival dramaturgy, expectation and a vision of Pingyao Film Festival becoming a major player in the Chinese independent film industry in the upcoming years.

What are the Pingyao’s selection criteria?

Marco Muller (MM): This is the point we discussed a lot. Of course, we need to find films that could have a potential to exist in the different varieties of the Chinese market meaning that could have life at least on VoD platforms and those that are most likely to find national partners. First of all, we stressed that we want to invent a festival for discoveries and I am not talking necessary about world premieres, even Chinese premieres would be fine provided we can escort new directors to finally find distribution partners, audience and media. We have to start from films that could generate enough emotions, there should be a gut-feeling that a film is right for the festival. Of course, there have to be films that can bring news of the world so that people in this country can relate to people in other countries and we had to ask ourselves about the spiritual content of the films. And it’s a mix – a mix of auteur films and genre films, it’s a mix of bold, audacious and formal explorations of film medium and also of, let´s say, special entertainment films which can be creative and artistic enough.

What is your target audience?

Jia Zhangke (JZ): The first edition of Pingyao International Film Festival is hosted in the Ancient City of Pingyao in the Shanxi Province but actually we have system enabling to pay for the tickets through WeChat. Anybody can come visit our festival who can make a payment on WeChat. When we do checkouts, we can see viewers from all over China, not only from this province.

We have a special sidebar called Pingyao Corner, it is an area where we can offer extended services to young filmmakers. They can show there their short films and have interactions among each other. Around one hundred young filmmakers are part of this and we also organized audience jury of 55 jurors consisting mostly from young people – film lovers. We would like to address all kinds of viewers and audience but we focus more on young people.

MM: Allow me to elaborate a bit. I do not think that audience as one single entity makes a sense. Audience consists from very different kinds of groups. So when we are talking about target, of course we focus on young people – educated young people – film-educated young people. But if we want to have films to have a life after the festival, we have to target city audience, provincial audience even family audience. That is why our programme is composed of mixed bag of different elements as genre films or what you could call children films. I put it into the programme to lure those different groups of viewers.

You have been making independent films for many years. Have you felt that the festival has already had an impact on other independent filmmakers or audiences?

JZ: Over the last years, the total production of Chinese films rose to the average of 800 films. That´s an extraordinary number. Most of the films that can be actually see by the public are the big productions by big companies. We would like to host this Pingyao International Film Festival to have a platform for independent films despite the commercialized context so that an attention can be paid by the public to the most dynamic sector of the filmmaking.

How do you plan to improve domestic independent cinema ?

JZ: Chinese film market has several different channels for viewers to access films, either in theaters or internet however there is a lack of channel represented by film festival where films can be exposed and audience guided to see non-American, non-European films. So there is a lack of opportunities for audience to proactively choose such non-European and non-American films. That’s why we would like to set up this platform, this film festival, to recommend and push viewers to seek out non-Western films. We have also reached out to Chinese and international distribution companies but this is only the inaugural edition so we have not yet set-up a significant platform in terms of collaboration with the industry. But Pingyao Film Festival is going to be an important platform in swapping films. For example this year, certain representatives have been dispatched to Pingyao to select film candidates they can import in near future.

What are the biggest difficulties in organizing an event of this kind?

JZ: The most difficult thing is to join all the different work streams. We needed to built the palace for the films, 1800-seat open cinema along several 500-seat theaters; we needed to prepare the programme so Marco has been very busy selecting the films worldwide; and we needed to train the staff, only Beijing and Shanghai are international film festivals and they are not run by stable dedicated teams either, so there is a lack of talent for the organization and management of such film festivals. We had to look for organizers and managers during the past year and put together the teams of volunteers. All that work had to be done in last 12 months in all its complexity.

This not an official film festival, so to what degree do you think the Chinese public welcomes such non-government-sponsored events?

JZ: Pingyao International Film Festival is run by company operating in a marketed-based manner which is a relatively new model. In order to ensure healthy and sustainable development of this film festival, there is a need for company-based operations so that there can be effective and efficient construction of the facilities and the programming. This is also a trend we can see in China that the art industry is upgrading. It is a trend where more professional people can deliver more professional services rather than having the government organizing the art events.

You have been active in the industry for many years, encountering different situations. What is your feeling about the inaugural edition of Pingyao International Film Festival?

JZ: During the first days, I have seen so many viewers coming to see the films, either Jean-Pierre Melville retrospective or the debut or sophomore features made by emerging filmmakers. I believe the meaning of this event is to see viewers coming to join us and that gives me a big sense of accomplishment. It is my hope and belief that next edition or the edition after of Pingyao International Film Festival itself will be adequately attractive featuring the high-efficiently and good taste abilities and not because of me, Jia Zhangke.

Martin Kudláč is a freelance film journalist and independent scholar contributing regularly to a variety of online and offline outlets. He holds PhD. in Aesthetics and is an external lecturer and researcher at The Institute of Literary and Art Communication at Constantine the Philosopher University at Nitra, Slovakia; a film industry reporter; and co-author of the upcoming book Images of the Hero in the Cultural Memory (Constantine the Philosopher University Press).

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