Bérénice Reynaud – Sailing through Europe, America and Asia: it’s all about films!

On a fine day during HKIFF this spring, Ms. Bérénice Reynaud generously offered me an hour for an interview. She talked about her move from an academic background in Philosophy and Political Science to Cinema Studies; her early interests in experimental films; the fun she has had commuting between both sides of the Atlantic and then the Pacific, participating and then programming different film festivals; her efforts to spot and promote quality Chinese independent films; and her opinion on the difference between European film festivals and American film festivals. Moreover, she explained why people like Mary Stephen is rather important to Chinese indie cinema.

Can we begin with your experience as a programmer or consultant to different film festivals?

Well, it’s a very long story because I moved to the United States when I was a student. My interest was avant-garde cinema so I was contacted by Dominique Païni, who at the time was in charge of the film section of the Festival d’automne à Paris, to organize a series of avant-garde films from New York. I showed a couple of features by Yvonne Rainer as a part of this series. During the screening, I was contacted by two women from the Créteil International Women’s Film Festival and they asked me to be their correspondent in the U.S. Meanwhile, because I was involved in the independent avant-garde scene in New York, I became very interested in identity-based films and that involved Asian Americans. And I revolved quickly around the Asian CineVision Festival. Marlina Gonzales, a Filipino curator, was the festival director (she has since moved to Minneapolis).

I met a lot of people in the Asian-American film/media milieu, in particular an experimental artist from Taiwan called Cheang Shu-lea, who got involved in Paper Tiger Television and Deep Dish TV, did short experimental films and well-received installations (at the Whitney Museum, the Walker Arts Center and the Whitney Museum) and later directed a couple of experimental features, Fresh Kill (1994, which I showed in Créteil) and I.K.U. (2000, shown at Sundance); she is now a web artist based in Paris. Another friend of mine was a Filipino filmmaker called Angel Velasco Shaw, currently a professor of Asian American Studies at Hunter College. This is also when I met Norman Wang, already a well-known publicist for Asian cinema, who was living in NY at the time, before relocating to his hometown of Hong Kong. Those were exciting times; through my interest in US experimental/independent cinema, I became involved in “identity-based” cinema (we didn’t have such things in Europe at the time) – films by African American, films by women, films by queer subjects, and, last but not least, films by Asian Americans. I discovered Wayne Wang’s landmark’s Chan Is Missing (1982) – I believe in the screening room of New Yorker Films that was distributing it; I contacted him by phone; he was in San Francisco and I in New York, and he sent me a copy of his first film, A Man, a Woman, and a Killer (1975). I later met him during a trip in San Francisco in the late 1980s.

Asian American media organizations were changing and the festivals that they curated started to show Asian work, in addition to Asian American works. My interest in Chinese cinema was further spurred by a 1987 visit to the Toronto International Film Festival which I was covering either for Cahiers du cinema or Libération, and maybe also a New York State film-and-theory journal called Afterimage, I can’t quite remember. Critic/curator David Overbey (who died in 1998) had organized a special section devoted to Asian Cinema. There I discovered many gems, but the Hong Kong New Wave piqued my attention; I met Tsui Hark, Ann Hui On-wah and Mabel Cheung Yuen-Ting with whom I have remained in touch all these years. At about the same time, I was involved with a The Collective for Living Cinema, an avant-garde, alternative space in downtown Manhattan. Choreographer-turned-avant-garde filmmaker Yvonne Rainer was on the board. Together we decided to organize a film series and conference called “Sexism, Colonialism, Misrepresentations”. Our friend Mark Nash, then the editor of Screen in London, was teaching a semester at NY at the time; he has a Taiwanese student who suggested that we previewed a 16mm print of Yang Te-Chang (Edward Yang)’s I showed Qing mei zhu ma (Taipei Story, 1985) that Taiwan’s GIO (Government Information Office) has in its New York Cultural Center (at that time, Taiwan has diplomatic relationships with only a few countries, so the bulk of their international relationships went into cinema, which is why the government became such a champion of “The New Taiwan Cinema.”) Because we had very limited budget, I was also doing publicity, which is something I have always continued doing. If you are going to show alternative films, you have to make sure they are been seen, so you have to take care of the outreach.

At that time, there were a number of Chinese language newspapers in downtown Manhattan. Yvonne and I had decided to show Taipei Story because we thought it was perfect for what we were trying to say. There is, for example, a woman in which the character played by Hou Hsiao-Hsien looks at a poster in which a Western dancer holds his female partner; a close-up of the dancer’s hand appears in the foreground, and Hou compares his smaller, Asian hand to it. You really get a sense of the “shock of modernity” reaching Taipei – people adopting Western mores and consuming habits, but still comparing themselves to “the foreigners” with this old sense of inferiority that dates back from the unequal treaties, the time when China was called “the sick man of Asia”. Showing this film also prompted me to start doing research on the history of Taiwanese film, which was really fascinating. Anyhow, after sending the press release, I was contacted by a young man from Hong Kong, Evans Chan, who was writing for one of these Chinese-language filmmakers (he has become a filmmaker since). He told me that this was the first time that a film made by Edward Yang had been shown in the United States in an international context. In “Sexism, Colonialism, Misrepresentations,” we showed it with movies from Salvador, movies from Africa, movies from various minorities in the U.S, etc.. In a way, we did something which was groundbreaking. This started an exchange of ideas and information with Evans Chan, and he introduced me to Li Cheuk-To (Artistic Director of the Hong Kong Film Festival) and Taiwanese scholars/critic Hsiao Hsiung-ping (Peggy Chiao), who has since become a producer of films in Taiwan and the Mainland, as they were traveling through New York.

The next year, in 1989, I organized a program of French films for the Washington Film Festival and at the same time, there was a Taiwanese program, and Peggy Chiao was there. She introduced me to a diplomat from the GIO, Jeff Yao, who afterwards invited me to the Golden Horse. This was a crucial time in history, following the Tiananmen Square Incident. I had never been to Asia before, so I decided to use my time in Taipei to go to Hong Kong, at my own expenses. I had approached The New York Times to see if they would accept articles and they said that they had this policy that because my trip to Taiwan was paid for by the CNPC, they could not accept an article; but since I was paying the trip for Hong Kong by myself, they could publish the article. So I wrote an article about the reaction of the Hong Kong film industry to Tiananmen Square. I interviewed everybody: Ann Hui, Mabel Cheung, Alex Law Kai Yui, Tsui Hark, Nansun Shi, Lawrence Lau Kwok Cheong and Guan Jinpan (Stanley Kwan), whom I met at the Golden Horse when he won a prize for Ren zai Niu Yue (Full Moon in New York); Sylvia Chan and Chow Yun-fat; young people doing performance and avant-garde work. Just prior to this, while in Taiwan, I also had been able to meet and interview a great number of people; at that time, they were very few Western journalists who’d interview Chinese filmmakers, so Edward Yang gave me a four-hour interview. I had already a long interviewed with Hou Hsiao-Hsien at the New York Film Festival (translated by Peggy Chiao). She introduced me to filmmaker/producer Wang Shau-di (who had been Tsai Ming-liang’s teacher) and her producing partner Huang Li-ming. I interviewed Hou’s screenwriters, Wu Nien-jen and Chu Tien-wen, as well as a number of screenwriters and filmmakers that had played a role in the genesis of “The New Taiwan Cinema.” I met Chen Kuo-Fu — now a producer for Huayi Brothers – who at that time was a film critic and a young filmmaker. I interviewed Ray Jiing who at that time was the head of Taipei Film Archive so this was really fantastic. I thought I had way too much material for an article: I was going to write a book; I eventually published a book ten years later, called “New Chinas/New Cinemas” (published in French by Cahiers du cinema). In the meantime, I returned to Hong Kong every year, several times to Taipei, and several times to mainland China. My first trip to the mainland, in December 1990, was organized by Norman Wang and Shu-kei, who were doing the publicity for Zhang Yimou’s Da hong deng long gao gao gua (Raise the Red Lantern, 1991) on behalf of Era International, a Taiwanese company that was producing the film. During a stopover in Beijing I met Wang Xiaoshuai, who had not directed films yet, but was very adamant and passionate about his future filmmaking plans. Norman also invited me into another press junket, this time on the set of Chen Kaige’s Ba wang bie ji (Farewell my Concubine, 1991) that was shot in the Beijing Film Studio in the spring 1991. (On the next sound-stage, Hu Jinquan (King Hu) was shooting Hua pi zhi: Yin yang fa wang (Painted Skin, 1993); I met him, spoke to him and we discovered that we were neighbors in Los Angeles, where I conducted a long interview of him a few months later and started to see him from time to time until his death). A couple of years later, I returned to China by myself – once I organized a trip for the Director and Deputy Director of the San Sebastian International Film Festival – and have been going there at least once a year.

I worked 17 years as a correspondent for the Créteil International Film Festival – as a correspondent for films from the US, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and a bit from China. There was this wonderful woman called Sophie Laurent, who was Audio-Visual Attaché at the Cultural Services of the French Embassy in Beijing, and she was also a close collaborator of the Festival, and curated a whole series of films directed by Chinese women, that made quite a splash. Later she helped me a lot doing fact- and spell-checking for my book, and also when I started curating programs of new Chinese videos.

In the Spring 1993, Cahiers du cinéma gave my name to The San Sebastian International Film Festival as somebody who could help them with their US pre-selection. I offered them to also work with them to secure Chinese films – and I have been their “Delegate” for US Independent Cinema and Chinese Cinema ever since. In 1994, I went to Vienna with Yvonne Rainer. Alexander Horwath, who was the director of the Vienna Film Festival, at that time, had organized a special program of Yvonne Rainer in the spring of 1994 and I met him, we became friends. He commissioned some writing from me and then he decided to step away. Now he is the head of the Austrian Film Museum. The new director, Hans Hurch, asked me to start sending him movies. I then started to send both U.S. indies and Chinese films to both San Sebastian and Vienna. So that’s the way it happened.

It is such an interesting trace: you were born in France then moved to the United States and you work for Spanish and Austrian film festivals.

Well, I came to the U.S. as a student and then I stayed. I was offered a teaching position job at the California Institute of the Arts in 1992 and it was such a great opportunity. I always knew that I would love to teach and I do. So I moved from New York, which was my dream city to L.A., which I didn’t particularly like at first, and now I am very much in love with L.A. I’m very happy to be there, very very happy.

You don’t mind driving every day?

I had to learn how to drive. My first two years in L.A. I was not driving, so I was actually living not in L.A., but in the small suburban town of Valencia, where the campus is located. Deep down, I prefer cities with efficient public transportation system, like Paris and Hong Kong. In Beijing or Shanghai, I rarely take the subway because it’s not efficient. The stations are too far apart from each other so you have to walk a very long way. Though in Beijing, I have a very close friend who told me how to make the best of the subway, and it turns much faster, because the traffic in Beijing is so annoying. In L.A., they are now building more public transportation but for example, I couldn’t go to teach at CalArts, because public transportation is very limited, and I wouldn’t be able to get home after a class ending up at 10:00 pm.

I can’t help noticing that there are a number of programmers or consultants learned literature in university while you actually studied philosophy and public administration, and then cinema studies. What an interesting journey

I am always a film-lover. When I was in school, I really fell in love with philosophy. I was somewhat pushed by my instructor to study philosophy and I was good at it. And then I had this crisis. I realized there is only one outlet if I study philosophy and get a PhD in philosophy, the only thing I could do is to teach people whose only outlet would be to get a PhD in philosophy. I studied political science because I was very involved politically.

Since I wanted to go to the U.S., the only way would be to get a grant to study. I was interested in the New York avant-garde scene. In France, I had started writing for avant-garde publications about avant-garde theater. I had met Richard Foreman and I became very interested in the New York avant-garde. Because I’ve always wanted to write and I started to write about this. I just went there to be a part of the New York avant-garde, which I did. I moved to downtown New York, I took classes with Anthony McCall and I was going to the Anthology Film Archives.

There was a legendary theater, The Bleecker Street Cinema, run by a woman called Jackie Raynal, who had been an editor for Rohmer and Godard and so forth, and also, she is an experimental filmmaker. Jackie organized the first Cahiers du Cinéma weeks in New York, and invited Serge Daney, then the co-editor of the publication, to introduce the programs. I met Serge there, and we became friends, and I started writing for Cahiers. The most evident thing for me to write about was the American avant-garde so this is what I did.

Meanwhile, I was training myself to write in English, which was a goal of mine, so I accumulated a very substantial body of writing both in English and French and this is how the offer to teach in CalArts came to me, which was based on what I had written.

My experience of Cinema Studies was basically in NYU. I was admitted in Columbia but they were not so much into the avant-garde so I went to NYU because they have this collaboration with the Anthology Film Archives; Annette Michaelson was teaching there, as well as Anthony McCall. So that was really to be a part of the avant-garde. I did not have an academy trajectory in mind. It was given to me. I was just being a freelance writer and I was contacted by CalArts: “You want to teach?” I said, “Sure.” That’s the way it happened. At that time, I was very young and I was much more like a free spirit; I didn’t think about in terms of job; I just wanted to write, and travel, and meet all these filmmakers, and I did. (Laughs)

 

So in 1980s, you started to pay attention to Chinese cinema?

Right. In the 1980s, I went to Toronto. Also I got to know Chinese cinema through Asian CineVision, because they began to show a combination of Asian American films and Asian films. For example, we showed Yin ji kau (Rouge, Stanley Kwan, 1988) in Asian CineVision and Kay Armitage, who was one of the programmers for Toronto at the time, saw it in New York and brought it to Toronto.

 

It’s been almost three decades! You have actually witnessed the developments and setbacks of Chinese cinema.

Yeah. I think the most important thing was how Hong Kong cinema has completely changed since 1980s, its exhilarating golden age: the Asian economic crisis, the loss of Pan-Asian film market in South Korea, Malaysia, and so forth. And then gradually the opening of borders: Ann Hui and Yim Ho being among the first ones who went to mainland China to make movies in co-production with the mainland, via Hong Kong-based “leftist” companies.

In 1997, the major change, which happened very gradually but it is possible that the Hong Kong filmmakers can no longer ignore the Chinese market now. So if you look at somebody like Johnnie To, whose movies were very Hong Kong, could not be shown in mainland China. Now the movie he premiered in Rome last year, Drug War, bears the mark of being produced for the mainland market. It’s good for him that the movie is going to be shown in mainland China, but there is no back story for the cop; so, to keep the balance, you don’t really have much of a back story for the informer as well. Johnnie To, however, is probably the smartest who can really manage to keep his originality of vision while working for the mainland market. There are some other moviemakers, who are not so gifted and end up making water-down movies.

Also, there is the blossoming of very local little Hong Kong movies like Tao Jie (A Simple Life, Ann Hui, 2011) and Shui Yuet Sun Tau (Echoes of The Rainbow, Alex Law, 2009) because there are clear signs that Hong Kong people want to keep their identity. These movies are very local and made with very little money. I’m very curious to see what Ann Hui is doing now. She is now shooting a film in Shanghai about the female writer Xiao Hong, who had been a disciple of Lu Xun. Last year the Shanghai Film Festival showcased a film on the same subject, but it was very melodramatic, not very good.

The second change, which I’ve written a lot about: the digital / DV explosion in mainland China. It is economically marginalized but has got a lot of critical attention, and the independent film festival, which has shown a lot of indie films, documentaries and lots of mixture between fiction and documentary. This is most important because it is not a fixed phenomenon, but in constant shift and change. And people who started their career in the so-called underground are now making movies that are being distributed commercially. Also, the division between DV films and commercial films is moot now, because all the theaters are showing digital products, though very commercial films may be shown both in 35 mm, and in DCP. Now of course, more movies are shot in HD.

The commercial film industry is very star-based, often romance and genre based in China, and that makes most of the films unwatchable outside of China. Foreign audiences can only identify two or three Chinese movie stars, so the star system has a limited impact on whether or not they’re going to like a movie. The romantic Chinese comedy, whether it’s from the mainland, Hong Kong, or Taiwan, is usually not going to work abroad. I watch a lot of such films: even though I like them, they are not showable in a European film festival.

Many of us have also noticed that international film festivals are very much less in love with Chinese cinema as they used to be ten years ago. There’s a certain fatigue. Now Korean cinema is hip. In the past, some Chinese filmmakers would joke: if you want to become famous in Europe, you just make a movie of suffering women with long shots. This is of course a caricature, even though there may have been a bit of truth there. But it’s simply not true anymore.

You mentioned a certain fatigue, but in San Sebastian there have been at least five times that a Chinese director brought home The Best Director Award. Maybe in recent years, it goes a bit dormant?

Yeah. I have systematically brought Chinese movies there. The thing I enjoy about my work at San Sebastian is that my colleagues appreciate it even if I send them a movie telling them “this is not going to be for us”; they like being kept abreast of what’s going on in China. So when there is a movie I like, though I think it’s probably not for us, I still send it to them so that they are informed about what’s going on. However, San Sebastian is not going to take a lot of Chinese movies: one for each section. One year we took three and that is the maximum, which I think is a good thing in itself. It’s hard because we have to reject a lot of good movies. On the other hand, it means there is not going to be a Chinese movie competing against another Chinese movie, like you do in some festivals.

Last year we reached a good balance. In in the main competition we presented Tang Xiaobai (Emily Tang)’s Ai de tishen (All Apologies) and in the New Directors Competition Hao Jie’s Mei Jie (The Love Songs of Tiedan). Neither won a prize, but both were very well received by the critic and spectators.

The main issue when you work for a film festival like San Sebastian is that you have to explain to filmmakers film festivals eligibilities and policies; we are an A-category festival and we have to show international premieres, and also, we cannot show a movie that has been shown in its own country (and that is the most difficult thing for me to explain), if it’s been shown in an international section. We had such a situation a couple of years ago. A very good Chinese film was shown in the Panorama section of the Shanghai International Film Festival: the movie could not be shown in San Sebastian. It was really sad. It’s the same for the U.S., for example, if an American movie is shown in competition in South by Southwest, it cannot be shown in San Sebastian. But if a movie has shown in Sundance, because Sundance has competitive sections for US films only, we don’t have a problem.

Filmmakers, of course, are willing to show their films to as many film festivals as possible and so when they are invited to very small film festival that is very nice and their expenses covered, but then they are told, “That’s it. You can no longer go to an A-category festival.” I feel bad for them. I think one of things that is very important for Chinese blogs is to explain this that it is the same thing for Cannes, for Venice and for Berlin. Locarno, being a smaller festival, they have sections such as Filmmakers of the Present; they are a little more flexible.

And of course, at San Sebastian, we have a section named Festival Pearls, in which we showed a lot of Johnnie To’s that had been shown at Cannes, but it is at the discretion of the Director and the Selection Committee, and it only works for important films or movies that have won major awards. A movie made by a first or second director, which has been to a film festival, has little chance to be put in Festival Pearls.

San Sebastian is one of the major four A-category film festivals in Europe and even the whole world. Could you comment on its similarities and major differences compared with the other three: Cannes, Berlin and Venice?

Well, Cannes is Cannes. I think the main difference of San Sebastian is trying not to have too many sections, so we are much more selective. It is really a question of strategy. Actually, I cannot say anything about other film festivals because I’m in competition with them. Basically, we don’t have a section like Horizons, which would be a second tier competition, so if we were to invite a film to a competition, it’s going to be in one of the two major competitions.

The selection is done by a Committee, and one of the original aspects of San Sebastian is we have a team of delegates, like me, who are responsible for a region: Korea, Japan, France, Eastern Europe, Latin America, etc. This helps to maintain long-term relationships with producers and directors in that particular region. It is the real originality of San Sebastian. Other festivals have correspondents, but not this body of people who usually have been working for the festival for many years and know each other. For example, if somebody submits a Korean movie, I may watch it but I will immediately send it to my colleague who is in charge of Korean cinema, as we are not competitive with each other. Likewise, if somebody in France is submitted a Chinese movie, he would immediately inform me. That is a very collegial atmosphere and I treasure it a lot. These delegates for each region provide tender love and care for each producer and filmmaker.

Another function occupied by the Delegates of the Festival, is to be a middle person between the festival and the filmmakers or producers. For example, this is not considered a conflict of interest for them to say, “Listen, I really like your film, but this is not for us. My advice would be that you applied for Locarno, for example.”

You would do that?

I do that. Really. And my colleagues know that. You know, I want to help the filmmakers. I say “I am going to submit it to San Sebastian, but I think there is very little chance. I think it’s more a film for Locarno.” Or I’ll tell them, for example, last week, I told somebody: “I think for this film, you should completely forget about A-category festivals and go for a respected, second tier festival, for example, Vienna, which is FIAPF accredited. However, I am not only talking about Vienna. There is also London, who is FIAPF accredited. There are also respectable festivals that have decided not to be competitive festivals. And I think you would be happier if you do the world premiere of your film in one of these festivals rather than to kill yourself in trying to secure an A-category.”

This is a kind of service I provide. And I tell this to my colleagues in San Sebastian that I would still submit this film to them. I cannot place all the films I like in San Sebastian. My best currency is working with filmmakers and producers and trying to help them with their films. And I am very happy that I can work with San Sebastian in this manner.

I have a friendly relationship with Giovanna Fulvi, who does the Asian Programming for Toronto. If a film goes to San Sebastian, it can also go to Toronto, and vice-versa, there is no incompatibility, so no competition. I like to send movies her way, for example Wo he ba ba (My Father and I, 2002), the first feature directed by Xu Jinglei, went to Toronto. Then her second feature, Yi ge mo sheng nu ren de lai xin (2004) went to San Sebastian, where it won the Best Director Award. So that builds a relationship of trust with filmmakers. I also tell them that “You know, I am not going to be angry with you if you are submit your film to Venice. Go ahead. I want the best for you. One thing is: don’t wait.” Some people send the film to Venice and then when the film is rejected, they’d send it to San Sebastian. I’d say “Send it to both of them at the same time.” This is what people don’t understand: one of them could choose it. You go to the one who chooses it first, or who gives it your best deal. Submit it to both festivals!

Just now you mentioned the subtitles of a good film, so do subtitles really matter?

Oh Gosh! They matter so much that now we request the Chinese filmmakers that their subtitles are done in Spain. We no longer accept that the subtitle is done in China because we had really bad situations. People tried to cut costs so they ask a student or a friend. The problem with Spanish subtitles is that Spanish is a gendered language. “La casa” for “house” is feminine. It doesn’t make any sense in Chinese, but if you translated it wrong, it makes people laugh. And it’s very hard for a none-native speaker to understand why should “la casa” is feminine. If you make a mistake and I’ve seen that: there was a subtle, moody film co-produced by the China Film Group and they refused to have the subtitles done by somebody picked up by the independent producer: it was a disaster! People were laughing in the theater. So after that we said: No!

Xu Jinglei wanted to have her subtitles done by a university professor in Beijing so we said OK but we requested the subtitles in advance and we corrected them because he made a few mistakes. So we have somebody in the office going through each of the subtitles and correct the mistakes. This is important.

English subtitles are usually very decent, even for independent films, so what we do when a film is spotted is we translate the English subtitles into Spanish. It is fine.

 

Is there any specific reason why English subtitles are getting decent?

More and more, young Chinese are speaking decent English. I have to say that I am very impressed by how hard-working Chinese students are and how intentional masters of English they are. You also have a lot of expats, and it’s easy to find somebody who speaks both English and Chinese. When I was living in New York, I also did a lot of subtitles. And the ideal, the dream team is to have one person, for example, an American and a French person, to do subtitles either for France or conversely, for America, because you have native-speakers for both languages.

You’ve been to lots of European film festivals and American film festivals: is there any distinctive difference between the European aura and American style?

Well, there are not enough American film festivals that have the same cache as the European film festivals. There is no a single A category film festival in the U.S. In Canada, there is Montreal World Film Festival, who lost its “A” accreditation for a couple of years and then it got it back; Toronto is not an A category festival. An A category festival doesn’t mean how big or important the festival is. It means one thing: that the festival is abiding by the FIAPF regulation in order to organize its competition. In Rotterdam, for example, they decided that they don’t want to be bothered with an “A” rating anymore, because they are too close to Berlin, and it created a lot of problems. 50:40 It is still considered an important film festival. Toronto is a huge film market. It is not an A festival but then it allows a film to go both to Venice and Toronto, or Toronto and San Sebastian. If it were an A category, it wouldn’t be possible.

The notion of A category film festival is very well represented in Europe. I think there are too many film festivals in the world and it’s getting crazy. There are too many film festivals in the world for one good reason: the movement of cine-clubs that could be found in Europe in 1950s or 1960s and then maybe towards 1970s, it’s dead. Audiences are hungry to see international films or independent films that are not being distributed, and they want to see them on the big screen before they go straight to DVDs, so film festivals are actually playing this role of bringing the audience movies they couldn’t see otherwise. And that is how the Hong Kong film festival is started: to bring international films to audiences in Hong Kong where the distributors are not very daring.

Toronto is very different. It used to be called “The Festival of Festivals”: the idea was to bring Canadian audiences the best films shown in festivals around the world. It has changed so much that now the curators often insist, on international or even world premiere, so it’s becoming tougher and more competitive.

In North America, the San Francisco Film Festival is very good; Tribeca is very good; South by Southwest is excellent; Sundance is playing a very important role in regard to the American film industry. Festival like AFI, which I like a lot, is basically recycling movies from other festivals, so it’s important for the local American audiences and it may give a second life to movies or may give them a footing to get an access to American distributors, but it’s not like a festival like a European festival. I’m not saying bad thing about them. I think they are playing their role, but there is a difference.

The destiny of film festivals is how the A-category film festivals are going to survive in the next ten years. A lot of people have been disgruntled by the rule of international premiere, but that’s what makes an A-category film festival A. some people consider these rules unfair. This is about prestige. Why? Trade papers such as Variety, Screen or The Hollywood Reporter are not going to write two articles on the same film, so they are going to write about a film at the festival where they have seen it. So if you get a number of prestigious titles that the trade papers are going to write about at your festival, you ensure keeping a high profile. If you show a movie that the trade papers have already written about, then you don’t have the same kind of high profile. The question is how well it is serving films: Is it serving films well? Is it creating a bottleneck? Sometimes people say that certain prestigious film festivals are showing awful films in their competition because they are so keen on world premieres…

Also, films are more or less dependent on film festivals. For the Chinese market and the Indian market, for example, is totally independent of international film festivals, so people don’t bother. On the other hand, this is something I heard from Edward Yang: There is a golden number. He had his own production company and he said if you want to make the kind of movies that I want to make, you keep your budget under a certain “golden number”, you are going to recoup your money from the combination of the local market and the international market, so the international market is really important for us. And how are you going to reach the international market? By the film festivals. So I think for a certain movies, like some that were shown in the recent HKIFF: Da-reun na-ra-e-seo (In Another Country, Hong Sang-soo, 2013), Henji (Trace, Huang Ji & Otsuka Ryuji, 2013), You Ren Zanmei Conghui, You Ren Ze Bu (Don’t Expect Praises (Yang Jin, 2012), A Última Vez Que Vi Macau i.e. The Last Time I Saw Macau (Joao Pedro Rodrigues & Joao Rui Guerra da Mata, 2012) – movies from different countries like Portugal, Korea, China, could not survive without the international exposure that an international film festival is giving them.

I don’t work for film festivals because I am in love with their glamour or not; I’m trying to help filmmakers to get their work shown. I am a writer. I was interested in writing about these films, but then I thought “What is the point of writing about movies that my readers have not seen?” so I have to show them. And I’m doing a lot of other things. I am doing non-festival film screenings in Los Angeles: REDCAT and I also collaborate with Cheng-Sim Lim on The China Onscreen Biennial. I think I am the first person who organized series entirely devoted to of Chinese videos, first in Paris, in National Gallery of Jeu de Paume in 1993; and then at MoMA in New York in 1997. At the time, the films were not shot digitally, but in analog video, Sony, BetaCam. But, you know, that was the beginning of a very important video evolution and I was among the first not only to catch it, along with people like Tony Rayns, who showed this kind of works at the Vancouver International Film Festival, but also to show it outside of film festivals, in cinemas and museums and other alternative spaces, as I think this is important: it brings a different audience.

What do you think is the weakness of Chinese independent cinema?

There is no such thing as a Chinese independent cinema. There’s Chinese independent cinema-s, with an “s”, with a lot of strength and a lot of weaknesses. I think that at the core of the many strands that compose the Chinese independent movement lies this desire of showing images that you are forbidden to show, or things that are about to disappear, for example, houses to be demolished, prostitutes working in the backroom of a hair salon, or peasants who are fighting to keep their land. These are hard to show, or impossible to show or about to disappear – like some traditional neighborhood sentenced to death by real estate speculators under the guise of “urban renewal.” With the DV explosion, there is a desire to capture these images, a sense of responsibility towards these images and the drive to discuss certain taboo subjects you cannot talk discuss on the internet: prostitution, homosexuality, corruption, issues of poverty and class inequality.

So I think there is an emphasis in shooting and capturing reality more than on editing and post-production, which I understand, because there is a sense of urgency. As a result, though, it is often though that one of the weak points of Chinese independent cinema is editing. There are actually lots of Chinese films edited by foreigners; the fact is there are many splendid DPs in China – but I don’t think the country has many splendid editors. I don’t know why.

Somebody like Mary Stephen, a Chinese woman born in Hong Kong who had worked in France with Eric Rohmer, has edited a lot of Chinese movies and helped a lot of people. Suzhou he (Suzhou River, Lou Ye, 2000), benefited a lot from its German editor; Tie Xi Qu (West of the Tracks, 2003) became the masterpiece we know after Wang Bing started working with a British editor. This input of creative talent is often seen in the case of co-productions, as editing is the easiest thing to import from abroad. There are some other cultural issues: I think Chinese people are very sentimental. To please them, more commercially-minded filmmakers insert dreamy flash-backs in slow motion – a trope beloved in local theaters that has a hard time with international audiences… Different spectators dance to different tunes – that’s what makes the whole thing interesting!

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