Monday, August 10, 2009

To Show or not to Show, that is the film festival question.

A screening of the film The 10 Conditions of Love ran into some problems at the Melbourne film festival:

Chinese government officials had demanded that Australia "immediately correct its wrongdoings" by canceling the screening and Ms. Kadeer’s visa. When those requests were ignored, the Chinese government threatened on Friday to sever Melbourne’s sister-city ties with the Chinese city of Tianjin.

Seven Chinese-language films from China, Hong Kong and Taiwan were withdrawn, their directors saying the festival had become too politicized.

But that was not all.

Zhou Yu, a 24-year-old computer programmer from Nanjing, said he hacked into the festival’s Web site and defaced it with a Chinese flag to defend his country’s honor. "The government’s protests were useless," he said by e-mail. "It’s patriotic to use my own skills as a common citizen to fight back."

Mr. Zhou said that while he had not seen "The 10 Conditions of Love," he believed the film was factually inaccurate. “This movie distorts history, confuses and poisons people’s minds and impacts national unity,” he said. His actions have drawn widespread praise from many Chinese, although there seems to be little room for divergent views on the matter. On Kaixin, a popular social-networking Web site here, a recent poll asked visitors to weigh in on Mr. Zhou’s actions but gave only two choices: "support" and "super support."

Now, this guy had not seen the film but he felt justified in hacking into the festival site. And others who hacked into the site prevented access to all the other films showing at the festival. Clearly, none of those people have any idea into how much work goes into setting up a film festival.

Reading this brought back some memories:

1) In 2007, the Vancouver Film Festival was programmed to show Hu Jie's film Though I am Gone?. I had initially seen an entry for the film on VIFF's website but when I clicked on the film title, there was no info. I figured it was a typo and there was no such film. My belief was confirmed a few days later when the film disappeared from the festival's website and was not mentioned in the program. But I later learned that the film was indeed shown. Since I had originally seen the film title on the website, I know that the festival made sure there was no trace of the film to be found anywhere later on. Self censorship or induced censorship? or both?

2) In 2006, we were planning on showing Micha X. Peled's insightful documentary China Blue (about the jean making sweat shops in China) at our Asian film festival. But since we were a start-up film festival, we were looking for assistance from the Chinese consulate. We were told that if we showed China Blue, we would get no help from them. Now the film does not put China in a bad light but instead shows the Western corporations as greedy in forcing the Chinese companies to shave off a few cents from the cost of each jean. But still, the film was deemed inappropriate. My festival director somehow managed to get the film shown. Although his efforts were in vein as only 4 people came to see the film.

3) Also in the same Asian festival in 2006, the local Vietnamese community told us that they would not support us if we booked any films from Vietnam as they were against the government there.

The above were government related political decisions. But there are always other decisions which decide if a film is going to be shown or not:

4) In 2005, CIFF wanted to show Deepa Mehta's Water and were told by the distributor that the only way they could get the film was if they opened the festival with their movie. The festival was not planning on opening with that movie but in the end, they had to comply. Interestingly, Water also played on opening night at TIFF.

5) We had to pull a film from our Asian festival (2006) because the producer was holding out hopes that his film would get selected at TIFF. Since TIFF liked to have exclusive premiers, the producer feared that if his movie showed at our no name festival, it would ruin future chances of glory for the film. In a way, I understood that decision and even got an email from the director where he mentioned that he envisions a day where film-makers don't have to play political games for festival selections.

Getting a film to show at any film festival is never easy. There are many many hours of negotiations and programming that goes into getting a film to show. And even after the film is confirmed, further problems can arise due to prints not arriving on time or technical problems with the projector. I have had to get on stage to explain the technical difficulties with a film and have also refunded money to frustrated audience members due to a faulty projector. Neither was a fun task. But why would hackers care for any of this? So easy to bring a festival website down and ruin hours of volunteer work that people have done?

But hey, who watches movies at film festivals anyhow? :) Don't critics debate the merit of film festivals every year? So if the government didn't protest, maybe this film would have shown at the Melbourne festival and disappeared. But now, this is news. Sort of.

The bottom line is every film festival is always criticized every year, sometimes for the film it books and sometimes for the film it does not book. But no one dares to shout at a multiplex for continuing to show cinematic trash week in, week out. Hmmm..

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