Monday, October 20, 2014

UNAFF ’14: When You Can’t See the Film

For Hollywood, Chinese multiplexes are paved with gold. Unfortunately, you will be more likely to see a leprechaun inside one than a locally produced independent film or documentary. Any film accurately reflecting the struggles of China’s underclass and the corruption of the Communist government will never be approved for domestic distribution. Of course, that will not be an issue for our left coast moguls, but it is a persistent frustration for discerning cineastes and just plain curious viewers. The sad state of official Chinese film distribution is analyzed in Yijun He’s short but revealing documentary, When You Can’t See the Film, which screens as part of the 2014 UN Association Film Festival in the Stanford area.

Sadly, Yijun’s film is especially timely in the wake of thuggish forced closure of this year’s Beijing Independent Film Festival. This is a familiar story to small but hearty band of the underground film clubs that have sprung up to fill the demand for unsanctioned independent film, particularly documentaries. Often meeting in bars or universities, organizers risk arrest and persecution for the sake of cinema, but they are not bandits. Clubs always screen films with the consent and participation of filmmakers grateful to have a forum for their works, typically offering a small honorarium for their appearance.

Since their previous venues were shut down under suspicious circumstances, the primary club featured in WYCSTF ironically rents space from a local multiplex, sort of following the hide-in-plain-sight strategy. It is nice to see American documentarian J.P. Sniadecki (whose The Iron Ministry was one of the unlikely hits of this year’s NYFF) present his previous film Yumen and graciously engage with patrons. On the state authorities’ Richter scale, Yumen is probably about a three, given it applies Sniadecki’s uncompromising ethnographic observational aesthetic to an abandoned Northwest industrial ghost town.

However, Xu Xin’s Karamay qualifies as a radioactive ten-plus. The nearly six hour epic documentary expose the infamous (despite a total media blackout) fire in which nearly three hundred school children perished while government officials were ushered to safety. It is clearly the film to program if you want your screening swarming with cops.

The club organizers Yijun profiles and the filmmakers they support truly represent independent film in its bravest and most honest manifestation. It puts to shame our smug little so-called indies that cling to the label and the marketing platforms that come with it. At a svelte thirty minutes, When You Can’t See the Film is quite illuminating and sadly frustrating for film lovers. Highly recommended, it screens this Saturday (10/25) in Palo Alto, as part of session 27 of this year’s UNAFF.