A Chinese Independent Film Festival Shutters “Indefinitely” As Government Censorship Tightens

Shanghai (via Kentaro IEMOTO/Flickr)

One of the largest independent film festival in China has screened its last movie. China Independent Film Festival (CIFF) announced it would no longer continue in the face of increasing government censorship. Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post reported the news first publicized on the festival’s WeChat page, “We believe it is impossible to locally organise a film festival with a purely independent spirit, and even film festivals as a mechanism need to be reflected on.”

Since its 2003 start in Nanjing, CIFF screened over 1,000 movies over 14 editions. Many of the films the festival programmed dealt with topics that ran afoul of government censorship laws like controversial political events like the Cultural Revolution, 1950s land reforms, or Three Gorges. Other movies featured LGBTQ subjects or HIV patients. Variety noted that the festival’s announcement to cease operations comes when President Xi Jinping has stepped up censorship efforts across the board.

CIFF thrived during a brief period of Chinese independent cinema, from the early aughts until 2012, when the similarly mission-driven Beijing Independent Film Festival was unceremoniously unplugged by government authorities. Stricter censorship followed, and the government poured more funding into state-sponsored festivals that only screened movies cleared by their censors. 

Zhang Xianmin, a film professor and longtime CIFF organizer, told SCMP that the closure was “normal,” a sign of how censorship has once again taken hold in the culture. As the government pressure on independent festivals like CIFF intensified, organizers had to resort to creative methods to screen films, like scrambling addresses and finding out-of-the-way places to covertly hold screenings. Another programmer, Shuiguai, noted that filmmakers were less likely to take on potentially career-ending projects when the government has made film so commercially viable — as long they adhered to the government’s rules.

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