Independent thinking "not encouraged" in China's film schools

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The Chinese authorities have put an abrupt end to a training programme for aspiring independent filmmakers. And there’s still no official explanation why the 9th Edition of the Li Xianting Film School in Beijing was closed down a day before it was due to begin.

The school’s courses are specifically designed for Chinese circumstances. They encourage creative and independent thinking and help students develop their skills. Last week, more than 20 policemen came to the school and forcibly transferred the teachers and students to a hotel in Tongzhou, a district on the outskirts of Beijing. The next day, the police sent a coach with instructions to take the students home.

Not giving up
Wang Wo, independent filmmaker and lecturer at Li Xianting Film School, told RNW that no convincing explanation has been given for the move. “We were told that the school didn’t have a valid certificate to operate. But we have already held 8 previous editions, and didn’t run into problems. Perhaps the matter is too complicated, and we just can’t put our finger on the problem.” Despite being evicted, the teachers and students are not giving up. ”The only thing we know is that we’ll go on with the training programme as planned,” said Wang Wo.

Showing support
At the same time, students and alumni started a campaign on the Chinese social networking site Weibo, to show their support for the film school. They expressed both their affection for the school and their protest against the authorities ’action in writing on their bodies. They then took pictures of themselves and posted them on Weibo.

None of the students or teachers agreed to return home after the eviction. The school found a location in Hebei Province and the programme has been resumed. “We’re deeply touched. We feared they would leave after the incident. But not a single person went away,” Wang told RNW.

Freedom to imagine
The school’s positive attitude to creativity and independence is not one generally encouraged in China. “Contemporary Chinese independent films are in fact what we called ten years ago ‘underground films’. They are different from Western independent films,” explains Wang. “Unlike mainstream film schools, we offer our students an opportunity to think and imagine freely. It is human nature to think and imagine. As long as there is an opportunity, people start thinking. I’m not saying that mainstream film schools don’t train their students to think independently. But they don’t put an emphasis on this mode of thinking. Some of them even avoid this topic all together.”

The film school aims to be as accessible as possible to potential students. Unfortunately it’s not feasible to offer free training says Wang. “We need money for teaching facilities, accommodation and staff. But if people come to the lectures, they’re welcome to listen for free.”

Closer control
Li Xianting, the founder of the film school, is very upset by the sudden suspension, says Wang, who is pessimistic about the future of China’s independent film industry. “Nobody knows what will take place in the future. It’s not only the school. We feel that the government has tightened its control on cultural matters in general.”

“When the police came to the school, they mentioned the upcoming Beijing Independent Film Festival, and suggested that we should stop it as well. We haven’t come up with a response yet, but we’ll run into problems again this year. This is for sure.” Wang added.

Both the Beijing Independent Film Festival (BIFF) and the film school are funded by the Li Xianting Film Foundation. Last year’s BIFF was forced to close when power was cut half an hour after it opened. The biannual Yunnan Multi Culture Visual Festival also cancelled its public screening this March. The biannual festival which launched in 2003 was China’s first and most influential documentary film festival.