Sunday, September 9, 2012

“A Rare and Precious Opportunity” – La Frances Hui on the China Exposé Program in Nepal

Last month the Film Southasia festival, showcasing documentaries from around the South Asia region, took place in Kathmandu, Nepal. China Exposé, a program of six independent Chinese works, was a prominent part of this year's festival. La Frances Hui of the Asia Society, New York, curated the China Exposé program, and I interviewed her last week via email about her work and the problems documentary maker Hu Jie experienced when he tried to travel to the event.

The interview with Hui was conducted as part of my research for an article last week for Crikey about some of the problems certain Chinese filmmakers are currently experiencing. Thanks to Hui for kindly allowing me to publish her interview here at Screening China.

The films screened in China Exposé were: Super, Girls (Jian Yi, 2007), Searching for Lin Zhao’s Soul (Hu Jie, 2004), Petition (Zhao Liang, 2009), Beijing Besieged by Waste (Wang Jiuliang, 2011), Disorder (Huang Weikai, 2009), and Last Train Home (Fan Linxin, 2009).

La Frances Hui
Dan Edwards: Can you tell me how the China Exposé program in Nepal came about, and how you became involved?
La Frances Hui: I have curated some film series featuring independent Chinese films at the Asia Society New York. Last year, I had a series of documentaries focusing on urban China.

Kanak Mani Dixit, the founder of Film Southasia based in Kathmandu, learned about the series and was very impressed with the films. He thought it would be great to present similar ones in Nepal and invited me to curate a series and bring some filmmakers.

The series is particularly meaningful for the audience in Nepal. Nepal’s Maoist government, elected to lead the country in 2008, is close to the Chinese government. Due to the proximity to Tibet and the presence of a large Tibetan population in Nepal, China is very concerned about its image there and has used its political and economic power to assert influence. Any anti-China activity is not tolerated in Nepal.

Nepali people have begun to get very interested in their next-door neighbour but there has been very little people-to-people exchange. This film series offered a rare and precious opportunity for Nepali audience to see aspects of China that are not available through mainstream media.

As for the Chinese filmmakers I invited (Hu Jie, Huang Weikai, Jian Yi), they were all ecstatic when I mentioned Nepal; everyone agreed to go immediately. What is really ironic is that these filmmakers have travelled widely in countries in the West but have had very little opportunity to visit other parts of Asia. It was an eye-opening experience for them.

When you initially contacted Hu Jie, did he indicate that he thought he would be able to travel to Nepal?
Knowing that Hu Jie is often under surveillance, I kept our communication to the basics. I simply told him I was going to present some Chinese documentaries in Kathmandu and wanted to invite him to attend. A few years ago, Hu Jie and I met in New York when I presented Red Art (2008), a documentary about Cultural Revolution propaganda art that he made with Ai Xiaoming, another activist filmmaker/scholar. It was helpful that I could save lengthy introductions of myself and my Kathmandu plans over the phone and via email. He said yes immediately.

Hu Jie has traveled to many film events overseas. The last time he travelled outside of the mainland was end of last year when he went to Hong Kong (which required a visa) to accept a documentary award presented by SUNTV (a satellite TV channel banned for broadcast in China). He did tell me he was asked to "he cha"  (“drink tea” – an informal interrogation) with the authorities upon his return. But it wasn’t something totally unusual for Hu Jie. There was no indication that he would have trouble travelling.

How was he prevented from leaving China?
Hu Jie needed a visa to go to Nepal. Since he lives in Nanjing and the Nepali consulates are in Shanghai, Beijing and Lhasa, we decided to use a commercial travel agent to arrange for a tourist visa, which is widely done in China for people traveling to Nepal or elsewhere. One of the other two filmmakers who went to Nepal also got his visa through a travel agent. But in Hu Jie’s case, mysterious things happened.

The application got delayed repeatedly. The travel agent came up with many explanations including a typhoon somewhere, Nepal’s holiday schedule, and the consulate’s approval delay. They kept promising new and concrete dates of completion until at one point we became suspicious.

My collaborator in Nepal called the consulates and found out that his application was never submitted. One consulate staffer was so kind that he called the travel agent and asked why the application was not turned in. The travel agent replied that Hu Jie had cancelled his application. It was then when we knew that it had all been lies. The travel agent had conspired with hidden forces to hold Hu Jie’s passport hostage and make sure he went nowhere.

Even Hu Jie himself was surprised by the events. We thought about trying to cancel the application, get the passport back, and apply at the consulate in Shanghai directly. But at that point, we also knew that even if he were to get the visa, he would encounter problems at the airport on his departure.

Were you able to stay in touch with him during this process?
He and I were in constant contact during the whole process, via email and phone. I was with him every step of the way. He was even able to send me a statement to be read to the audience before the screening of his film. We didn’t have trouble communicating but it’s obvious that our correspondence was tapped. We are not sure if it’s anything he did recently, a small bureaucrat’s random decision making, or the sensitivity of Nepal that triggered this.

In any case, it was quite disturbing for me to experience the dirty tricks. We weren’t prepared to think that a commercial travel agent would double as a secret agent (even though in retrospect, anything is possible in China). I feel so tremendously sorry that Hu Jie lives this Kafkaesque existence: things happen and are never fully explained. The unpredictability further adds to the frustration. I can’t imagine how much time and effort he normally has to waste in order to make each little step forward. He was noticeably disappointed when we came to the conclusion but he was also very calm and remained hopeful about the impact of his work. It’s impossible not to admire his endurance.

Did any of the other guests from China experience any problems leaving China?
The other two filmmakers, Huang Weikai and Jian Yi, traveled to Nepal and went back to China without a hitch. The films were very well received in Nepal and generated quite a bit of media coverage.

Hu Jie confirmed to me last week via email that his passport has been returned to him, but he was never able to obtain an explanation from his travel agent about the events La Frances Hui relates in the interview above.

Hu Jie’s statement sent to the Film Southasia festival after he was prevented from leaving China is reproduced below.

Hu Jie's statement sent to Film Southasia

Documentary marker Hu Jie, director of Searching for Lin Zhao's Soul.
Thanks for coming to watch my film.   Due to some bizarre circumstances, even though I have tried very hard, I am not able to come to Nepal, a beautiful and friendly country. I am not able to participate in this film event. And I am not able to take part in face to face exchange with you. What a shame! I am not a professional filmmaker. I was once an air force captain, and I had studied at an art academy. I could have become a painter because I love painting. But when I saw human sufferings and the painful past and present, I kept asking myself: What is art? What is my relationship with art?

Once I acquired a very simple family-style video camera. I began to use it to film things happening around me. I realized that this was the artistic medium between me and reality. Later, I used this little camera to enter a not so distant past. I pushed open a door that had previously sealed off history. Behind that door are victims’ corpses, cries and sobs, blood and hidden truths.

I need courage, which I have being a 15-year army veteran. I also have health. I also need an independent mind. I need to know that where I live, there was this history. I am an artist. I need to investigate, document, preserve, and share. Searching for Lin Zhao’s Soul is a documentary film through which I entered this history for the very first time.

This is a territory filled with sufferings. But it also propels us to not give up hope. 55 years ago, [Lin Zhao] experienced the Anti-Rightist Movement. Intellectuals were persecuted and 550,000 of them were locked up. 52 years ago, she experienced the Great Leap Forward, which caused the starvation to death of 36 million people. 46 years ago, she experienced 10 years of Cultural Revolution, a fanatical god-worshipping campaign. 10 million people were persecuted to death. 100 million people suffered brutal tortures of body and soul. But the general public has emerged from humiliation and bloodshed to reflect on all this. Since the Cultural Revolution, bleeding and assault continued to occur.

But the public’s perspective is changing, and so is society. The public has persistently tried to break away from the chains that confine them. All of this has enabled the birth of documentary film.

Finally, I want to thank everyone for coming. I want to thank the Nepalese film festival organizer [Film Southasia] for providing us with this exchange opportunity. I also want to especially thank Ms. La Frances Hui [film showcase curator]. Because of her recommendation, this film can be presented to Nepalese audiences. Thank you very much.

Hu Jie August 14, 2012, Nanjing, China

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