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If you build it, will they come? China's City of Short Film

  • China's City of Short Film in Hancheng

China's City of Short Film in Hancheng

In August 2016 Film team members Will Massa and Jemma Desai attended the inaugural forum to celebrate the launch China's first city of Short Film. Here's what they discovered:

"Just to clarify, did you say 47 micro-cinemas?"
"Yes, 47 by the end of the year, increasing to 1000 in three years time."

The questioner goes to ask another one but decides against it and passes the microphone back to an eager volunteer who carries it across the room to another delegate.  

We are in Hancheng, a town of 350,000 people in Northeast China, attending an inaugural forum designed to launch China’s first City of Short Film. We’re here as part of a 27-member delegation drawn from the international short film community and invited by Mr Guan, an unconditional lover of the medium.

On paper the idea runs basically thus: "Dear friends, we are building a short film city here in China and we would value your input on our plans."

Excited and intrigued by the potential of engaging with the world’s fastest growing film market, most international delegates confirm to us during the first coffee break that they didn’t think twice about accepting Mr Guan’s invitation, even those that were in the process of locking the programmes on their own events (by far the most stressful period in the calendar for any festival director). And accept we did, from Burkina Faso and Madagascar, from Mexico and New Zealand, from Korea, Laos, Austria, France, Italy, Germany, The Netherlands and the Ukraine, big-hitter festivals like Clermont-Ferrand, Tampere and Interfilm and smaller festivals just getting started.

Over the course of the four days, it becomes clear to us that Mr Guan has a vision and that he plans to deliver it. But a familiar pattern emerges when we are invited to comment on the various presentations given by the architects of his grand plan: a question is posed and the answer is either disarmingly poetic (‘A short film is like a tree…’) or simply restates the initial facts but more assertively ("Yes, you heard correctly, we are going to make 1,000 short film micro-cinemas out of shipping containers that we will position round the city. We already have the containers.").

It’s less a question of us getting to the bottom of how this might all work, and more an issue of helping him lend some international clout to proceedings. Pesky queries from us about staffing, festival length, student intake, who might teach the courses, online possibilities, audience data, licensing, how to work with the censors, where project funding will come from, international collaboration etc. are batted away with a casual wave of the hand and a smile. We never get the level of detail we crave and begin to realize that planning is probably not as far along as we imagined. There is only one real question on the table for now; are we in or are we out?

This poses a conceptual problem for those of us (most of us) used to working in a certain way, with three-year plans, piecemeal budgets, funding bids and multiple income sources.  In most cases the delegates in the room have built their events or companies from the ground up, starting small and growing year on year, developing their audiences and their partnerships slowly but surely. To be presented with a state-backed top-down system of cultural planning requires a shift in thinking that people in the room grapple with with varying degrees of success. And that’s before we’ve even talked about the scale of the plans, which are really quite staggering: almost from scratch, the Jinzhen Film Company Ltd. proposes to establish (as soon as possible) a short film festival, a short film market, a short film academy, a short film museum, the city-wide installation of 1,000 micro-cinemas and an international short film association.

These proposals are met with more than one set of raised eyebrows and a series of but hows, but whens, and but what abouts.  And the more we protest the clearer it becomes - this is going to happen with or without us and we might need to change the way we think about this kind of endeavor in a rapidly developing economy that has a voracious new appetite, especially amongst young people, for all things cultural.

As the forum continues I wonder if we are suffering a collective deficit of the imagination? Are we simply unable to compute beyond what we know is achievable in our own countries? Our ongoing failure to conceptualize how things might work differently in a country of 1.3 billion people engenders a sometimes misjudged Eurocentric pouring of cold water on plans that ultimately reveals more about us than it does about our hugely hospitable hosts.

For if they are to be believed, then China is experiencing something of an explosion in short film consumption (or ‘micro film’ to give it its local name).  The Short Film City project aims to capitalize on this by boosting the "market" and providing the infrastructure for a fully-fledged short film industry complete with studios, cutting edge tech, production grants and international summer schools. "If you love short film and have a good idea…," Mr Guan tells us, "…then you can come to Hancheng from anywhere in the world and realize your dream."

The evenings offer a chance to catch-up with each other, to ruminate on what we’ve heard and to talk to some of the invited Chinese filmmakers whose work is screened to us after dinner.  We watch experimental pieces, animation and technically ambitious fiction before the European delegates feed back on what they’ve seen and the filmmakers have a chance to respond.

Of particular note is a series of short documentaries depicting a migrant worker community in Tibet. A lyrical, restrained piece of filmmaking, many questions by the international delegation centre around the difficulties that the filmmaker must have faced making a film in Tibet as a Chinese filmmaker. The director brushes off the thorny subject - "leave the politics to the politicians" - more radical for him, is documenting and relating the stories of the ordinary people. This echoes an interesting question made during the forum that morning after we had just been shown a stylish gang thriller set in the region we were visiting – what does the West expect to see in Chinese film? What feels authentic to us? What will the next generation of filmmakers tackle on screen and how will the clichés that circulate about contemporary China be challenged, explored or reinforced?

By the end of day four, we have run out of time (and questions) and we are whisked off to a fabulous closing ceremony where we are outfitted in traditional Chinese dress while an enormous drumming troupe performs in front of us. Drones with cameras soar above us while cameramen on Segways zip alongside, capturing the event. Government officials celebrate us and our newly-formed international association while a reel of voxpops – edited together in a matter of hours - plays out on an enormous screen in front of us, bolstered by the pulsing score from an action movie. If ever there was a public commitment to all things short film then this is it.

There is no doubting Mr Guan’s desire to create a context for international collaboration and exchange. He and the Jinzhen Film Company Ltd. genuinely need this type of engagement if this project is going to work on the scale they are proposing. There is no doubting our enthusiasm for the project either, even if it still remains unclear how an organisation like the British Council can engage in a concrete way.

What happens next will be illuminating – and we will continue to explore how we can establish productive links between UK filmmakers and their Chinese counterparts, and exhibition opportunities for UK short film work in China. It may take some time but Rome wasn’t built in a day (even if the Hancheng Short Film City might be). We’re just sad we couldn’t keep our traditional robes for posterity.