Shanghai Film Festival Interview: Emma Xu

While the culture of appreciating documentary film in China is still in development, film festivals have become an important form of public education, to encourage more audiences to appreciate this particular film genre. Shanghai International Film Festival (SIFF) is the only festival recognised by the Fédération Internationale des Associations de Producteurs de Films (FIAPF) in China. It is also recognised by cinephiles in the country as the most professional festival in terms of its programming. This year, the festival (June 15 – 24) has programmed over 500 films from more than 30 countries to entertain its audience. After the ticket sales went live on June 8, most of the tickets are now sold out. It has been reported that when the sales went live, after one minute 40,252 tickets were sold via Tao Piaopiao, the official online ticketing partner of the festival. Such public enthusiasm is what motivates programmers to dedicate their time and passion to each year’s edition.

Although not as well-known as the three major film festivals in Europe internationally, SIFF is the most important film fiesta for cinephiles in China annually. By having its scale in context, its documentary category for competition and screening can also be considered as significant as Sheffield and Amsterdam. 48 films are selected for the Documentary Category at SIFF this year, 5 of them are in the official competition. Each of the films has at least 2 screenings throughout the festival period. All films have been labelled under 9 different themes this year by the programmer, they include “Masterpiece” (8 films), “Broken by Wars (4 films), “Me in My World” (9 films), “Feminine Power” (5 films), “Worldly Love” (4 films), “Chinese Voice” (4 films), “Artistic Craziness” (7 films), “Against Gravity” (3 films) and “Keep Rolling” (4 films).

Ahead of the festival’s opening on June 15, I have conducted an interview with Emma Xu, Programmer for the Documentary Category, SIFF. Emma is one of the most passionate programmers that I have met, her programme is almost like a love letter that is composed with important messages that she wants to tell the world, via different stories told in these films. She believes in documentary, both in its aesthetic and social responsibility. She sees her job as playing an important part in public education and to inspire the next generation.

Hiu Man Chan: What does Shanghai International Film Festival mean to the Chinese audience?

Emma Xu: SIFF is a fiesta for cinephiles. If you are into art and culture, you would feel the difference in the air in June every year in Shanghai. The air is humid but at the same time, it makes one feel excited. Even on a weekday morning during the festival period, all cinemas are packed with audience. The main festival theatre has several large programme boards and almost over half of the screenings are marked with red dots (sold out). In early days when the online ticketing system was still not available, the audience would queue outside the cinemas and journalists always interviewed the first person who purchased a screening ticket. After the online ticketing system became available, the day when ticket sale goes online becomes the people’s alarm. Cinephiles would share strategies for buying tickets, it is a serious fight and battle for an audience every year. Each of them also has its unique tactics to secure tickets for their favourite screenings. Cinephiles would research the films that they are about to watch before the screenings, they even come up with different viewing strategies. Many people dedicate their annual leave to the festival, we also have an audience coming from regions outside of Shanghai to attend. In terms of the post-screening Q&As, I find our audience very professional. You often find audiences asking questions in fluent French, Japanese or English where they can conduct a full conversation with directors. SIFF has 22 years’ experience in film festival exhibition, it has also provided the best exhibition experience to international directors.

HMC: As the programmer for SIFF’s Documentary Category, what is your ethos?

EX: My programming ethos is to use different films to encourage social awareness, on the basis of being appropriate and balanced. I believe that only if a society has certain awareness that it can be tolerant, sympathetic and understanding. The function of film is to show different hybrid lifestyles and values. On the other hand, I believe in the “pen” and “knife” functions of documentary film, as it has certain social responsibilities. If we see all films screened at the festival as a circle, then the national exhibition policies, artistic standards according to the industry as well as the public’s taste are three points within this circle. If we draw an equilateral triangle by connecting these three dots, then that is the selecting criteria for the festival’s programme. We have a very high standard selecting criteria, but also focus on a film’s artistic, intellectual and social relevance as well as to take the public’s taste into account. After all, this is not a specialised documentary film festival, most of the audience are not professionals but the general public. I value audience/market development, but also the public’s preferences. However, this is different from pleasing or catering to the audience.

HMC: How do current festival audiences in China see the genre of documentary; do they accept it well?

EX: In early years, the Chinese audience was more familiar with documentary films about nature, animal or biography. However, these types of documentary films are closer to television production, which oftentimes include formal interviews, non-diegetic sound recording and historical footage. Over the years, SIFF has encouraged the audience to be more acceptive toward film-like documentary. One time, I was chairing a post-screening Q&As and heard a comment by a little boy to his mother: “Mother, is this a documentary? I think it’s more like a film”. I was very touched to hear this at that time, because through these screenings over the years, the public started to accept this genre and to understand documentary films differently. At this year’s festival, we have selected 48 films in total for the category’s official programme, with over 180 screenings across the two-week festival period. In the previous year, we had over 90% of attendance for documentary films. Nowadays, on several Chinese subscription-based VOD platforms, they have also included foreign documentary films. Many films after their initial screenings at the SIFF, they were immediately acquired by VODs or crowd-raising platform such as Elemeet. Evidently, documentary is being accepted certainly by cinephiles but more and more so by the general public.

HMC: What is the future for documentary films in cinema exhibition?

EX: Since 2016, the Chinese documentary film market experienced a rapid growth. For example, the China-US coproduction BORN IN CHINA (2016) directed by Lu Chuan was a huge success which reached a box-office of ¥66,540,000 (approximately £7.5 million). In 2017, TWENTY TWO achieved ¥0.17 billion in box-office (approximately £19 million) and in 2018, HIDDEN LAND IN NORTHERN TIBET grossed ¥20,576,000 box-office (approximately £2.3 million).

However, the films screened at SIFF are considered arthouse films, they don’t have any self-sustainability or afterlives. Hollywood films do not necessarily need to attend the so-called “three major film festivals” in Europe, because the expectation is different. I believe there is an audience in China who appreciate real documentary, and the size of this group is growing gradually.

HMC: There are 5 UK documentary films selected for this year’s official programme. What is your view on UK documentary and is the Chinese audience familiar with the culture?

EX: The most direct understanding of UK documentary by the Chinese audience is through the BBC. For many years, the name of ‘BBC’ is almost equal to the concept of documentary. I am very pleased that there are 5 UK productions included in this year’s programme. I hope to introduce more diverse UK documentary films to the Chinese audience in the future.

HMC: Which one is your favourite among these 5 films?

EX: All these five selected films are very important. However, AQUARELA (2019) directed by Viktor Kossakovsky is worth being viewed on a big screen. MATANGI/MAYA/M.I.A (2018) by Steve Loveridge and A DOG CALLED MONEY (2018) by Seamus Murphy are not just music documentary, but they also include personal stories as well as values about life and the world. The main protagonists care about the world and wish to contribute to possible changes of current issues, this is one of the main reasons why I have selected these films. UNDER THE WIRE (2018) by Chris Martin is a serious topics about the Syrian war and British journalists. The facts revealed in this film are breath-taking, I believe strongly that war documentaries deserve to be seen by more people. I have always kept my respect toward this type of documentary films. MAIDEN (2018) by Alex Holmes is a very exciting film and its narrative is almost like playing a video game, as the protagonist Tracy Edwards goes through different challenges in order to achieve her dream in sailing. It celebrates women’s achievement in one of the most sexualised sports.

Although all these stories take place in countries that are far away from China, if more people have access to these films and be sympathetic about crisis in other countries, then this will also encourage them to self-reflect and to comprehend one’s own view on the world better.

HMC: Within a film festival, how important is the documentary category and why?

EX: I have met with some very professional audiences. They told me that after watching documentaries, it isn’t that easy to be touched by feature films anymore. Because documentary is closer to reality and more powerful. Of course, this is a process of establishing an awareness. Film festivals have a function in encouraging and developing an audience. It is a visual banquet for the audience, and also an encouragement for arthouse and documentary film directors. If a film by a young director is selected for screening at a film festival, this is perhaps the main encouragement to support the director to continue their career. As a programmer, I understand many documentary directors have been through a tough time, financial, practically and spiritually. Passing on memory is also a way to take up responsibility for the future. Filmmakers adapt the method of documentary film to take up responsibility for the country’s future. Therefore this spirit deserves to be celebrated and supported by the industry and audience.

The 22nd Shanghai International Film Festival will take place between June 14 – 24. For the full official programme of SIFF, please visit here.