A Chat with Karin Chien of “CHINA NOW: INDEPENDENT VISIONS”

Female-Directors

Producer and distributor Karin Chien recently spoke with CAAM about her latest work curating the international tour CHINA NOW: INDEPENDENT VISIONS. The tour will make available a catalogue of 29 groundbreaking, independent Chinese films previously screened in New York City earlier this year. Featuring the work of Ai Weiwei, Li Luo, Huang Ji, Zou Xueping and Yang Mingming among many others, CHINA NOW highlights the importance and innovation of independent artists in mainland China. With the tour continuing in Europe and North America, it is first time many of these films will be viewed on a world stage.

The tour begins with a screening of Egg and Stone (Huang Ji) on November 19th in San Francisco at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. CAAM along with the Asia Society of Northern California will co-present Cut Out the Eyes (Xu Tong,) the following day. Then, on Sunday, November 22, San Francisco Cinematheque will present an all-day series of screenings as part of this tour at San Francisco’s Victoria Theatre.

Read on to hear Chien’s thoughts on the landscape of independent filmmaking and distribution in China, her expectations for the tour, and what audiences are already saying about the cinematic importance of CHINA NOW.

—Mika Hernandez

Can you tell me a little bit about yourself and your background?
I’ve been an independent film producer for over 15 years. I’m the founder and president of dGenerate Films, a distribution company started in 2008 committed solely to cinema from mainland China. I also worked with CAAM in starting and continue to direct the CAAM Fellowship, a very unique professional mentoring program for Asian Americans in film, television, and media. More recently, with my partners Shelly Kraicer and JP. Sniadecki, we started Cinema on the Edge in order to celebrate the great independent cinema and film festivals coming out of China. We did a really successful run in August and September and we were lucky to receive some money to take the films on a tour. We’re calling it CHINA NOW: INDEPENDENT VISIONS. The tour is really meant to celebrate and honor the grassroots distribution network that has recently sprung up in China.

Can you say a little more about Cinema on the Edge and your role there?
Cinema on the Edge is J.P., Shelly, and myself–just the three of us! We started working together in April 2015. We each bring different things to the process: I bring my producing and distribution skills, J.P. is a filmmaker and an anthropologist and Shelly is a curator and a critic.  Shelly curated the list of 29 films, all from the last three years, and that’s what we’re making available to programmers in each city during the CHINA NOW tour. Venues can select what they think is perhaps the most impactful or interesting for the audiences there.

That really makes it an interactive tour and underlines how each film will have different relevance for varied audiences.
I’m glad you picked up on that! We tried to model this on, or at least pay homage to, the grassroots distribution networks being started by supporters of independent film in China. They’ve created circuits where cafes and bars or art galleries and bookstores participate and show independent films. The organizers are able to send films on this circuit where they’ll be playing 30-50 venues very informally. What they’re doing is very progressive and interesting. You see it being done to a certain degree in the States. But the conversation is still, “does it make sense to form an informal distribution circuit?” “What kind of value does it provide?” This is a conversation that needs to be had with other independent filmmakers in other parts of the world.

How were these 29 films received during their first screening in New York?
Reception was better than we could have expected or asked for. I’ve been doing this for a long time and I know how hard it is to get audiences to come out for subtitled films (laughing). And these are films that have no “stars” told with a different narrative aesthetic and structure. But people really turned out. At the end of series we were selling out screenings. And the audience came to it in a very thoughtful manner. We had many discussions after the screenings going over an hour long. It’s the kind of cinematic experience I really enjoy.

How are you anticipating this international tour to differ from what happened in New York? What are you personally excited for?
I’ve spoken about this before but these films are made outside of the market in China. Since they don’t go through the censorship process they don’t have the ability to be distributed and are therefore locked out of the commercial cinema world. If you don’t have to answer to what the marketplace is looking for, how do you make that film? What would you make? In that sense you have a very different kind of creative freedom. That kind of free filmmaking is revelatory.

I’m also interested in the discussions after screenings about the state of cinema in China, about how filmmakers are working and organizing there. I’m excited to see audiences all over the world engage with this. It’s a very simple hope that we have but in some ways it’s also very radical. Bringing these marginalized filmmakers to the screen is a radical act.

Where is the tour continuing after San Francisco?
London in December. In January we’ll be showing a set of films at the Tromsø Film Festival in Norway. We also have tentative dates lined up in Toronto, Montreal, Chicago, and Vancouver.

I can’t wait to see where the tour goes and how it unfolds!
Thank you! We’re very excited too. We’re also just excited for the filmmakers. These are films that for the most part don’t have distribution, especially in North America. The tour is a great way for the films as a collective to generate interest and awareness.

Regarding the filmmakers, obviously there are many of them, but what feelings do they have about the tour and the upcoming exposure?
It’s a good question. I mean, yes, there are 29 films so it’s hard to speak in general terms. As a group they’re very diverse. We actually have a section on our website called “directors” with their thoughts about this same question.

Is there anything you’d like to say about the importance of these films?
I live in Los Angeles, in Hollywood, and here there’s a tremendous amount of talk on a daily basis about the exploding box office in China or some new partnership. While we are forming these new alliances and opportunities it’s also important to be aware of what else is happening in China’s independent filmmaking scene. The landscape includes these more marginalized, independent filmmakers and what ability they have to make films. Through the series we hope to bring awareness to how incredible this filmmaking is. I think anyone who is interested in great cinema will be interested in these films.

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SCHEDULE

Venue

Time

Film

Director

Yerba Buena Center For the Arts
Buy Tickets
Thurs, Nov 19 @ 7:30PM

EGG AND STONE
鸡蛋和石头 / Jidan He Shitou

2012, 98 min, digital. In Hunan dialect with English subtitles. Introduced by producer, dGenerate Films founder and Cinema on the Edge co-organizer Karin Chien.

Huang Ji
Center for Asian American Media
Buy Tickets
Fri, Nov 20 @ 7:00PM

CUT OUT THE EYES
挖眼睛 / Wa Yanjing

2014, 80 min, digital. In Chinese with English subtitles. Introduced by producer, dGenerate Films founder and Cinema on the Edge co-organizer Karin Chien.

Xu Tong
San Francisco Cinematheque
Buy Tickets
Sun, Nov 22 @ 2:00PM

PING’AN YUEQING
平安乐清

2011, 142 min, digital. In Mandarin Chinese with English subtitles.Introduced by producer, dGenerate Films founder and Cinema on the Edge co-organizer Karin Chien.

Ai Wei Wei
San Francisco Cinematheque
Buy Tickets
Sun, Nov 22 @ 5:30PM

EXPERIMENTAL SHORT FILM PROGRAM

THE POET AND THE SINGER 金刚经 / Jingangjing
DISMANTLING CLEMATIS #16 拆铁丝16#/ Chai tiesi #16
I’M NOT NOT NOT CHEN ZHOU
Total running time: ca. 95 min.

Bi Gan, Zhi Jun, Chen Zhou
San Francisco Cinematheque
Buy Tickets
Sun, Nov 22 @ 8:00PM

YUMEN
玉门

2013, 65 min, 16mm-to-digital. In Mandarin Chinese and Gansu dialect with English subtitles.

Huang Xiang, Xu Ruotao, and JP Sniadecki

ANIMATED SHORT FILM PROGRAM

PERFECT CONJUGAL BLISS 花好月圆
How / 在哪儿
Double Act / 双簧 / Ding Shiwei
Total running time: ca. 95 min..

Zhong Su, Zhang Yipin, Ding Shiwei