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Philosophies of Independence: The Li Xianting Film School

Riding the 938 bus out of Beijing’s Guomao station, the Central Business District gradually dissolves on the hour-long journey east to Songzhuang, giving way to a landscape not unlike that found in hundreds of county-level towns across China. An artist community on the city’s periphery, Songzhuang was formed largely under the auspices of Li Xianting, one of China’s foremost art critics and curators whose early support of the 1980s avant-garde vaulted a handful of artists to international fame and auction-house fortune. After the Yuanmingyuan artist community on the edge of Beijing’s university district was officially shut down in 1995, Li Xianting, who would later be called the “Godfather of Songzhuang,” led a mass migration of artists to a remote suburb on Beijing’s distant, dusty margins.

In the mid-1990s, many artists formerly associated with the Yuanmingyuan community moved to Songzhuang and set up bare-bones studios in rustic courtyard homes. The relative geographical isolation of Songzhuang allowed the artists to produce their work at a distance from the chaotic rhythms of the city, forming a community of painters, poets, photographers, filmmakers, and other artists drawn to the remove and fellowship that it offered. Songzhuang was conceived as a kind of utopian space for art production, and after the first wave of artists achieved commercial success in the international and domestic art markets, artists like Fang Lijun, Yang Shaobin, and Yue Minjun went on to invest financially and creatively in the community, supporting Li Xianting in the establishment of the Songzhuang Art Museum.

What was once a community of artists working in modest courtyard homes gradually transformed into a burgeoning suburban art district with more elaborate studios, galleries, and a core institution, the Songzhuang Art Museum, with backing from the local village government. After the founding of the Songzhuang Art Museum, discussions arose about how to build a comprehensive arts academy. There was a vision to form a kind of counter-institution that could push China’s arts education in more progressive directions, and react against a dominant academy system seen as inhibiting creative potential and placing emphasis on formal technique, classical sensibilities, and market-friendly mimicry of China’s art stars of recent years. Yet establishing such an art institution, particularly one with a markedly anti-institutional bent, was no small task. Without official approval, adequate funding, and a seasoned core of instructors and administrators, the project to found this independent arts academy proved overly ambitious and ultimately never came to fruition. But not all hope was lost: inspired by the earnest energy of the independent film scene, Li began to turn his attention to a world that echoed contemporary art at an earlier moment.

Down the road from the Songzhuang Art Museum, independent filmmakers were gathering for small salon-style screenings and discussions at Fanhall Films Arts Center, founded by Guangdong native Zhu Rikun in 2001. In recent years, Fanhall Films has become a major platform for alternative film culture in China. The venue plays host annually to the China Documentary Film Festival (DOChina) and the Beijing Independent Film Festival (BIFF), maintains a strong presence in the blogosphere (and Weibo-sphere), and houses what is arguably the most extensive archive of independent Chinese cinema in the world.

Over the years, Li Xianting observed how many of the filmmakers who came to Fanhall had crossed over from other spheres of the art world. These filmmakers had actively distanced themselves from China’s film academies and its commercial film industry, taking positions as outsiders to freely pursue subjects and content that would otherwise have been difficult or impossible to document from within the filmmaking establishment. Recalling the previous decade and the boom of the Chinese contemporary art market, Li remarks, “contemporary art lost its significance and meaning after the artists all got rich and famous.” His interests thus took a turn. In 2006, he founded the Li Xianting Film Fund to support the projects of China’s independent filmmakers, with Zhu Rikun managing the direction of the Fund’s projects. And in 2008, he decided to open a film school of his own to offer short “training courses” (peixun ban) taught by China’s independent directors, assembling a floating faculty of filmmakers to come to Fanhall to lead practice-based workshops for students when not out shooting their own films.

China has long had a well-established mainstream filmmaking infrastructure, and film schools like the Beijing Film Academy (BFA) to manufacture big-name filmmakers who now produce big-budget features for domestic and international consumption. Institutions like the BFA take students and carefully shape them into masters of a particular discipline through coursework and production experience in rigidly systematized departments (screenwriting, editing, cinematography, directing, etc.).

Li Xianting Film School, on the other hand, is carving out provocative new terrain through its emphasis on independent thinking (duli sikao) and what it calls “a spirit of independent creative production” (duli chuangzuo jingshen). While it may lack the financial resources, or even the ability to grant formal degrees, of a place like BFA, Li Xianting Film School creates an open environment that encourages students to explore the possibilities of filmmaking as a tool for articulating their individual attitudes towards society. Led by Zhu Rikun, it encourages students to face the realities of contemporary China, while at the same providing training in the basic technical skills required to direct, produce, and edit films using digital technologies.

Since the school was founded in 2008, it has been offering two to three sessions each year to students from a range of backgrounds. Courses take the form of one-week workshops, where students pay a tuition fee of RMB 1400, and forty-day summer sessions, which cost RMB 5000. Students live in dormitories at Songzhuang and attend lectures and practice-based workshops at Fanhall Films. Since its founding, the school has drawn students with ages ranging from twenty to sixty. Some may have worked previously in film or related visual fields, while others have little or no practical filmmaking experience. Regardless of their backgrounds, the students all share a common enthusiasm for film and hope to acquire the basic technical skills that will allow them to one day realize their future projects. The school emphasizes experiential forms of learning that allow for students to engage closely with the surrounding community, and the fundamentals of documentary filmmaking serve as the core of instruction when students first arrive. After participating in a number of self-discovery and community-based assignments, students then go on to produce short films—documentary, narrative, or experimental—for their final projects.

The current class sizes for each session range from ten to fifteen students, and nearly every student has access to his or her own DV camera—the cameras and other equipment have been donated by independent directors such as Li Hongqi, Zhao Liang, and Xu Xin.

The instructors at Li Xianting Film School are a crew of independent filmmakers with extensive experience directing films in China. The major pedagogical voices of the program are Ying Liang, director of The Other Half (Ling yiban, 2006) and Good Cats (Hao mao, 2009), and experimental filmmaker Wang Wo, director of Noise (Renao, 2007) and Zheteng (2010). Their films mirror the kind of social consciousness and philosophy of independence that the school works to promote. Wang Wo has an editing studio on the grounds of Fanhall Films, where he often holds class, while Ying Liang and several of the other filmmakers who teach at the school—Feng Yan, Liu Yonghong, Cui Zi’en— make trips back and forth between the city and Songzhuang to give lectures and lead workshops.

Lectures come from a number of different perspectives, including that of Li Xianting himself, who teaches about major movements in Chinese art of the twentieth century. Fanhall Films director Zhu Rikun addresses topics in the politics of filmmaking in China, and film scholar Zhang Xianmin delivers a talk on the past decade in Chinese independent cinema. Students also participate in an acting and performance workshop led by the legendary Wang Hongwei, the title character in Jia Zhangke’s Xiaowu (1997). These lectures and workshops lay a framework, but are not the main focus of the course, which places more emphasis on practice-based learning and self-discovery.

Wang Wo speaks to the type of intellectual environment they hope to foster at Li Xianting Film School: “As far as independent thinking is concerned, I feel that everyone has a natural ability to think for oneself. While it may at times be restricted or suppressed, this ability still exists. All we need to do is create a space for this type of thinking and expression and it will naturally emerge.” Yet some students, having gone through the Chinese education system, may not always take to this wide-open freedom, so this concept of “independent thought” is, of course, not treated as dogma. As Wang Wo suggests, “We’re not going to tell you what ‘independent thinking’ is, or that you have to think more independently; we simply offer a place for students to explore, and then see how they respond to the opportunities that this environment creates.” The students’ first assignments encourage them to engage with the surrounding community in a series of projects based on the theme “Discover Songzhuang.” Students enter the community and choose a subject of study, perhaps an artist, a migrant worker, or a woman selling vegetables at the market. Students then screen their footage in the Fanhall Films cinema, where instructors and fellow classmates offer critiques. The students continue this project, gradually unfolding deeper layers of their documentary subjects during their time at Songzhuang. After this series, some of the students may not feel the need to attend lectures, and might choose to spend their time engaging with the community and developing longer-term film projects, their truancy actively encouraged by the instructors. While at Songzhuang, students become a part of a vibrant community of filmmakers and thinkers. The traditional hierarchy between instructor and student is often broken down, allowing students to spend time getting to know their instructors over dinners hosted by the filmmaker faculty, where everyone drinks together and shares stories into the wee hours of the morning. These experiences offer a great deal of perspective to students who have been trained in a more rigid academic system.

Diao Dingcheng, a former student who has since returned to work as a program coordinator for Li Xianting Film School, feels that the greatest value of the course extended beyond the mechanics of film production: “It taught me how to make judgments, increased my social awareness, and taught me how to address larger questions.” At Li Xianting Film School, students are encouraged to face society with an open mind, to learn from daily experience and study their surroundings, and to develop theories about the world in which they live.

Though the school has succeeded in constructing a kind of utopian environment for aspiring filmmakers, independent filmmaking in China is an incredibly grueling and underappreciated practice, one without an infrastructure for exhibition and distribution beyond a small circuit of film festivals in cities like Beijing, Nanjing, Kunming, and Chongqing. By choosing to work on the periphery, China’s independent filmmakers can produce their films with autonomy and relative freedom, yet this position taking offers them few opportunities to engage broader audiences. While their films reveal penetrating insights into the state of contemporary Chinese society, they can only be accessed by a small circle of filmmakers, scholars, and festival-goers in China, or an even smaller niche group of film enthusiasts who promote China’s independent films through small-scale distribution and exhibition abroad.

Despite its initial success, the future of the school and its educational approach remains uncertain. There is no clear paradigm to follow, as Li Xianting Film School is exploring uncharted terrain in China’s educational landscape. While in the United States and Europe there has been a relatively established framework for independent cinema since the 1950s and 60s, the concept of independent film production only began to emerge in China in the 1990s. Students who study at Li Xianting Film School may choose to follow in the footsteps of their instructors, producing socially relevant films that reflect the realities of contemporary China, though their films may only reach a small group of spectators. If they attempt to enter the mainstream filmmaking apparatus, they will undoubtedly struggle to compete with their counterparts from larger film school institutions. Li Xianting Film School can’t offer students a diploma or an official certificate, so rather than having students pay hefty tuition fees for a document that may or may not land them jobs in the commercial film industry, the ideals of independent thinking and self-discovery become the currency in this independent filmmaking economy.

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Text: Benny Shaffer
Photography: Wenjei Cheng

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