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Independent Beijing Documentary Festival Canceled

Organizers pulled the plug after official festival announced its own documentary section.

BEIJING – Organizers of a long-standing Chinese independent documentary film festival pulled the plug on their own May 1-7 event a day after the state-run First Beijing International Film Festival announced a documentary section, local media reported Wednesday.

Organizers of the Eighth Documentary Film Festival China in the Beijing suburb of Tongzhou surprised participants by canceling the event that for seven years has been one of the country’s few outlets for non-fiction films made outside the state-approved filmmaking system.

"I was surprised that they suddenly canceled the event," director Xu Xin told the English-language Global Times late Tuesday.

Xu, who is best known for his film Karamay, about a theater fire that killed 323 mostly Muslim schoolchildren in western China in 1994, had submitted his new film, Pathway, to the festival for its world premiere, but organizers told him Monday that the festival was canceled. Karamay has never screened in China.

Festival art director Zhu Rikun told The Global Times that organizers worried that filmmakers would get into trouble if this year they went ahead with the festival that has screened more than 300 films from home and abroad since 2004.

"We canceled it ourselves," Zhu said Tuesday. "The overall situation was tense, and we had received a lot of pressure,” he said, without explaining what pressures were encountered.  Zhu did not answer his mobile phone on Wednesday or Thursday.

The pressure against the independent festival coincides with the most expansive assault on dissent in China in years. High-profile critics like the artist Ai Weiwei have been arrested and cut off from communicating with their families and the public. Also, scores of little-known bloggers, rights lawyers and democracy advocates have disappeared into the country’s opaque legal system.

The crackdown began two months ago, prompted by government fears that the Arab revolts against autocracy in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya could spread to China and threaten the Communist Party’s 61-year rule.

The first Beijing International Film Festival, which is set to start Saturday with backing from the Beijing city government, on Tuesday announced a documentary film competition component to its six-day program.

Director Xu said the Tongzhou documentary festival was one of the best of its kind in China because of its independence, high submissions standards and world-famous film commentators.

Festival organizer Li Shanshan said the content of the films planned for this year’s event was not a problem. “It’s a sensitive time" she said.

Karin Chien, the head of dGenerate Films, a New York based company that helps independent Chinese documentarians find distribution outside China, said she was not surprised by the festsival’s closure.

“I didn't see it coming, though it's not a surprise given how heavily the government has cracked down recently," said Chien in an email to The Hollywood Reporter.