Hainan Film Festival Advisor Roger Garcia Explains the Vision Behind China's Biggest New Cinema Event

Hainan International Film Festival artistic advisor Roger Garcia - H 2019
Courtesy of Getty Images

Held on the tropical resort island known as "China's Hawaii," this year's Hainan festival features appearances by Ethan Hawke and Asghar Farhadi, along with an all-new competition section judged by a jury led by French actress Isabelle Huppert.

When Asian film industry veteran Roger Garcia joined China's Hainan International Film Festival as artistic advisor last July, he gave the upstart event an instant jolt of credibility.

A familiar presence at industry events and symposia across the region, Garcia co-founded and headed the respected Hong Kong International Film Festival for eight years. In Hainan, he has inherited a very different set of working parameters, however. The event, which quietly held its first pilot edition in 2018, has the full approval and financial backing of the local government — a must for any major cultural activity in mainland China — but it also will be constrained by Beijing's notorious censorship regime.

Early indicators suggest that the financial backing Garcia and his team have to play with is considerable. For its inaugural edition last year, the event corralled an impressive set of stars to walk the red carpet and participate in public discussions, including Johnny Depp, Juliette Binoche, Mads Mikkelsen, Nicolas Cage and Bollywood mega star Aamir Khan, as well as A-list Chinese talent such as Jackie Chan, Vicky Zhao and Wang Baoqing.

Hainan's second edition again features some significant film world star power — Ethan Hawke, Oscar winner Asghar Farhadi, Isabelle Huppert, Abel Ferrara and Japan's Kiyoshi Kurosawa are all on the Chinese island this week — but also, thanks to Garcia, a richer roster of film programming. This year's festival features an all-new international competition section and an awards ceremony that will be known as the "Golden Coconuts." 

Other areas of the selection include beachside evening screenings and sections devoted to classics, regional Asian work, Chinese moviemaking and global cinema. For international guests, the island's luxury resorts and semi-tropical climate offer a welcome change from other destinations on the fall/winter festival circuit, such as temperate Toronto or Tokyo.

THR connected with Garcia midway through the festival to talk about his curatorial vision, what it's like working for a Chinese government-backed cultural event, and how the festival fits into Beijing's bigger plans for "China's Hawaii."  

What's the pitch for the Hainan International Film Festival? What will it bring to the international film festival circuit that was missing?

The main pitch is that we aim to produce a world-class international film festival in China that puts quality over quantity. Because of our timing in December, we aim for a very curated selection of films that draws from all of the other great festivals that take place during the calendar year. We intend to be leaner than China's other big established festivals in Shanghai or Beijing. We're looking to show about 120 to 150 films. 

In terms of creating something for the wider world, I think that's a work in progress, because I believe we have to establish ourselves before we can make big asks of the industry. Obviously, we hope that Hainan will become a destination for the international film community over time. Our position in the calendar, in early December, gives us good access to earlier festival favorites and awards season films from around the world, as well as some of the U.S. titles coming out during the Christmas season. It’s a bit of challenge for Chinese films since many of the big titles are held back for the Chinese New Year in January and February, which is the biggest release period of the year.

So I get the impression you don't plan to be in the business of competing for premieres. 

Yes, that's right. It will be similar to the way we operated in Hong Kong. I'm not obsessed with premieres. I'm more interested in showing interesting movies. I'm prepared even to show some films that have been released already in China. It's important to look at things in terms of the geography of the country itself. The country is huge and people in the South, in places like the Hainan Island, would not necessarily have access to the same festival films that people in the big cities of Shanghai or Beijing are watching. So we hope to bring high-quality film programming to the local Hainan audience, to cultivate local interest in compelling cinema. 

Nothing of this scale happens in China without official permission. There have been other attempts in China to launch festivals with international competitions, but they ultimately fell aside because they didn't receive the necessary government support. How would you describe the official support that the Hainan festival has?

The festival was in place before I took up my current position, but my understanding and personal observation is that the government at both the national and local level has been very supportive, and that also includes [state broadcaster] CCTV, which helps to organize and broadcast the opening and closing nights nationwide. That support also includes financial support, which is very important. I have met various officials at different ranks and they all welcome the festival, and hopefully the attention that it will bring to Hainan Island.

What is your sense of what the government hopes to achieve with the event? How does it fit into their broader plans for the region?

My understanding is that the government hopes to develop Hainan Island’s physical and cultural infrastructure. The province will be a free-trade zone next year and Hainan could become a kind of portal for Southern China and South East Asia. The film festival helps to draw attention to Hainan both from the film industry and general public.

The amount of Hollywood celebrity participation at Hainan's first edition last year was pretty striking. Is this something that will continue? 

I wasn't involved in the organizing last year, although I did go as a guest and appeared as a panelist. I have to say, it was a very impressive collection of celebrities and film figures that they managed to get there for the very first edition. These kinds of names really create national and international impact for a new event — it helps to have participants that the public really knows and loves. They draw attention, and the Chinese filmmaking community can learn a lot from interacting with these veteran film figures during their master classes and other public discussions. This year we have Japan's Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Stanley Kwan, Asghar Farhadi and Ethan Hawke, among others. We had the world premiere of Simon West’s Sky Fire. Filmmakers Milcho Manchevski and Abel Ferrara, are on the jury presided over by Isabelle Huppert. I believe this kind of participation will continue to be an important facet of the festival. 

Can you tell us more about the sensibility and logic behind your selection process?

I have organized the sections of the festival in a fairly standard way — our sections include: International, Asian, Chinese language, Discovery and Classics. We have a couple of other sections to reflect something of Hainan’s general atmosphere, such as the “It’s Always Sunny” section, which I guess is self-explanatory! Taking advantage of Sanya's climate, we will have outdoor screenings near the beach, such as Chaplin’s Gold Rush with a live orchestra.

Although I said that we're really focused on a highly curated film selection, we're also trying to show films that will appeal to a general audience. Quite frankly, Hainan has not really had a film festival before, so, in a way, it's a learning process for me, because I need to see who the audience is here. Depending on what the audience reacts to, we can adjust the future selection approach as we go along.

Given that this is something you pay close attention to, I'm curious to ask your thoughts on how the Chinese audience's tastes have evolved in recent years? And what do you see as the trends right now? 

Hollywood films are still big, of course, in China, but you will see that big-budget, special effects-driven Chinese action films like the upcoming Wings of Everest and Sky Fire also now have strong potential for big box office. At the same time, the government is also pushing for an art film circuit, which can help balance the spread of types of films. While the mass audience still goes for action, sci-fi and romance — like everywhere else in the world — there is the possibility of growing audiences for innovative films like Bi Gan's A Long Day's Journey Into Night, which also got an international release. Another example could be Over the Sea by young director Sun Aoqian, which I watched with the festival audience here in Hainan. I was impressed by their very positive response to a movie that in the West we would definitely call an art house film.

Film festivals are always bureaucratic affairs just by their nature, but for you, moving from operating in Hong Kong to mainland China must have entailed accepting even more governmental constraints. How are you finding that, and coping with it?

Well, it's interesting. I'm a consultant, not the actual executive director. I went into this with eyes wide open, and I understand that it is what it is. There are certain norms in China that you have to live by. I've had some discussions with the government officials involved, and they understand the situations we face. I think what is important is to try to build an understanding between the festival and the official authorities, because it is an official film festival. They have the rights to it, and they pay a large part of the costs. We try to show what we think will, first of all, appeal to the audience, and also what we think is acceptable and tolerable to our backers. That's just the way it is if you're producing a film festival in a country like China, or India or anywhere in the world, really. You have to live by the various norms that are laid out. I accept that and I'm going to produce the best festival I can. Now that the festival has begun, the programming has been getting a generally positive response. It’s actually encouraging to me to hear the government officials say this as well, both in private and public.

Is there anything you can share that you've learned so far about how festivals are viewed, or handled differently here?

I would say, in general that the film festival has a certain leeway in deciding what to show. The national authorities are involved in some parts of the selection, but not all. In some cases, we are actually given the trust, or permission, to basically just look at films and choose the ones that we think are appropriate. I didn't really know how that breakdown worked before I was involved in this project.

I suppose there are a few key taboo topics that they care about, but outside of those areas, you have flexibility?

Yes, there are. You know, overt sex and violence is sensitive. But I think I would adopt that point of view anyway, because if I'm showing films outdoors for a Chinese audience, with lots of kids in attendance, I'm not going to choose a really violent horror movie. We do have some flexibility, which I appreciate.

How does the Hainan setting contribute to the festival? You've spent a fair about of time here by now — what are those not in attendance this year missing in terms of atmosphere and the Sanya experience? 

I have spent some time in Hainan, but just Sanya, where the festival takes place. I can say that the setting and weather in early December is just great — comfortable climate; sunny days. Some of the very best film festivals take place in resort towns, and it's the festivals that have made them world famous — Cannes and Busan, for example. Sanya is a resort town with restaurants, hotels — the type of infrastructure you need to support film festival visitors. Unlike last year, the festival now is concentrated in one venue — a convention centre with a multiplex cinema where we can show all the films, house the film and project market, hold panels and master classes. And it’s all within 10-minute walking distance of the hotels. This location advantage and convenience is a huge step in the right direction. Did I mention there's also a fake beach in the hotel complex with a big screen? I don't think you'll find that at any other major festival!