Shanghai: China Pushes Soft Power Through Global Film Festival Alliance

Shanghai International Film Festival president Fu Wenxia - H 2019
Courtesy of Shanghai International Film Festival

International festival leaders gathered to discuss shared problems and plans for a shared future.

The China-led but global Belt and Road Film Festivals Alliance represents a wide array of festivals catering to the whims of wildly diverse audiences, but it has been united by a common sense of purpose in Shanghai this week.

"The first function of festivals is to promote the international exchange of culture and of movies," said Fu Wenxia, executive secretary-general of the organizing committee of the Shanghai International Film Festival. “Also, we all need to send new blood into the film industry – and that is the second function of a film festival and an important role for all of us. Films tell the stories of all of us, and we should have more diversity at festivals.”

There were nine festival heads on stage at SIFF on Tuesday for a seminar that looked at the current state of the international festival circuit and the problems it faces.

They came from as far afield as the Philippines’ Sinag Maynila Independent Film Festival (represented by its founder, filmmaker Brillante Mendoza), the Festival do Rio (executive director Ilda Santiago) and Estonia’s Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival (head of industry Marge Liiske).

"There are a lot of films being made, but there are a lot of films that struggle to find distribution,” said Andriy Khalpakhchi, general director of the Molodist Kyiv International Film Festival. “That’s an important role for festivals. To help them through screenings, through our markets. In terms of our audiences we can also provide a bridge between generations. We can show young people old films and introduce older people to what is new."

China’s Belt and Road Initiative is a pet project of Chinese President Xi Jinping, launched back in 2013 with the primary focus of promoting international economic cooperation, but with an emphasis on the construction of infrastructure.

Government claims are that around 126 countries and 29 international organizations are now engaged in various infrastructure and development projects under the initiative’s umbrella, which was kicked off with a $40 billion investment from China.

Critics claim that the agreements China asks its partners to sign are opaque and come with the risk that poorer countries will fall into long-term and debilitating debt with the world’s second largest economy.

Regardless, the initiative continues to expand in terms of both its reach and its ambition, more recently taking in cultural exchanges and promotions.

The Belt and Road Film Festivals Alliance was launched last June with the purpose of streamlining festivals' access to Chinese films and Chinese filmmakers around the world. At the opening of SIFF on Saturday, it was announced that seven new festivals had joined the alliance this year, taking the number of member festivals and institutions to 38 from 33 countries.

“This is our first year with the alliance, and this is a very important thing,” said Francesca Via, general director of the Rome Film Festival. “It is a way we can share the experiences of every festival. This will have big meaning.”

For visiting festival heads, SIFF provides insight into current trends emerging on the domestic market. Stefan Laudyn, director of the Warsaw Film Festival, used the occasion to encourage more filmmakers to enter the fray. "China has 1.3 billion people, which means you have 1.3 billion stories to tell,” he said. “Tell your stories. Be yourselves. Don’t make American films or any other films. Make Chinese films, please.”