China Mutes Response to Surprise Cannes Hong Kong Doc Screening, But Raises Questions for Venice

·6-min read

As soon as Chinese film fanatic Li heard the news earlier this month that the Cannes Film Festival had scheduled a surprise special screening for a documentary about political unrest in Hong Kong, he rushed straight to his computer to open the page for his favorite online bookstore.

He already owned a copy of festival director Thierry Fremaux’s book, “Selection officielle,” but he didn’t want to miss the chance to order two more, fearing they could soon be taken off the physical and digital shelves.

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“When something [politically sensitive] like this happens, people worry that those involved will be banned because of past statements, and so we buy their books frantically,” he explained, giving only his surname out of fear of repercussions.

He was understandably concerned.

Cannes’ decision to screen “Revolution of Our Times” from Hong Kong director Kiwi Chow, a chronicle of the mass anti-government protests that drew millions to the street, is certain to be considered a political affront by Beijing. The title itself is a slogan of the protest movement whose very display or utterance is now illegal in Hong Kong. The film’s poster and its homepage on the official Cannes website also states that the doc hails from the “country” of Hong Kong.

Strangely, however, it seems that Li needn’t be so worried.

The world’s best-known brands have been brought to their knees for much slighter perceived offenses, quickly issuing formal apologies to China to stave off boycotts and bans. Rather than fan the flames of nationalist sentiment over “Revolution,” however, Chinese officials, state media and social media platforms have opted instead to actually censor discussion of the incident.

Chinese media published regular news coverage of Cannes without obstruction, and even celebrated Hong Kong director Tang Yi for winning best short for “All the Crows in the World.” (When asked her thoughts on the “Revolution” screening at her press conference, Tang said she hadn’t yet seen it and “[couldn’t] comment on anything right now.”)

Factual reports or commentary about the documentary screening itself, however, were not only nearly non-existent, but actively suppressed.

The only news story seen by Variety about the festival was quickly deleted. It appears that the only remaining article from a mainstream outlet that directly addresses the issue is an angry diatribe from the influential nationalist-leaning website Guancha. The piece slams Cannes for inciting public outrage by acting like a “demon” with its “shameful” decision to celebrate a film that “records criminal acts.” Re-publications and reposts of that editorial by other outlets were also censored.

A search for the term “Revolution of Our Times” on Weibo yields only propaganda about Chinese communist revolutionary history.

While there hasn’t been a complete moratorium on online discussion of the screening, an effort has been made to limit it and stop criticism from going viral. On the Douban culture-sharing platform, a few message boards discussing the incident without naming the film itself remain online, but users there expressed frustration that many of their angry comments are being taken down.

“I’m speechless that my posts keep getting deleted. So we can’t talk about Cannes, is that it?” one asked.

All eyes on Venice

After his screening was announced, director Chow said he was honored and grateful for the film’s Cannes premiere, saying the opportunity “will be a comfort to many Hong Kongers who live in fear” and signal that “whoever fights for justice and freedom around the world are with us.”

China’s non-response to Cannes is a surprising breakaway from its approach to April’s Oscars, which it declined to broadcast. It ordered the event wiped from the Internet despite China-born director Chloé Zhao’s sweep of the top prizes and a China-set, Chinese-language film in the best international feature race. Awards lists, posters for Zhao’s “Nomadland,” and even her name were deleted. At issue appeared to be the Academy’s nod for Hong Kong protest doc “Do Not Split” and past comments from Zhao that were deemed critical of China.

That means that, rather inexplicably, Zhao may be more politically sensitive at the moment than Cannes, despite the “Revolution” screening. This possibility raises questions about China’s approach this year to Venice, which selected Zhao to be part of its jury.

Fremaux himself feels it’s understandable that Beijing would cut Cannes some slack, given all the good will the festival has built up with the country over the years.

“I don’t think there will be problems because Cannes has always championed Chinese cinema and artists — and China knows it. We will continue to do so, all working together,” he told Variety, adding that in his opinion, the “Revolution” surprise won’t make it harder for Chinese directors to attend or submit to the festival in future.

Nevertheless, the Chinese ambassador to France sent the festival a letter of complaint about the matter.

“Obviously, he hadn’t seen the film but he’d read the press and was surely intrigued by it, so it didn’t surprise me that he would write. I believe it’s quite standard for an ambassador to defend his country’s politics,” said Fremaux. “I am of course ready to meet with the Chinese ambassador; dialogue is important.

“But the Cannes Film Festival did not attack China. We simply showed a documentary on a political event that moved the entire world.”

For many Chinese viewers, however, any documentary that’s not opposing the Hong Kong protests is inherently anti-China. On Weibo, one of the most common sentiments is that foreign industry gatekeepers only celebrate works that depict China in a negative light. As one popular military blogger with more than five million followers put it, “Western film festivals only give real awards to films that smear China.’”

Although some speculated that “Revolution” was announced late and unexpectedly to avoid Chinese films pulling out in protest, Fremaux described it as only a matter of timing: the film was submitted very late, just two weeks before opening day.

He added that the doc was selected on purely artistic grounds.

“We liked it very much. We thought it was a beautiful cinematic work and so selected it, that’s all. It’s a documentary about youth, struggle and commitment — this is Cannes’ specialty!” he explained.

One Chinese director whose past work has screened at Cannes echoed Fremaux’s unworried stance about the festival’s future with China, telling Variety: “Don’t be too concerned.”

Others, however, are more circumspect.

One industry insider says China could still be planning punitive action against the festival and just hasn’t yet had time to address the matter. He speculatively mentioned the possibility that Beijing might see the matter as a diplomatic issue under the foreign ministry’s purview rather than that of the propaganda department, which oversees film approvals and media censorship.

One sign that Cannes may be on some level banned will be if the Beijing Intl. Film Festival in mid-August does not screen any Cannes titles, he said. Another could be if the Pingyao Intl. Film Festival is unable to screen Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s “Memoria.

Currently, Wei Shujun’s 2020 Cannes first feature “Striding Into the Wind” is set to hit Chinese theaters on Sept. 3. The Cannes logo, however, is conspicuously absent from the line-up of other festival accolades on its new poster.

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