On Friday August 23, the 10th edition of the Beijing Independent Film Festival kicked off at the Li Xianting Film Foundation in Songzhuang, an arts district in the outskirts of Beijing. The schedule promises nearly 100 shorts and features across categories of fiction, documentary, and experimental filmmaking, as well as panel discussions and book launches. But the promotional poster itself illustrates the uncertain fate of the festival, and how, according to documentary juror Zhang Xianmin, “nobody knows what will happen.”

The poster (see right) features the actual hand-written sign that was hastily tacked up during last year’s event, announcing that, “as informed by related government officials, the 9th Beijing Independent Film Festival will be concluded today earlier than scheduled.” Despite the organizers receiving initial approval from the authorities, 2012’s festival was plagued by official pressure and eventually a mysterious power outage that plunged an entire residential block into darkness. Still, several screenings went ahead – some via battery-powered laptops, or in the homes of local artists. Kevin Lee, a Chinese-American filmmaker and critic who attended last year, described it as “a film festival as a moving craps game.”

For this year’s festival, as of 6pm Friday, sources at BIFF said that the afternoon’s opening ceremony was able to proceed, but they were not allowed to screen films today. They’re not sure yet if they will be able to hold the scheduled film screenings, or only forums and discussions.

This time around, the organizers have purchased an electric generator, but are also trying other strategies to help the events run smoothly. Screenings have been scheduled not only in Songzhuang, but in more central Beijing venues ranging from a hip Gulou cafe to 798’s Ullens Center for Contemporary Art. With a wider geographic scope, artistic director Dong Bingfeng hopes the festival can be protected from interference and “can attract audiences of different backgrounds”. The programmers have included two programs of films from outside China, namely Iran and Indonesia, to drive more international discourse, and the festival will also emphasize the importance of a counterintuitive platform for cinema – books. Several forums will center on the Li Xianting Film Foundation’s new publication initiative. “Over the past 20 years, mainland China has generated a lot of independent films, but there’s still a lack of theory and criticism about them,” says Dong. “This year we’ll premiere three new books as case-studies on the international film artists Yang Fudong, Tsai Ming-Liang and Raqs Media Collective.”

Still, the core of the festival remains the same: fiercely independent, low-budget documentaries and narratives from all across China, especially those that reveal the country’s marginal voices. Over the past decade, this is what made Songzhuang a destination for delegates from festivals in Rotterdam, Vancouver, Berlin and Cannes. Selected from a record 300 submissions, this year’s slate ranges from the conceptual mischief of artist Chen Zhou (I am not not not Chen Zhou), to Li Luo’s acclaimed feature Emperor Visits the Hell, a deadpan retelling of Journey to the West in China’s contemporary bureaucracy. One member of the documentary selection committee, New York-based curator Jane V. Hsu, notes a specific thread in the wide breadth of films submitted. “A theme that seemed to pop up was being without a home – documentaries looking at the individual not belonging to the group,” she said, with films focusing on those marginalized by homelessness, disability, disease, ethnicity, and sexual identity.

One such documentary is the powerful I’m the Lucky One by activist-turned-filmmaker He Xiaopei, in which an ordinary woman terminally ill with AIDS and cancer narrates her own life story. After mainly screening the film at NGOs or online, He considers the BIFF a significant platform to share these challenging stories with an audience. “I think it’s very important – it doesn’t matter how many people turn up,” says He. “The festival will be on, some people will see it.”

In a year that has seen the more absolute cancellation of two other mainstays of the local festival landscape (Nanjing’s China Independent Film Festival and the Yunnan Multi-Culture Visual Festival), the organizers of the BIFF have taken a leap of faith in proceeding with the festival. For the moment, documentary director He Xiaopei says “we are expecting more cops than audience.” One can only hope that someday, this ratio will be different.

The Beijing Independent Film Festival runs from August 23-30, in venues around Beijing and Songzhuang. More information available on Li Xianting Film Fund’s Weibo, or download a PDF of the screening schedule here and forum schedule here.

Originally Published in Jing Daily, August 2013.