A delegation of 10 Chinese commissioning editors has pulled out of attending Sheffield Doc/Fest at the last minute, after the UK festival refused demands from the Chinese Embassy in London to drop Alison Klayman’s doc Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry (pictured) from its program, realscreen understands.
The delegation was due to include execs from CCTV, CETV, Phoenix TV and the Golden Eagle Documentary Channel, and was billed in pre-festival material as “the first-ever group of Chinese delegates… at Doc/Fest, including controllers from all the major documentary channels.”
Two ‘meet the commissioners’ conference sessions were due to take place during the festival this week, in a bid to help Western producers and commissioners learn about working and coproducing with China.
It is understood, however, that when the Chinese embassy in London learned that Never Sorry and Steve Maing’s High Tech, Low Life were part of the screening program, it contacted Doc/Fest directly, demanding that the screenings be cancelled.
Campbell Glennie, Doc/Fest’s marketing and business director, told realscreen: “On the day before the festival opened, our office received a phone call from the Chinese Embassy in London directly asking us to cancel the screenings of Ai Weiwei, which I said was something we could not do.”
A spokesperson for the Chinese Embassy did not respond to requests for comment at press time.
Talking to realscreen, Sheffield Doc/Fest director Heather Croall added: “Officially we have been told that the reason they cancelled is related to a restriction on the number of travel trips they can make to Europe. Unofficially though, there were a number of difficult conversations regarding films we are screening in our program that are critical of the Chinese Government. We thought we had found a way to have the delegation and the films.
“So we are very disappointed that the Chinese delegation will now not be attending the festival, but we remain very hopeful that they will attend in future. Chinese filmmakers, distributors and commissioners will always be welcome at Doc/Fest.”
In addition, Hussain Currimbhoy, film programmer at Sheffield Doc/Fest, told realscreen: “Editorial independence is critical to the Sheffield Doc/Fest program, so allowing any delegation of any kind to have influence on the film program is an idea that we could never contemplate.
“We air documentaries which turn the lens on the Chinese way of life, just as we have films which examine the American, British, Russian and Canadian establishments. Examining different world cultures is a key part of any documentary film festival.”
Among the Chinese commissioners due to join the delegation were Chen Hong, the head of documentary channel China Education Television (CETV); Liu Wen, controller of CCTV Channel 9; Tian Yuan, head of production at CCTV Channel 9; Chen Yang, MD of the Hunan Broadcast Television Golden Eagle Documentary Channel; and Lei Wei, controller of Chongqing Science and Education Channel.
Never Sorry, the debut documentary from Alison Klayman, looks at the life of the titular Chinese dissident artist; while High Tech, Low Life looks at how Internet users in China are harnessing the power of social networking sites like Twitter to bypass censorship of the Chinese media.
It is understood the delegation may now attend Sunny Side of the Doc instead. That event, which takes place June 26-29 in La Rochelle, France, only features a conference element and does not screen films.
Doc/Fest has replaced tomorrow’s (June 14) ‘Meet China’s Documentary Commissioners’ session with a session from BBC ‘Storyville’ editor Nick Fraser, discussing the thinking behind his forthcoming book, Why Documentaries Matter.
Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry had its world premiere at Sundance in the United States in January, and its Canadian premiere at Hot Docs in Toronto in April, where it served as festival opener. Check out the trailer for the film below: