Chinese delegation pull out of Sheffield Doc/Fest after organisers refuse to censor programme

The Chinese delegation of commissioning editors has pulled out of the Sheffield Documentary Festival due to the screening of a film about artist Ai Weiwei called Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry. Directed by Alison Klayman, the film observes the subversive Chinese artist as he balances his art in Beijing with the politics that inform it. The internationally famous artist is one of the Chinese regime’s most outspoken critics and the film documents his working process, his family life and his clashes with police and authorities between 2008 and 2010. The film came to prominence when the artist was arrested over alleged tax-fraud in 2011.

Seen as the poster child for acceptable, overt political dissent in the mainstream, Wei Wei challenges the censorship and suppression of free expression in China. He turns ordinary items into the unexpected. Some works are like subtle asteroid strikes — like filling Tate Modern with delicate handmade sunflower seeds. Others, such as a notorious photograph of Weiwei flashing a middle-finger salute at Tiananmen Square, are more direct. All of it is an affront to the rosy, progressive image of a happy China willing to profit from capitalism but rejecting of democracy.

One of the scheduled Chinese delegate sessions at Doc/Fest would explore how filmmakers could work as creatives with Chinese outlets, platforms and agencies. Seen as a new and exciting market and target audience to documentary makers, festival organisers regret the delegation’s 11th hour decision to withdraw.

Heather Croall, director of Sheffield Doc/Fest says:

Officially we have been told that the reason the Chinese delegation 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 programme that challenge issues of freedom of speech in China. We came under pressure to not show certain films. We resisted the pressure, and the films remain in the programme.

Filmmaker and journalist Sean McAllister, whose film “The Reluctant Revolutionary” features at the festival, says the Chinese delegation’s withdrawal has sparked the Streisand Effect.

“They’ve succeeded in promoting the very film they are boycotting because everyone wants to see it now. Maybe this time off will give [the Chinese] some time to reflect on their support for Assad’s murderous regime [in Syria].”

Festival organisers say that the official Chinese delegation cancelled on 5 June – one week before its start. The programme also features a film on Chinese citizen journalists fighting against the Great Firewall of China called “High Tech, Low Life”. The delegation’s attempts at censoring the Festival have resulted in them banning themselves and a Doc/Fest spokesperson said “there may still be some Chinese producers and directors who’ve attended independently.”

The delegation of 10 and the Chinese embassy in London could not be reached for comment.

Leah Borromeo is a journalist and filmmaker who has worked as deputy foreign editor at Sky News, Channel 4 News and APTN