UNMADE IN CHINA: The 2nd Xiamen International Animation Festival
Monday November 30th 2009, 1:58 pm
Filed under: Festivals
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When I received my invitation to the 2nd Xiamen International Animation Festival (October 30 to November 3, 2009) I looked forward to my second visit to Xiamen.  The first edition of the festival had been a positive experience even though the quality of the animation that I saw was sadly lacking in quality. The members of ASIFA China who organized the event showed every sign of trying to follow ASIFA festival guidelines.
The e-mail that invited me said that my formal invitation, which is necessary to get my visa to visit China, would follow.  Then I waited, and waited, and waited.  Months passed.  It finally arrived on October 13th, barely two weeks before I was due to leave for China.  I had assumed that I was being invited for the entire festival, so I was very surprised to see that I would arrive on the 1st of November and leave again on the 4th.  I would only have two full days there and be in the air or in airports for almost as many hours as I would be at the Festival.
I later found out that four other ASIFA Board Members had similar problems receiving their invitations.  It turned out that the local government had taken control of the festival away from last year’s organizers.   Although ASIFA was still listed as a co-organizer, ASIFA’s policies regarding treatment of films and filmmakers was being woefully ignored.  Apparently the new government organizers decided to “uninvite” three ASIFA Board Members to save money but we were not informed about this.  What I did not find out until later was that we were not reinvited until ASIFA made it plain that either the entire Board be invited or none of us would attend the festival.
On October 29th I was preparing to leave for China on the 31st when an e-mail arrived from Oscar winning animator Gene Deitch who had been invited to the festival as a special guest and key note speaker.  He had gone to the Chinese Embassy in Prague, where he lives, and was denied a visa. Deitch thought that they took one look at his age and decided that they didn’t want to risk having to ship a guest back home in a body bag.  Gene is 85 years young and shows no signs of slowing down either mentally or physically.  The festival staff was very apologetic and asked Gene to videotape a message to be played at the festival.  He duly did that and his controversial message can be seen on over a dozen web sites (Google “Gene Deitch, Xiamen”).
That evening I also received an e-mail from my ASIFA Board colleague Mohamed Ghazala from Egypt who had received his invitation to give a presentation in Xiamen several months before.  He had been anxiously awaiting his plane ticket which had finally arrived that day.  The festival had arranged for him to fly out the next day (October 30th).  He would arrive on the 31st,  give his presentation on the 2nd and then depart for the airport 15 minutes after he finished delivering his paper.   He would be in China one full day, which was even more absurd than my two day visit.  A very frustrated Mohamed decided not to attend the festival at all.
I was beginning to ask myself “Why am I going?” but I was very curious to see for myself exactly what was going on so I forged ahead. I had a 4 hour delay in Beijing due to an unexpected heavy snow storm, which I later learned was also a great surprise to the local residents.  The government had seeded the clouds for snow as an experiment without announcing it to the public. Unfortunately I arrived too late on Sunday to visit the Animation Products and Technology Exhibition and Exchange or to see the 2 days of Cosplay Competition.
Monday dawned very early with an 8:15 meeting time to take the bus to the Forum.  After welcoming speeches from the Director of the Xiamen Municipal Information Industry and Nelson Shin from ASIFA, the General Manager of the Application and Multi-Media Center of China Mobil, Fujian Branch, delivered the keynote speech “Mobil Phone Animation, the Next Stage for Animation.”

ASIFA guests in our festival bus
ASIFA guests in our festival bus

After lunch there were more talks. The program ended with three presentations from ASIFA Board Members.  Heikki Jokinen from Finland talked about Scandinavian animation, illustrating his remarks with clips from several beautiful films.  I wish that we had time to see the films in their entirety but the 30 minute time limit per presentation made this impossible.
Ed Desroches of ASIFA Colorado presented early American animation and Brett Thompson screened excerpts from classics including  Little Nemo, Gertie the Dinosaur, and one of my personal favorites, Felix Woos Whoopee.  I would have liked to see all of Brett’s excellent films, but we were scheduled to attend a banquet hosted by the Mayor of Xiamen at the hotel that evening . Unfortunately the Mayor arrived almost two hours early so Brett’s presentation was cut short and we were all rushed back to the hotel.  I guess that not keeping the Mayor waiting was more important than animation.

ASIFA Atlanta President Brett Thompson and ASIFA International Executive Director Bill Dennis
ASIFA Atlanta President Brett Thompson and ASIFA International Executive Director Bill Dennis

The next day a small group of us were taken to Gulangyn Island.  This beautiful island was home to Westerners during Xiamen’s colonial past and has beautiful architecture in a world wide array of styles.  Streets in China are packed with automobiles, bicycles and pedestrians so the vehicle free island is a refreshing change and a perfect place to stroll through narrow streets and lush, tropical vegetation. The island is also home to China’s only piano museum. We were taken to a government owned tea shop where a young lady brewed and poured several varieties of tea for us.  Unfortunately our visit had to be cut short so that we could be back at the hotel in time for four of us to go to rehearsal for the Cyber Sousa Award Ceremony that evening.  We ended our visit to the island with a wonderfully bumpy, fast speed boat ride back to the mainland.

Heikki Jokinin ASIFA Finland inspecting tea on Gulongyn Island
Heikki Jokinin ASIFA Finland inspecting tea on Gulongyn Island
Tea server at the government Tea House on Gulongyn Island
Tea server at the government Tea House on Gulongyn Island

Heikki, Brett, Hannah (Brett’s girlfriend) and I were requested to accept the awards for Best Foreign Animation.  In my article about the 2008 festival I complained that these awards were accepted by young Chinese who acted as if they had won the awards.  When we were told that we would appear on stage I assumed that it would be announced that we were accepting the awards on behalf of the absent animators.  At the rehearsal it became apparent that this was not the case.  We were told that when the trophy and diploma were presented to us we should smile gleefully, wave at the audience and look very proud.
I was very upset and embarrassed to be asked to accept an award where I was clearly portrayed as the animator.  I would have no problem if it was announced that I was accepting the award on behalf of the actual winner, but I was told that they wanted European faces to accept the awards so that no one would know that the animators were not there in person.  This is highly unethical!
Prior to the ceremony I raised my objections.  I was assured that it would be stated that we were accepting for the actual creator.  The ceremony was in Chinese with no English translation and our interpreters were not allowed to attend the ceremony with us, but I was sitting next to a lady from the French Film Commission who spoke fluent Chinese.  She confirmed my suspicions that nothing was announced except the title of the film, the winners name and country.  It was even more embarrassing to have members of the audience come up to congratulate me on my award.
It seemed very strange that the jury was not introduced at the awards ceremony, nor was there a catalog so that we could see what films were considered, which awards were being given and who was on the selection committee and jury.  I did hear from one of the jury members that they didn’t receive a list of film titles in English and that the government organizers interfered in the evaluation of the films and even banned some films from consideration for an award. I also heard that the jury had selected three films in each category to receive awards but at the ceremony four awards were given in each category.  The juror I spoke to had no idea where this forth film came from or what it was.
The entire awards ceremony was televised complete with a 1950’s I Love Lucy type laugh track.  Unfortunately the person operating the applause track didn’t always come in on cue, which made for some very funny effects.  Following the awards, an overproduced, untelevised theatrical piece which had nothing to do with animation was presented.  I would have much rather seen some of the award winning films.
Earlier that day a tour of Xiamen Software Park was offered. I was looking forward to getting a glimpse at what the 4,000 animators were doing in all of those buildings.  Unfortunately I was told that I had to go to the rehearsal for the awards ceremony at the same time the tour was scheduled.  In reality I wasted a lot of time sitting in an auditorium and waiting while lots of people with clipboards ran around shouting at the top of their lungs.  I finally walked on stage for 2 minutes and stood on an X on the floor and then walked off.  That was the extent of our rehearsal.
The next day I was not scheduled to fly home until early evening.  I mentioned to my translator Janet that I had not seen any animation and was very sorry to have missed the Software Park tour.  It just so happened that her mother, Tan Yiwen, is the manager of Xiamen Software Park and so with a couple of phone calls the screening room was put at my disposal.  The screening room is definitely high state of the art rivaling anything I have experienced at Skywalker Ranch or Dolby Laboratory.  The sound system was superb with the volume and balance adjusted to the perfect level.  The butter soft leather seats were very comfy and each chair was separated by an individual table which gave the feeling of being in a living room and not a theatre.
I’m sorry to sat the majority of the work I viewed was not as impressive as  the screening room.  Most of what I was shown was snub-nosed, big eyed kids and animal characters or Ninja like warriors.  One piece of work did stand out above all the rest.  Heart Hugs, created by Space Mouse Animation Company in Guangdong Province, was designed to help children who had suffered from the devastating effects of the August 2008 earthquake in Sichuan Province.  I was told that several animations had been made especially to assist children who had lost family members in the disaster to regain confidence and a healthy mental outlook on life.  Even though I couldn’t understand the words I could feel the warmth and compassion that poured out from the little characters on the screen.  I visited the Space Mouse web site, www.spacemouse.com.cn, but unfortunately there was no English translation available.
I want to emphasize that the very major problems with the festival were not due to former festival directors Anni Lang or John Chill Lee of Asifa China, who organized the 2008 festival.  They were placed in a most embarrassing and untenable position of having to act as go betweens for the foreign guests and the government officials who had taken control of the  Festival out of their hands.  They deserve great thanks for their hospitality and efforts to keep a bad situation from getting any worse.
I cannot say enough nice things about my translator, Janet, who did everything possible to make my visit a pleasant experience.  She answered all of my questions and if she didn’t have immediate answers for me she took the time to find out the information for me.
I got the distinct impression that the guests were only invited to be used by the government to prove that the festival was “important” by showing that it could attract so many foreigners.  There was no way that this event could be called an animation festival.  Some of the Forum presentations were on interesting subjects, but it is hard to cover any topic in any depth in 30 minutes.  Most of the talks from the Chinese presenters dealt with technical and business aspects of running an animation business.  My overall impression was that the festival was created solely to attract partners for the Xiamen Software Park Company and it was never meant to be about animation.
If you see an announcement to submit your film for the 2010 “festival” I recommend that you check very carefully to see if conditions have changed, who the pre-selection jury is, and where and to whom your film will screened.