Shot by Ma Xuefeng and Zhang Chaoyan. Edited by Zhong Youyang. Reported by Yao Minji. Subtitles by Wang Xinzhou.
On Chinese movie review site douban.com, more than 1 million viewers have given ratings to the Lebanese drama “Capernaum,” a film about a 12-year-old boy suing his parents for neglect.
Many of the most-viewed comments date back to June 2018, way before the movie’s release in China or its 2019 Oscar nomination for best foreign language film.
Most watched it during a screening at the inaugural Belt and Road Film Week during the 2018 Shanghai International Film Festival. That was immediately after “Capernaum” debuted at the Cannes Film Festival, where it won a Jury Prize.
Its Chinese distributor attributed the film’s surprising success as a sleeper hit partially to Chinese film festivals, which led to a word-of-mouth effect via social media platforms such as Douban.
The film, which was officially released in China in April 2019, earned more than 370 million yuan (US$51.6 million) in China. That contributed to the majority of its global box office of US$68.6 million, which made it the highest-grossing Arabic film of all time.
That is a success story hard to repeat in the highly competitive Chinese market with increasingly more demanding audiences and a greater variety of films, but nonetheless encouraging to the organizers and participants of the Belt and Road Film Week, running until June 18 alongside SIFF.
Audience members have their tickets checked for a screening of the Chinese movie “Absence.”
The film week celebrates its fifth anniversary at this year’s Shanghai International Film Festival with the theme “Conversation,” as China’s Belt and Road Initiative enters its 10th year.
“We really look forward to resuming in-person conversations about cinema between international filmmakers, film festivals and the film industry through our events at the film week,” Jin Yangguang, director of the film festival’s forum department, told Shanghai Daily.
“It really pleases us to see films from countries less familiar to Chinese audiences be screened through the Belt and Road Film Week. We are able to provide another mechanism through the Belt and Road Film Festival Alliance for films and filmmakers that may not have been selected through the (Shanghai) festival’s mechanism. Through these films, we have built a loyal fan base from ground zero.”
Zhang Chaoyan / SHINE
Filmmakers and festival programmers from around the world are able to resume in-person conversations about cinema.
This year, the film week are showcasing 20 movies from countries including Chile, Croatia, Iceland, Iraq, Israel and Kazakhstan, among others. Eight of the films competed for Media Choice Awards and the Audience Choice Award. Six of them would also be screened in another five cities in the Yangtze River Delta region.
“The movie works differently with different audiences. I’m very curious to see how it works here,” said Juraj Lerotić, director and lead actor of “Safe Place,” which won a Media Choice Award for Films.
“I appreciate programs like this, which are harder to curate.”
The Croatian film follows a family after one brother attempts suicide, and his mother and younger brother seek to save him, as they deal with unsympathetic doctors, officers and the others involved. Lerotić plays the younger brother in the film that is autobiographical to some extent, drawing from the actor-director’s own experience of losing his brother.
Juraj Lerotić (center in blue T-shirt), director and lead actor of “Safe Place,” attends the film’s screening.
Like Lerotić, many filmmakers attending the events most look forward to the screening and interaction with the audience, especially an audience from such a different cultural background.
“A film about a Swiss family going to Mexico seems to have nothing to do with a country like China, but I do believe it has a lot to do with it,” said Andrés Kaiser, director of “Time Theorem.”
“That’s the magic of cinema ― to let you know that there is somebody in another part of the planet who also has a life and some kind of problems, as well as joys and love, and that you can identify with them.”
Ten years ago, the Mexican director found thousands of photographs and hundreds of 8mm and 16mm movies taken and made by his grandparents. He had wanted to make a movie from those archive images since, but did not know how.
“So I started with a horror movie of found footage, and I imitated the style of my grandparents’ movie in some of the found footage I shot for the horror movies,” he said.
“Now I finally made a movie from my grandparents’ footage.”
Andrés Kaiser, director of “Time Theorem,” answers questions from the audience.
Carina Lam, who traveled from nearby Hangzhou, is one of the loyal movie fans who pay special attention to the Belt and Road Film Week.
“I’m always excited about the Shanghai film festival, especially the re-screening of masters’ works and screening of works you do not see elsewhere,” she said. “There are always masterpieces that you are dying to see on the silver screen again. And there are always new movies that give you bigger surprises.
“I was amazed by quite a few films from the Belt and Road Film week before, especially the Chinese film ‘A First Farewell’ and the Polish movie ‘Silent Night.’ You get to see movies from countries that are not regular guests of film festivals, or maybe I just didn’t pay enough attention to their films. Either way, it’s nice to see these movies and get a sense of the country.”
The Belt and Road Film Week has built a loyal fan base.
That is the purpose of the Belt and Road Film Festival Alliance behind the film week. With members from 48 countries and 55 film festival institutions, it aims to make recommendations of films and promote exchanges among filmmakers.
Egyptian filmmaker Amir Ramses had his film “Curfew” screened at the Shanghai fest in 2021, after it was recommended by the Cairo International Film Festival, a member of the alliance.
He was not able to attend in-person that year due to the pandemic, and is excited to have finally made the trip this year, now appearing as director of the Cairo International Film Festival in his second year in the role.
“I’m really looking forward to programming films from new filmmakers from the region,” he said.
“You can watch acclaimed films and big movies in festivals around the world, but I’m really interested in exploring new cinema, and new Chinese cinema in particular, and new talent showing the kind of films you don’t really get to watch in big auditoriums elsewhere.”
He also looks forward to in-person conversations with other alliance members, as “collaboration between film festivals are crucial, especially at this time,” he added.
“Films are really suffering from post-COVID problems. Communications, support and partnership to help each other with programming is essential.”
Egyptian filmmaker Amir Ramses (left), whose “Curfew” was screened at the fest in 2021, attends this year’s event as director of the Cairo International Film Festival.
Such communications are not limited to between filmmakers or festival programmers, but sometimes also go beyond the festival itself to achieve some intriguing results.
Hungarian director Noémi Veronika Szakonyi had her film roots in China when she studied in the country for three years. Now her feature film “Six Weeks” is being screened at the film week, with the lead actress winning a Media Choice Award.
The film follows a rebellious pregnant teenager as she plans to give up her baby for adoption, as well as the six weeks after adoption during which she can change her mind under a new Hungarian law.
The director wasn’t able to make it to the festival, and instead sent her cinematographer Zoltán Dévényi, who was previously always filming so didn’t have the chance to travel with this movie that he loves dearly.
“Every film festival has its own flavor, and it’s a completely different environment and culture here,” he said.
“I’m just starting to enjoy it, and will try to find myself in the Shanghai film festival.”
SIFF / Ti Gong
Zoltán Dévényi, cinematographer of “Six Weeks,” enjoys the film’s screening.