China’s top film regulator has ordered that all Chinese movies strictly follow rules on approvals before being screened in overseas film festivals, months after a Chinese movie about Covid lockdown triggered heated discussion in this year’s Cannes Film Festival.

In a notice issued on Thursday by the China Film Administration, it required that domestically produced short films can only appear at foreign film festivals or exhibitions if they obtain permits for public screenings. The film producers must also file records with regulators at least 20 working days in advance of the overseas screening.

The film management and censorship body reiterated the existing rules on feature films, and added that producers of short films – which were not previously covered under the regulations – must also follow the same rules if they plan to show their work overseas.
Earlier this year, acclaimed director Lou Ye’s independent movie, An Unfinished Film, revived questions about China’s controversial zero-Covid policy, following its release at a special screening on May 16 at the annual Cannes Film Festival in France.

The film has not been approved for public screenings in China and is unlikely to be seen in the country as its content has been censored on the internet.

Chinese director Lou Ye poses at the 77th edition of the Cannes Film Festival in France on May 17 Photo: AFP

Nationalist commentators labelled Lou a “traitor” and argued that the film was intended as a critique of China’s response to the pandemic. But others praised the film as a vivid depiction of some of the tragedies caused by Beijing’s harsh zero-Covid rules.

Filmmakers and domestic audiences have long complained about Beijing’s strict censorship rules that target any content deemed politically sensitive or morally incorrect, which are often vague and can lead to self-censorship.

The Thursday statement said all films must seek approval from their provincial film regulators or the national bureau where the projects were registered. The submissions must provide details of the overseas event as well as a copy of the screening permit.

According to a document accompanying the notice, applications for short films should also include a summary of the content.

The new scrutiny over short films is in line with rules spelled out in a 2004 regulation and the country’s Film Industry Promotion Law, which was enacted in 2017.

The 2017 law stipulated that the aim was to promote “socialist core values”, ban content deemed as “endangering national unity” or “harming national dignity, honour, or interests”. It also published fines for films screened without a government permit, adding that violators could be banned from filmmaking for up to five years.

Lou, whose films are known for depicting social issues and problematic events in China, has twice been banned following screenings at overseas film festivals that had not been officially approved.

In 2018, Beijing also tightened its ideological grip by shifting responsibility for all media regulations – including film censorship – from the State Council to the party’s propaganda department.

In early 2019, renowned director Zhang Yimou’s film One Second, which was set in the Cultural Revolution, was abruptly withdrawn from the Berlin Film Festival for “technical reasons”, sparking speculation that the move was due to pressure from China’s government.

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