How FIRST Became a New Kind of Film Festival
When the initial iteration of the FIRST International Film Festival was held in the northwestern Chinese city of Xining in 2006, there was little to suggest it would one day become one of the most influential and important events on China’s film calendar.
Sometimes referred to as “China’s Sundance,” part of the festival’s appeal lies in its do-it-yourself aesthetic. FIRST is well-known for its tight budget — directors invited to attend the festival share standard rooms — and its volunteer spirit. Each year, over 1,000 students from across the country apply for just 200 slots; after 12 days of exhausting work, the volunteers take the stage for a curtain call led by FIRST head Li Ziwei — a unique experience unlike any other festival. These attributes have lured some of China’s top directors and stars to Xining over the years, including Jiang Wen, Wong Kar-wai, and Huang Bo.
They’re also drawn by the rare chance to see work from up-and-coming talent. Compared to the Shanghai and Beijing film festivals, where work by young directors can be hard to come by, Xining has become a popular destination for aspiring filmmakers in China, and the festival has launched the careers of previously unknown creatives like Xin Yukun, Ma Kai, Zhang Tao, and Wang Xiaozhen. In the process, FIRST has provided a much-needed dose of defiance, irrationality, and revelry to an otherwise staid film scene.
FIRST’s model is not without critics, however. Some in the film industry argue that the organizers are unwilling to spend money and that they take advantage of enthusiastic young film fans and trusting directors. But comparing FIRST to large-scale film festivals like Cannes, Venice, or even Shanghai and Beijing misses the point. A festival should not be judged on how much financing it can generate, but how well it serves the medium. FIRST is neither a global film festival, nor does it receive government funding. Its only means of increasing its influence is through cultivating an enthusiastic fan base and close relationships with industry stars — and that means creating a platform for young filmmakers to demonstrate their talents in a relatively free, open, and tolerant atmosphere.
A more relevant critique is the festival’s continued struggles to attract feature films. This year’s jury, headed by the actress and director Joan Chen, gave the Best Narrative Feature award to “Fate of the Moonlight,” the debut film from director Qin Tian, while the comedy “Galaxy Writer” took both Best Screenplay and the festival’s Grand Jury Prize.
But once again it was the short film category that attracted the most interest — and showcased the most creativity. The dialogue-less “Where Do Ants Sleep at Night?” used dance to explore young people’s struggles with the country’s pressure-cooker work environments, while the pioneering “Thirteenth Night” thrilled audiences with no film footage at all, instead telling its story through phone conversations. Elsewhere, “Of Dreams in the Dream of Another Mirror” made creative use of experimental techniques to depict the experience of blindness, and “The Last Casting Call” zeroed in on the drama of an audition.
Why were the festival’s short films so much more impressive than its features? Part of the issue is bureaucratic. Prior to 2017, when China required filmmakers to apply to participate in film festivals, most directors signed up for FIRST without obtaining a screening license, preferring to wait and apply with a distributor already lined up. Their films were simply shot and cheaply made; applying for a permit was one hurdle too many. After the new rule went into effect, FIRST’s artistic director Gao Yitian realized that, with commercial works uninterested in the festival and arthouse films looking to Cannes, Venice, or Berlin, FIRST’s best bet was to shift its focus to the more flexibly regulated short film category.
The early results have been impressive. Even on the increasingly crowded festival circuit, FIRST manages to stand out with a unique model and atmosphere not found anywhere else in the world. For all its flaws, the festival’s team has worked hard to make every edition as good as possible. FIRST might not be perfect, but it is irreplaceable.
Translator: David Ball; editor: Wu Haiyun.
(Header image: Details from a promotional image for the 2023 film “Galaxy Writer.” From Douban)