This year Chinese animation was supposed to be the star of the show at the Annecy International Animated Film Festival. Instead, on the eve of the festival, the Chinese government has embarrassed itself with a straight out act of political censorship, revealing the deep schism that exists between its official authorities and the country’s most innovative artists.
China had been selected by the Annecy organizers as the guest country for its 2017 edition, with a wide range of programming devoted to China’s national animation scene including a major exhibition at the Château d’Annecy museum and a dozen retrospective screenings.
Unrelated to the guest country focus is the festival’s selection of shorts and feature films, and the problems began when Annecy selected Liu Jian’s feature film Have A Nice Day (Hao ji le) for official competition.
The film, a black comedy set in modern-day China, delivers unflinching social commentary on Chinese society’s newfound obsessions over money, and characters in the film explicitly equate freedom with buying power. Its gritty and unvarnished portrait of contemporary China apparently crossed a line for government censors.
According to a report by journalist Stéphane Dreyfus in the French paper La Croix, Chinese authorities have been concerned about the film appearing at Annecy for many months.
“Even before we announced its selection, the Chinese authorities were worried about whether we intended to program it,” Patrick Eveno, managing director of the Annecy festival, told La Croix. After it was selected, the Chinese government refused to grant an exit visa for the film and repeatedly asked the festival to withdraw the film, which Annecy refused to do.
In late May, however, the producer of Have A Nice Day personally requested Annecy to withdraw the film. At that point, Eveno said, they had no choice.
The festival felt it did “not have the right to endanger the film team,” a valid concern that takes into account China’s recent history of turning artists into political prisoners, the most famous example being Ai Weiwei.
On May 30th, Annecy confirmed the removal of the film from competition with a terse statement on its website:
We must remove one of the feature films selected in competition at Annecy 2017, Liu Jian’s Have a Nice Day, from our programme following a decision that has been imposed upon us.
We’re disappointed about the official pressures that have prevented us from presenting this remarkable film this year and we hope that international audiences will soon have the possibility to see it.
Despite the film’s lack of presence at Annecy, Jian’s film has been screened at other international venues. Earlier this year, Have A Nice Day became the first Chinese animated feature to screen in competition at the Berlin Film Festival.
Last March, it also screened at the Holland Animation Film Festival, and this week it is screening at Animafest in Zagreb.
With multiple French media outlets picking up the story about the film’s censorship at Annecy and the Streisand effect now set into full motion, the Chinese government appears to have overplayed its hand and unintentionally driven more attention to Jian’s film than it would have otherwise received.
More damaging than that, however, Chinese authorities have tarnished the entire country’s spotlight at Annecy, showing that even as animation booms in their country, there are clear creative limits on what artists can and can’t portray in Chinese-produced animation.
Jian’s company, Le-joy Animation Studio, produced the film in partnership with Nezha Bros. Pictures. France’s Memento Films has international sales rights for Have A Nice Day, while Edko Films is repping in Asian territories.